What the sheriff got in return was a court order demanding he turn over his findings in one case and claims he’s gone “rogue” as part of a spat with state police. The bad feelings may date back to Burnham’s own departure from the state force, have erupted with tense words in open court and, a prosecutor argues, could jeopardize efforts to prosecute one of the cases. It’s an unusually public dispute between law enforcement agencies.
Burnam, who was elected Trigg County sheriff in 2010, sounds unapologetic about his efforts, driven by his desire to make sure the killers “get what’s coming to them.”
“I made a promise that if people elected me I was going to do my job,” he said. “I’ve done my job, I’ve done what I said I would do, and I’ll continue to do my job.”
Relatives of the victims say they’re grateful for the sheriff’s offer. Around Cadiz, a small town in a recreational lake region about 200 miles west of Louisville, residents praise him for putting his money behind his promise.
“He’s a man living up to his word,” Michael Powell said while tending his mother’s downtown antique store.
But his maverick style brought a backlash, creating the unusual drama of a sheriff clashing with another law enforcement agency and a local prosecutor.
Commonwealth’s Attorney G.L. Ovey was so concerned that Burnam was doing his own investigation, separate from state police, that he filed a subpoena motion against him.
A judge agreed to order the sheriff to turn over his file in the case of Chantell Humphries. The 33-year-old mother of three was gunned down a decade ago, her body found in a cow pasture. Burnam, then a trooper with state police, was among the first law officers on the scene, and he says he remains haunted by the gruesome scene.
The conflict between the sheriff and prosecutor intensified when Burnam drew gasps from courtroom observers last month by saying the findings might somehow implicate the prosecutor.
Ovey, visibly shaken, called it “the most ridiculous thing” he had ever heard.
When pressed by the judge, the sheriff said he wasn’t implicating the local prosecutor in the actual killing but offered no other details.
The sheriff says he will comply with the judge’s order and give his file to Ovey.
Burnam has acknowledged he conducted recent interviews in the Humphries case after being contacted by people he wouldn’t identify.
His involvement in the case has agitated state police.
State police Lt. Brent White accused his one-time colleague of “rogue behavior” by pursuing his own investigation separate from state police.
“He was taught better than this,” said White, who attended police academy with Burnam. “This is not a territorial dispute. This is about doing what is correct procedure.”
The sniping comes against the backdrop of a looming murder trial in the Humphries case. Claude Russell, a 36-year-old local farm worker, is set to stand trial for a second time Aug. 19. The trial date was set at the same hearing that took up the subpoena motion.
A mistrial for Russell was declared earlier this year after jurors reported twice they had reached an impasse.
Ovey says Russell and Humphries were lovers but he doesn’t have a motive.
Ovey worries that competing police investigations left unchecked could raise due-process problems that could threaten the case.
“I’m not saying that the sheriff wouldn’t receive information in his capacity as sheriff,” Ovey said. “All I ask is that he turn it over to me or the state police. That’s not unreasonable.”
Russell’s attorney has raised his own concerns, including the sheriff’s reward offer.
“Is the sheriff telling us that he’s having a reason to believe my client is ... innocent?” asked John W. Stewart, the defense attorney.
Burnam hasn’t said publicly what he’s found out about any of the unsolved cases. But he told White in an email that he must be getting close to “finding out something that someone doesn’t want me to know” because he was getting death threats. The email surfaced during the subpoena fight, exposing the strain between the sheriff and state police.
“You can no longer pull me off a case or tell who I can and cannot investigate,” Burnam wrote. Also in the email, he agreed to “back off” leads he claimed to have in the unsolved 2008 slaying of Harvey Choat, then added, “please do not make me regret it.”
Burnam said he sent the email, dated Nov. 28, after receiving a call from White.
Burnam resigned from state police in early 2010 to run for sheriff. At the time, state police were transferring him to nearby Livingston County, which would have uprooted him from his home in Trigg County. Burnam said the transfer played a role in his run for sheriff.
He handled road patrols and had an investigative role during his tenure with KSP, which started in 1998 but included absences when he was called up for active duty with the Air Force. But he was not given an investigative role in the Humphries case. That didn’t keep him from asking people if they knew anything about the slaying.
“People talked to me and I listened,” he said, adding that he passed whatever information he got to his superiors.
Russell was first indicted on a murder charge in 2003 in the Humphries case, but prosecutors dismissed the case citing a lack of evidence. Ovey recalled that Burnam criticized him “almost relentlessly” at the time for the dismissal.
Russell was indicted again in 2011. Ovey said he was subjected to more criticism from Burnam, this time because he would be prosecuting the case.
Relatives of the victims are simply focused on the pursuit of the killers.
“I’d rather have closure than anything else in the world, to have peace of mind,” said Michael Ladd, whose brother, Kenneth, was gunned down while working an overnight desk shift at Lake Barkley State Resort Park.
For Ladd’s family, the reward offer is more than a gesture — it’s a sign that someone with a badge hasn’t given up.
“You can’t change nothing, but justice ought to be done,” said Philip Ladd, another of Kenneth’s brothers.
Ladd was three days away from turning 23 when he was shot twice in the head and once in the heart with a rifle. Investigators pointed to theft as the motive and said $1,775 had been taken. He was home from college, holding down a job to scrape together enough money to return to Western Kentucky University, where he was pursuing a business degree.
State police arrested Michael Lee Cunningham, charging him with capital murder and armed robbery. But early in 1981, a local jury acquitted Cunningham of all charges.
In the other unsolved case, the 64-year-old Choat was gunned down in the home he built himself and settled into retirement. No one has been charged in the slaying.
Carrie Baker, Humphries’ sister, said she’s more concerned about the outcome of her sister’s case than the conflicts involving the sheriff, prosecutor and state police.
“I just wish everybody could be in accord,” she said. “We just want closure just to put her at peace. Every year it’s tougher and tougher.”