Lincoln County vigil celebrates lives of missing, murdered

Published 11:36 am Thursday, August 30, 2018

STANFORD – It’s a group that no one wants to be a member of, but for those who’s loved ones have been murdered or remain missing, it provides a comfort that only those who have lived through it can provide.

Families and friends of several of Kentucky’s murdered or missing persons gathered in Lincoln County on Saturday, not to relive the tragedies, but to remember and celebrate the lives of those they’ve lost.

The event was organized by Sandra Hasty, a Lincoln County resident and mother of Michael Keith Gorley, who went missing in 2015. Gorley, who’s body has yet to be found, was last seen on Knock Lick Road in Stanford on May 17.

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In the three years that Gorley has been missing, Hasty has befriended many across the state, and even some locally, who share similar stories. Hasty spent nearly 10 minutes Saturday reading the names of those in Kentucky who are currently missing and those who were murdered, many of which are still open cases.

“Bring our missing home and justice for our murdered loved ones,” Hasty said before reading the names.

Private Investigator Michael Ward, who has been investigating Gorley’s disappearance and suspected murder independently from state police, has taken up many cases in the area and was present Saturday to join in the Celebration of Life Vigil.

Ward, a 22-year veteran of the Connecticut police force, now dedicates his time to investigating missing and murdered cases in Kentucky and often does not charge families for his services.

“You’re not alone. Each and every one of you has a network of thousands and thousands of people that suffer every day just like you do, missing their loved ones, missing those who have been taken from us abruptly, many times for no cause at all, or very little,” Ward said. “What I’m finding in my work, unfortunately, 90 percent of these cases have another common bond – that common bond is drugs, people. We have a problem here in Kentucky, we have a problem across our nation today. But I see it every day right here in Kentucky.”

It’s time for the public to take action, he said.

“Whether it’s pounding your legislators, voting in and out the right politicians, I don’t care how you do it…” he said. “Somehow, our voices need to be heard. There isn’t a day that goes by, if you watch the news, every single day somebody else is missing here in Kentucky. Another family is feeling just like you are because their loved one is gone.”

Ward said personally, he’s getting tired of attending funerals.

“Many of these people that are taken from us I don’t even know. But I work these cases to bring these people home because somebody has to,” he said. “There’s not enough being done by our state and local police, the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), these people are not getting involved like they should in these cases. And until we, as the public at large, make some changes in our laws and how things are run in this Commonwealth of Kentucky, it’s never going to change.”

Tougher drug laws, tougher violence laws and paying police what they’re worth are just a few things Ward said need to happen. Ward said he recently saw an application to become a local police officer that offered $12 an hour for the entry level position and it made him sick.

“I was a police officer in Connecticut for 22 years. When I left there I was making $47 an hour. I didn’t have thousands of missing person cases…” he said. “We have a problem here that needs to be addressed. Nobody wants taxes raised, nobody wants to pay more money out of their pocket. But you are not going to have services worthy of solving these crimes…unless that happens.”

Melinda Gilbert, sister of Whitney Copley, is one of those local people Hasty has befriended through her experience. Gilbert was in attendance Saturday wearing a t-shirt with “Justice for Whitney” written across it, and a necklace with a photo of Copley hanging from her neck.

Copley was initially reported missing in 2015 and her remains were later found in Casey County about a year later.

Copley’s sister had a few choice words for local law enforcement, who she believes could have done more in the investigation of her sister’s death. Gilbert said the case has officially been closed by state police, despite the fact that there are many unanswered questions that remain.

“I know these people are overworked doing traffic stops and drug busts and all this, but this ought to be a priority in my eyes. A missing person…it’s really inhumane actually how we were treated. Like she’s nothing, she doesn’t matter. ‘She’s a problem off the street,’ that’s how we took it,” Gilbert said. “There’s not one time I saw a police officer searching for Whitney.”

Gilbert said family members and volunteers made up the search parties for 14 months as they looked for Copley.

“If you don’t have family or friends to look for you if you come up missing, you’re basically screwed,” she said.

Like Gilbert, Bobbie Reynolds still has many questions about the death of her sister, Desiree Sparks. Sparks, 22, was found deceased and naked on West Skyline Drive in Lincoln County two years ago and today, many questions remain unanswered, Reynolds said.

Sparks’ cause of death was ruled inconclusive by the Lincoln County Coroner but with foul-play suspected, Kentucky State Police detectives continue to investigate and follow-up on leads. In the two years since her sister’s death, Reynolds said her and her family have not only mourned the death of Desiree, but have also feared for their own lives as no arrests have been made.

“The last I heard from the detective is that they are still working on DNA,” Reynolds said.

Others from across the state shared their stories Saturday, including Beth Stephenson-Victor, who’s mother and father were found murdered in their home in Florence. Bill and Peggy Stephenson would have celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary Saturday. Stephenson-Victor said no arrests have been made since her parents’ murder in 2011.

November of this year will mark 10 years since the murder of Katherine Nichols’ brother Jim Duckett in Shelbyville. Nichols, a Louisville resident, said she has spent most of the last 10 years lobbying for stiffer laws and memorializing victims of homicide through the organization Kentuckians’ Voice for Crime Victims. No arrests have been made in Duckett’s murder.

Several others took part in Saturday’s vigil, including advocates wearing shirts that said “Justice for Josh Goad.” Officials declared Goad’s 2012 death in Clinton County an accident but family members believe Goad was murdered and are still actively seeking information about his death.

Family of April Neikirk, a Lincoln County woman who’s remains were found in June this year, also attended Saturday’s vigil. Police have charged three people in connection with Neikirk’s alleged murder and the investigation is ongoing at this time.

Linda Price, of McKinney, was also among the names of the missing that were recognized during the event. Price has been missing from Lincoln County since 2015.

Following a few hours of food and fellowship, the group gathered outside to light sky lanterns in memory of their loved ones.

Standing next to a pond outside, Hasty said her son would have loved to have been outside on a day like Saturday.

“Fly home, Michael,” she said as she released the lantern.