This was actually the first book I finished in 2019. I'll be honest and say that I did put it down a few times as it was hard to read (the content was difficult to read, the actual prose is fine). Also of note, I've kept up with this story via the news, documentaries and write-ups (one being from the author himself, via Medium).
The RWA shitshow is still ongoing. I'm not shocked by the excuses or oblivious refusal to see issue from some of the white authors (who benefit from the money and work put in by others) but I'm a bit surprised it's still ongoing since it's hit so many news outlets. I'd like to think people have some form of self-preservation. Speaking of, one of the women who complained about Courtney Milan retracted her statement (only in a newsprint interview) admitting it was false. I think her agent got a hold of her and told her to stop making an international mess of herself. What I do like is that the majority of authors I like to read have signed on saying they do not agree with the RWA's actions or decisions here or in reference to other AOCs (the ones that I can find that is). It's always nice to know the people you buy books from aren't arseholes.
Title: Murder In The Bayou
Author: Ethan Brown
Page Number: 272 (paperback)
Genre: true-crime, non-fiction
Publisher: Scribner part of Simon and Schuster
“Part murder case, part corruption exposé, and part Louisiana noir” (New York magazine), Murder in the Bayou chronicles the twists and turns of a high-stakes investigation into the murders of eight women in a troubled Louisiana parish.
Between 2005 and 2009, the bodies of eight women were discovered around the murky canals and crawfish ponds of Jennings, Louisiana, a bayou town of 10,000 in the heart of the Jefferson Davis parish. The women came to be known as the Jeff Davis 8, and local law enforcement officials were quick to pursue a serial killer theory, opening a floodgate of media coverage and stirring a wave of panic across Jennings’ class-divided neighborhoods. The Jeff Davis 8 had been among society’s most vulnerable—impoverished, abused, and mired with mental illness. They engaged in sex work as a means of survival. And their underworld activity frequently occurred at a decrepit no-tell motel called the Boudreaux Inn.
As the cases went unsolved, the community began to look inward. Rumors of police corruption and evidence tampering, of collusion between street and shield, cast the serial killer theory into doubt. But what was really going on in the humid rooms of the Boudreaux Inn? Why were crimes going unsolved and police officers being indicted? What had the eight women known? And could anything be done do stop the bloodshed?
Mixing muckraking research and immersive journalism over the course of a five-year investigation, Ethan Brown reviewed thousands of pages of previously unseen homicide files to posit what happened during each victim’s final hours. “Brown is a man on a mission...he gives the victims more respectful attention than they probably got in real life” (The New York Times). Murder in the Bayou is the story of an American town buckling under the dark forces of poverty, race, and class division—and a lightning rod for justice for the daughters it lost. “A must-read for true-crime fans” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)
I watch the ID channel more than I should, because apparently I like to freak myself out and some cases get longer "specials" depending on whatever reason they have. I first heard about this case because they did a special on them I think. I was convinced it was a serial killer, which is bad enough, but it soon became apparent it was another insidious beast (alleged corruption from the sheriff, warden and politicians, etc, drugs). Later on, Showtime had a multi-part documentary where they talked to the family, investigators, police, and investigative reporters. It was fascinating but like the ID one, so very sad. I then picked up Ethan Brown's book, Murder In The Bayou, expecting it to be as sad (parts of it really were just depressing) but perhaps with more resolution. I also love a setting in Louisiana in my fiction books. Culturally, the state in one of my favorite parts of the United States. Politically, a large part of it is stuck in the dark ages.
There are hints at who (or the group) that is ultimately responsible for the murders, although no one is named as the de facto, in both the book and the TV shows. I think it's fair to know a little bit about the victims before reading the book (or even watching the series) because there's violence before the murder, corruption up to the national level, and drug abuse. It's mostly to mentally prepare for this because it's a rough knowledge base (like the Oakland Child Killer/Pedophile connections or the weirdness surrounding the Atlanta Child Murders). Not everyone is prepared to handle stuff like that so it's just good to go in knowing.
Jefferson Davis Parish (I know) is a parish in Louisiana, which has parish groupings instead of counties like other states. The town that these murders take place in is called Jennings. Jennings is near Lake Charles, on the south-western part of the state. About 1/4 of the town lives below the poverty line. Jennings made national news when there was an expose on the sheriff department pulling people over for no reason to extort money from them (in the 1990s?). Over a time span, eight women were murdered (and according the book, several more people were also murdered). I think when there's a string of slightly similar murders the first thought might be 'serial killer.' The FBI did show up to the parish (they were on scene for the last murder I believe) and concluded it was not a serial killer, which beggars belief to a layperson. This is until it is explained that all the victims of this town knew each other pretty well (Jennings has a population of 10,000+) while victims of serial killers might have attributes in common but are not all from a common social/friend group.
Ethan Brown visited the town and interviewed families, friends of the victims, police, the sheriff, politician aides, and investigators from the local newspaper. He received access, friendly and hostile, but has quite a lot of documentation. This is a pretty complex story and there's a huge amount of people involved. The book is 207 pages (excluding notes and tables in the back) and can be confusing due to the amount of information presented, similar names (unrelated familial names can be common) and murky recounting (some of the individuals involved had passed, leaving only rumors or reminiscences).
While all eight women were involved in the drug and prostitution scenes, they all had links to the sheriff department as informants. I don't know how common this is (informants for the police/sheriff, etc.) but in this case the sheriff's department did not seem to be on the up-and-up. The same department ran the task force for these murders, which was plagued with misconduct allegations (in and out of the department), lost evidence and a warden accused of letting corrections officers sleep with the inmates (some of who were the murdered victims).
I could talk about this case for a long time because it's such a clusterfuck. This post is about the book that Brown wrote, so I'll switch tactics. Brown covers the murders, the corruption, the allegations and the possibilities. There are fourteen chapters, plus author notes, victim data, list of persons mentioned, timeline and notes/bibliography.
Chapter one is titled "Loretta," it deals with the discovery of Loretta Lewis, aged 28, in the Grand Marais Canal by a local fisherman. Brown discusses the town of Jennings, it's location on the interstate (I-10) and it's point between Houston, Texas and New Orleans, LA (giving it access to the illicit drug trafficking via interstate), and most damning, the reports that all the women murdered knew details about who killed the other women. Chapter two, "Boom and Bust," details the history of Jennings, Jefferson Davis Parish and some of the city/parish/state leaders in position. For instance, one of the profiled people is Governor Edwin Edwards (later found guilty of racketeering, conspiracy, fraud and money laundering) who once said the "only way he could lose [this] election, is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy." Quite an infamous quote and I was darkly amused to see the origins of the quote. This chapter also outlines a huge economic collapse of the town, the fact that parish sheriffs have no oversight (something brought up often in the documentaries), the Dateline NBC episode "Probable Cause" by ignoring the constitutional mandate about traffic stops and the allegation that many in the sheriff office seemed to be supplementing their income by allegedly selling seized drugs on the streets.
Chapter three, "Lucky and LeDoux," is about Calcasieu Parish detective Donald "Lucky" DeLouche who supplied drugs for sale and had other issues of misconduct leveled against him (including sexual abuse of a minor); he later went to work for the Jefferson Davis Police Department as police chief. DeLouche later resigned (in 2003) after a civil rights lawsuit of gender discrimination, sexual harrassment and rape. It's reported in the book that he's a assistant police chief in another town (although I didn't see him listed, so who knows what he's doing now). LeDoux was convicted as an accessory in a murder that happened in Calcasieu Parish. The murder may or may nor be connected to the Calcasieu Sheriff's son, Richard McElveen (who has been linked to other murders). The Louisiana Attorney General took over the case because of Sheriff McElveen's involvement and increasing spat with the victim's family. The introductions of several of McElveen's employees are significant because they seemed to transfer over to Jefferson Parish before the killings started. It was a disgusting chapter to read because it just showed that these toxic men get put in charge and just move around, continuing raping, murdering, drug running (ridiculous for a cop to be doing that) and other shit. It's setting up the groundwork for why all this corruption is going on--the unchecked power of the sheriff's office in Louisiana, a problem when the sheriff is so corrupt. To note, I had no issue believing all this was true but it does create a bias in me against these men that perhaps shadowed throughout the book. Brown is not overly sympathetic to the sheriff's office or the warden and their employees (perhaps with good reason) but it's something to be aware of.
Chapter four, titled "Frankie," introduces Frankie Richard. Richard is more or less king of the underworld of Jennings (at least for a large amount of time). He dealt drugs in the city and knew most, if not all, of the murdered women. In my notes I wrote that Brown's description of Richard is something to behold, I won't get into it other than to say that Richard is a grey character. Brown does write that "the trajectory of [Ricahrd's] life has mirrored the rise and decline of Jennings, from the oil fields to the killing fields," which I found apt. This chapter also outlines the death of Leonard Crochet who was killed in a police raid. Witnesses say that Crochet was unarmed when shot. Lopez, the third victim, was present at Crochet's death and is considered a witness. Also in this chapter is the introduction of the setting, Bourdreaux Inn, a motel where some of the murders are thought to have taken place, as well as general drug use, drug selling, prostitution and partying by many of the people mentioned in the book. The next chapter is titled "Ernestine," and opens with the discovery of Ernestine's body in the Aguillard Canal. There's a possibility that Ernestine was killed by two men who slit her throat, as their relatives noted they were covered in blood when returning home. One of the men is connected to Laconia "Muggy" Brown via a rape she was alleged to help perpetuate, which was awful but shows how desperate people get for drugs. Over the course of investigation, it came out that Muggy might have witnessed Ernestine's murder.
Chapter six, "Kristen," starts with the discovery of Kristen Lopez's body in the Petitjean Canal. Lopez's parents were addicts and she had a rough time growing up, eventually connecting with Frankie Richard (she called him Uncle Frankie). Her mother filed a missing person's report because a woman named Tracee Chaisson called her telling her that something bad happened to Kristen. Chapter seven is titled "Whitnei" and begins with Whitnei Dubois's disappearance and background. One of Frankie's associates found Whitnei's body at a road intersection. The story is a bit odd and another witness claims that the associate knew about the body earlier because they were with them when they saw the body earlier in the night. Also, Frankie is charged with rape and then Chaisson claims he murdered Lopez. Another Crochet witness is murdered (still unsolved). Like many other charges against Frankie, the rape and murder charges are dropped. Chapter eight, "Gunter and Guillory" is about the death of Steven Gunter, Zeno cousin and friend of the parish warden. Gunter was killed in another police raid, which some witnesses claimed was a show of fatal excessive ineptitude by the police. The warden was the officer that responded with deadly force and he was in charge of the jail where multiple reports of sexual abuse and misconduct were occurring. Richard also appears in connection through jailhouse interviews as a viable suspect (as well as a few other officers) to earlier murders.
Chapter nine, "Death on Me: Muggy, Crystal, and Brittney," deals with the passing of these three women. Muggy is reported to have been murdered by some other associates of Richard and discovered by a Jennings police lieutenant. There were no arrests made and her family think more people are involved. Muggy's death scared many of the other women in Jennings because she was considered tough. Crystal like all the other victims was addicted to drugs. She is reported to have told Brittney that she knew who killed Muggy. Crystal had been associating with Richard (perhaps for drugs and/or protection?). Crystal is thought to have gone with a group of Richard's associates, who then murdered her and left her in the woods. They were seen by a man named Russell Carrier. What is so utterly bizarre to me was Terrie Guillory, the parish warden, showing up at Crystal Zeno's parent's house to inform them that he was able to identify her severely decomposed corpse by a tattoo on an intimate area of her body. Two months later officials formally identified Crystal's body. Brittney is the youngest of the victims and the time before her murder coincides with increased multi-drug abuse and paranoia. She felt the police were dangerous and accused Richard of killing Whitnei Dubois. Brittney disappeared and after a frantic search by her family, her body was found off the side of a road. Here is where a difference between the book and documentary comes out, it's not a divergence of fact but either less or more information provided (another time is when witnesses are anonymous in the book but go before the camera in the Showtime documentary). Brittney's mother (Teresa) is very outspoken on the documentary that Frankie Richard is innocent of killing her daughter (he hasn't been arrested and he very well might be) but in the book it is revealed that Teresa might have prostituted Brittney and is a criminal associate of Richard. The task-force, formed in the wake of the murders, has been blundering along not solving much, doing interviews and losing evidence. The FBI director notes that they are in essence, wholly "led by the Jefferson Davis Parish Sheriff's Office."
Chapter ten deals with Frankie's attempt at sobriety (and a confession to murder) and the revelation that Richard has had a key (and permission) to enter the task-force office in Jennings. The last victim (canonically I suppose) is also introduced in this chapter. Her name is Necole Guillory. Necole claimed to have seen who killed Loretta (with Muggy) and is related to the parish warden. Her body was found outside of the parish (still off I-10) in a town called Egan. Witnesses claim that Necole claimed the police were killing the women. Other people connected to the woman ended up dead following Necole's death but they're not officially linked to the grouping. Perhaps it's the violence of a dangerous drug lifestyle but it's still enough to make me wary. The witness to Crystal's body allegedly committed suicide by laying down on a train track but other stories have emerged that claim he was murdered by one of the men he saw that day.
Chapter eleven has quite the title, "Frankie Richard's Coming and Hell is Coming With Him," and is based on a paraphrased quote from the 1993 movie Tombstone about Wyatt Earp. The chapter deals with Frankie returning to Jennings after a self-imposed exile. There's also a new sheriff in Jennings (Ivy Woods, a veteran state police officer) who has continued the case although there doesn't seem to be much movement. Sheriff Woods is quite hostile to Ethan Brown, attacking him on Facebook. What is it about Facebook and people over the age of 50? It didn't use to be a shit-hole of social media but now it's just awful. But yes, it's what I want to see when I log on...my sheriff having a drama-llama meltdown over a man who doesn't even live in my city (/sarcasm). Chapter twelve deals with Brown's publishing and the city officials (including the sheriff) becoming more hostile towards him. Chapter thirteen deals with the Boudreaux Inn again. I found the information about the Inn more streamlined in the documentary (there's a link between the Inn, prostitution and a "family values" conservative politician who resigned) but the chapter lays out all the details and it's so hazy that it lacks the same punch (I gasped when I heard it from the documentary). To be fair to this politician, he claims innocence in it (as does his wife) although it's very typical of these "family values" set he's innocent until proven guilty, et al. and I'm not going to name him although a search will bring it up (but not on his wiki page). The book ends with a summary of where some of the bigger players are.
What's good about the book? Brown doesn't refer to the victims as numbers (a pet peeve) throughout, instead they are individuals with names, personalities, backstories and faults. It does make it sad because as a reader you would hope that they'd have been able to get clean but drug addiction is hardly that simple. The prose is easy, other than the difficult content (rape, murder, etc.) the book was something I could have knocked out in a few hours. There's no flowery language and the few times Brown goes for the punch it's as straightforward as the rest of his writing. I saw one reviewer describe Brown's storytelling as "vainglorious" and I can see how they thought that (they were unimpressed), I wasn't expecting a author divorced from the writing so it didn't bother me but it's fair to point out that Brown's supposition and insertions are occurring throughout. Brown's able to explain how everyone knew each other, how they connected how terribly small the pool was for the murdered women (and others victims) to come from. I think he's more than fair about the corruption accusations that leveled to the police, the sheriffs and the task-force. I think he backs up quite a lot of information with written testimony and records from the law enforcement groups themselves.
The weakness that comes from the book is mostly based on the fact that many people Brown talked to wanted to remain anonymous and so there's no verifying (for example, with the national level politician who stopped his Congressional race after accusations came out). Maybe Brown has all the proof and is protecting his sources (it's what reporters do) and perhaps he fact checked extensively but a casual reader cannot know on the same level he does. Sometimes there's a he said/she said/repeat situation (see Teresa and Brittney's relationship for instance). The truth seems to be hidden in the murky swamp instead of very defined relationships. The cast of characters is vast and sometimes I'd get lost ("who was this person again?"). Brown doesn't finger a specific person and I was left thinking that there wasn't a single murderer but instead corruption and malfeasance that led to the continuation of the danger to the public (which included all the murdered victims). Even then, I don't think Brown was hoping to finger an exact person but the byline on the cover does say "who killed the women known as the jeff davis 8" which stayed in my brain throughout reading. I wanted a more concrete conclusion, even if it was "I can't say who or who all did this, but what a hot mess." So the last chapter felt incomplete to me. I think Brown's focus isn't on "who" but how this was all set into motion.
I'd recommend the book with a content warning but if you get a chance to see the showtime documentary (really excellent) or the two part ID one (Death in the Bayou) give those a whirl too.
Other things to check out:
Medium, Ethan Brown: Who Killed the Jeff Davis 8?
The New York Times: 8 Deaths in a Small Town, and Much Unease
Refinery 29: A New Documentary Asks "Who Killed These 9 Women in Louisiana", a brief interview with Ethan Brown.
The Daily Beast: Were These Women Murdered by a Serial Killer, Pimp, or the Cops?
Rolling Stone: Dark Truth Behind 8 Sex Workers Murdered In the Bayou
Oxygen: Murder In the Bayou, has a run down of some of the people mentioned in the book.
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