On the evening of April 1, 1992, 19-year-old Rhonda Sue Warford stopped at a Kroger grocery store near her home in Louisville, Kentucky. When she returned home approximately a half hour later, she told her mother of a bizarre confrontation in the parking lot. A strange man had approached Rhonda and began harassing her, telling her that he wanted to marry her. While shaken by the incident, Rhonda informed her mother at about midnight that same evening that she was heading back out. That was the last time anyone from the Warford family would see Rhonda alive.
When Rhonda failed to return home, her mother filed a missing person report with the local police. Several days later, Rhonda’s body would be found in a field in neighboring Meade County, Kentucky. She had sustained multiple stab wounds including one that had severed her brain stem. The only other solid evidence found on the scene were several grey hairs clenched in Rhonda’s hands, as well as several others found on the red sweatpants she had been wearing at the time of her disappearance.
Investigators would soon learn from Rhonda’s mother that she had been involved in a tumultuous on-again, off-again relationship with a 22-year-old man named Garr Keith Hardin. According to a friend of Rhonda’s, at one point Rhonda had suspected that she was pregnant with Hardin’s child. Hardin was overheard telling Rhonda after she broke the news, “if you are pregnant, I will kill you and that [expletive] baby.”
While little other witness testimony could corroborate that Hardin had been physically or emotionally abusive to Rhonda throughout their relationship, prosecutors decided to take an unusual turn in this case and focus on the possibility that Rhonda Sue Warford was the latest victim in a rash of Satanic ritual murders taking place across the country.
The first suggestion that this case could be related to some form of Satan worship came from Rhonda’s mother. According to Mrs. Warford’s statement, Rhonda, Rhonda’s sister Michelle, Hardin, and an associate of Hardin, Jeffrey Dewayne Clark, had all been suspected of being Satanists. An inverted cross tattoo found on Rhonda’s left clavicle seemed to corroborate this possibility that Rhonda had fallen in with a rough crowd interested in partying, listening heavy metal music, and reading into the occult.
Police were able to find more evidence that they believed suggested this crime was somehow related to a Satanic sacrifice, including occult-related documents and texts found at the home of Garr Keith Hardin and knives that could have been the murder weapon.
Hardin was interviewed extensively by police. It was during these interviews that Hardin told investigators that on the night of Rhonda’s disappearance he had been with Jeffrey Dewayne Clark, helping him search for his lost snake and drinking beer. Hardin claimed that he had not seen or heard from Rhonda since March 29, 1992. This detail would be later refuted by police.
According to Rhonda’s mother, the red sweatpants she was wearing at the time of her murder had been freshly washed. According to a hair strand analysis, the hairs found at the scene were similar to a sample taken from Hardin. Investigators determined that Hardin’s claim that he had not seen Rhonda prior to her murder had been a lie since they believed there could be no other way the hairs could have gotten onto her clothing.
Considering Hardin’s friend, Jeffrey Dewayne Clark, as a possible accomplice, police also conducted multiple interviews and searched through his residence. While they were able to turn up several knives, there was no other evidence to suggest that Clark had been involved in Rhonda’s murder. Clark told police he had not seen Rhonda since December of 1991, yet a fingerprint belonging to Rhonda was found in Clark’s car, leading police to suspect that Clark had not been truthful about the last time he had seen the teen. However, this suspicion was later dismissed during trial when an expert testified that there is no way to date a fingerprint and it was possible that the fingerprint had been there for months as Clark had claimed.
In spite of having nothing but circumstantial evidence to pursue the case, both Hardin and Clark were charged with first-degree murder. Their motive? A Satanic ritual sacrifice authorities said Hardin and Clark believed would give them more power.
Spearheading the case was former Detective Mark Handy. It was Handy who originally suggested the theory prosecutors would later base their case on; that Hardin and Clark had killed Rhonda as part of a bizarre ritual.
Handy had a series of tactics that would quickly earn him the reputation as a “closer.” It was said that if anyone could get a confession, Handy was the man for the job. Unfortunately, Handy was not above using underhanded methods in order to secure these confessions. Lying to Hardin and Clark, Handy suggested that both men had failed a polygraph test and had pressured the men to confess to the murder of Rhonda Sue Warford. Both men refused.
Instead, a barrage of characters were called to testify during Hardin and Clark’s week-long joint trial. One witness, Clark’s ex-girlfriend, claimed that Clark had admitted to her that he was interested in Satanism and had even taken her to the secret spot Clark claimed he would sacrifice various animals. It was during this alleged conversation that Clark told the witness his desire to sacrifice a human. Clark’s ex-girlfriend also claimed that Clark, like Rhonda, had an inverted cross tattoo. This claim was later disputed by Clark’s parents.
Rhonda’s sister, Michelle, would also take the stand and claim that Hardin was involved in Satanism, but admitted that she had never witnessed him participate in any form of Satanic act.
A blood-stained rag and a broken glass with the presence of blood found in Hardin’s kitchen sink were also considered to be crucial pieces of evidence in the case. Hardin claimed he had cut his hand on the glass and then used the rag to wipe off the blood on his hand. Prosecutors, going on Handy’s theories surrounding the case, instead suggested that the broken cup was a ritual chalice used to drink blood and that the rag had been used to wipe up the blood that remained on Hardin’s hands after committing animal sacrifices – something Detective Handy alleged that Hardin had admitted to him.
The proverbial nail that would seal both men’s fate would rely on the testimony of fellow inmate and informant Clifford Capps. Capps would claim that Clark confessed to Rhonda’s murder twice while sharing a cell. During one of these alleged confessions, Capps claimed Clark’s confession was stated in jest, while during the second confession Capps told the court that Clark’s face took on a serious expression.
Capps’ testimony would convince the jury that both men had been involved in Rhonda’s murder, but they still refused to impose the death penalty. Hardin and Clark were instead sentenced to life in prison. It would be nearly 25 years after securing their conviction that the tactics of Detective Handy would be called into question.
Louisville’s Wave3 News reported in December of 2017 that Hardin and Clark are just two of four people suspected to have been wrongfully convicted in cases headed by former Detective Handy.
The same year as Rhonda’s murder, Keith “Kiki” West was tried and convicted for the shooting death of Kevin Harraway and Gerald White. Police claimed that West had been inside a vehicle with the two men when he shot and killed them. West then leaped from the vehicle moments before it crashed into a tree. West claimed that the two men had attempted to kidnap and sodomize him and that the shooting was in self-defense. Wave3 reports that inside the vehicle police found a knife, a pawn shop receipt for a gun, as well as “homosexually-oriented literature.” None of this was taken in as evidence by Handy. Additionally, West’s lawyer suggested that a witness interview had been rewound and taped over after Handy had fed the witness additional information to include on the tape. This information was persuasive enough for a judge to reduce West’s sentence to just 10 years in 1997.
After securing the conviction of Hardin and Clark, Handy then went on to bungle a fourth case that would ultimately cost the taxpayers of Louisville a whopping $8.5m in damages awarded to the defendant.
In 1993, Edwin Chandler was convicted in the shooting death of gas station attendant Brenda Whitfield. Though the shooting was captured by surveillance video, an employee had inadvertently taped over the footage with an airing of David Letterman. While there was no physical evidence to suggest that the then 19-year-old Chandler had been involved in the shooting, a former co-worker of Brenda’s came forward to testify that they saw someone who looked like Chandler on the footage.
Chandler agreed to turn himself in on an unrelated check fraud warrant. He initially told police he had no involvement in the shooting, but eventually confessed to Handy that he had been the shooter. Chandler was convicted of armed robbery and manslaughter. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Chandler later said that his confession was coerced after being threatened by Handy that he would have Chandler’s sister arrested for harboring a fugitive and claimed that Handy had fed him information about the murder in order to attribute that information as coming from Chandler himself.
It would be Chandler’s case that would start a domino effect. Handy’s lack of credibility after lying under oath on the case would begin to bring his conduct into question and on record. In 2009, the Innocence Project helped to have the case reexamined. Fingerprints discovered on a bottle found on the counter at the scene were connected to a man identified as Percy Phillips. Phillips would later be tried for the shooting and Chandler’s conviction has since been overturned, with Chandler being granted a hefty settlement in compensation for the wrongful conviction.
After helping Chandler in his case, the Innocence Project began examining the cases of both Hardin and Clark. A judge initially ruled against granting DNA testing on the hair samples taken from the scene of Rhonda’s murder, stating that doing so would not overturn Hardin or Clark’s convictions, it would only suggest a third unknown person could have been involved in the teen’s murder.
It was later learned through a complaint filed on behalf of Hardin that in addition to Detective Handy, Sheriff Joseph Greer had also assisted in corrupting the case against Hardin and Clark. Greer is alleged to have conspired with Clark’s former girlfriend to present information suggesting that Clark had an active interest in Satanism and the desire to kill people and animals. According to the complaint, Clark had witnessed his former girlfriend abusing her son and reported it to police. It is believed that Clark’s ex-girlfriend agreed to testify against Clark in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence in her own case.
Clifford Capps, Clark’s one-time cellmate who claimed that Clark had confessed the murder to him, was also offered a deal by Sheriff Greer. In exchange for Capps’ testimony, Greer told Capps he would receive leniency in his pending court cases.
As for the broken glass and rag, which served as the crux of the physical evidence this case relied on, DNA testing determined that the blood on both had belonged to Hardin as he had stated. Additionally, DNA testing on the hair samples found on Rhonda’s body were determined to belong to neither Hardin, Clark or Rhonda. Instead, these hairs were determined to have belonged to another man.
It was this same man, John Whitely, who in 1993 had confessed to the murder. Whitely had a sordid history of violent crimes, but prosecutors ignored this information and instead went forward with the case against Hardin and Clark.
It would be this combination of modern DNA testing, known police corruption, and the prosecution’s failure to examine other evidence suggesting the perpetrator was someone other than Hardin and Clark that would convince Kentucky’s attorney general to reexamine the case.
Now, after 22-years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit, Kentucky’s attorney general has agreed to overturn the original rulings in the cases. Both men have been cleared on all charges and it would seem that the tables have turned. Detective Handy, whose testimony on the alleged Satanic rituals that convinced a jury to sentence two innocent men to life in prison, is now under criminal investigation for police misconduct.