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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Western District of Kentucky

Monday, February 8, 2016

Ohio Convicted Murderer Pleads Guilty To 2005 Murder Of Woman At Fort Knox Military Base

Ohio Woman had been missing since 2005

PADUCAH, Ky. – A Toledo, Ohio, convicted murderer pleaded guilty before Senior Judge Thomas B. Russell, in United States District Court, on Friday, February 5, 2016, to a Federal Information charging him with the 2005 murder of a woman at Fort Knox Military Base, announced United States Attorney John E. Kuhn, Jr.

In court, defendant Ernest Otto Smith, 49, admitted that on or about January 7, 2005, he murdered Cathy M. Barnett willfully, deliberately, maliciously, and with premeditation, on the grounds of Fort Knox, within the special territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

According to the plea agreement, on January 3, 2005, Smith robbed and shot and killed James Dillingham in Toledo, Ohio. It is believed Barnett was present during the murder. Shortly after the murder, Smith and Barnett fled Toledo and ultimately headed south to Kentucky in Smith’s van. Smith had formerly lived and worked near Fort Knox.

During the trip to Kentucky Smith decided to murder Barnett because she witnessed the Dillingham murder and could tell the police about the murder.  On January 7, 2005, Smith’s van broke down in Kentucky and Smith and Barnett hitchhiked and they were dropped off near Fort Knox.  Smith and Barnett walked approximately one quarter of a mile down a service road off the main highway, into a wooded area located on the grounds of Fort Knox, in Meade County, Kentucky.  In the wooded area, Smith first attempted to break Barnett’s neck, and then beat her on the head with a tree branch until Smith knew Barnett was dead.  Smith left Barnett’s body in the woods and eventually traveled to Tennessee where he was arrested in Nashville on January 21, 2005.  In March 2006, Smith was convicted in Ohio of the Dillingham murder and was sentenced to 32 years of imprisonment.

In late 2010, Smith spoke with his former parole officer, Dan Van Vorhis, who asked Smith what happened to Barnett.   Over the course of several recorded conversations, Smith explained to Van Vorhis the details of her murder.  Smith also identified where Barnett’s remains would be found.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) searched and found Barnett’s remains on the grounds of Fort Knox, in the wooded area identified by Smith.   

As a result of his guilty plea, Smith faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison, and a potential $250,000 fine.Smith was in the custody of the Ohio Department of Prisons. His sentencing before Senior Judge Russell is scheduled for March 22, 2016, at 3:00pm in Louisville.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney David Weiser and is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Violent Crime
Updated February 8, 2016