We may never know who killed Gloria Ross and Candace Belt, the young women who were shot and stabbed in the early morning of Sept. 20, 1994, at Oak Grove’s New Life Massage Parlor. After listening to testimony for seven days from several witnesses who struggled to recall details surrounding the slayings, a Christian Circuit Court jury acquitted murder defendants Frank Black and Ed Carter on Wednesday. Another defendant, Leslie Duncan, who was accused of trying to hinder the investigation, was granted an acquittal by the judge before the trial ended.
Now the murders remain unsolved, which is a tragedy for the families of Ross and Belt. They are left without any measure of closure that might come from knowing that someone — anyone — was held accountable for the deaths of their loved ones.
What we do know about the murders is that public corruption made them possible.
New Life Massage Parlor, which shared a building with a Chinese restaurant on Fort Campbell Boulevard across from the Army post, was a brothel. That’s not a rumor or a suspicion. Owner Tammy Papler and some of the women who worked for her testified to that fact during the trial. A few customers also admitted under oath they paid for sex at New Life.
This is not a recent revelation. It didn’t take a great deal of investigative work to establish that New Life was a front for prostitution. It was, as one defense attorney said, Oak Grove’s dirty little secret. The town’s police, including officers Carter and Duncan, knew it. Others in positions of authority probably knew as well, according to court testimony.
But Tammy Papler and her husband didn’t have to worry much about police shutting them down. They gave officers money, bought them meals, purchased equipment for the department and let certain special customers enjoy sexual favors for free. So the men who should have been investigating New Life were there instead for sex.
Papler and at least one of her former workers also testified about a system that was in place to alert them if officers from another agency were headed to Oak Grove for a raid. Someone, perhaps a dispatcher from the former Emergency Communications Center, would call and say something about a storm coming or umbrellas being needed.
The Oak Grove Police Department had fewer than 10 officers in 1994. It is not clear exactly how many of them took money or favors from New Life. We also don’t know how many officers from other agencies took favors. What is clear is the result.
Because some officers took bribes and because some officers looked the other way, the Paplers were allowed to run a brothel daily from 9 a.m. until 5 a.m. On Sept. 20, 1994, less than two hours before they should have walked out alive, Ross and Belt were both shot in the head and had their throats slashed. Ross was 18. Belt was 22.
After the murders, the corruption continued. The brothel reopened within days. Ineffective police work doomed the investigation. It was kicked from the Oak Grove Police Department to the Christian County Sheriff’s Department to Kentucky State Police.
The unsolved murders of Ross and Belt are proof that high-quality investigative police work and cooperation among law enforcement agencies must be expected in communities of all sizes.
We hope any old attitudes suggesting a brothel was OK in Oak Grove is no longer true. We hope the community and its leaders are no longer willing to accept corrupt agencies. And we hope Christian County as a whole sees Oak Grove as part of the larger community, a place that shouldn’t have to operate as separate and unworthy of association and support.
It would be unethical and dangerous to accept anything less.
Kentucky New Era