An expressive newcomer – The art of Ray Duke

An expressive newcomer – The art of Ray Duke


When asked to talk about the subject matter in one of his paintings, local artist Ray Duke prefers to turn the inquiry back to the questioner. He enjoys it when his work evokes a response from viewers.
“It’s not important to me that people get what I intended in a painting. I like hearing what my images make them think about,” Duke said.
Duke has converted a small bedroom at the back of his home on Wohlwinder Avenue in Cynthiana, Kentucky into a studio for his painting.
He has sold a few of his works here and there, but the majority of his paintings lie against each other against the rear wall.
Thumbing through the collection, one is struck by the range of subject matter that he has painted. One of the pleasures of looking through these works is tracing Duke’s development as a painter.  

Even to people who do not have much of a background in the visual arts, it is still possible to recognize the development of a highly individual style. There is a great deal of movement and energy captured in these images. Thick strokes invite viewers to touch the canvas and appreciate the tactile sensations in the paint itself.

“I like the way the paint dries on the canvas,” he said. He has re-purposed some of his old canvases, with images he was not satisfied with, to new work. An unexpected benefit of this practice was the way his oils interacted with the older paints, creating a work that invites touching as much as it invites viewing.
Duke has been a practicing artist for decades.
“Growing up, I have always been able to draw and work in clay,” Duke reflected. Yet, he is a relative newcomer to oil painting.
When he first began applying himself as an artist in his spare time, his first devotion was to sculpting, which he had begun in earnest as far back as 1996 while he and his wife were living in San Francisco.
In his living room are impressive examples of his skills as a sculptor. Among them is a detailed scene of two baseball players falling over themselves to catch a fly ball. He’s a fan of baseball, particularly of the San Francisco Giants.
Another is an almost mythic depiction of a beautiful woman with her arms open, an inviting expression on her face, and a scorpion’s tail and pincers seemingly ready to strike.
Duke would have happily continued creating bronze sculpture, but it is a very expensive endeavor.
“It’s not just that bronze sculpture requires a lot of money in materials to create the molds, it also costs a lot to reproduce the works for people who like them. Bronze sculpture is cost prohibitive as a hobby,” Duke said.
He started to take painting seriously around November 2006. From an economic standpoint, it made better sense. A 4 x 5 canvas can run anywhere from $20 – $100.
If the subject matter calls for it, Duke uses wood canvases which are also not very expensive.
But in 2006, when he decided to switch his preferred medium to oil painting, there was one small hitch. He really didn’t know that much about it.
But things were going okay for he and his wife, Karen, – enough so that he decided to leave his job and spend 17 months with a friend in Mazatlan, Mexico to teach himself to paint.
The city proved to be fertile ground for inspiration. The rich culture gave him numerous subjects to depict on campus.
Carnivale in Mazatlan, Duke said, is one of the best known in Mexico. Though it does not have the tourist crowds associated with those celebrated in Rio De Janeiro or New Orleans, it is a vivid spectacle.
One of the works inspired by the celebration occupies a space in their master bedroom.
He has several others in hispersonal collection in the studio. What captures the attention most in his work is the individual detail in the faces.
One of the more vivid examples of that work is one of his early paintings of a struggling family. The fatigue in the face of a mother raising a family alone stands in contrast to the belligerent expression on the face of her son, a toddler who is already adopting a sense of the false machismo that is a bane of male culture in that part of the world, Duke said.

Mazatlan family
“I found that there was a steep learning curve when it came to developing skills as a painter. It took some time before I produced anything that I thought was worthwhile,” Duke commented. “It may have leveled out a bit more, but the curve continues to go upward.”
His development is like leaping from one rock to another to cross a stream, he said. “I can see the shore ahead of me, but I never get there. It always recedes.”
The 2008 recession was an economic setback for Ray and Karen Duke. Relinquishing their home in San Francisco, the Dukes came to Cynthiana to where his wife’s family resides.
“We’re like Okie’s from the Grapes in Wrath, but in reverse. We’re economic refugees from California,” Duke said.
But even in the midst of re-establishing themselves here in Cynthiana, Duke has found plenty of material to inform his paintings in Kentucky.

Portrait of Amber Philpot
Portrait of Amber Philpot

A source of enduring inspiration has been a series of nudes that he has interpreted in numerous ways. Recent experiments, which found their way to his living room wall, cast his nude model in the forms of two famous marble statues — Venus De Milo and Michaelangelo’s David.
Two other works that have been displayed in regional art shows are powerful images of a female boxer preparing for a bout.
As with many artists, he hasn’t sold many of his original works. But then again, he describes his work as more an avocation than a profession.
“It’s something that I enjoy doing,” Duke said.
Interestingly, the pleasure that he derives from painting is in the completed work, not in the process itself.
“I find that the work can be enervating. It saps a great deal of energy. I usually just work about two to three hours – about the length of a playlist on my iPod – then I stop and rest,” Duke said.
But when he finally comes to a point where a work is complete, there is a sense of release.

On occasion, Duke enjoys the way that his art can make a powerful statement.
On occasion, Duke enjoys the way that his art can make a powerful statement.

He’d like to sell more of his work, but the market is not the reason he commits time to creating  his art.
Ray Duke is always glad to meet new people and share his art with them. During art shows in the region, he is glad to break out a few examples from his growing body of work for people to see.

“I have known that I have talent to draw and create. I don’t want to live my life knowing that I have an ability and never used it,” Duke said.

Make your infants weird this Halloween … and be proud of it.

It’s scary sometimes what the internet teaches me about myself.
When just browsing on the web, I try to resist clicking links to the teaser articles that have numbers in their headlines.
You know the types of ‘articles’ I’m talking about:
“7 Oscar-winning actors who started out as slasher movie victims”;
“The 12 greatest horror movies you’ve never seen”;
“8 words about 12 high-calorie desserts from 21 greasy spoon cafes in the American south.”
Before you even click the mouse button, you know you’re in for the old bait-and-switch.
The article will be tucked away somewhere in the middle of a page with confusing directions about how to navigate through it. And no matter where you click the page, you’re all but guaranteed to find yourself on the web site dedicated to the latest revolutionary treatment for irritable bowel syndrome.
Speaking of irritations, it is a personal peeve to have to watch an ad before I can watch a movie trailer, which is also known as an ad.
I’m not sure what it says about us, or the internet, that an advertisement can market itself to advertisers. But there are plenty of times I have considered praying for one of Moses’ plagues to fall upon the person responsible for that idea — and a pox upon the Hollywood executive who dares to call that person brilliant.
I wish I could take that moral high road.
After all, this is my column, my personal soap box upon which I ascend to cast an unflattering light on these unscrupulous persons and reveal their obvious lack of shame.
Alas, I cannot walk that road.
I will give myself a bit of credit to recognize my imperfections, my own human tendency to tread the low road.
All it took to remind me of my own shamelessness is when I succumbed to temptation and clicked on a link to one of those infernal internet slideshow articles I complained about earlier: “The Most Hilariously Inappropriate Halloween Costumes for Babies” by Julia Lynn Rubin.
If you have my sick sense of humor, check out the images at
This article is not nearly the level of bait-and-switch that you get from the more irritating sites like, by the way.
But the moment I read that headline, I was hooked as fast as a bass to a nightcrawler.
Oh what sights they had to show:
•A child in a strait-jacket and Hannibal Lector muzzle strapped to a two-wheeler.
• A man in a Jack Daniels bottle costume with his child dressed as a pack of Marlboro Reds.
• A baby girl in a Hooters outfit.
•A child in a Christmas Tree car air freshener costume.
•A child dressed as “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski.
As I viewed these pictures, I had to ask myself: Would I be the kind of parent who would dress my unprotesting infant in a cigarette pack costume for Halloween?
I can’t lie to myself or to you, my trusting readers.

You bet I would – in a flat New York minute.
I’d be the parent staring uncomprehendingly at the school principal while she tried to explain why my daughter’s zombie Cinderella costume probably didn’t need the pulsing veins in her neck.
If I had had four kids, I’d have talked them into dressing as The Ramones from the movie “Rock-N-Roll High School.”
It’s not an easy thing to admit to oneself. But like any good parent, I would have taken credit, and even some pride, for making my kids weird — A cool sort of weird,  mind you.
Especially on Halloween.
And on even deeper reflection, that guy who figured that there are suckers out there whose greed would lead them to drop  good money to advertise on my ads. That twisted individual — if I met him, I’d probably like him.

Impossible Magic reaches for new level in the entertainment world

Impossible Magic reaches for new level in the entertainment world

Not everything in a magic show is an illusion. Sometimes the stunts, and the risks, are dangerously  real.

Strait-jacket escapes, for example, are no illusion, said Reed Masterson, co-star of “Impossible Magic” with his wife, Ashton Nicole Masterson.

There are dozens of magicians that feature the escape. The Mastersons keep the stunt fresh for their audience by  attaching a small timer with an incendiary device to Reed’s back.

When the timer goes off — there will be flames, Reed promises.

He’s performed the escape numerous times and in nearly every performance, he has removed the jacket in time to contain the fireball in a metal container. But at a dress rehearsal for a Rohs Opera House show, he forgot a critical step in the stunt.

“I got stuck in a bad position and I couldn’t get out. I was down to the last 30 seconds and my arm was still trapped in the sleeve,” Reed said.

The guest audience, familiar with the trick, knew something was wrong.

“I got the thing off with about a second to go, threw it up and turned away just as it went off,” Reed said. “I felt the heat across the side of my body.”

A picture tells the story. A glowing cloud of fire partially singed Reed’s body. Had he been slower, that rehearsal may have been the “Impossible Magic” farewell show, Reed said.


Fortunately, it was not.

That distinction goes to Reed and Ashton Nicole’s upcoming Halloween show on Friday and Saturday night,  Oct. 24 and 25, at the opera house.

They are calling it their “Farewell to Cynthiana Show” and it will feature Reed, for the first time, without his trademark mask.

Fans are guaranteed a memorable evening, Reed said, because Cynthiana is more than just a venue for the Mastersons’ show. It’s where Impossible Magic got its start.

“I’ve worked backstage at this theater since before I ever started a show,” Reed said. “It really is where I learned the craft.”

Before becoming a stage performer, Reed worked backstage for Roger and Lee Ann Despard’s Grand Illusions show, another touring magic show with roots in Harrison County, Reed said.

He and Ashton had put together a basic show for fun. In 2008, they asked owners of the opera house for use of its space for a 45-minute show.

“I was surprised when they said ‘yeah,’ mainly because I had no track record. We didn’t know if we could get an audience and Ashton had never been on stage,” Reed said.

The night of the performance, Oct. 23, 2008, Reed was happy to have just sold 60 tickets. It was better than what an out-of-town magic act had sold a few months earlier, he said.

Then the best and scariest thing happened an hour before the show, he said. He had gone home to dress and when he returned, there was a line of people from the opera house box office to the corner of Main Street coming to see the show.

“We sold out,” Reed said. “Ashton and I were scared to death.”

Since its debut, Impossible Magic has had a continuous history of sell outs in Cynthiana. The show, which is almost two hours long now, has evolved to where it takes a crew of 11 people to put it on.

“Our local show is always bigger than the one we take on the road,” Reed said.

Their growing fan base is aware of that as well, which is one reason Reed believes that they sell out and also why a second night was added to the October Halloween show this year.

“We turned away about 150 people last year. That’s enough to justify adding a second show,” Reed said.

A big reason for Impossible Magic’s increasing popularity is that the Mastersons change anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the show each year.

The husband and wife team continue to challenge each other with new illusions, stunts and enhancements to their signature performances.

The show next month is going to feature their popular dove act, but it will also introduce some new animal friends, including a beautiful German Shepherd-Huskey mix.

There will also be some additional segments featuring Ashton in the spotlight.

It took Reed some effort to get Ashton to add her skills as a mentalist to the show.

“She is shy and content for awhile to be the silent support to my magic. But since we put a spotlight on her, Ashton’s acts are among our more popular segments,” Reed said.

But even though their Cynthiana show is consistent, demand for the Impossible Magic show has grown throughout the region and it is becoming a dominant feature of the Mastersons’ professional life.

They have 70 shows already scheduled through August 2015 with bookings in Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois and Virginia among others.

Among those bookings are shows in Pigeon Forge and other larger tourist venues. The increased demand for the show has enticed the Mastersons to take Impossible Magic to the next level as a larger touring act.

In order to accomplish this task, it will be necessary to pick up stakes and take a break from their regular stops.

“We have a goal of scheduling 100 shows for the next year. I think we’ll be able to do it,” Reed said. “Our show this October won’t be the last we ever have in Cynthiana. But we’re getting requests to perform at venues farther away from home and we want to see where a larger tour will take us.”

A last place finish to remember

A last place finish to remember

I am indebted to Jeri Stracner from Carlisle and Pat Grenier for this column because I, unfortunately, did not witness the best part of the 5K Born to Run Walk/Run Saturday morning.

<div class="source">Photo courtesy of Jeri Stracner</div><div class="image-desc">Kristen Crawford crosses the finish line to the sound of cheers and applause in her first ever 5K run.</div><div class="buy-pic"><a href=";orig=viewpoint_5krun.jpg" target="_new">Buy this photo</a></div>

While I’m not blessed with powers to predict the future — not even the soon-to-be future — I still hate missing the good stuff when it happens.
And the story about the end of the 2014 Born to Run 5K, folks, is about the really, really good stuff.
The run/walk, sponsored annually by the Cynthiana-Harrison County Chamber of Commerce, was wrapping up. Awards were being presented to the top finishers in the numerous gender and age categories, but not every participant had yet crossed the finish line.
There was somebody quite special completing the run in last place.
Kristen Crawford, from Carlisle, is the 32-year-old niece of Jeri and Mike Stracner and has cerebral palsy.
I am acquainted with Kristen because of my friendship with the Stracners, but I can’t say that I know her all that well.
When I would see her in the company of the Stracners or with her grandfather, Billy Dale Crawford, the thing I noticed most was that Kristen smiled a lot and seemed always to be in good spirits.
But that was almost a decade ago.
According to Jeri, a few years ago, Kristen was living in her own apartment and she wasn’t very happy.
“She was wallowing in excuses as to why she couldn’t go outside for a walk or get any kind of exercise,” Jeri explained.
Kristen’s personal malaise was affecting her health, Jeri said, and she wasn’t taking steps to change the course her life was heading.
Concerned, the Stracners decided to move Kristen into their home.
“We taught her about healthy eating. We encouraged daily walks. She went from a size 22 to a size 8,” Jeri said.
The 5k run, however, was Kristen’s first.
According to Jeri, Kristen was nervous. The farthest Kristen had ever walked before was two miles and now she was attempting to take on a five kilometer hike with only her walker for support.
She entered the race with a t-shirt that read “Excuses Suck.” Despite that show of determination, “she said before the race that her heart was pounding.”
It took Kristen longer than anyone else to complete the race. In fact, Grenier was already handing out awards to the finishers when she saw Kristen approaching the finish line.
And that, folks, is when the good stuff happened. I had already peeled off to take photos of the Big Feet, Little Feet walk, unaware of Kristen’s participation in the 5K. But then, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the poignancy of the moment.
Grenier halted the awards ceremony and everyone that had remained applauded and cheered as Kristen crossed the finish line.
“She told me that nothing but will power got her through the 5K,” Stracner said. “She is so proud of her accomplishment. It boosted her confidence and taught her that she can accomplish most anything, even though her body doesn’t cooperate very well.”
Congratulations to Kristen for a terrific finish and a warm smile, heck, maybe even a hug, to all those who made a last place finish the greatest of all the victories that day.

I got the “moving-my-kid-into-college” blues

I did not anticipate how difficult it would be to move my hostdaughter into her University of Kentucky dorm room last Saturday morning.

<div class="source"></div><div class="image-desc"></div><div class="buy-pic"><a href=";orig=dorm-move.jpg" target="_new">Buy this photo</a></div>

This has been a very event-filled summer for Pam and I as hosts of high school exchange students for the past five years.
For reasons good and, in one case, tragic, this summer, four of our five hostdaughters have returned to their Kentucky home for a period of time.
Because Pam and I have no children of our own, we have a tendency to form strong bonds with these young women and have worked to extend our relationships beyond the exchange year.
Our efforts, apparently, have paid off.
Iris, our first hostdaughter, has spent the entire summer with us. She is doing a work internship until the end of September.
Lea, our youngest from Switzerland, completed her school year at Nicholas County and returned home.
She has vowed to return, and I believe her.
Lotta came back for a week to wish a dear friend rest.
But with the beginning of the new school year, Pam and I are taking a break from hosting a high school student. That does not mean a quiet household, though. Maria, our hostdaughter from Norway, enjoyed her time in Kentucky so much that she has enrolled as a freshman at UK.
If I examined this closely, I think this is a thing Pam and I hoped would happen with one of our hostdaughters eventually. However, on even closer inspection, my wife and I may have wanted this to happen for different reasons.
At least that is the impression I have when I reflect on my unanticipated reaction when we were packing the car Saturday morning to take Maria to her dorm.
It began when Iris and I were figuring out the best way to pack Maria’s dorm stuff in the back of my Ford Escape. Stacking cardboard boxes on top of each other, I found myself recalling how I managed to fit five wooden crates of records, a stereo system and a whole dorm room’s worth of other junk into the back of my Nissan Sentra.
I even bragged to no one in particular about how there was only room for myself in the driver’s seat when I finished.
Arriving on campus, we followed the signs guiding us to Maria’s dorm, unloaded her belongings to a long table, then moved everything in. My first thought upon entering the room was how I would decorate ….
No, wait, that’s not accurate. My first thought was that of a middle-aged curmudgeon thinking about how easy kids have it today, what with a room already equipped with a kitchen sink, microwave oven, stainless steel mini-fridge with attached freezer, and its own full bathroom. And a private bedroom with a mattress that wasn’t a lumpy back hazard!
But my impulse afterward was to start suggesting the best way to lay out the room – the way I would do it. A tapestry across the ceiling, some cool posters, maybe a futon…
And, if she was smart, what she should do next is … at which point I have to give myself credit.
I suppressed that impulse.
In the end, I did the smart thing. I got the heck on back home.
It still didn’t stop me wondering what she was doing, who she was meeting, wishing I could be there to warn her against all the mistakes she’ll make, and being jealous, too. How I’d love to experience the fear and uncertainty that comes with being young and on your own for the first time.
(Okay, I just wish I was young…)
These were my feelings for a young lady I have only known for two or three years. I can only imagine how parents moving their child … sorry, kids, I can’t think of a better term … into a college dorm or apartment for the first time.
Like I said, I didn’t imagine how difficult it would be to keep my mouth shut and let this experience be hers — not mine.
How I would love to be her college guide so that she makes the most of her years at the University. But there is a point where I have to let her make her own mistakes …

That’s going to be hard.

Kentuckyana Jones and the Cave City Wax Museum

****** Note to Readers of this story: Since this story’s publication in August 2014, I have endeavored to verify the developments that Michael Todd Barrick, aka Kentuckyana Jones, outlined in our interview. I make frequent trips to Cave City, Kentucky and often journey the highway which runs right by the former Cave City Wax Museum. To the best of my knowledge, nothing has been done to rehab the property, though I have received unconfirmed reports that its contents, whatever they may have been, were removed at some point. Who knows when that could have happened. Furthermore, there is no indication that Mr. Barrick has followed through on his grand plans for Patriot trees. So, visitor, take what you read in these next paragraphs with only a few grains of salt. There seemed at the time, to me at least, a good faith effort on Kentuckyana’s part to realize a dream of reality TV stardom on E, A&E or some other ailing television channel desperate for original material. But the dream has, as yet, not materialized. So enjoy the following not so much as factual information, though the events of that Thursday afternoon did happen, but rather as fictional entertainment featuring an also-ran in the sweepstakes for a place in contemporary Kentucky folklore.****

At Battlegrove Cemetery Thursday morning, 2014, people may have witnessed an unusual sight — a camera crew at the military memorial with their lenses fixed on Bob Owen and a smiling, bearded stranger gathering a soil sample from beneath a veteran’s plaque.


Or, on Thursday afternoon, people might have seen the same camera crew entering the Maysville Community and Technical College, Licking Valley Campus’ Art Gallery following the bearded stranger with one arm draped around the shoulder of local artist Herby Moore.


People didn’t have to look far to find out the name of the stranger. It was written in florid script on three large vans out in the parking lot.

Kentuckyana Jones, The “Extreme” Treasure Hunter.

Jones, a business entrepreneur and trader in antiques, treasures, and rare collectibles, was a featured guest star on an episode of “Barry’d Treasure,” a reality show on the A&E channel starring celebrity antique dealer Barry Weiss.

The episode, “Kentuckyana Jones and the Emperor’s Vessel” aired in March 2014.

But it wasn’t for another person’s television show that brought Jones to Cynthiana last Thursday.

The Bowling Green native was in town shooting footage for a potential television series of his own.

Jones said that a part of the show  would chronicle his adventures searching for valuable artifacts. The objects that he sought in Cynthiana, however, were not hidden or even remotely hard to find. The sample of Herby Moore’s paintings, which Jones wanted, were all in plain sight in Moore’s space at the LVC Art Gallery.

Unlike other places he plans to visit, Jones did not choose Cynthiana at random. He has a very special connection to Moore and, therefore, to this community.

“I bought Herby’s wax museum in Cave City,” Jones said.

Jones has been friends with Moore since the sale of the wax museum. Growing up in Bowling Green, Jones was very familiar with the tourist attraction in Cave City. But he never thought anything else about it until one day when he saw that the building was for sale. It was a spontaneous decision to make an offer for it, Jones said.

“It may not be the way most people do business, but I like to fly by the seat of my pants sometimes. I like taking risks. America was built on the shoulders of entrepreneurs who’ve done the same thing,” Jones said.

Moore’s paintings will feature prominently in Jones’ long-term plans to transform the wax museum into a new area tourist attraction. He intends to create a museum dedicated to America’s veterans, a subject that Jones is as passionate about as he is negotiating a good price for an artifact.

Honoring veterans will also be a critical part of the show that Jones and his film crew are currently shooting.

“We’re dedicating a large chunk of our show’s time talking with the families of veterans who have already gone on. At the end of every show, we will have a ceremony where we go to the veteran’s gravesite with a family member and gather a soil sample,” Jones said.

Jones paid a visit to local Cynthiana resident Bob Owen on Thursday morning to talk about Brig. Gen. Jack Henry Owen, Bob’s uncle, who passed away about a year and a half ago.

During his military career, Gen. Owen flew a B-17 bomber in the European theater of World War II and survived two years as a prisoner of war, Bob Owen said.

There was no particular reason that Gen. Owen was selected over any other veteran, Jones said. “Herby is a friend of Bob’s and suggested he be a good subject.”

Jones has been to seven other states so far and done the same thing.

The soil sample taken from Battlegrove Cemetery will be stored in a vault for the time being. It is Jones’ ambition to get soil samples from all 50 states.

When he has accomplished that goal, he plans to donate those samples to the Patriot Soil Project, a national effort to honor veterans which Jones ardently supports.

The Patriot Soil Project is accepting donations of soil samples from the graves of veterans across the nation.

When completed, the project’s organizers will combine the soil from the gravesites of fallen veterans from all 50 states and used to plant a living memorial, a “Patriot Tree,” on the White House lawn, Jones said.

Other Patriot Trees will be planted on the grounds of the governors’ mansions throughout the nation.

For those interested in donating funds or soil samples to this effort, visit the website for more information.

If all goes well, Jones has one more idea in mind:

He wants to plant a “Patriot Tree” on the grounds of the veterans’ museum in Cave City when renovation work is complete.

In the meantime, though, Jones will be traveling and meeting with folks, saving the memories on film and in the charateristic “thumbs-up” pictures he is taking with his guests and friends.

Suzanne McComas, P.I.: Bad Convictions

When it comes to conducting a homicide investigation, private detective Suzanne McComas prefers her cases cold. Especially when it involves a person wrongfully convicted of murder.
A relative newcomer to Harrison County, McComas is one who relishes the effort to set things right when the justice system fails.

Suzanne McComas, P.I.

It doesn’t happen often, she said, but it does occur. Out of some 30 or 40 trials where a defendant is convicted, there is a good chance that one of those convictions is wrong, McComas said.
Mistakes happen. A critical detail is missed. Investigators sometimes accept a witness at face value without checking all the facts, she said. When they occur, people get convicted of crimes they did not commit.
“There are a lot of good lawyers and law enforcement officers working everyday against a lot of pressures,” she said.
She understands those pressures.  Before becoming a P.I., McComas served six years as a military police officer in the U.S. Air Force. Afterward, she was a certified officer in Arizona, serving in the Phoenix reserves.
But despite those pressures and the errors that they may cause, it is not okay to let a bad conviction stand and allow someone to pay the price for a crime they did not commit.
“If we let that happen, it’s a perversion of the system,” McComas said. “We have to be strong enough to stand up and admit when we’re wrong.”
She’s been in private investigations since 1993.
McComas explored several branches within the private investigation field, from contract work for insurance companies to a two-year stint as a cold case homicide detective for America’s Most Wanted.
Her break into the business came from her investigations where somebody died while in the custody of authorities.
“These are tough cases,” McComas said. They force her to walk a tight line between the heightened emotions of law enforcement on one side and the demands of family members and attorneys wanting an explanation.
If a detective becomes known as a person willing to take on these kinds of cases, jobs will come from all over the country, McComas said.
“I have literally worked in every state in the union …  except Rhode Island for some reason, which is kind of weird,” McComas commented.
These tough cases established her professional career, but it’s in the world of cold case investigations where she feels she’s found her niche.
These are the cases she prefers.
“I love delving into old cases,” she said. It requires an analytical approach to investigation. “If I had my choice, I would do that more than anything.”
McComas has put together an impressive track record of success in these investigations. Every case she has taken on has resulted in a determination either that the sentence was excessive or that the wrong person had been convicted.
The task is not easy. A conviction, especially in a homicide, is not just set aside because DNA doesn’t match or another person confesses to the crime.
“You have to build a case,” she explained. “You have to pore over the details of an investigation and present evidence to get a conviction overturned.”
As an illustration of her point, her most recent success involved a man serving his 14th year of a 50-year murder sentence.
Her investigation produced a 392-page report that “blew apart the conviction,” she said. The man’s case is being re-tried in federal court and there is every indication he will be released.
“He was doing hard time in a maximum security prison, but he never waivered in his efforts to be heard,” she said.
“He was sentenced to 50 years and we’ve managed to give 35 of those years back to him,” she said.
It’s a myth that every prison inmate claims they’ve been wrongfully convicted, asserts McComas. She has logged many hours working with convicts in prisons across the country and most of the guilty ones admit it.
It’s the convicts who  persist in their efforts to prove they’re innocent of a crime, even after 20 years, that grab her attention. She has found that those who stick to it have a legitimate case.
The reasons for bad convictions sometimes result from prosecutorial misconduct. Other times, attorneys or officers miss a critical detail or they choose to believe the testimony of a witness over the accused.
McComas related the details of a case involving another investigator, a colleague, that illustrates the danger of accepting the testimony of an eyewitness without checking all the facts. It involved a woman who claimed to have seen a man commit murder from her apartment window.
“No one bothered to check and that testimony was key to his conviction. My friend re-opened the case some 18 years later, went back to the woman’s apartment and discovered that her window faced the wrong direction. It would have been impossible for the witness to have seen anything,” McComas said.
In a subsequent interview, the supposed witness admitted that she had lied.
The accused had served 18 years for murder before the truth came out.
Sometimes, though, it is the witness that isn’t questioned, she said.
In one of her most heart-wrenching cases, she was to look into the circumstances of the death of a boy in Cleveland.
Authorities ruled the death accidental, but people in the local neighborhood were angry. They were certain the case was a murder.
“I was invited by the investigators to provide a fresh perspective. When I started interviewing family members, the boy’s little brother came up and whispered in my ear that he had seen it happen,” McComas said.
The child was 4 years old.
She quickly brought a social worker to sit in while the child related the whole tragic story in brutal detail, she said. “No investigator had thought to ask the child.”
The screening process McComas undergoes in a wrongful conviction case is lengthy. She reviews about two or three cases a month and looks over them pretty hard.
“I don’t want to turn anybody down out of hand. There is always a chance that something was missed or mishandled,” she said.
Out of the 15 or so cases she reviews in a year, about two or three of them merit a deeper look.
The next step involves meeting the person.
McComas credits herself with a good intuition. She has been in law enforcement long enough to tell when people are lying to her, she said.
“They have to be honest and they have to be forthcoming about their involvement, their culpability in the crime. They also have to take into account of what they have done since landing in prison,” she said.
Agitation becomes apparent in McComas’ voice when she recalls the circumstances of one case that she was forced to abandon.
Reviewing the evidence, she was convinced that a prisoner had been wrongfully convicted of a serious charge. But while serving time, this prisoner had became a major hoodlum within the prison. The convict couldn’t keep from getting into trouble, McComas complained. He lied and persisted in compounding his own problems.
She could not get this person to save himself.
“To this day, I believe I could have helped this person. But I couldn’t work with him. He wasn’t honest and, eventually, I just had to walk away,” she said.
These investigations are only a small aspect of McComas’ body of work. She is the author of four books and has created a well-regarded rehabilitation program for prisoners preparing for release back into the world.
Her family made a farm out in Harrison County their home in November 2013.
When not traveling around the country conducting interviews and reviewing old cases, she enjoys coming home to unwind.
The countryside provides a good buffer between her family life and work.
“Harrison County has been a perfect place for my family to settle,” McComas said.

The strange, true tale behind the mysterious …. Woman in Black

The strange, true tale behind the mysterious …. Woman in Black

I didn’t quite know what I was looking for, or expecting,when I went driving down U.S. 27 south to find the reported “woman in black” walking along the highway.

The Woman in Black
The Woman in Black

All I had was this ominous title — Woman in Black ­— and that was enough for me to be intrigued. I had not yet discovered that this odd figure had become an internet meme or that a Facebook page had been created just for her.
What I did know was that sightings of her walking down Paris Pike from Lexington and up US 27 toward Cynthiana had sparked wild speculations all over the internet. It became an instant topic of conversation and one of the few times in my memory when people sought out the Cynthiana Democrat Facebook page with anxious questions about “the story” on this woman.
And that was my mission on Monday morning. To get the story….
By the time I was in my car, this figure had become living folklore.
I drove the highways radiating from downtown searching for anything who fit the description of a wandering woman in black.
Then I got a tip on my cell phone. The woman had been seen passing Cockrell’s Auto on the highway heading toward Cynthiana.
As I exited the roundabout to southbound 27, part of me hoped I wouldn’t find this woman.
It somehow felt right that I should search and never find this person. Then I would be free to dismiss the whole story as groundless rumor. People would be talking about sighting the mysterious woman in black and I could add my two cents by telling about how I looked for her and she wasn’t there.
But not long after I had passed the Kentucky Farm Bureau office, sure enough, there she was — dressed in billowing black robes and head scarf bearing two large linen sacks dyed the same flat black.
Usually when something of this nature occurs, our imaginations far exceed the actual event.
But not this time.
In this one rare instance, the woman in black not only met my every expectation for a strange roadside encounter but, bless that dear woman, she exceeded them by responding to my presence in the best way possible.
She completely ignored me.
I found a place to stop on the side of the road, awkwardly awaited her approach with reporter’s notebook in hand, asked permission to talk and she walked past me without a word, glance or slight acknowledgement.
I knew in that moment that there wasn’t going to be an answer to this mystery and, to be honest, I was glad.
I had occasion to see others approach her along the highway. She refused offers of water or food, but never complained, or even reacted much at all, when people took photos.
I can empathize with the criticism that this woman was needlessly bothered by the attention of the press and passers-by. However, if it was her intention to travel a great distance on foot unnoticed, she chose to dress herself in a manner that drew the maximum amount of attention towards her.
What possible reaction can one expect when you choose to be a “strange, silent woman in black robes who wanders the highway?” That’s  something right out of an episode of The Twilight Zone.
And because she chose to offer no explanation, she opened the vaults wide for all manner of weird ideas. I like to think I’m above that sort of thing – but I’m not.
By Monday afternoon, the woman ceased to be the real story, if she ever was at all.
The story was the tales and theories being circulated among those whose imaginations she had captured.
My favorite was the theory that there were multiple women in black; some figured she was staging a wordless political protest; she was a self-appointed holy person on a spiritual pilgrimage; or it could be some kind of performance art to start people talking.
One person went into paranoia overdrive, suggesting that she was randomly planting bombs along her way … sigh.
For myself, I was influenced heavily by the brutal weekend accident that claimed the lives of two young people I knew well in Nicholas County. Combined with other fatalities and suicides that have happened this month, I could not help but apply a metaphysical explanation to her. A silent, blank-faced woman in black certainly lends itself to supernatural images of a spectral figure of death, even if the subject is clearly mortal flesh and blood.
Fortunately, I was able to dispense with these ideas when I heard updates on social media that she’d been seen shopping at the Wal-Mart in Alexandria.
That bit of intelligence returned her to human form.
But I am still no less intrigued by the mystery surrounding her presence. Ironically, though, I hope we never find out the truth.
In this case, I think, truth would ruin the story.

A champion, among many, of the little people

A champion, among many, of the little people

Kentucky athlete Tim Murray can be easily considered one of the most accomplished, successful and least known athletes in Kentucky.
Which is odd, really. He makes a remarkable first impression. And it has very little to do with that fact that he’s a bit over four feet tall.

Photo courtesy of Tim Murray: Tim Murray displays excellent form for his bronze medal winning throw in discuss at DAAA National Games in San Diego
Photo courtesy of Tim Murray:
Tim Murray displays excellent form for his bronze medal winning throw in discuss at DAAA National Games in San Diego

As an athletic trainer and physical therapy assistant at Harrison Memorial Hospital in Cynthiana, Kentucky and at Paris High School, Murray has contact with people who are often surprised by his appearance — at first.
For example, when he started as an athletic trainer at Paris High School, the athletes were often shy when they first met him. Murray exhibits such an affable and confident personality, he quickly gains people’s trust.
“People are nervous about what to say when they meet me. Especially those who’ve never met a little person before,” Murray said. “But they get used to me pretty quickly.”
In addition to his friendly demeanor and genuine desire to help people, Murray is a driven athlete. It is this personality attribute that has influenced his career choices and set the foundation for his athletic endeavors.
In 2009 at the World Dwarf Games in Belfast, Ireland, Murray set a world record for athletes of his category with a bench press of 286 pounds. He was a graduate student at Murray State University at the time, earning a masters degree in human development and leadership.
For the last 11 years, Murray earned a gold medal in his division of shotput from the Dwarf Athletic Association of America (DAAA) national games.
That streak of gold, however, came to an end at the DAAA 2014 National Open in San Diego earlier this month. He was edged out of the top spot on the podium by a good friend from the United Kingdom, he said, and had to console himself with a silver medal.
“It’s a wake up call,” Murray said. After winning the gold in his shotput category during the 2013 World games in East Lansing, Michigan, the 27-year-old athlete worries that he may have become complacent.

At the 2014 nationals he won a silver medal in shotput, and bronze medals in javelin, discus, and team boccia. Murray accepts that these results are notable.
But it was the first time that he did not earn at least one gold medal in track and field events and that chafes on him a bit.
Murray has been actively competing in DAAA events since he was nine years old.
He was born and raised in Edgewood, Kentucky.
He comes by his love for sports naturally. His father and brother both played baseball through their college years and have continued to be active. His sister is a distance runner and enjoys competing in “tough mudders” marathons these days, he said.
Being a competitor is a Murray family trait, he said.Though he is the only little person in his family, he was never discouraged from participating in sports.
“The only thing my doctor said was ‘no football.’ Other than that, I was involved in any sport that interested me,” Murray said.
At Scott High in Covington, he played baseball and was on the swim team. There was no special concessions made for him. He played at the same level as his taller peers.
“I had to earn my way on the field the same as anyone else,” he said. When he became a Scott High freshman, being a little person was no longer a novelty among his friends and teammates. They had known him all their lives.
“My friends have no sympathy for me at all. When we played, man, they did not hold back,” Murray said with a laugh.
Despite the opportunity to play at the high school level, Murray appreciates what the DAAA gives to athletes like himself.
“I’m very lucky to have been a member of the DAAA chapter in Greater Cincinnati,” he said.
In the world of the dwarf athletics association, all ages and all body types are given a chance to compete on a level playing field with their peers.
DAAA national games coincide with the Little People of America (LPA) annual conventions. The DAAA national open, which began in 1986, has become very popular and the competition more intense as the numbers of athletes increase.
Murray excels in individual events, but he’s also a team member in basketball, soccer and volleyball.
The games only last five days and are quite a test of an athlete’s stamina. In team events, the games are all played within the span of a single day, Murray said. If a team gets to a medal game in soccer or basketball, for example, they have usually played five to six consecutive games.
“It’s a real iron man type competition. I am glad to see old friends, but by the end of nationals I am wiped out,” Murray said.
It has been personally gratifying to witness the national and world games grow larger with each succeeding year and he hopes to still be a competitor when the events start attracting major commercial sponsors.
These games are very important, he said, especially for children who are diagnosed with some form of dwarfism.
“It’s a gene thing. But small children are already challenged with just being different. Being able to compete and succeed in sports at any level, helps them accept and love who they are,” Murray said.
Murray is already starting training to return to his place at the top of the podium for shotput.
And while he’s at it, he might as well get another for discuss.

Another version of The American Dream : From Cambodian refugee to American army veteran

When one imagines an American army veteran, it’s not likely that the image they see is that of Leon La. In fact, when he joined the army in his early 30s, there were only a few recruits in basic training that were even close to his age.
There is not very much that is typical about La. When people meet him at his family business, the Something Different nail salon in Harrison Square, one cannot imagine that this soft spoken and gentle man is not only an army veteran, but that his two tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq involved just a little less risk than his own childhood in his native Cambodia.

La was the son of a farming family in Kampuchea (Cambodia) during the brief rule of the Khmer Rouge regime. His father and mother worked their farm, which had rice paddies and vegetable gardens in a village not all that far from the Thailand border.
In 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded the country and, during a one-year civil war, managed to overthrow the Khmer Rouge leadership in power.
La was 7 years old at the time. He didn’t know about the political climate in his home country, only that one day there was quiet and the next there was sporadic gun fire and explosions.
It wasn’t a safe time at all to be in country.
When things became increasingly unsettled, La’s uncle suggested that the family escape the war by crossing the border into the relative safety of Thailand.
“My uncle helped a lot of Cambodian families across the Thai border to escape the war,” La said.
Despite the obvious dangers in staying, La’s father and mother did not want to lose their farm. It had been in the family for generations and it was the only possession they had that was really worth something, he said.
“If they abandoned it, they would have lost it forever,” La said.
They chose to remain behind, but his father entrusted La to his uncle’s care. In the middle of the night, La joined his uncle’s family on an overnight run to the Thai border.
La understood the danger of this undertaking. The family was at risk whether they were discovered by Vietnamese troops or Khmer Rouge forces.
La left home with only the clothes he was wearing. He didn’t have shoes.
In the night there pockets of random shooting, jungle noises and more raw fear than he had ever experienced in his life.
“We spent the entire night sneaking through the jungle. My uncle knew the way to go, but we were always peering around trees and making sure all was clear before tip-toeing to the next place that offered cover,” La said.
Fortune smiled upon La’s family that night. They arrived in Thailand while managing to evade random patrols and border guards trying to keep people from escaping.
His one regret: there was no way a message could be sent to let his family know he had survived the night.
His uncle’s family was his family now and they took up residence in a small staked out area of a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand.
This small space would be La’s home for the next two years.
Though La managed to escape the war that ravaged his own country, in Thailand they were stuck in the worst kind of limbo.
United Nations relief agencies, the Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations provided medicine, supplies and other basic necessities, but that was it. There was no place to go, nothing to do except buy food from the Thai markets and exist.
“We were under guard and were not supposed to leave the camp. Not that we had any place to go,” La said. “If we were caught away from the camp or trying to escape into the mainland, we risked being beaten or even killed.”
The only hope they had during this long wait came from a sponsor they acquired from the United States.
It was a pastor from a church in Providence, Rhode Island.
Their sponsor provided some of the aid that they needed at the camp. And then they brought the family to the United States.
“It was a real culture shock. I was 10 and all I had known was my little corner of Asia. I knew rice paddies and gardens, I knew war and surviving as a refugee. And suddenly, there was none of that. I didn’t even understand the language enough to know the difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no’,” La said.
That became very important early when a kind woman offered him a cookie, which he wanted very badly.
“I didn’t know how to say ‘yes’ and I told her ‘no’ and she put away the cookie. It tore me up,” La said, laughing at the memory.
His family were welcomed by members of the pastor’s church in Providence. They provided the means for the family to transition to life in the United States.
Because La was an orphan refugee, not even knowing if his mother and father had survived the war, he qualified for state and federal assistance through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, which helped them build a new life here in the United States.
In his late 20s, he earned a professional degree from the International Academy of Design and Technology in Florida. In 2002, mere months after the 9-11 tragedy, he earned his United States citizenship and at age 32, enlisted in the U.S. army.
La served eight years, including two tours of duty on the front lines in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq.
Returning to war torn locations after a few years of relative peace was an interesting experience for La.
“I found that I could adapt to those conditions without much problem. But then, the army gave us food and uniforms and equipment. I had none of that when I was seven,” La said.
He spent three years in Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he met his wife and the state that now serves as his home.
“I received so much assistance and aid from this country. I was proud to give something back to this country before I could go on into my own business,” La said.
Now, in Cynthiana, he feels free to pursue his own version of “The American Dream.”

Several years after he left Cambodia in the darkness, he discovered that his parents and siblings were still alive. His mother has since passed away, but his father still lives. He has returned to visit on several occasions.
But La’s home, and his family, are here in the United States.