All the curtains are drawn at Travis Harper’s Sun Prairie house on this sunny January day, but there is a truck in the driveway. This appears to be my chance even as my dad’s words echo in my head.

“You’re either going to give him a heart attack or he’s going to kill you,” my father had warned.

It’s my third attempt in so many days to deliver, face-to-face, an implausible message to a man whose life might be in danger. This is no time to lose my nerve.

I turn on my audio recorder and walk up to the front door. I ring the bell. I hear dogs barking but no one answers. I rap on the door. Nothing. I knock again. Not even the dogs stir this time. He must not be home and I’m almost giddy with relief. But just as I’m about to walk away, the door opens. I freeze. Travis pokes his head out but doesn’t say a word.

“Hey. My name is Dylan,” I manage to blurt out. “Are you Travis?”

“What do you need?” he replies, curtly.

I know nearly nothing about this man but I’ve seen a photo. It’s definitely him. All I’ve been told is he’s ex-military, divorced, and has kids.

“It’s kind of a long story. I’m a journalist working on a project for the BBC. A podcast,” I say, trying not to stammer. “They are doing an investigation and I’m supposed to put you in contact with them. Is this a good time?”

Travis gives me a blank stare.

“I’m about to tell you to go away,” he says. “You better be quick.”

Where do I even begin!? I take a deep breath and launch into it.

“There’s this dark web site. A hired assassin website. And someone paid money to put you on a hit list,” I tell him, botching my carefully prepared speech.

“So am I the one being killed?” says Travis with sudden interest. He almost laughs.

“Yes,” I say. “I think you’re going to want to hear more about this.”

Travis stiffens.

“Not really,” he says. “Have a good day.”

The door slams and I hear the deadbolt latch.

Who wanted Travis Harper dead?

The dark web is an encrypted part of the internet that requires special software — like the browser Tor — to access. It is used as a marketplace to anonymously buy and sell drugs, stolen credit card numbers, and weapons. Another service advertised on the dark web is murder-for-hire, where people can use Bitcoin to hire an anonymous assassin.

BBC Sounds, a streaming service for the BBC, is developing a podcast that, with the help of a source with access to the back end of a dark web assassin site, focuses on contacting potential victims worldwide. When an order for a murder comes through, the BBC producers receive messages about the intended victims and the proof of payment for the hit. One of these happened to be in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. With the whole world on COVID-19 lockdown, the BBC needed a freelance journalist on the ground to help with this investigation. Enter yours truly.

The murder-for-hire sites that the BBC is monitoring are actually a scam. The motive to kill is real. The payment is real. But the hit man never arrives. My small part in this global investigation was to help figure out why someone wanted Travis Harper dead.

After leaving Travis’ house I speak with the BBC producers who decide they should try to contact him by phone (the BBC is in the middle of several FBI investigations and has requested that I withhold the producers’ names, for now). To my surprise, I am sent back to Sun Prairie within a few hours.

“Sorry about earlier,” says Travis, when he opens the door. “I didn’t know what to make of you. I thought maybe you were the guy who was sent to kill me.”

Travis still seems on edge, but he is no longer looking at me suspiciously as he invites me into his home. He tells me the caller’s British accent convinced him that I was maybe telling him the truth when I first stopped by.

He introduces his girlfriend, Laura (who requests that we use a pseudonym in print).

“So Travis is on a hit list?” asks Laura. “Have you called the cops about this?”

I explain that one of the podcast’s producers and the host (who we have given the pseudonym George) are standing by to give them all the details about their investigation via Zoom.

“We’ve been doing an investigation for the BBC into online contract violence websites which purport to offer violence or murders in exchange for cryptocurrencies, usually Bitcoin,” George tells us via Zoom on a laptop I set up on Travis’ dining room table. “There’s no easy way of saying this but your name and information, including your address, a description of your car, we found during this investigation on one of these sites.”

Travis and Laura sit there stunned, unsure how to process what they are being told. George assures them that a hit man isn’t actually on the way.

“Our concern for your safety, Travis, is the attempt by someone to pay money to have you hurt,” says George. “It’s not that the website will be actually following through on that.”

George tells Travis that they have evidence that someone named Kelly had paid more than $4,000 in Bitcoin on a murder-for-hire website and was negotiating with another murder-for-hire provider after her first attempt didn’t pan out.

Laura looks frightened when she hears this.

“We need to call the local authorities,” says Laura, who walks away to call 911.

“Do you have any idea who might be targeting you?” asks George.

“Yes, I do. This is not completely out of the blue,” Travis tells us. “I have an ex-wife who is constantly and consistently doing stuff…. We call her Dateline so our kids don’t know we are talking about her.

“You know the show Dateline?” he continues. “Where some crazy ends up killing their…” Travis trails off before completing the thought. “If I was a betting man, it’s definitely her: Kelly Harper.”

Travis adds, “I know she wants me dead. She’s made that abundantly clear.”

“Do you think this is the only kind of route she may be pursuing?” asks George.

“Definitely not the only route she’s pursuing to have me hurt. That’s why we need to get some sort of law enforcement involved,” says Travis. “This keeps getting worse and worse.”

Ugly custody battle

Divorced in 2015, Travis and Kelly both found new relationships. Kelly and her new partner had a child together in 2017. Laura lives with Travis and has four kids of her own from a previous marriage. Despite moving on from their marriage, Travis and Kelly were locked in an ugly custody battle that has stretched on for years.

“I’ve been involved in like 20 [child protective services] investigations because of her. All of them are completely unfounded and untrue,” says Travis. “The worst part is how she’s coached the kids into telling lies about me. It’s heinous. It’s so damaging for them.”

Travis was arrested by the Sun Prairie Police in March 2019 as the result of one abuse allegation. That prompted interviews of the children by the Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center; a report found the allegations of abuse were unsubstantiated. The Dane County District Attorney’s office took no action on the referral of charges. After Travis’ arrest, he put up multiple cameras in his house that recorded 24/7 so he could provide video evidence of his innocence if more abuse allegations were made against him.

A lengthy November 2019 report from a guardian ad litem, a court official who represents the interests of the children, documents in detail the multiple allegations made against Travis — none of which were substantiated. It also notes evidence that the children were coached by their mother to provide false statements about their father.

The guardian ad litem reports, “There is no indication from the children’s reports that they are afraid, anxious, or unhappy in either parent’s home.”

Travis believes that Kelly went searching for an assassin in late 2020 because the two were soon headed back to court over Kelly continuing to violate their custody agreement by scheduling doctors without notifying Travis and by continuing to make false abuse allegations.

‘You guys might have saved my life’

There’s a knock on the door and soon two Sun Prairie police officers are grilling the BBC producers over Zoom. The officers aren’t there long. After getting all of our contact information, they pull Travis aside before leaving.

“They think you’re scamming me,” Travis tells me when the officers are gone.

We end the Zoom call with the BBC journalists after all agree that I will check back with Travis in a few days. Travis offers me a beer before I head home. He seems to be taking the news in stride but also appears exhausted.

“I want my kids to have their mother in their life. I can handle her hating me. Plenty of people get divorced and find a way to be good co-parents. That’s all I ever wanted,” says Travis. “I’ve tried to explain to people what Kelly has put me through. It doesn’t seem possible that a person could be so evil.”

Laura tells me she knows how it sounds when someone describes their ex as “evil.”

“I’m divorced with kids. It wasn’t always pretty dealing with my ex-husband. But we figured it out for the kids and get along just fine now,” says Laura. “But what Travis has been through, the lies and the manipulation, it’s on a whole new level. I’ve seen it firsthand. Kelly has lashed out at me, at my family.”

Travis pulls up a text message he sent to his mother months earlier and shows it to me.

“I literally texted my mom that if I wind up dead, Kelly is somehow involved. I just had a really bad feeling that day,” says Travis. “It’s one thing to be paranoid about what could happen. But to find out that it’s real, that you’re not crazy. It’s disturbing.”

Before I leave, Travis tells me: “You guys might have saved my life. Seriously. I have no doubt she would have found a way to kill me. This was just the start.”

The next morning, I get a call from Bryan Baker, an FBI special agent at the bureau’s Madison field office. Unlike the Sun Praire officers, he doesn’t question that the threat against Travis is real. He wants me to confirm details about the BBC before contacting them.

Laura and I talk nearly every day as we wait to learn whether the FBI will be able to link Kelly to the Bitcoin payment information obtained by the BBC. She tells me Travis is putting on a tough front but he’s becoming increasingly concerned about his safety and the safety of his kids.

“It’s hard to act like everything is normal. We are doing our best in front of the kids,” says Laura. “Kelly has just avoided getting in trouble so many times before. What happens if she gets away with this?”

Three weeks after that first visit to Travis’ house, I get a text from Laura that Kelly has been arrested. After being taken into custody by the FBI, she confessed to making a Bitcoin payment on the dark web in an attempt to kill her ex-husband. The news made headlines nationwide. A story in the Washington Post read, “Journalists thwarted a murder-for-hire plot while reporting a story, prosecutors say.” Kelly was booked into the Dane County Jail and would stay there — and in the Sauk County Jail — while awaiting her day in federal court.

Travis and Laura spend the next few weeks securing full custody of the kids while struggling with how to tell them what was happening to their mother.

“The kids are understandably confused and upset,” Laura tells me after the arrest. “I’m scared. We don’t know if she set in motion another attempt to hurt Travis before she was in jail. She’s capable of anything.”

Early warning signs

Travis and Kelly met while attending college in Arizona in the early 2000s. One day, she told him her car was broken and asked him to take a look.

“I got there and the car wasn’t broken. She just wanted a date for Valentine’s Day,” Travis tells me during an interview in October 2021. “The dating was all bliss, though.”

Travis says they shared a lot of the same aspirations and he admired Kelly’s ambition, her intelligence and attitude about life.

“When she set her mind to something, she did it. She wanted to graduate college in three years. She graduated in three years. She wanted to buy a house before she was 21 and she did it,” says Travis. “I’m not much of a people person but she was. She can be very charming and it wasn’t hard for people to instantly like and trust her.”

They were married in Arizona in 2005. Travis was a commissioned officer in the military and thought they would see the world together. But he says Kelly had no interest in a military lifestyle and they were frequently apart because of his career.

“I was going to be a pilot but that’s an eight year commitment,” says Travis. “So I gave up that dream because I realized I had to get out of the military as quickly as I could in order to make this marriage work.”

It wasn’t until years later that he found out Kelly had been convicted of a felony for defrauding her employer in Arizona while they were married and lied to him about an illness.

“That whole time I thought she was really sick and I felt terrible I was so far away,” says Travis. “But it wasn’t true. She just didn’t want to come with me while I was deployed abroad. I still don’t understand why she couldn’t have been honest about that.”

By 2013, Travis had fulfilled his commitment to the military, found a good job in Dane County and moved his family to Sun Prairie. Kelly and Travis had three children by then. He asked that we not disclose where he works but it’s a job where  security credentials are required. Things fell apart quickly with his marriage once the family relocated to Wisconsin.

“It was about this time that I began to understand fully that she was doing a lot of shady stuff. It was hard to believe because we were financially secure. There was no reason for it,” says Travis. “I started to realize she was a con artist and she was really good at it. She’s a genius manipulator. She had this whole other side of her that I just didn’t see. She could get people to do anything.”

Isthmus was able to confirm Kelly was implicated in several instances of fraud or attempted fraud. However, these alleged instances were settled without criminal charges being filed. During the course of reporting this story, Isthmus made multiple requests through Kelly’s attorney to hear Kelly’s side of the story. She called one of the BBC producers several times from jail but ultimately declined to be interviewed by the BBC. She initially agreed to be interviewed for Isthmus but later changed her mind.

Not long after they moved to Sun Prairie, Travis had had enough. “Even when she got caught, she seemed to get away with it,” says Travis. “I told her that the shenanigans needed to end.”

In response, Kelly immediately presented Travis with divorce papers that were already filled out. He also learned that she had been hiding a $37,000 lien on their house in Sun Prairie. Isthmus obtained documents showing she deposited a fraudulent check at Summit Credit Union and immediately withdrew nearly the same amount. That prompted the credit union to file a civil action which resulted in the lien.

“She had this all planned out. She wanted to bankrupt me and use it as a reason to take the kids. She wanted to ruin me,” says Travis. “We were divorced 18 months after moving to Sun Prairie. But that was only the beginning.”

In family court, in February 2020, former Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess pleaded with Kelly and Travis to start cooperating for the sake of their children. Kelly was seeking a change to their custody agreement that would substantially reduce the children’s time with Travis.

“We’ve had…. I didn’t count them all up — many allegations of abuse…. There is no factual basis in this record to conclude that Mr. Harper is physically abusing these children,” Niess said during the hearing. The judge noted he did not know whether Kelly “truly believes all of this ugliness against Mr. Harper” or whether she is simply being malicious. It is nevertheless irrelevant, he said, “because the effect on these children and the effect on the custodial rights of Mr. Harper has been profound and very real.”

Niess urged Travis to communicate better, to be less harsh. But he sympathized with Travis that Kelly was not acting in good faith. He denied Kelly’s request for more custody and ordered a 50/50 arrangement. He also granted Travis impasse authority, which allowed Travis to make major medical or education decisions for the kids if the parents disagreed. The judge said Kelly was waging “an alienation campaign here that has been ineffective, although, nonetheless damaging.”

“If this situation of constantly hauling Mr. Harper into the authorities — police, CPS, whatever — for false accusations of child abuse continues, I will not hesitate to end all custodial rights of Ms. Harper,” said Niess. “If the ugly talk to the kids about the other parent does not end now, I will not hesitate to address that in loss of placement time, loss of custodial rights. I’m talking about both ways. It stops now.”

It was only a few months after Niess’ ruling that Kelly went searching on the dark web for another solution.

‘She had everyone convinced’

Kelly’s defense attorney and the U.S. Attorney’s Office reached a plea deal in June 2021. In federal court on June 24 Kelly pleaded guilty to “Use of Interstate Commerce Facilities in the Commission of Murder-for-Hire,” a felony with a six-year prison sentence. After agreeing to the terms of the plea agreement she was asked by U.S. District Judge William Conley to tell him what she did in her own words. Kelly spoke calmly and carefully.

“I was going through a contentious custody battle with [Travis]. He had abused our children emotionally, physically for many years. I reported it to the police, guardian ad litems, there have been many court cases, CPS reports, and no one would listen or do anything to stop the abuse and help my children,” Kelly told the judge. “It was my divine right as a mother to protect my children and help them from suffering. I was desperate and in a very dark place went on the dark web to find someone to kill [Travis]. I’m deeply and sincerely sorry for my actions.”

In September 2021, Kelly’s plea agreement was accepted by Judge Conley at her sentencing hearing. It was around this time that I learned that Kelly no longer wanted to do an interview. The quiet confidence she displayed at the plea hearing was gone. She was visibly shaking when the judge handed down her prison sentence. She gave a brief statement to the court and seemed genuinely remorseful.

“I would just like to take this opportunity to say how sorry I am about my actions against Travis Harper. I’m ashamed, embarrassed and devastated,” Kelly said. “I hope one day Travis can forgive me for my actions because I was in a dark place and needed help. Please tell [our children] that I love them with all my heart.”

Travis now has full custody of the kids. He sold his house in Sun Prairie after Kelly’s arrest and moved to another community.

“We had to get out of there. The kids were being bullied at school about it,” says Travis. “Since we have moved, the kids are doing so much better. They actually enjoy going to school and are eager to learn. That has been very positive.”

Travis says being cast as a villain and forced to deal with five years of police investigations and child protective services inquiries left him distrustful of the Sun Prairie police, his kids’ schools, and the entire Dane County family court system. The Sun Prairie Police Department declined to comment for this story. Patti Lux, communications officer for the Sun Prairie School District, says the district can’t comment on any specifics because of student privacy laws.

“I can say our employees have a duty to follow mandatory reporting laws,” says Lux. “If a teacher is told about abuse, they must report it.”

“She had everyone convinced,” says Travis. “The cops, the kids’ teachers, other parents. She coached the kids to tell lies about me. But all these court people, teachers, they took Kelly’s side and made a choice to believe all these outrageous lies about me without question.

“I’m extremely scarred because of it. It’s hard to blame Kelly for all of it. The system failed me and my kids. I was labeled an abuser with no evidence. I would never hurt my kids. But Kelly is somehow automatically a victim? She was the one inflicting real damage.

“People enabled Kelly to go down this path,” he continues. “But I married her. I fell for it harder than anyone. So I don’t blame them. They were all tricked and manipulated and they all did what they thought was right. I can’t hate individuals so I hate the system as a whole.”

Travis does not buy that Kelly feels any remorse about her actions and says he still feels he’s in danger: “She’s like the Terminator. She will not quit; she will not stop until I’m dead.”

The Hidden Wiki 2021


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