Oxford American's Nick Tabor gives us this week's Sunday Long Read, a detective tale about a grisly double murder in Oak Grove, Tennessee, just outside Army base Fort Campbell. It's about the town madam who made a lot of money and paid to keep it that way, a bad cop whom everyone knew was guilty, and the military-industrial complex and a base with 30,000 soldiers that crushed a town and its 3,000 people for decades.
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.
This is Nick Tabor's story, chasing a legendary cold case in a town that definitely didn't want it re-opened. Pull up a chair, this is a good one.