A Town Under Trial
In the early 1990s, New Life Fitness & Massage kept its lights on twenty hours a day, closing at five every morning and reopening at nine. Everyone in Oak Grove knew it was a brothel. Fort Campbell, one of the nation’s largest Army posts, sits on top of the Kentucky-Tennessee border, and New Life stood right outside its northern gates next to Interstate 24. Many of its clients were Screaming Eagles: paratroopers from the famous 101st Airborne Division. Most of the others were truckers off the highway and locals of all stripes; some say judges and other dignitaries would come up from Nashville, an hour down the highway, to be ushered in and out covertly.
At twenty-six, the owner, Tammy Papler, was shrewd beyond her years. She had picked the location for the ready-made customer base in Fort Campbell, and for the pool of potential workers: soldiers’ wives, ex-wives, and girlfriends, as well as women who had recently been discharged, most of them far from their families and without safety nets. She wore her hair in a fluffy blond permanent and took the pseudonym Mercedes. Some of her employees feared her temper.
Oak Grove, Kentucky, wasn’t a city in any meaningful sense, but rather just a commercial strip hedged by trailer parks and clapboard housing. Its population was around three thousand, though this number fluctuated depending on deployments. While Fort Campbell’s officers could afford the more elegant digs on the other side of the post in Clarksville, Tennessee, Oak Grove was a haven for young enlistees, and it drew seedy businesses like mosquitos to a bog. The main stretch of highway was lined with liquor stores, pawnshops, and adult businesses: Fantasee Lingerie, Donna’s Den, Mona’s Go-Go, Classic Touch, and Cherry Video, the last of which Papler also owned. The brothel operated in the back of a small brick building that it shared with a Chinese restaurant.
The business cycle at New Life, as with Oak Grove’s small economy, rose and fell with military paydays. During the slow periods, the women would order takeout and watch the O.J. trial. There were moments of levity, and escapades. Once, two strangers came in off the interstate and plied a couple of workers with mounds of cocaine and hundred-dollar bills for an all-night party, but the men made such a mess in the Jacuzzi room that the workers had to spend their tips to have the carpet cleaned before Papler arrived in the morning.
For Ed Carter, a burly twenty-four-year-old police officer, the city was something of a playground. Carter grew up near Hopkinsville, the county seat, on a farm, where his father worked for an influential white family (the Carters were black) and his mother cleaned houses and churches for extra money. After dropping out of community college, Carter was recruited into the Police Explorers, an apprenticeship program for youths who want to work in law enforcement. He graduated into the midnight shift, responding to domestic fights of young military couples and scuffles at Oak Grove’s strip club.
With minimal training, he spent his first months on the job scrambling to learn the local geography and police procedures. But he didn’t need any instruction to push people around. (Once, Carter responded on a call about a fighting couple and he flung the husband out of their trailer.) He began to walk with a swagger. One of the badge’s perks, he found, was that wearing a uniform made it easy to pick up women—especially with so many men away on deployments. In 1992, he married a woman he’d met on the job, but this didn’t get in the way of his tomcatting.
As a bad cop, Carter was largely a product of his environment. The Oak Grove Police Department had only six officers and was known throughout Christian County for its corruption. Buddy Elliott, the police chief, was the older brother of the mayor, Jack, and together the Elliott brothers owned a major share of the local real estate. They used the police force as an arm of their business enterprises and sometimes as a revenue generator. For instance, in 1993, after some of the New Life massage parlor’s workers were charged with prostitution, Buddy Elliott came to Papler and asked whether she’d “get with the program.” She gave him $600 cash, and when the case reached a grand jury, the charges were dropped.
Over the year that followed, the cops got increasingly cozy at New Life, and some even hung out in the lobby when they were off duty. “They felt like they owned the place, they really did,” one of the workers remembers. “You never knew if they were just stopping by to say hi, or if they were wanting something.” Papler says she came up with a special procedure when an officer wanted sex: he didn’t pay, but his name was recorded at the bottom of the client register, so she could compensate the worker later herself. The Oak Grove government didn’t have much tax revenue, so when the patrol cars needed new lights, the cops imposed on Papler to foot the bill.
Carter spent more time at the brothel than any of his colleagues. He began a steady affair with the manager, and since his police salary was so meager, he compelled Papler to put him on the payroll as a “janitor.” She later said in court proceedings that the payments were really for “protection” or “hush money”—not for mopping the floors. And she was afraid that if she stopped, he’d get the place shut down. For all her friendliness with cops, Papler faced regular threats of closure. For backup, she had an emergency dispatcher keeping guard; whenever there was talk of another prostitution raid, the brothel would get a call—“a storm is coming” or “time to get the umbrellas out”—so her workers could get dressed.
Then, in the summer of 1994, Papler says, she cut Carter off. His payments cost her too much and they had a falling-out. She remembers telling him not to come back, but short of changing the locks, she couldn’t keep him out; he had a key. A few weeks later, in the early hours of September 20, two of her workers were alone at New Life. At 3:35 a.m., two colleagues found them in a back room of the brothel, naked, lying in puddles of blood, both shot through the head and stabbed in the neck. The investigators suspected Carter right away, but they didn’t have enough evidence to convict him. To many, it appeared that the Oak Grove Police Department had a hand in covering up the double murder. Within months, the New Life massage parlor shut down. Carter fled town and many of the locals close to the event eventually left, too, including Papler. The sheriff’s office handed over the investigation to the state, but for more than fifteen years no one was arrested. By the time I moved to the area, the case had almost evaporated into a grisly local legend.
In the fall of 2009, I arrived in Christian County. I’d landed a job at the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville—a newspaper founded in 1869 by two ex-Confederates—as a police and government reporter. On my first drive down for the job interview (from Michigan, where I’d recently finished college) the landscape surprised me. It was flat, dominated by soybean and tobacco fields; western Kentucky is more like the plains of southern Illinois than the wooded hills of Appalachia. I met the paper’s editor, Jennifer Brown, at the city’s only Starbucks. Forty-seven, with short dark hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and a light drawl, Brown grew up in Hopkinsville, raised two kids there, and had worked at the New Era for twenty-five years, mostly reporting. We talked about our favorite writers, and she gave me a rundown of local industry: it was largely agricultural, but in recent decades some auto-parts manufacturing plants had sprung up, because land was cheap and property taxes were nil.
And she told me about Fort Campbell. Comprising more than one hundred sixty square miles, it is five times the physical size of Hopkinsville, seven times that of Manhattan. Some thirty thousand soldiers were stationed there at the time, most living off-post, and it has its own golf course, bowling alley, and Starbucks franchise. In other words, a small city. The base is home to three major combat units: the 5th Special Forces Group, which was among the first deployed to Vietnam in 1961 and one of the last to leave; the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known for its involvement in the conflict in Somalia depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down; and the 101st Airborne, famous for its deployments to Europe during World War II and to Arkansas during the Little Rock desegregation crisis of 1957. Oak Grove, Brown told me, was the incorporated city outside the military gates and was permeated by Army culture. The county leadership, like most of Hopkinsville’s long-term residents, tended to hold the smaller city at a distance.
The local demographics surprised me, too. Christian County had a higher percentage of racial minorities than any other county in Kentucky—but it was intensely segregated. Prior to the Civil War, nearly half the population was enslaved, and the resulting social hierarchy remains intact. Nearly all the police officers and local officials were white, and in the inner city, where most African Americans lived, many houses were falling apart due to absentee landlords. In the nineties,
Hopkinsville had refused to name a street after Martin Luther King Jr. For both the black and white communities, religion was a defining trait. A reporter from Louisville once described the atmosphere elegantly: “If Christian County were an island, it would sink beneath the weight of its Baptist churches.”
I quickly settled into a rhythm at the New Era. I started every morning with rounds at the police departments and spent many evenings in city council meetings. I covered budgets, housing initiatives, zoning battles, fatal car wrecks, and a fire at a beloved barbecue joint (where the Black Hawk pilots used to eat). My favorite projects were the longer crime narratives that sometimes landed on my desk. After I wrote a front-page feature about a man who strangled his mother to death in their trailer, Brown reassigned me to the courts beat, which lent itself to more of these kinds of stories.
For a long time, I circled the 1994 murders in Oak Grove, going through the newspaper’s archives in my downtime, reading almost every word the New Era had ever published on the unsolved crime. Nothing had happened with the investigation for many years, yet the murders still had an obvious relevance to present-day Oak Grove—it was clear to me by then that the city suffered from a unique pathology. Its police department was a pariah among county law enforcement, its officers seen as unprofessional and often crooked, and some of its public officials had no regard for legislative procedure or transparency laws. The city was always being sued: for police brutality, illegal firings, sexual harassment. Oak Grove was rotten, and it seemed it always had been.
I wasn’t the only one who saw the murders as a symptom of the city’s deeper problems. Fifteen years on, the event still defined the place in the local imagination. Occasionally, when Oak Grove was in the headlines, an attorney in court or an officer at the Hopkinsville police station would say to me quietly, “You know about the time those cops killed the two prostitutes, right?” I heard several versions of how the crime scene was botched.
After several years at the paper, I left Kentucky in 2013 for a magazine job in New York. Shortly before my departure, the state surprised everyone and charged Leslie Duncan, a former Oak Grove police detective, with evidence tampering. He pleaded guilty, which teed up the local prosecutor to finally try the whole case. Two months later, in November of 2013, Ed Carter was brought back to town and indicted on two counts of murder, and Duncan was charged again, this time with complicity. It took almost three years to prepare for the trial. Last September, nearly twenty-two years to the day since the murders, Oak Grove convened to close its darkest chapter and I returned to Christian County to report.
Tamara Reynolds has been shooting for over 25 years professionally as an editorial photographer. She is anticipating her first published photobook titled “The Drake”.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Oxford American with support from EHRP.