The Mysterious, Unsolved Case of Eight Dead Sex Workers in the Louisiana Bayou
Allegations of politicians and cops patronizing prostitutes and negligence by local law enforcement are still swirling around the brutal killings of eight women between 2005 and 2009.
Louisiana's Jefferson Davis Parish first seized a grip on Ethan Brown's imagination in the summer of 2011. Eight women had been found in the crawfish ponds and canals of Jennings—a town of about 10,000—in various stages of decomposition, between 2005 and 2009, and the investigative journalist took a trip to the area to poke around. Soon after arriving, he interviewed a local drug dealer, David "Bowlegs" Deshotel, who claimed to have dated several of the victims.
The next morning, Deshotel was dead—and Brown knew he had to keep digging.
Things quickly got weirder. According to Brown, when he arrived at the crime scene where Deshotel's body had been discovered, it was completely unsecured—no yellow police tape or anything. In fact, he said, people were actively walking in and out of the victim's house with his property. Even though Brown had only been in Louisiana for a matter of days, he'd already seen enough to make him wonder what was going on with local law enforcement.
In his new book Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8?, Brown explores the circumstances surrounding the murders, the parish itself, and why no one has been convicted over the killings. Among other things, his research suggests the victims worked as police informants and that at least one witnessed a 2005 police killing that was investigated as a crime.
Perhaps more than anything else, Brown believes the victims are unified by their ties to a place called the Boudreaux Inn. He describes the spot as a nexus of sex and drugs that catered to members of law enforcement and was run by a field representative of Congressman Charles Boustany named Martin Guillory, or "Big G." (Through a spokesperson, Boustany has denied allegations made by three sources in Brown's book that he was a former client of some of the dead sex workers, and Guillory told the author he did not know of any prostitution at the inn. Brown also writes flatly that "there is no evidence that either Congressman Boustany or Big G had any involvement with the murders of the Jeff Davis 8.")
In an attempt to solve the murders, a federal task force charged with investigating the killings back in 2008 floated a serial-killer theory, but in previous reporting, Brown has suggested local cops might somehow be involved. VICE talked to him about the new book, why he thinks these women were killed, where the real killers might be, and why some have compared the saga to the first season of True Detective.
VICE: You had a rather shocking introduction to Jefferson Davis Parish, didn't you? You interviewed a guy about the case and later on that same night he was murdered?
Ethan Brown: It was really that event and that trip out there that got me interested in this parish and in this case. I really never saw anything like what I saw during that trip in 2011. After this guy was murdered, I went around and talked to a number of people, including cops, and their response was essentially, "Welcome to Jeff Davis Parish."
Why do you think police embraced the serial-killer theory?
The local law enforcement out there has this very strange way they pursued this case. The former sheriff, Ricky Edwards, called the killer or killers in this case "a serial dumper," which is [a term] he apparently has made up. At other times, you'll talk to law enforcement out there, and they'll say, "We're pursuing this both as a serial killer and as a multiple suspects case." In two cases, arrests were made but not of a single killer—of multiple people. Those arrests and charges ended up getting dropped, but generally speaking, this is a case with multiple suspects and law enforcement knows that, so it's strange that they've pushed the serial killer theory at all.
What is Jennings, Louisiana, like on the surface? And how did the Boudreaux Inn play into this story?
You have this very small downtown that has a couple of car dealerships and a courthouse and a library. The north side has the appearance of a very typical small town, and then you cross a set of train tracks to the south side of town, and it's very, very different. You have blighted homes that actually look quite similar to homes you saw in New Orleans post-Katrina. You have some rough bars and nightclubs and a black community that's concentrated on a few major streets. So the north and south side are extraordinarily different places, mainly divided by class, and somewhat by race.
The Boudreaux Inn was a motel in Jennings, which is the parish seat of Jeff Davis Parish. It's shuttered now, but it was a critical part of drugs and sex trade in Jennings during the early to mid 2000s. Many of the women of the Jeff Davis 8 were arrested there and engaged in sex work there. The pimp who was a prime suspect in several of the murders [before charges were dropped] was arrested there.
For those of us who are prone to dismiss conspiracy chatter, explain why you're so dubious of local law enforcement.
This case was framed in an extremely unsympathetic way from the beginning. The sheriff emphasized what he called the "high-risk lifestyle" that the victims were engaged in, and that kind of framing is not going to create an empathetic response. I can't really speak to the Jennings police's motivation as to why they framed it like that. [But] one thing that I can say, and it reaches back to what I said a minute ago about the divide between North and South Jennings—all these women were from South Jennings. They were literally from the wrong side of the tracks, and the people in power in this town were openly disdainful of them.
The police misconduct in this parish is interesting in that it's mostly civil lawsuits. There are a couple of examples of criminal cases—one being the Jennings police chief was indicted a few years back for robbing the evidence room—but mostly civil lawsuits filed in federal court, like a huge case filed in the early 2000s by female police officers against the police department. What they alleged in their lawsuit was a totally widespread culture of sexual misconduct that included sexual assaults on female police officers and on female inmates.
So the traditional divide between the law and suspects isn't so clear-cut down there.
This case is not a good guy, bad guy case. It's the product of the drug war, specifically the massive drug trade on [Interstate] I-10 in this area, and it's a product of decades of police misconduct stretching back to the 70s. In the book, I write about everything from a big drug dealer in town telling how his supplier was an officer who worked in narcotics, to a sheriff's office deputy who was literally robbing people off I-10, to female inmates alleging that they'd have sex with various prison officials in order to be released from jail.
The district attorney said something like over 90 percent of our cases are drug cases, and we don't have any drug-rehabilitation services in this community. When you think that every case they prosecute is a drug case, yet they have zero resources for folks with drug problems and these women really needed the services—they were pretty much all drug addicts, nearly all of them had untreated mental-health problems. They're victims of the drug trade, police misconduct, and a total lack of mental-health and drug-addiction resources.
What do you make of the True Detective comparisons?
I don't think Nic Pizzolatto based the first season on this case. Nic grew up in Calcasieu Parish, which is the parish next door to Jefferson Davis Parish. I think the first season is formed by his life and being raised in Calcasieu Parish. When I was finishing my Jeff Davis 8 piece, which ended up getting published on Medium, the roll out of True Detective was happening, and it's remarkable how similar everything was. But I think it drew it from other things.
How were the woman actually killed, and do you have a firm idea in your mind of who's responsible at this point?
Two of the women were stabbed to death. Ernestine Patterson's throat was slit. Laconia Brown was stabbed a number of times. The other six were asphyxiated. Because the bodies were so decomposed, asphyxia is expected. You have two very definitive stabbings and then six likely asphyxia, but the disposal means were entirely similar throughout the eight. They were all dumped in crawfish ponds, or they were dumped in a canal, or they were dumped by the side of a road.
I believe the real killer is still out there, and I'll say particularly when it concerns the Ernestine Patterson case, I believe they had the right people in that case when they made the arrests. I was able to obtain the DA file on that case and I believe they had the right people. The killers are still out there. I think it's law enforcement incompetence, and I think the women were deeply connected to very powerful people in law enforcement. And when you look at the women too closely, when you scrutinize those cases, you immediately see those connections, and I think it's misconduct. It's a combination of incompetence, misconduct, and the very, very close connection these women had to law enforcement.
Learn more about Ethan Brown's book, which drops Tuesday, here.
Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.
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