When beloved Southern belle Verna Garr Taylor was found dead on a desolate highway in 1936, her mysterious killing — labeled a suicide by the main suspect, who was Kentucky’s former lieutenant governor and her fiancé — and ensuing murder case made headlines across the country.
But 80 years, two trials and an “honor” killing later, the case officially remains unsolved.
That doesn’t mean it’s a mystery anymore: Taylor’s distant cousin Ian Punnett tells PEOPLE he’s uncovered the truth of what happened the November night she was killed in Kentucky — revelations he details in a new book about the case, A Black Night for the Bluegrass Belle, which was released Tuesday.
Among several twists and turns in Taylor’s case, according to Punnett, were the improbable claim of her suicide, the sexual assault her killing was meant to cover up and her fiancé’s death at the hands of her brothers … who a jury later set free.
“There has never been a definitive book that has told the story from the family’s perspective,” Punnett says of A Black Night.
“There has never been anything except something that echoed [suspect Henry] Denhardt’s faint, desperate defense that somehow Verna — a beautiful, honorable widow and businesswoman — was suicidal and wanted to kill herself at any second, which was complete nonsense.”
Punnett’s grandmother was a cousin of Taylor, and he grew up hearing about her life and death. A former radio personality turned journalism professor, he spent years working on the book, which he hopes restores her honor.
“It was my goal to clear her of this stain,” he says.
“Neither of those two people are alive to tell story of what really happened on that lonesome highway,” Punnett says, “but modern forensics settles the issue.”
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A Deadly Ride Home
Denhardt, who was 61 in 1936, had only dated Taylor, the 40-year-old mother of two daughters, for a short time when he asked him to marry her, Punnett says.
Known as “the most beautiful woman in three counties,” she “was a catch,” he says. She came from a good family and ran a successful laundry and dry cleaning business.
Denhardt was eager to wed Taylor, giving her a $20,000 ring while she thought it all over, but she didn’t want to marry him, Punnett says. (Her relatives agreed: One even described Denhardt as a “foul ball.”)
Taylor planned to tell him of her decision during a trip to nearby Louisville, Kentucky, on Nov. 6, 1936 — the night she was killed.
“She was going to break up with him that night,” Punnett says. “Everybody in the family knew it. He had become very possessive very quickly.”
But during his 1937 murder trial, Denhardt claimed Taylor was upset because her family was forcing her to end the engagement, Punnett says.
When Denhardt’s car broke down on the way home from Louisville that night, he claimed Taylor turned his gun on herself because she was so upset.
But after her death, both a “cursory” medical exam and an autopsy revealed that she had been sexually assaulted, according to Punnett.
Denhardt was afraid of her brothers, who were “tight” with their sister, Punnett says: “I think he knew that as soon as she got back to town, and she told her brothers she had been assaulted by him on the night she was going to break up with him, that he was a dead man.”
His best defense “was to fake a suicide and to claim that she was despondent over the idea that her family was stopping her from getting married to the only man she truly loved,” Punnett says.
But Denhardt made a mistake, Punnett says: “He didn’t realize how many people she had told that she was going to break up with him.”
While Denhardt was tried for Taylor’s murder, the jury split seven-to-five in his favor — a credit to his “dream team” of attorneys, Punnett says.
“They were the ones who really came up with and promoted the idea that she very likely committed suicide,” he says.
Even so, Punnett says he was able to disprove that theory with his book, based on transcripts from the original trial, the docket of witnesses and notes from Denardt’s defense attorneys that he came upon in his research.
Punnett admits he has “no judicial power and no investigative authority to declare the crime solved,” but he tells PEOPLE, “I believe all of the evidence one needs to see Denhardt’s true guilt is right there in those files.”
For example, Taylor’s own family doctor, who was a chief witness for the state, was among several experts who testified at Denhardt’s trial “that Taylor could not have committed suicide,” Punnett says.
During his research, Punnett even went so far as to buy an antique replica of the murder weapon to show that this “was completely unnatural and virtually impossible, especially with a large caliber gun.”
He says, “This was sort of the missing piece … in order to convince other people.”
‘A Narcissistic Sociopath’
Punnett further sought the help of top experts while researching the case, including forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland, who volunteered to do a “suicidology” of Taylor.
“I sent her all the data I had, and maybe a day or half a day later she wrote back and said, ‘It’s impossible to do a suicidology on her. There’s no way she committed suicide. She doesn’t check any of the boxes,’ ” Punnett says.
On the other hand, judging from his actions and temperament, psychotherapist and narcissism expert Dr. Les Carter “easily [judged] Denhardt as being a narcissistic sociopath,” according to Punnett.
“He kept saying, ‘I loved [Taylor] too much to kill her.’ It’s chilling because it establishes this sort of deathly rubric: So, if he didn’t love her as much then she couldn’t have been killed by you?”
‘The Cool Heroes in This Story’
Authorities never got to answer the final question of Denhardt’s guilt: Taylor’s brothers fatally shot him the night before his second trial, in Kentucky’s last “code of honor” killing.
“It’s called a ‘code of honor killing’ because her brothers were all willing to be executed in the electric chair to save Verna’s honor,” Punnett says
The brothers killed Denhardt “to prevent him from lying under oath in the same manner that he had been shooting off his mouth around the area.”
In the end, only one brother, Roy Garr, was tried, but the jury acquitted him after deliberating for an hour.
“Afterward the foreman told the press outside the courthouse, ‘We stayed out to make it look as though we were thinking it over carefully,’ ” Punnett says. “The verdict was for the entire Garr family, including Verna.”
Calling them “the cool heroes in this story,” Punnett says. “The Garr piece is so important to me that my oldest son is named Garr.”
But it’s Taylor to whom his new book is dedicated. “She deserved better in life,” he tells PEOPLE. “At least we could give her justice in death.”