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The Ambush Killings, Part One: Two 1970s shootings remain unsolved, but not forgotten

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In the early 1970s, William Barrett and Larry Key shared many similarities. Both men were in their 30s and were married with two young sons. Both were involved in the flourishing drug trade at the time, although on opposite sides of the law. And in a span of seven months between 1971 and 1972, both men were slain in cases that remain open, but unsolved.

In this special series, we examine their deaths, the investigations and suspects, the continuing quest for elusive justice and the theory that the killings were linked.

• • •

William Barrett, a Tennessee native, was an Air Force veteran when he joined the Tennessee Highway Patrol in the late 1960s. In 1968, he moved north and joined the Kentucky State Police and became a road trooper based at Bowling Green’s Post 3.

Gary Raymer was a Bowling Green police officer at the time. He recalled that Barrett had an imposing presence that belied a gentle nature.

“He was a great big guy, but a nice fellow,” Raymer said.

He was the kind of cop you wanted on your side in those rough and tumble days when physical attacks on police were not uncommon, Raymer said.

While working in Bowling Green, Barrett befriended a young man named Joe Denning, who in 1969 became the city’s first African American police officer.

A year later, Denning joined Barrett with the KSP.

“I always liked him ... he treated me with respect. In my opinion, he was a good man,” said Denning, now a Bowling Green city commissioner.

On Saturday, Dec. 18, 1971, a routine night for Barrett patrolling Warren County included a dinner break about 7 p.m. at Jerry’s Diner on Russellville Road. There, he met with Denning and both men had a hamburger steak and mashed potatoes before parting ways for the night.

A few hours later, when his 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift ended, Barrett headed home down Russellville Road to the Morehead Trailer Park in Rockfield, where he lived with his wife, Thelma, and two young sons. The small trailer park was largely isolated, surrounded mostly by farms, a church and a few scattered houses. With just a sliver of moon in the sky, it was an especially dark night as Barrett made the short trip from Bowling Green.

It was about 15 minutes past midnight when he backed onto a concrete pad that served as a parking spot next to his trailer. As he got out of the cruiser, someone called his name from out of the darkness. The voice came from near a small shed at the back of the property along a fenced tree line. As Barrett spun around toward where his name was called, a double-barreled shotgun blast shattered the still darkness.

Barrett managed to pull out his service revolver and get a shot off in the direction of his attacker, but another shotgun blast again hit its mark. Barrett was wounded in the stomach, neck and chest.

Barrett slumped next to his cruiser, seeping blood. It was there that he died moments later at the age of 35.

Warren County Coroner J.C. Kirby said both of the wounds could have been fatal, but it was the chest and shoulder wound from the second shot that apparently caused his death.

His killer, glimpsed by a witness as nothing more than an ominous shape deep in the darkness, made his escape through the trees.

• • •

Larry Stinson Key grew up in Edmonson County, the youngest of nine children. At Sunfish High School, he excelled at sports, and he was offered a chance to head to California and join the Los Angeles Dodgers system, but chose instead to stay home and marry his high school sweetheart, Renetta, in 1960. Two sons followed – Todd was born in 1961 and Brad in 1966.

Decades later, Todd Key remembers his father as a charismatic man. “People gravitated toward him,” he said.

“He was a great father,” Brad Key said. “He was very kind and very generous with his friends and family.”

He also passed on his passion for baseball to his oldest son.

“He taught me how to throw a curveball,” Todd Key said.

“We were poor, but we were happy,” Renetta said.

In 1971, Larry Key started working at Cave City Truck Stop on U.S. 31-W. Soon, he was bringing home more money than would be expected from someone pumping gas and filling tires with air.

“He wouldn’t say where it was coming from,” said Renetta, who felt it wasn’t her place to press him on it and instead focused on raising her sons in a simple but fulfilling life.

“With two young boys, I took care of my children, my home and my husband,” she said.

Then, on Nov. 13, 1971, the family returned from church to their Glendale home to find a yard full of police officers.

“It came crashing down very, very hard,” Renetta recalled of her previously quiet life.

Larry Key was arrested, taken to jail in Louisville and charged in federal court along with two other men with the possession and sale of drugs – activities that allegedly were taking place at the truck stop.

Suddenly, the source of the extra income became clear.

“It was a very difficult, emotional time because our life changed forever,” Renetta said.

Even after Larry Key was freed on bail to await his trial, “there was a lot of tension, a lot of stress,” Renetta said, but the family was “hoping for the best.”

Those hopes were brutally eliminated July 28, 1972.

Renetta recalled it was an especially hot and muggy day when Larry Key left for work. As the time for him to come home approached, Renetta sent Todd and Brad, then 11 and 5, respectively, to pick up some bread at a nearby store and wait for their father passing by to catch a ride home.

They came back alone.

“They had just walked through the door when I got a phone call from a friend in Sonora who had a police scanner and she had heard that there had been a shooting,” Renetta said.

She took the boys to a bedroom and started praying that their father and husband was safe. “Then the police started coming, and it was chaos,” she said.

Decades later, she learned from police many of the details of her husband’s death.

As he was turning off Interstate 65 at the Glendale exit to come home, Larry Key pulled over to the side of the exit ramp. Two men in a two-tone green car who were following Key pulled up behind him. They exited the vehicle and approached Key’s car. Shouting was heard.

As the men got to the car, one on each side, the man on the driver’s side of Key’s car pulled out a .38-caliber handgun and shot Key in the face. Despite being shot, Larry Key pushed past the shooter and started running toward I-65. Before he could make it, another shot hit him in the back and pierced his heart. He died in the grass alongside the exit ramp.

It was the day after Larry Key’s 31st birthday.

• • •

In the days after Barrett and Key were killed, evidence was collected, suspects and witnesses were interviewed, motives were explored. But both cases went unsolved and largely forgotten by most. Decades passed, but those who knew the men held out hopes for justice, and despite the ever-increasing passage of time, those hopes have turned into a quest that continues to this day.

Coming next Sunday: Were the deaths of Larry Key and William Barrett linked?

– Follow News Director Wes Swietek on Twitter @BGDNgovtbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.

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(3) comments

Absolutely Positively

Smart money says Lester took the answers to his grave.

JJ Lindsey

Damn right he did along with his brother Cecil. However, brother Walt and brother-in-law Thomas Cassidy who are still with us could give statements and have murder warrants issued in 5 minutes.

JJ Lindsey

Barrett was murdered by a KSP Trooper he worked with. Barrett was set to whistle blow on his murder’s own racketeering to include narcotics trafficking, dealing stolen property, and as an enforcer for organized criminals. You have the perfect crime. The Commonwealth Attorney needs desperately by court order to demand all files from the KS P. They have had 48 years and solved nothing. It smells. Key’s case is directly linked!

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