For eight years, the family of missing Kentucky mom Crystal Rogers has fought for justice, doing their own detective work where local cops fell short and sharing her story widely on podcasts and TV specials.
Amid her loved ones’ quest for answers, Rogers’ father, Tommy Ballard, was shot and killed while hunting with a grandson, a crime that also remains unsolved.
Rogers’ parents always believed Brooks Houck, her boyfriend and the father of her youngest child, had something to do with her disappearance. The last person to see Rogers alive over the Fourth of July weekend in 2015, Houck became authorities’ initial suspect. But he denies any wrongdoing and was never charged.
Now Sherry Ballard—Crystal’s mom and Tommy’s widow—could be one step closer to closure. On Thursday, it was revealed that a grand jury indicted 32-year-old Joseph Lawson with conspiracy to commit murder and tampering with physical evidence in connection to Rogers’ case. Lawson pleaded not guilty, local Fox affiliate WDRB reported.
It’s unclear how Lawson may have known the missing mother-of-five, who was last seen alive at Houck’s family farm in Bardstown. Police have searched that nearly 300-acre property, as well as others tied to Houck, on multiple occasions.
Rogers’ body was never found, and Lawson’s charges mark the first time an indictment was filed in relation to the investigation.
According to WDRB, Lawson’s indictment alleges that he “agreed to aid one or more persons in the planning or commission of the crime or an attempt or solicitation to commit the crime when he, and/or, a co-conspirator intentionally caused the death of another.” Such acts, the document says, occurred in Nelson County on July 3 and/or July 4, 2015.
The indictment also accuses Lawson of tampering, saying he “destroyed, mutilates, concealed, removed or alters physical evidence.”
Lawson’s bond was set at $500,000 on the conspiracy charge and $50,000 on the tampering count. His next court appearance is scheduled for Oct. 26.
This isn’t Lawson’s first brush with the law. ABC affiliate WHAS11 reported on a history of criminal charges including for the possession of methamphetamine, burglary, trespassing, and assault.
Several law enforcement agencies tackled the Rogers case, including the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office and Kentucky State Police, before the FBI stepped in.
In August 2020, the feds announced they were taking over the search for the Bardstown mom, and that a swarm of state and federal law enforcement officers were busy executing a slew of search warrants related to the probe.
Among the properties searched were the home of 41-year-old Houck, along with the residence belonging to his brother, Nick, a former cop who was terminated for allegedly interfering in the Rogers investigation.
The #FBI is offering up to $25,000 for tips that lead to the identification, arrest, and conviction of the person(s) responsible for Crystal Rogers' disappearance. The mother of 5 was last seen on July 3, 2015. https://t.co/rKbcTDRwSX @FBILouisville pic.twitter.com/6lKemOK89N
— FBI (@FBI) March 12, 2022
According to Louisville CBS affiliate WLKY, IRS agents spent about 10 hours at Houck’s house and left with boxes, hard drives, and firearms. All the while, reporters were stationed outside the home snapping images of the scene. Houck declined to comment.
The following day, the FBI returned to the Houck farm, and took Rogers’ maroon 2007 Chevy Impala, which was discovered on the Bluegrass Parkway on July 5, 2015 with a flat tire and the keys in the ignition, from her mother’s storage unit.
In another 2021 search, agents with FBI Louisville announced they’d uncovered “multiple items of interest” at one of Houck’s properties that would be sent to the agency’s Quantico, Virginia, laboratory. And last October, the feds conducted yet another five-day search at Houck’s sprawling farm.
A real estate agent and onetime candidate for sheriff, Houck told cops that he and Rogers visited the farm on Friday, July 3, 2015 to feed cattle. They got home past midnight. When he went to bed, Rogers allegedly stayed up playing games on her phone.
But Rogers was gone, he claimed, when he woke up the next morning. He said their son was in bed next to him. He told a detective that he called Rogers a few times, but ultimately decided to attend his uncle’s July Fourth celebration that day without her. He hinted the couple had had a fight. “I know sometimes in the past, if I’ve called her and blown her phone up, it made it worse,” Brooks told the investigator.
Sherry reported her daughter missing July 5, after her vehicle was discovered near mile marker 14 of the Bluegrass Parkway.
Days after the 2020 search warrants, the FBI task force released two surveillance photos of vehicles and asked for the public’s help in identifying the drivers.
One showed a red SUV and white SUV about to pass each other at 1064 Loretto Road (the site of Heaven Hill Distilleries) and close to the My Old Kentucky Home Campground. The other is a grainy, black-and-white photo from July 4, 2015 at 3:45 a.m. and shows a vehicle traveling close to the Houck farm. In the image, the vehicle has its headlights on and is at the intersection of Balltown Road and Paschal Ballard Road.
The case has resulted in several podcasts and TV episodes and series, especially in light of two other unsolved crimes in Bardstown: the execution of police officer Jason Ellis, who was gunned down while clearing a branch from a roadway, and the brutal murders of special education teacher Kathy Netherland and her teenage daughter, Samantha.
The Daily Beast previously reported on these unsolved killings in the sleepy Kentucky town of 13,000 people, which has routinely been covered with signs, including Prayers for Crystal’s Safe Return and Solve These Murders. Someone posted a more pointed sign close to Houck’s farm: Brooks Houck where is Crystal Rogers?
Rogers’ parents never gave up their search for their daughter—especially her father, Tommy, who scoured field and forest in inclement weather to find her. Along with his wife, Sherry, he organized volunteer search parties and prayer vigils, and distributed missing-persons fliers. He became a gumshoe of sorts, collecting clues on his own.
Tommy, a licensed contractor who was on the quieter side, became a public face for the search for Rogers. “We just want justice for Crystal, and we want all these other murders solved. All these people have rights, too,” Tommy told the Standard in 2015.
One year after Rogers vanished, Tommy was shot in the chest and killed while hunting with his 12-year-old grandson. Sherry believes Tommy, 54, was targeted because he was close to a breakthrough in the hunt for Rogers. “My husband is dead because he looked for my daughter,” Sherry told The Daily Beast in 2018.
#NEW: @FBILouisville confirms the search at Houck Family Farm will resume on Tuesday here in Bardstown.
Stick with @WLKY for the latest developments in the search for #CrystalRogers pic.twitter.com/IrlWuYRLle
— Alexis Mathews (@AlexisWLKY) October 17, 2022
Kentucky State Police said they were investigating Tommy’s death, which appeared to be an ambush by a shooter hidden in the treeline near the Bluegrass Parkway. The agency has released few details on the case, though one state trooper previously told The Daily Beast: “You got Crystal Rogers missing, then her father ends up dead. We definitely are looking at it like it could possibly be connected. I think common sense will tell you that.”
Since the apparent murders of both her husband and daughter, Sherry has been on a one-woman crusade for justice. She appeared on the Dr. Phil Show to drum up awareness about the unsolved crimes. She’s also worked on TV shows for Oxygen, NBC and Investigation Discovery to keep their names alive.
“I will not let this rest until I find justice for my daughter and my husband,” Sherry told The Daily Beast in 2018. “If you think she’s gonna be a pile of paper on a desk, that’s not happening.”
In 2020 Sherry shared her grief in a Facebook post:
“I’m ready to bring my daughter home and to find justice for my husband. Five years is WAY [TOO] LONG for me to have to wait for this,” Sherry wrote. “To her murderer, enjoy your time walking free because i promise you it’s limited. I pray no other family has to live through what i have been. I miss my husband and my daughter!!! I will find justice for both of them!!!!”
In July of this year, Sherry said the mystery of what happened has “been like torture.”
“I just have to be patient,” Sherry told WDRB of the years she’s waited to find her daughter. “And, gosh, pray to God that I don’t have to wait very many more.”
Sherry has also been outspoken about her suspicions of Houck. She told the TV station that Rogers, who worked for Houck’s rental properties, wanted to leave him.
“She looked at me out of the blue—just out of the blue, we were not talking about that—and she’s like, ‘Mom, he thinks I’m an idiot,’” Ballard recalled to the outlet. “She said, ‘But I have everything.’ She said, ‘I have all of his rentals. I have his tax papers, I have everything.’
And she said, ‘And I hid that.’ And to this day … if I have one big, huge regret is because I did not ask her where she put that.”
Sherry told the station she believed the FBI was doing everything to solve the case.
As part of its effort, the FBI created a website called crystalrogerstaskforce.com where it plans to “share developing information, photos, and maps with the community,” according to a press release. “Communication from this site paired with the release of previously withheld, new, and unique details will lead us to the last piece of the puzzle.”
The website also includes information about Ellis and the Netherlands: “As a result of the overwhelming number of tips received relating to not just Crystal’s disappearance, but also the unsolved murders of Tommy Ballard (Crystal’s father), Jason Ellis, and Kathy and Samantha Netherland, it is necessary to include their cases on this page as well.
“As a small community we remain vigilant in seeking justice for all of the families who deserve answers,” the taskforce website states.
Meanwhile, Houck stayed in the press not only because of the Rogers probe, but also because of other news related to his role as landlord. Last November, WDRB reported Houck was trying to open a daycare across from Sherry’s storage business—leading to a petition aimed at trying to stop him. Sherry said she believed Houck was “taunting” her.
In August 2019, one of his partially-built homes was torched in a suspected arson. Bardstown’s fire chief told the Associated Press the two-story home was likely set on fire because it was a frame with no gas or electricity yet. The official said disgruntled employees of Houck might be to blame.
Houck also faced criminal charges after he was accused of stealing roofing shingles from a Lowe’s store in April 2018. He was acquitted at trial—which Sherry Ballard attended, hoping for a conviction—of four counts of felony theft one year later.
“I was very hopeful,” Sherry told the Standard after the verdict. “Am I shocked? I shouldn’t be shocked. He squirms his way out of everything.”