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The Ambush Killings, Part Two: Deaths linked by crime, drugs, attempted blackmail

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Kentucky State Police Trooper Joe Denning was at home when the phone rang just past midnight on the morning of Dec. 19, 1971, telling him to get back in service because an officer had been shot.

“You never want to hear that,” Denning said.

Denning soon learned that the officer who had been killed was his friend, Trooper William Barrett, who he had seen just hours earlier for dinner at Jerry’s Diner in Bowling Green.

Barrett had been gunned down outside his Rockfield home by someone who slipped away into the darkness. Despite the grief, Denning had a job to do. He joined law enforcement officers from various jurisdictions who spread out across the region for patrols and roadblocks, “looking for any suspicious individuals,” Denning said.

Bowling Green police Officer Gary Raymer was on duty when the call came in that a trooper had been shot. He raced to the scene at the Morehead Trailer Park in Rockfield and helped keep residents away from the crime scene until more state police arrived. At the same time, Denning was assigned to patrol U.S. 31-W and look for anything suspicious.

Then-Warren County Sheriff Hubert Phelps said at the time that the news of Barrett’s killing hit him “like a thunderbolt,” and police from his and other agencies quickly volunteered to help the round-the-clock investigation.

Though the roadblocks and patrols failed to yield leads, police quickly zeroed in on a potential suspect. Police learned of a man who purchased a rifle shortly before Barrett’s killing and knew Barrett’s wife. He was interviewed at length, but police never directly linked him to the crime.

Investigators also looked into arrests Barrett had made, “not only in Kentucky but in Tennessee,” Denning recalled.

The day after his death, 170 law enforcement officers from across the region and Lt. Gov. Julian Carroll attended Barrett’s funeral service at the J.C. Kirby Funeral Chapel.

Meanwhile, at Rockfield School – where Barrett’s two sons, Mark and Mike – attended, an assembly was held the next week to raise a reward fund for information leading to an arrest in the case.

More than $2,000 was raised, and then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Morris Lowe said the crime was an attack on law enforcement as a whole. Barrett’s killer “shot the badge, shot the uniform and shot the symbol of criminal justice and law enforcement,” Lowe said.

At the same assembly, the Warren County Automobile Wrecker Drivers group presented small memorial plaques to Barrett’s sons.

(Barrett’s widow and sons reportedly moved out of Kentucky after his death. They have not spoken publicly about the case, and the Daily News was unable to reach them for comment.)

The reward would go unclaimed to this day.

• • •

In the Larry Key case, four witnesses saw his killing just off the Interstate 65 exit ramp in Glendale. Two Indiana couples, returning north from a Florida vacation, were nearby dealing with car troubles. They gave general descriptions of the two men involved and their vehicle.

Upon hearing the description of the vehicle, Key’s wife Renetta recalled seeing a car matching that description near her house an hour before the shooting, and a neighbor reported seeing one of the men in the car looking into the Key garage.

In hindsight, Renetta believes the men were planning to kill Larry Key at his home, but perhaps arrived an hour early after a mixup involving different time zones.

But despite the eyewitnesses, the Key case also went unsolved.

• • •

Officials at the time did not publicly link the cases, although there was a common denominator in that both Barrett and Key were privy to drug activity at the area’s truck stops.

Key, after his arrest, offered what is known as a proffer. Assumedly in exchange for some leniency in his prosecution, Key was offering to testify as to what he knew about the area drug trade.

Barrett also was involved outside of his patrol duties in investigating the drug trafficking. Court records show, for example, that in 1970 he went undercover and purchased amphetamines at the Pure Oil Truck Stop in Barren County.

The truck stop operator was subsequently charged and convicted of possessing with the intent to sell 43,100 amphetamine pills and was sentenced to five years in prison.

The drug activity was during a time when all manner of crime was rampant in southcentral Kentucky. From the early 1960s through the 1970s, an unparalleled crime spree, fueled by illegal alcohol sales, theft rings, drug dealing and prostitution, earned Bowling Green the nickname “Little Chicago.” The city reportedly had one of the highest homicide rates in the country. Bombings and attacks on police were not uncommon.

Raymer said some of the rougher men in town viewed attacking a police officer as “a sport.”

Much of the criminal activity at the time was based at truck stops. Many truckers were “using speed and amphetamines to keep them awake,” said Tommie Smith, retired from the Kentucky State Police and Warren County Sheriff’s Office.

Truck stops were also convenient places to arrange transportation of drugs and stolen items and provided a steady customer base for the prostitutes who also worked there.

Those involved in criminal activity had no qualms about killing witnesses, bombing rivals and even targeting those in law enforcement.

In 1972, Darrell Moody, a Bowling Green police detective captain, was leading the effort to bust a Bowling Green-based car theft ring that operated across 10 states. The leaders of the theft ring reportedly hired two men to kill Moody. On Feb. 16, 1972, several sticks of dynamite destroyed the Moody home on Henry Avenue. Moody would have probably been killed in the blast, but he left unexpectedly early that morning to go to a court hearing.

Based largely on Moody’s investigations, 41 people were indicted in August 1972 by a federal grand jury. Seventeen were from Warren County. According to the indictments, the ringleaders were also conspiring to kill other witnesses as law enforcement closed in on them.

Local author Gary West has done significant research into the rampant criminal activity at the time. He said adding to the mix of lawlessness was corruption among some in law enforcement and in government.

“Probably the only town in Kentucky ... with more corruption (than Bowling Green) was Newport,” where criminal activity came under the direction of the Cleveland mob, West said.

Some believe that corruption in law enforcement may have prevented a quick solution to the Barrett and Key killings.

As evidence to that allegation, Renetta points to the involvement of a man named Harold Brown with the investigation into her husband’s death.

Brown worked in the state office of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. He was found dead in his Louisville home in 1984 from an apparent suicide, but some officials at the time questioned that determination.

“There are people around who wouldn’t have minded shooting him,” then-Jefferson County Coroner Richard Greathouse told United Press International in 1984.

Brown was under investigation and surveillance at the time of his death by the Jefferson and Meade county sheriff’s offices and the KSP for suspected activities in narcotics and his involvement in a poisons sales company, according to the UPI story. The Chicago Tribune also reported at the time that Brown was being investigated for his alleged involvement in international drug smuggling.

The DEA did not respond to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Daily News for any documents relating to the investigation into Brown’s activities.

Renetta said she believes in hindsight that Brown, allegedly working with drug dealers, was part of the effort to thwart the investigation into her husband’s death.

As for the belief that the Larry Key and William Barrett killings are linked, a strange event at a local resort a few months before her husband was shot cemented Renetta’s belief that those responsible for her husband’s death also killed Barrett.

Her husband was working the 3-to-11 p.m. shift Jan. 24, 1972, at the Cave City truck stop. He was free on a bond after his arrest on drug charges two months earlier.

“He was very punctual about getting home,” Renetta said. But by midnight, he was still not there.

“This was totally out of character,” she said. She began making calls, including to police, but nobody seemed to know where Larry Key was.

He finally stumbled home about 5:30 a.m.

“He was very emaciated looking, pale, totally out of character,” Renetta said. Larry Key told his wife he had gone out drinking with a friend. Later, he approached her “and got down on his knees, which was totally out of character, and said, ‘If you’ll forgive me, I’ll spend the rest of my life making it up to you and the boys.’ ”

But Renetta said she has learned only in the last few years from police sources that Larry Key’s account of the night “was not the truth,” she said.

Renetta said police sources told her Larry Key had been drugged that night by people he had been having drinks with. In his incapacitated state, he was taken to a room at the Park Mammoth Resort in Park City. Video and photos were taken of him with a female in compromising positions and then they “tried to get him to say that he had murdered trooper William H. Barrett out of Post 3 in Bowling Green ... and not testify in court” regarding his drug case.

Renetta said police in recent years showed her a photo from that night of her husband and the woman.

Larry Key never discussed the events of that night with Renetta before he was killed that July. A relative, however, told her that before his death, Larry Key had told him that if Renetta ever found out what had happened that night, that he should let Renetta know that he was not there by choice.

Renetta believes the only reason someone would have to get her husband to “confess” to killing Barrett was if they were involved in the trooper’s murder – “I think we can assume that for sure,” she said. She also feels “absolutely” sure that the same individuals involved in the blackmail were also responsible for killing her husband a few months later.

In fact, Renetta and her sons feel strongly that they know who killed Larry Key and William Barrett.

Next Sunday: The investigations today.

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

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