The words splashed across the screen at the opening of the new true crime show amount to a pledge of the program’s authenticity: “This is an active homicide investigation. Shot in real time.”
It’s repeated against a backdrop of scenes from Iberville Parish’s lush swamps after every commercial break during the Discovery Channel’s “Killing Fields.”
And the stars of the show — all detectives in the Iberville Parish Sheriff’s Office Criminal Division — say the statement is true. Their renewed investigation into the very cold case of Eugenie Boisfontaine is active. But the words also underscore that this isn’t a typical homicide for these investigators, one followed by TV cameras — “shot” — as the deputies chased leads, made phone calls and interviewed witnesses.
“Doing the show didn’t change what we do every day, it just changed how we did it,” Detective Brett Stassi Jr. said. “We just made it look better.”
In the show’s first episode, which aired Jan. 5, retired detective Rodie Sanchez tells Maj. Ronnie Hebert he’d like to temporarily come back into the fold to crack open the Boisfontaine case files.
An LSU graduate student, Boisfontaine was believed to have been kidnapped near the LSU lakes in Baton Rouge in June 1997. She lived on nearby Stanford Avenue.
Her decomposed body was found two months later in Bayou Manchac in Iberville Parish. She had a skull fracture.
But Hebert said Sanchez, who was assigned the case back in 1997, wasn’t the catalyst that reopened the Boisfontaine case. It was producers with Sirens Media who called in February saying they were interested in doing a show about obscure locations where killers dump bodies.
“They asked if we had any cold cases which would probably be the most solvable?” Hebert said. “When I first took over (the Criminal Division), they used to have her picture posted around here. I saw it every day.”
Hebert said the department only has a handful of cold homicide cases. And Sanchez’s passion about Boisfontaine, who was 34 at the time she was killed, was real. That case was just one that “kept coming up” throughout the years, he said, partly because of Sanchez’s dedication to catch her killer.
“It kept bugging me, but it bugged Rodie more,” he said.
The show ends up featuring a good portion of the small squad of deputies who work Iberville’s toughest crimes, from homicides to sex-related crimes. Most of the young detectives featured on the series approached the investigation as a new case since most of them were in high school when Boisfontaine’s body was found.
Sheriff Brett Stassi, whose son works as a detective, said the resources the show’s producers made available to his investigators over the course of filming helped in his decision to let the Discovery Channel turn some of his deputies into reality-TV stars.
“They brought in all kinds of equipment and experts to work with us,” Sheriff Stassi said. “At first, they said it wasn’t going to be a big deal. Next thing I knew, they were changing all our lights in the station. But it’s good. This is good for Iberville Parish.”
Although she was killed almost two decades ago, Boisfontaine’s case has popped back into the news from time to time. This was particularly true around 2002, when law enforcement in the Baton Rouge area were focused on finding a serial killer who preyed on women. Eventually, law enforcement would conclude the region was targeted by three suspected serial killers.
The name of convicted serial killer Derrick Todd Lee, whose DNA was linked to the deaths of at least seven women, was one of the first names that popped up when the Iberville Parish Sheriff’s Office in August reopened Boisfontaine’s case as filming got underway.
Two of Lee’s victims lived only blocks from Boisfontaine.
But Lee’s name was quickly scratched off as a suspect. Lab testing on fragments of Boisfontaine’s underwear picked up multiple DNA strains from at least three different males, none of them matching Lee’s profile.
Officials from the State Police Crime Lab explain in the first episode that earlier DNA testing in the 1990s — and again in 2005 — never produced any viable information to help solve Boisfontaine’s case.
They credited the latest results to advancements in DNA technology that weren’t available 10 years ago.
Investigators were clearly baffled by the results, and the advanced decomposition at the time Boisfontaine was found had been a problem in searching for clues on her body. They speculated she had perhaps been sexually assaulted by multiple people, as Boisfontaine was described by many of the people they initially interviewed as someone who at the time of her death had become an introvert following a divorce.
Hebert said no one has ever been arrested in connection to Boisfontaine’s case. But viewers will get to see his deputies interrogating several “persons of interest” in the show’s second episode Tuesday.
When pressed about whether the show will finally bring closure to the unsolved mystery when it concludes its six-episode run, Hebert responded, “You’ll have to watch to find out.”
The show’s producer, Joseph Schneier, says Hebert isn’t being coy, they just don’t know yet if Boisfontaine’s killer will be caught since the show is still filming and the investigation remains ongoing.
“We’re working toward an ending; we want that closure to happen on camera,” Schneier said. “That’s what’s neat about getting a case back in the media like this. Someone knows something. The more you talk about it in the media, the more people will come forward.”
Schneier credits the show’s appeal both to the public’s growing interest in the true crime genre and south Louisiana’s culture, which is emphasized throughout the program.
“Audiences are getting more intelligent. They like watching the pieces of a puzzle come together,” he said. “This is a very good police department. These aren’t reality characters. These are real people.”
The deputies featured on the show all say it took some time to get used to having cameras following them around as they worked.
The exhaustive eight- to 10-hour filming schedules proved to be another challenge.
“Our briefings usually take 15 minutes. It took us nearly an entire day to shoot that briefing scene on the show,” Detective Jeremy Sanchez said.
Sanchez is portrayed on “Killing Fields” as the sarcastic “go-to technology guru.”
“I feel bad for actors, to have to deal with it,” Sanchez said about filming. “We did shots 20 times sometimes so they could capture us saying something a certain way.”
Detective Leslie Bradford initially turned down the opportunity to be featured on the show. She said she did not want her personal life featured as it is for the show’s two lead detectives.
“My family is really excited about me being on it. They’re more excited than me,” she said. “We had to protect our integrity doing this. But I’m glad I did. I made some lifelong friends with some of the crew members.”
The group says they’ve also been warned about the attention being on the show will bring.
Detective Lori Morgan, the Sheriff’s Office’s “resident forensic expert,” said she was advised to enact the privacy settings on her social media accounts.
“They said people will be trying to seek you out for various reasons,” she said.
Sheriff Stassi doesn’t have problem with his guys getting their 15 minutes of fame off the show. Why?
“When all this is over, I’m still the sheriff,” he said.
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.