On a sweltering summer day in 2015, Crystal Rogers’ car was found abandoned on the side of the Bluegrass Parkway in Bardstown, Kentucky. Her belongings were inside the unlocked vehicle, but the mother-of-five was nowhere to be found.
For years, the mystery of what happened to the 35-year-old has puzzled law enforcement, tortured her loved ones and haunted the small town of Bardstown, a place marred by a slew of unsolved killings in recent years.
Three months after Ms Rogers’ disappearance, Brooks Houck, her then-boyfriend, was named a suspect in the case. Investigators at the time said they believed she was dead. But her body has never been found. And he has never been charged.
Ms Rogers’ family never gave up the search for her and never stopped fighting for justice as her story continued to be shared on true crime podcasts and TV series.
Tommy Ballard looked for his daughter every day, never giving up his quest to find her. He created a Facebook page “Team Crystal” to help spread the word.
But 16 months later, the dedicated father was preparing to go on a hunting trip when an unknown assailant approached him at his family property and shot jim in the chest, killing him instantly. His case also remains unsolved.
Ms Rogers’ mother Sherry Ballard believes he was targeted because he was close to a breakthrough in their daughter’s case.
“My husband is dead because he looked for my daughter,” she told The Daily Beast in 2018.
The eighth anniversary of Ms Rogers’ disappearance passed in July. There had been no updates, and no arrests. Until now.
This week, the investigation took a sudden turn when it was announced a suspect had been charged in connection to the case. His name is Joseph Lawson and he has never been publicly named as a suspect or having any connection to this case.
On Thursday, 32-year-old Joseph Lawson was indicted on charges of criminal conspiracy to commit murder and complicity to tampering with physical evidence, according to court records. Kevin Coleman, Mr Lawson’s attorney confirmed to WDRB that the charges are related to the missing woman’s case.
The arrest is the first major development in years.
So what happened to Crystal Rogers and what led to the first arrest in her case after eight years? Here’s what we know.
What happened to Crystal Rogers?
Crystal Rogers has not been seen or heard from since the evening of 3 July 2015.
Later the same day, her red Chevrolet Impala was found abandoned with a flat tire at mile marker 14 on Bluegrass Parkway. Her keys, phone and purse were inside the car, according to the FBI’s office in Louisville. But she was nowhere to be found.
In October of that year, Ms Rogers’ boyfriend at the time Brooks Houck, who is also the father of her youngest child, was named a suspect in the case.
It’s believed he was the last person to see Ms Rogers at their Bardstown home where they lived with their son. He had never been charged.
Arrest of Joseph Lawson is major breakthrough in 2015 case
After eight years, a major breakthrough in the case came when authorities announced on Thursday that an arrest had been made in the case.
Joseph Lawson, 32, was charged with criminal conspiracy to commit murder and complicity in tampering with physical evidence.
The conspiracy to commit murder charge was filed 24 July and the charge of tampering with evidence was filed in June, according to Nelson County circuit court documents.
Mr Lawson has not been charged with Ms Rogers’ murder, but instead faces a conspiracy charge which means prosecutors believe he was involved in some way.
The indictment accused Lawson of tampering, saying he “destroyed, mutilated, concealed, removed or altered physical evidence.”
On Thursday, he appeared on Zoom as he was arraigned in Nelson Circuit Court. He has not previously been publicly identified as a suspect in Ms Rogers’ case.
Ms Rogers was not mentioned by name in the indictment, but Attorney Kevin Coleman, who represents Mr Lawson, acknowledged his client’s case is in relation to the mother’s death, according to WDRB. He declined to comment further.
It’s unclear if any other suspects will be arrested in the case.
A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment on the indictment and did not give details or elaborate on whether investigators have arrested or will arrest others.
Mr Lawson was being held at the Grayson County Detention Center Friday on a $500,000 bond for the conspiracy to murder charge and a $50,000 bond for the complicity to tampering with physical evidence charge, according to court records.
He is due back in court on 26 October.
This isn’t Mr Lawson’s first brush with the law. He has a criminal past with charges including for the possession of methamphetamine, burglary, trespassing, and assault, WHAS11 reported.
Online sleuths in the Facebook group “Team Crystal” pointed out that one of Mr Houck’s employees Steve Lawson was mentioned in a police interview following Ms Rogers disappearance.
In the recording of the interview, Nelson County detective Jon Snow is questioning Mr Houck about a late -night phone call with a specific number on the night that she vanished.
He dials the number and as its ringing, tells the detective it’s Steve Lawson.
“Who is Steve Lawson?” Snow asked.
“That’s somebody who works for me,” he replied.
A search of public records by The Independent revealed that Steve Lawson in Bardstown, Kentucky is related to Joseph Lawson, who is the same age as the one who was arrested this week.
The call between Mr Houck and Mr Lawson was captured on the recording with Mr Houck asking the man to remind him why he called him late on the night Ms Rogers went missing.
Just before that, he can be heard telling Mr Lawson, “It’s a difficult and trying time.”
Mr Lawson responded that he had called him about a rental house and that he told him to speak to “Katie” who handles the properties and that she would get back to him. Mr Houck interjects and corrects him by saying it was “Crystal.”
After the phone call, Detective Snow asked Mr Houck why he told Steve Lawson that she’d call him back when she apparently had been beside him in his truck at that moment.
“She’s not gonna wanna mess with that kind of stuff that late,” Mr Houck replied.
Crystal Rogers’ boyfriend was named a suspect in the case in 2015
Brooks Houck, who was Rogers’ boyfriend at the time of her disappearance, was named a suspect in the case in 2015 by the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office.
He was believed to be the last person who saw her.
Ms Rogers’ parents have said in previous interviews that they believe Mr Houck had something to do with their daughter’s disappearance.
But Mr Houck has never been charged with anything in relation to Ms Rogers’ disappearance.
When Nelson County Sheriff Ed Mattingly announced that Houck was a suspect, he said he believed Rogers was dead. Her body has not been found.
Fatal shooting of Crystal Rogers’ father remains unsolved
More than a year after Ms Rogers vanished, her father, Tommy Ballard, was shot and killed by an unknown assailant on his family’s property.
It happened in November 2016 as he was preparing to go hunting, according to FBI Louisville. His case remains unsolved.
Before his death, the 54-year-old had searched endlessly for his daughter and created a Facebook group called “Team Crystal” to try to find her.
Mr Ballard’s father, Till Ballard, said he believes the two deaths were related. He spoke to the Lexington Herald-Leader on Friday and said he hopes the arrest in Ms Rogers’ case will lead to a break in his son’s killing.
“Tommy wasn’t going to stop searching ... somebody had to stop him,” Till Ballard said. “I think he knows something about Tommy, too,” he added about Mr Lawson.
The FBI, which is investigating both cases, has not commented on the latest in Ms Rogers’ case or Mr Lawson’s arrest.
FBI renews investigation in 2020
Crystal Rogers’ case has gone unsolved for years as it was turned over several times between agencies.
It was transferred from the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office to Kentucky State Police before the FBI took over in August 2020.
In January 2023, Attorney General Daniel Cameron appointed a special prosecutor to investigate Ms Rogers and Mr Ballard’s deaths.
On 3 July, the eighth anniversary of her disappearance, FBI Louisville tweeted it made “significant progress in bringing this case to its rightful conclusion” over the past year.
“We continue to pursue every available lead until those responsible for Crystal’s disappearance are held accountable,” FBI Louisville said at the time.
In October, the FBI searched a farm in Bardstown that was one of the last places Rogers was seen alive before vanishing. It’s a farm that belongs to Mr Houck’s family.
The FBI office declined to comment on Mr Lawson’s arrest.
Multiple Houck family properties searched
Federal authorities announced in August 2020 that they were taking over the investigation in Ms Rogers’ disappearance which led to a slew of searches at properties belonging to the Houck family.
One of the properties was the home of Mr Houck and another belonged to his brother, Nick, who in a bizarre twist, was a former police officer who was fired for allegedly interfering in the Rogers investigation.
Another search was conducted in 2021 with the FBI Louisville office claiming they had found “multiple items of interest” at one of the Houck properties.
And in October 2022, the feds launched a five-day search at Mr Houck’s farm. The FBI says it won’t comment on exactly what was collected.
Search operations have concluded in Bardstown. FBILouisville, @Nelson_Sheriff, @BardstownPD, @kystatepolice want to encourage the public to continue to come forward with information regarding Crystal's disappearance. Contact us at 1-800-CALL-FBI or visit https://t.co/AmXmuc2NAI. pic.twitter.com/dvrvZ5E6RW
— FBI Louisville (@FBILouisville) October 21, 2022
Unsolved killings have haunted Bardstown for years
Ms Rogers’ case is not the only unsolved mystery in Bardstown, Kentucky. There are also four unsolved murders that have thrust the small town into the headlines over the past few years. The FBI is investigating all four murders.
“Year after year, tragedies struck this small town,” Jessica Noll, journalist and host of the podcast, “Bardstown,” previously told Nancy Grace. Ms Noll created the podcast to attempt to figure out if the crimes are connected and examine how the brutal murders impacted the small town of about 13,000.
In May 2013, Bardstown Police officer Jason Ellis was on his way home around 2am when he noticed the road was blocked by freshly cut trees. When he got out of the car to investigate, someone shot and killed Mr Ellis.
A year later, in April 2014, mother and daughter, Kathy and Samantha Netherland, were found brutally murdered at their home. Kathy had been shot multiple times and Samantha was found stabbed with her throat slit.
The fourth person murdered was Ms Rogers’ father, Tommy Ballard, whose death in November 2016 has been investigated as a murder, according to the Kentucky State Police.
The FBI has created a website called crystalrogerstaskforce.com where updates are provided on the cases.