Review: Murder in the Bayou

Reviewed by Jarret Lofstead

 

On May 20, 2005, the body of a 28-year-old woman was pulled from the Grand Marais Canal, just outside Jennings, Louisiana. Jefferson Davis Parish Deputies identified her via fingerprints as Loretta Lynn Lewis Chaisson, a Jennings sex worker well known to local authorities. She had a history of mental and physical health problems, failed relationships, and addictions, struggles common in the sex-for-drugs trade. Chaisson would become the first of a series of victims known collectively as the Jeff Davis 8, a group of local women murdered between 2005 and 2009 in and around Jennings, the parish seat. Their bodies were left to molder in drainage ditches and canals outside of town. Despite the formation of a joint federal, state and local task force, for over a decade, the purported best efforts of law enforcement were unable to bring justice to the victims, their families and the community,

Murder in the Bayou
By Ethan Brown
272 pp. Scribner, New York, 2016
$26.00 

As the bodies of young women continued to appear in the murky canals, the official position of the Multi-Agency Investigative Team remained that the crimes were likely the work of a serial killer. In a 2009 press conference, then Jefferson Davis Parish Sheriff Ricky Edwards said, “It is the collective opinion of all agencies involved in this investigation that these murders may have been committed by a common offender.”

On January 31, 2014, New Orleans-based independent journalist, author and private investigator Ethan Brown published “Who Killed the Jeff Davis 8?” on Medium.com. After several years of interviews and tens of thousands of pages of documents, Brown introduced his theory of the case: the Jeff Davis 8 were related not only by their hardships and addictions, but were also deeply connected both socially and professionally by their participation in the sex trade and, more shockingly, in their often intimate relations with local law enforcement. “By the end of 2008, there were credible suspects in most (if not all) of the slayings of the seven women in Jefferson Davis Parish,” writes Brown. “It should have been clear to the Sheriff’s Office that the victims were inextricably linked…”

In Murder in the Bayou (Scribner, 2016) Brown expands on this theory to expose the darkest parts of a rural community in late capitalism. Besieged by chronic underemployment, stark class divisions and an abundance of pharmaceuticals, the Jefferson Davis Parish depicted by Brown is a place riddled with corruption and collusion between law enforcement and the players, prostitutes and kingpins of South Jennings. “This is a place of sin,” one patrolman said of the Jennings Police Department.

Beginning with the formation of Jefferson Davis Parish from Imperial Calcasieu in 1912, Brown depicts Jennings as a community whose fortunes initially rose and then mostly fell in the oil fields surrounding the town. Following a brief period of economic boom and post-WWII expansion, the opening of the I-10 struck the first blow to Jennings’ prosperity. As reported by Scott Lewis in The Jennings Daily News and cited by Brown, “At the end of the 1950s, the state adjusted the highway’s route. Instead of running through the heart of downtown on Main Street, US 90 was shifted east to North Cutting Avenue.” The oil bust of the 1980s devastated the region, along with much of Louisiana’s economy. “In the late 1980s,” Brown notes, “the state’s unemployment rate peaked at over 13.1 percent, nearly double the rate at the beginning of the decade.”

From 1980-1992 Jefferson Davis Parish was controlled by Sheriff Dallas Cormier, certainly “no angel,” according to interviews conducted by Brown, but well-respected among the community due to the low crime rates. Despite its proximity to Houston and New Orleans, both known drug hubs, smugglers in the 1980s and early 1990s routed their drivers around Jefferson Davis Parish. But by the time Sheriff Cormier was fined and forced to step down in 1992 due to a federal indictment for misuse of funds and prison labor, Brown contends, the corruption among local and state law enforcement in the region was already established.

Sheriff Ricky Edwards, Cormier’s replacement, assumed leadership of the JDSO and would remain in power until October 2011, two years after the body of Necole Guillory, the last of the Jeff Davis 8, was discovered off the interstate in Acadia Parish. During Edwards’ tenure, drug interdiction and increased random searches along the I-10 corridor yielded successful drug seizures, but according to several of Brown’s sources, those drugs were just as quickly put back on the streets by local law enforcement, in exchange for cash, information and sex.

“One thing is for certain,” writes Brown. “All eight of the victims snitched for local law enforcement about the Jennings drug trade.”

There are many players in Brown’s investigation–victims, survivors, drug dealers, murderers, pimps and police, all tied together in the sex-for-drugs trade. In the barrooms and crack houses of South Jennings, and in trailers and seedy motels like the Boudreaux Inn, the authorities not only turned a blind eye, but, according to the testimony of many witnesses, participated directly in criminal activities that led to the deaths of the Jeff Davis 8 and several other local residents.

The Jeff Davis 8 remain the focus of the book, but at the center of the crime lies the enigmatic Frankie Richard, a self-confessed pimp and drug dealer, and a suspect in several homicides. Brown compares Richard’s relationship with law enforcement to that of the infamous Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger, who similarly negotiated information and sex in exchange for room to operate.

A South Jennings native, Richard spent the 1970s working in the oil fields, but after an accident left him with a broken back and a large settlement, he started a dump truck business. In the 1990s he sold the business and invested in strip clubs in Lafayette, where ge worked out his violent tendencies by hiring himself out as an enforcer (“If somebody wanted a leg broke and they give me five hundred dollars, you can bet tomorrow you’d be wearing a fucking cast.”). By the 2000s, Richard had worn out his welcome and returned to South Jennings, where he ran drugs and sex from the Boudreaux Inn, just yards from the I-10 dope corridor. At the Boudreaux Inn, he pimped three of the soon-to-be Jeff Davis 8 murder victims.

Brown’s investigation of the mid-2000s sex-and-drugs trade in Jennings expands to the case of Harvey “Bird Dog” Burleigh, another Jennings prescription dealer who operated just blocks from Richard’s South Jennings home. On the night of April 20, 2005, the Jennings PD raided Burleigh’s home and a Burleigh associate named Leonard Crochet was murdered by a Jennings police officer. The officer claimed he thought Crochet was holding a gun, though no firearm was found at the scene. The police had been tipped off by another Burleigh associate, who later claimed that Crochet had refused to traffic Jennings PD’s drugs. At least one of the witnesses to Crochet’s killing, Kristin Gary Lopez was one of Frankie Richard’s sex workers. Lopez would later be victim three of the Jeff Davis 8.

Brown painstakingly stitches together the associations between the victims, law enforcement, and drug and sex traffickers affiliated with the Jeff Davis 8. Murder in the Bayou names names, and Brown does not flinch when presenting his evidence of the collusion between local law enforcement and the criminal community. Brown keeps many of his sources anonymous for their safety, but collectively their testimony is damning.

On January 31, 2014, the same day Brown published his original article on Medium, the body of 27-year-old Lacie Fontenot was discovered in the Jefferson Davis town of Lake Arthur. The sheriff’s office disavowed any links between Fontenot and the Jeff Davis 8, despite Fontenot’s association with many of the victims in those cases. From obstruction of justice and destruction of evidence to rape and murder, Brown’s investigation provides a strong theory as to who killed the Jeff Davis 8, and questions the validity of allowing local oversight of a multiple homicide investigation when credible evidence implicates members of local law enforcement in the crimes.

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