November 24, 2017
He once boasted that he had killed 10 men.
Ricky Kelly also likened himself to Caesar, telling a fellow inmate in a secretly recorded conversation that he tried to “implement fear in people” to control them. “You do something real graphic in front of a mother f—–,” he said, “they don’t want that to happen to them.”
Former Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Stengel called Kelly “the most frightening person I’ve come across in 30 years of law enforcement,” while former Louisville Metro Police Chief Robert White said his record shows a “total disregard for life.”
And a member of Kelly’s own crew, Tao Parker, told authorities that fellow dealers were so scared of him that he had a hard time finding anyone to sell him drugs.
Now, seven years after Louisville’s most notorious criminal was charged with complicity in eight murders, Kelly finally will go on trial for just one – allegedly shooting rival drug dealer Lajuante “Bebe” Jackson as he sat on his porch in the Sheppard Square housing project on Aug. 19, 2005.
he trial, set to begin Dec. 1 in Jefferson Circuit Court, could help close the books on a deadly time in Louisville fueled by wars over crack cocaine. It also should finally resolve a case that has taken a tortuous path through the criminal justice system and that has been marked by tragic irony.
First, after a county grand jury charged Kelly in the eight slayings – including that of federal witness Gail Duncan, who was shot dead by masked men in front of her daughter – the commonwealth dropped all charges, saying it feared for the safety of witnesses.
Kelly was then indicted in federal court, where the names of witnesses don’t have to be disclosed in advance, but only in connection with Jackson’s murder.
But the federal charges against Kelly and co-defendant Dion Dajuan Neal – who allegedly paid for the execution to protect a drug trafficking organization – were dropped after crucial eyewitness Greg Sawyers was gunned down in the street.
Now the case is back in state court, where Kelly is charged with murder for hire, though Neal is not charged at all.
Kelly’s lawyers, Mac Adams and Daniel Alvarez, say that it is illogical and that they will make the discrepancy a centerpiece of their defense.
“How can the commonwealth seek the death penalty based on the allegations that Kelly was paid when it is not prosecuting the man who allegedly paid him?” Adams asked. “What does that say about their proof – about their whole case?”
Prosecutors Elizabeth Brown Jones and Justin Janes declined comment on the evidence.
Judge Angela McCormick Bisig has ruled that it is up to the jury to decide both if Kelly committed the murder and was paid to do it. If convicted, Kelly could face the death penalty.
Kelly’s lawyers wouldn’t let him talk to a reporter. But in an unsolicited phone call last summer, the defendant, now 47 and jailed since 2015 on a $500,000 bond, professed his innocence and claimed prosecutors have intentionally delayed his trial because they know they can’t convict him.
In a motion he wrote and filed himself, he said, “The commonwealth’s case against defendant has been greatly exaggerated.”
There is no physical evidence tying him to Jackson’s murder, but the commonwealth hopes to use Kelly’s own words to convict him.
In a conversation surreptitiously recorded in 2010 by another inmate, Rico English, at the Green River Correctional Complex, Kelly described in graphic terms how he ended Jackson’s life.
“First shot hit him in the chest,” Kelly told English, who was wearing a body wire. “I dropped that mother——. Pop, pop pop. … I put 36 slugs in that n—–‘s face and stood on his head. The whole head collapsed.”
“The only way my name got involved,” Kelly added, “is that … I did it bare face.”
“Dion gave me $5,000” to kill Jackson, Kelly is heard saying on the recording made for the U.S. Secret Service and Louisville Metro Police.
Prosecutors in court papers indicate they will build their case with as many as 73 recordings made in various jails and prisons they say reveal his “consciousness of guilt” for the crime.
The commonwealth also has said it has as many as 20 “cooperators,” including witnesses such as Parker, the ex-crew member, who told investigators Kelly casually claimed Jackson’s murder, saying “Yeah, got his ass.”
The prosecutors’ star witness may be Francois Cunningham, an admitted killer placed in the federal witness protection program after he agreed to testify.
Cunningham faced capital murder charges himself but in exchange for a lesser sentence pleaded guilty to killing a couple in Fern Creek Park and burning their bodies. He told Louisville Metro Detective Denny Butler in 2011 that Kelly was a hit man who provided “muscle” for legendary drug dealer Reggie Rice, who died in 2014, and that Duncan and another government witness were among Kelly’s victims.
“He’d rather kill you than waste his time out there selling drugs,” said Cunningham, who also pleaded guilty in another killing in which the victim’s body was dumped in the Outer Loop Landfill.
But Cunningham provided no information about Jackson’s death, and Adams said the defense will try to block evidence about any of the seven other murders, to which Kelly pleaded not guilty and with which he is no longer charged.
Adams said the defense also will try to exclude any mention of the murder of Sawyers, who had told investigators he saw Kelly shoot Jackson and saw Neal pay for the hit. Sawyers was shot dead on East Broadway after surviving two previous attempts on his life.
Former prosecutors who aren’t involved in the case say evidence about the other killings would be admissible only to show motive or a “common scheme or plan” with Jackson’s murder.
Brian Butler and Kent Wicker, ex-prosecutors who are now criminal defense lawyers, also predict evidence about Sawyers’ death will be inadmissible unless the commonwealth presents substantial evidence tying Kelly to the crime. Another man was acquitted of Sawyers’ murder.
Adams and Alvarez in court papers dismiss the prison recordings as merely “jailhouse braggadocio.”
Butler said the defense will likely argue inmates often brag about violent acts – falsely – to enhance their credibility and maintain their safety, and try to show discrepancies between his account and the facts of the crime. Kelly, for example, boasted of firing 36 bullets into Jackson while an autopsy found only 22.
But Adams said he will try to show discrepancies in eyewitness accounts of the crime.
Christopher Lee Chalker, for example, told police he was at Jackson’s buying $20 of crack cocaine and described two shooters who bore no resemblance to Kelly.
The defense also will portray the prosecution’s cooperating witnesses as a rogues’ gallery of “murders, thugs and villains whose testimony was bought with sweetheart deals on their own charges,” Wicker said.
As one of Kelly’s former attorneys, Richard Kammen, put it: “They put out the word that if you pinned something on (Kelly), you’d get out of prison.”
Lajuante W. Jackson was 26, married and had one daughter when he was slain. His family did not respond to letters and other messages seeking comment for this article.
Records show Kelly was born to a 15-year-old mother, grew up in public housing in Beecher Terrace and Cotter Homes, and never met his father, who died when he was 3.
At Crosby Middle School, he was frequently absent or tardy and attended three classes for students with learning disabilities. He dropped out of Seneca High School.
Three of his cousins have been murdered and one of his brothers, Antwan “Pearl” Tolley, is serving 19 years in prison on federal weapons charges.
He told a psychologist that over the years he was shot in the arm and leg and “witnessed countless murders” of “friends that I know of. I’ve seen walkup killings that I refused to be a witness to… because you just don’t do that.”
Yet despite telling people he detested snitches, court records show he once tried to work off marijuana charges by setting up buys for police. His work produced two arrests before he quit, saying his life was threatened and he was “like scared.”Kelly was indicted for the first time as an adult in 1991, when he was 21, on drug-trafficking charges. Three years later, he was charged with attempted murder after he and one of his brothers, Terrell Gray, pulled up next to a truck at a KFC and opened fire, hitting a man inside. Charges against Gray were dismissed and Kelly, who pleaded guilty to wanton endangerment, got one year in jail.
In the prison recordings, Kelly is heard telling English that he ran his crew out of “The Spot,” a West End clubhouse furnished with a pool table and a hot tub and stocked with 40 cases of Bud, “Hennessy for myself” and a bowl full of condoms. The only women allowed were “paid strippers and prostitutes.”
But he had other uses for women. He told English he used them to lure men to be robbed or murdered, then paid them so that they wouldn’t implicate him.
“When you give a bitch money, you put blood on her hand,” he said, according to a tape transcript. “Can’t no bitch handle life” in prison.
Kelly was sentenced to 27 years in prison on an array of gun, drug, assault and persistent felon charges in 1998. After a failed parole, he was returned to custody and he served out his sentences in March, according to the Kentucky Corrections Department.
The seven other murders in which charges against Kelly were dropped remain unsolved, Metro Police spokesman Dwight Mitchell said.
If Kelly is acquitted of Jackson’s murder, he will walk out of court a free man.
►Aug. 19, 2005: Lajuante W. Jackson, 26, is shot dead at 744 S. Clay St.
►July 7, 2010: Ricky Kelly, then 39, is charged with eight counts of complicity to murder for the deaths of Jackson as well as Gail Duncan on April 11, 1996; Deron Cole on July 24, 1996; John Sanders on Oct. 21, 1996; Charles Lewis on July 1, 1998; Blair Kidwell on July 3, 1998; Craig Jones on July 8, 2005; and Warren King on July 13, 2006. Kelly is also charged with trafficking in cocaine.
►November 2010: Greg Sawyers tells a federal grand jury he saw Kelly shoot Jackson and that Dion Dajuan Neal – Sawyers’ cousin – paid Kelly “10 stacks,” or $10,000, for the hit. Sawyers is released on home incarceration on a cocaine trafficking charge.
►March 25, 2011: All state charges are dropped, in part to protect witnesses, prosecutors said. Kelly and later Dion Dajuan Neal are charged with murder in aid of a drug trafficking organization under a federal anti-racketeering law. Neal is accused of paying Kelly for the hit.
►July 27, 2013. Sawyers, 34, is killed. Court records show he received a threatening letter in jail delivered by a friend of Kelly. Kelly wasn’t charged in connection with the threat or the killing. Orlando Gilmore is later acquitted in the murder.