It was cold, but not blustery when the plane touched down at the small airport in Madison County around 1:30 that morning. Hardly an hour passed before it was airborne again, slipping into the night without a trace.
The next day, the sniper killing of nightclub owner Monroe Brock would dominate the local news and locals’ conversation. Rumors were rampant the hit was related to organized crime, Las Vegas, and an unpaid debt. Investigators claimed they were unable to find a link.
To this day, the murder of the Maverick Club’s Monroe Brock remains unsolved. The question is, why? Did investigators refuse to investigate, that which they should have investigated? Has the murder of Monroe Brock been covered up by local, state and even federal authorities?
A Kentucky Secretary of State records search returned two interesting business records: two separate business entities had been formed in the state, both carrying the name ‘Maverick Club, Inc.’ The first, formed by Monroe Brock in 1979, was administratively dissolved by the Commonwealth for failure to file its annual report in October of 1987, which is understandable, considering the stress the wife must have been under that year. She would continue to operate the club until selling out a few years later, despite the revocation of authority to do business by the state.
What’s notable is the second business record that turned up for the Maverick Club, Inc. In May of 1988, three men, Donnie Baker, Ronnie Messer and Michael Warren are listed as directors of this second corporation, with their principal office and registered agent (also Michael Warren) listing an address in Barbourville, Kentucky. I had seen those names before. They had all turned up in my research of the wrongful conviction of Delmar Partin for the murder of Betty Carnes; also in Barbourville. I felt there had to be a connection to Brock’s death.
I don’t think anyone is going to get too upset with me talking about Donnie Baker (aka Donald Earl Baker) being a drug dealer. You had to have lived under a rock to have not known. What’s notable is his association to Vance Mills, the local Barbourville millionaire I mentioned earlier whose unexplained presence couldn’t be missed at Delmar Partin’s trial for the murder of Betty Carnes. Herman Levance Mills, as he was formally known, would incidentally turn out to be under investigation for the international trafficking of narcotics:
It should be pretty apparent at this point we’re dealing with organized crime. You’ll hear more about Vance Mills’ and Donnie Baker’s relationship later. But for now, let’s focus on Baker, one of the members listed on ownership records of the second Maverick Club, Inc.
Donnie Baker had also been involved with another bar, this one in Henderson County, northern Kentucky, called The Black Horse Lounge. The property was owned by Elvie Cobb, a very good, yet controversial friend, of the former governor of Kentucky, John Y. Brown Jr.:
June 6, 1989: The Black Horse Lounge burns. Arson completely destroys the structure. Donnie Baker is charged and found guilty of arson for hire, what should be a mandatory 15 year sentence. (I’ll talk more about that in a future post.)
The son of the Commonwealth Attorney that prosecuted Baker and his associates said it was a pretty scary time for his family. In high school at the time, he said the crime ring Baker had ties to was so dangerous, his dad had to wear a bullet proof vest to and from court every day. He said Baker’s associates were an Eastern Kentucky group who had moved into northern Kentucky to use the Black Horse Lounge as a front.
You can see why finding Donnie Baker’s name on these documents for a newly formed Maverick Club after Monroe Brock’s murder grabbed my attention.
Michael Warren, another member of the mysterious Maverick Club “No. 2,” is another questionable, albeit colorful figure:
And the third member of the latter-formed Maverick Club, Inc. is Ronnie Messer:
Most telling however, is that Vance Mills himself was an associate of John D. Sword, at one point forming a partnership to build a nursing home together. John Sword and Monroe Brock were directors of the Professional Billiards Association in Richmond, Kentucky together. Even more importantly, John Sword is listed as Brock’s spouse’s attorney in another business venture, Maverick Liquors.
Starting out at 54 seats, The Maverick Club would eventually have the ability to entertain 900 people under its roof, booking the likes of country greats like George Jones and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was also a raucous place, as this article from 1983 suggests:
If you were an organized crime ring, looking for fronts to do business out of, you might find the Maverick Club an attractive location for drug dealing, money laundering, and other unsavory activities.
Brock’s widow said at one point after her husband’s death, some “out-of-towners” wanted to buy the nightclub from her, but she refused. Were these out-of-towners none other than Baker, Warren and Messer?
Monroe Brock’s unsolved but hardly mysterious murder has the tracks of my southeastern Kentucky’s rats’ nest all over it. I am absolutely confused how authorities can claim to have no leads on the case.
If Baker, Warren and Messer are the out-of-towners who wanted to buy the bar from the widowed spouse of Monroe Brock, why were they so damned sure they were going to get their hands on that club? They went to the trouble to form legal paperwork and file it with the secretary of state, for Pete’s sake. In their minds, the transfer of that bar from the spouse of the murdered owner to their control was clearly a done deal. What made them so confident?
The one part of this story that always amazed me, was the willingness of the widowed spouse to take her children out into the black night, not knowing where the sniper was or if he might strike again, in order to get help for her fallen husband, who was said to have been shot execution-style.
She and the children would ultimately be safe. It truly was a testament to the lengths a woman will go to, no matter how terrifying.
Someone once told me George Nichols, the former chief medical examiner of Kentucky, was a grade A asshole. So I can’t say his response to my question, “Could the body of Betty Carnes have been switched?” was out of the norm for his personality. But even though I told Dr. Nichols if by small chance this did happen, it would have been through no fault of his own or his office, he was still indignant at my question.
The first indication something seemed screwy with the Carnes autopsy was the examiner’s statement: “The body is that of a…white female appearing to be older than her offered age of 37 years.” Noteworthy because Betty was a beautiful, desirable woman; Delmar was not the first man to be romantically linked to the married mother of three. The autopsy went as far to call the pubic hair “focally gray.” Delmar emphatically tells me, “She did not have the body of an older woman, she was in excellent health and shape.” He says her hair color was the same color all over, and that he never understood the “focally gray” comment in the autopsy.
The height of the victim is also missing in the report. The body also lacked defensive injuries, which could be explained if she was knocked out from behind. But I couldn’t explain what I discovered next.
George Nichols’ autopsy report states the body’s “natural anterior dentition is present and is in excellent repair.” In other words, the body’s front teeth were natural and in good shape. But Delmar says Betty wore a partial front plate, and that her front teeth couldn’t have been natural. Nichols goes on to describe the tip of the tongue (drying) and notes blood is within the mouth. When I question Dr. Nichols’ about the false teeth, he is caught off-guard and says maybe he just missed it. Maybe, I think. I’m starting to get curious, though, how a renowned forensic medical examiner can make a mistake that large, especially when he detailed the inside of her mouth so well.
During our first and only telephone call, he mentions Walter Hopper, the coroner, asked his office to come retrieve the body. But Walter Hopper was not the coroner of Knox County!
Walter Hopper and his family did operate funeral homes. But according to trial transcripts, Betty’s body was not being held at the Hopper family’s funeral homes. The body was at Hampton’s Funeral Home in Barbourville; at the time there was no mortuary for the coroner’s office in Knox County. I can’t explain Walter Hopper’s role in contacting the Kentucky Medical Examiner’s office when he had no official capacity to do so.
The Hopper name had been brought up to me before, by a woman who had worked with Betty. She told me she had heard a rumor: Charles Hopper of Hopper Funeral Home, and Betty were seen together at a nightclub in Cincinnati. Charles was Walter Hopper’s nephew.
I can’t help but feel there is a connection. Especially considering Charles Hopper’s mysterious death three days before Delmar’s trial for Betty’s murder began.
The last time I had any contact from George Nichols was after I emailed him to point out that Hopper was not, in fact, the coroner of Knox County at that time. I received a voicemail from him not long later:
This is Dr. Nichols. I’m calling you as you asked me to. I can tell you that I remember nothing more than what our discussion was. My notes that are available through the M.E. office do not reflect anything…much more than that since it was such time was removed. (?) And the only other person who would know more than that was David Jones, who was my executive assistant, who went and fetched the body and brought it back from London to…uh, um, uh, greater London Kentucky to uh, the Louisville office. David has since died. I gave his eulogy and he’s been buried. So. There’s no other available information. So. You can pursue this as much as you want, but you’ll, there’s nothing I can inform you of that I haven’t already informed you. Sorry. Period. Bye.”
Dr. Nichols’ voicemail message presents another problem for me: the body wasn’t located in London, Kentucky! It was in Barbourville, a forty minute drive and another county away. Barbourville is not a part of the “greater London Kentucky area.”
When I first brought these irregularities with the autopsy to Nichols’ attention, he suggested there was a remedy for sorting it all out: they keep the DNA of every body autopsied on file at the medical examiner’s office. He requested I send him the information I had.
Below is a portion of the letter I sent him:
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to explain why I think the wrong body may have been autopsied. I cannot stress enough this would have been through no fault of you or anyone in your office.
You asked me, “How can this possibly be a different body?”
You mention you knew about traffickers shipping drugs in dead bodies. The same people that can do that to a corpse would have no scruples about switching a body to get away with murder. When I show you the victim’s connection to an international organization that was using the ‘dead body scam’ to ship drugs, you’ll understand why the odd discrepancies in the autopsy are alarming to me.
I believed Nichols’ duty to truth and his profession would compel him to get to the bottom of the discrepancies.
I waited impatiently for a response. When none came, I emailed him to follow up. I called and left a message with his secretary. Still, no response. Only when I sent him the email about Hopper not being coroner did I finally receive the before-mentioned voicemail from him.
Discrepancies in the autopsy aside, my own interaction with Nichols leaves me unsettled. He wants me to believe the answers I seek are dead and buried with his executive assistant, David Jones. Unfortunately, David Jones passed away 10 days after I sent Nichols the follow-up email asking him to contact me concerning the information I sent him.
When I began studying the case of the tragic 1993 murder of Betty Carnes in Barbourville, Kentucky, an interesting piece of information popped up early in my research. A local millionaire, seemingly without any close ties to the victim, displayed an unusual interest in the murder trial. The family of the accused, Delmar Partin, could not understand this businessman’s interest in the trial. I was intrigued. What was the connection between Vance Mills, owner of a local hotel, gas stations, coal companies and even a bank, and beautiful 37 year old factory worker, Betty Carnes?
What I would discover over the next several years would be adequately described by one interviewee as “a rats’ nest” that had been infesting southeast Kentucky for decades.
The first question I usually get asked when I try to talk to people about Partin’s wrongful conviction, is why and how did I get involved? The answer is, purely by chance. I was doing research for this blog when I read a newspaper article about the murder and trial, and it shocked me Partin had got convicted with no physical evidence, clearly not enough time to commit the crime, a tenuous motive and arrested after a mere two hour investigation.
Unfortunately, I have no formal experience in lawyering or investigating, and that hurts my credibility. Maybe that’s why I can’t find any help for Partin. I’ve asked attorneys, private investigators, journalists, even law enforcement. But I don’t discount the fact more than one person in this cast of characters has ties to U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers, occupying the Commonwealth’s seat in the House of Representatives since 1980. Is it a coincidence the crime syndicate I would eventually learn about has been operating in southeast Kentucky for about as long?
The depravity of the individuals involved in this story doesn’t help my credibility. It’s hard to fathom people could be so vicious, so inhumane to other human beings… even harder to believe upstanding members of the community could be involved. When you hear stories like this, you hope the messenger is crazy, that people couldn’t possibly be so evil.
So, in the spirit of meeting crazy head-on, I’ll share one of my more eye-opening conversations with a man who knew some of these Kentucky organized crime characters intimately; in fact he was, at one time, under investigation with them by the FBI. A well-respected upstanding businessman who has given back generously to his community, I trust what he tells me. He was never charged in that investigation. He was horrified when he found out the extent of his associates’ crimes. He despised these men and the evil they did.
He was also a former CIA contractor.
He had mentioned a hit man (Max) that ran a Middlesboro mortuary during one of our conversations, and I decided to bring the subject up again. He responded,
“I’ll never forget that guy, I’ll never forget him. He was probably Renfro’s age at that time. I’ll never forget, Johnny Asher said to me one day, ‘We got it figured out back here. You kill a hog, we could never figure out how to get paid when he squeals. But we learned how to use every part of that hog when we’d kill him. But we could never figure out how to get paid for the squeal.’ I couldn’t figure that out for a long time. What in the heck does he mean by that?
“Then they had offered me, ‘If you ever die, we’ll give you a free funeral. If any of your friends ever die, we’ll give them free funerals.’ Well that’s almost unheard of. That’s real southern hospitality they showed me at the start. I didn’t know they was gonna take these people and stuff them full of guns and drugs and network them through the whole country. That’s what they got caught for. And they didn’t get jail for it! What you are dealing with, it’s pretty serious stuff.”
This is the crime syndicate I believe is responsible for Betty’s Carnes’ murder and the subsequent wrongful conviction of Delmar Partin.
This group also has ties to the unsolved murder of Richmond, Kentucky’s Monroe Brock, former owner of the well-known nightclub, “The Maverick.”
It’s hard to believe so many connections in this story are all coincidences. At what point do we begin to question if there is, indeed a conspiracy?
Tom Handy, Commonwealth Attorney and Partin’s prosecutor, knew there were more likely suspects in the Betty Carnes’ murder case. Why were these suspects not investigated?