It’s a frigid winter afternoon in 1999. Kentucky State Police detectives are on hands and knees upon a rural hillside off Muddy Branch Road. They assiduously dig, trying to break the solidified limestone entombing homicide victim Rodney Tanner’s skeleton.
It’s the second time Detective Keith Moore was on the rambling property, surveying the land from a state police helicopter, praying to find the lost man whose body was callously chucked on the knoll near Ky. 5.
The first time — years before this — was in vain. He won’t accept another letdown.
On July 26, 1987, Flatwoods native Thomas Roberts abducted the 22-year-old Puerto Rican man from a Detroit apartment; beat him to near-death with a metal pipe in an auto mechanics garage there. The executioner threw the young man into the trunk of a Lincoln Continental and headed home to Ashland to snuff him away forever.
According to victim’s kin, the slaughter was spurned by love, racism and drug-fueled greed.
Slowly dying in misery, the tortured Tanner died minutes before he arrived into our town. Thugs who buried him kept tight lips for almost 12 years. All the while, the Tanners kept hope to find their missing boy.
On Friday evening, his sister, Sherrie Tanner Feijoo, reached out from her Puerto Rico home. She had staggering news. Over the years we became friends — she wanted her Ashland alliance to know first.
Moore, fellow retired KSP detective Rob Garnes and I — the reporter beside the family, watching Roberts sentenced to life in Michigan — we’re her Three Musketeers.
The fight against this murderer grew personal. I interviewed Roberts a few times in jail. Once he threatened to kill me when he got out of prison.
That won’t happen. Feijoo alerted me that Roberts is dead — at 72, meeting his maker behind bars, right where he belongs. She cried a bit telling me, and then called her mom.
“It’s over. I can finally try to live a normal life without worry of him getting out. Finally a piece of peace,” she said, and then quickly thanked Moore, Garnes and retired Motor City homicide squad captain Steve Dolunt. “I’m happy the nightmare is over. I’ll always be grateful for my heroes, the best detectives in the whole world. I’ll always love them with all my heart.
“But it’s now over. Thank God.”
I showed Garnes his last mug shot, with updates of Roberts’ “discharge” from the penitentiary — via death. The convict looks feeble and unwell in a yellow-spotted hospital gown. But iciness in his blue eyes remains.
He breathed his last with a tattoo on his right bicep heralding — “i gambled i lost.”
Only the dear Lord knows for sure now.
“I think the current status should read, ‘remanded to a higher authority,’” said Garnes. “God gave him plenty of time to change. I pray he’s ready to meet the real Judge.”
When Garnes served Roberts with Tanner’s murder indictment — he was already incarcerated for murdering his wife — he threatened Garnes he would be released immediately.
Garnes thinks of Rodney Tanner every day. The case was a critical part of learning to be a trooper.
“I learned not to give up on anything. I bet Keith and I traveled more than 5,000 miles working this case. We used every resource at our disposal. We didn’t quit when told we did all we could do,” he said, awash with emotion. “I learned that finding the whole truth was very important to the families of the victims. I started thinking more of how my investigation affected the victims’ families. I believe it made me more thorough.
“And it helped me make some lasting friendships with some great people.”
You probably read these headlines before. There’s another part of this story you never heard. Word of Roberts’ death makes Moore melancholy, and takes wind out of his sails.
He’s at his country farm Friday night, stirring a batch of maple syrup. His wife is nearby crafting lye soap bars. This Lawrence County simple life brings peaceful solace to the veteran investigator. It allows him to release demons like Roberts from memory.
This time, it won’t be easy. Moore exhumes information he held close over these years.
Two years ago he mailed Roberts a letter to his prison cell, asking the slayer to come clean. Based on tips gathered in this investigation he believes Roberts killed others.
Roberts unsympathetically never responded.
“I feel very confident there was a minimum — a minimum — of one more murder,” he said. “There’s definitely another. I hoped he would come forward at some point, free himself, and allow himself to heal. He had nothing to lose. He could restore some sense of dignity before his death. But, he’s not like you and me. He’s a different kind of animal.”
Moore has mixed emotions about Roberts dying. He knows finding Tanner was a huge career accomplishment. Odds were against state police; the surroundings of the area changed in 12 years, so tips were sketchy as they delicately excavated the shallow grave.
Often Garnes and Moore worked 40 straight hours without going home.
“Let me tell you a thing about Rob. He’s tenacious. We wouldn’t go home until we had direction. We vowed that to each other. We stayed confident we would find Rodney and bring him home to family,” he said. “Pieces of the puzzle came together and it came to fruition. We were exactly on the right spot as we started to dig for him. I get emotional talking about it. I don’t know how else to describe it other than it was simply a godsend.”
Then Moore called Tanner’s mother to let her know. “That phone call — telling her we found her son. It’s the biggest thing of my career.”
Even so, Moore yearned to find Roberts’ other alleged victims. He doesn’t know if they’re buried in our Commonwealth or not.
Now he’s dead — and Moore hopes someone comes forward with much-needed clues.
“We were able to close the Tanner case. But there’s not really closure here. This will stay with me forever, since I personally feel he killed at least one more. …I continue to think about those families looking for a child. In some ways I’m happy about Roberts dying, but, in some ways, I’m not. He knew the answers we need.
“But I guess there comes a time when I have to move on.”