As Ethan Brown’s new book “Murder In The Bayou” (Scribner/Simon & Schuster) approached its publication date in September, initial coverage of the project landed not in the arts pages but under breaking news.
Brown spent five years investigating the unsolved violent deaths of eight sex workers from the southwest Louisiana town of Jennings, about halfway between Lafayette and Lake Charles in Jefferson Davis Parish. At the beginning of 2014, the Medium website had published Brown’s piece “Who Killed The Jeff Davis 8?” which would eventually become “Murder In The Bayou.”
The story suggested that the murders weren’t the work of a serial killer — as had been rumored — but instead were the fruit of a culture of lawlessness and conspiracy in Jennings that linked local drug and sex traffickers to corrupt law enforcement and cost the lives of eight women, strangled and stabbed, found in drainage ditches and on the side of the road.
The sweeping, rigorously reported tale put forth in the Medium essay was explosive enough to draw national attention back to the murders, which took place between 2005 and 2009.
And in the book’s second-to-last chapter, Brown dropped a new bomb: the allegation that Louisiana Republican congressman Dr. Charles Boustany, a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. David Vitter, was a patron of Jennings sex workers, including more than one of the murdered women.
Furthermore, Brown wrote, current Boustany field representative Martin P. Guillory was, along with partners, a proprietor of the Boudreaux Inn, a central location in the book for paid sex and dope sales.
In an interview for the book that took place four months before publication, Guillory told Brown that he could not recall Rep. Boustany visiting the motel and lounge during the time he operated it. After BuzzFeed News drew attention to the book’s chapter about Boustany on Sept. 8, campaign spokesman Jack Pandol released a statement categorically denying the allegations; Guillory told the site he was unaware of any illegal activities at the motel.
That whiff of scandal, as Brown writes, is only the most recent in a long list from the area. In 1997, Dateline aired an expose on illegal traffic stops and seizures in Jefferson Davis and Calcasieu parishes. In the early 2000’s, female police officers in Jennings filed suit against the city, alleging multiple sexual assaults by male officers.
In 2007, a female prisoner filed a similar suit, claiming that sexual assault was commonplace in the city jail.
Homicide, addiction, dirty cops, sex traded for money and dope, and layer upon layer of dark, small-town secrets that went back years, all on the seamy margins of a seemingly sleepy little burg deep in Cajun country — the story has all the elements of a sordid Southern Gothic, something dreamed up in the night by a writer like Louisiana crime novelist James Lee Burke.
Dozens of people and places have roles to play in “Murder In The Bayou” — so many that considering the book’s slimness (and the town’s smallness) it can feel overcrowded.
Brown begins his story with the first of the eight murders, but detours back in time and to other local crimes and their aftermath to set the scene in Jennings. There are a lot of relationships to keep track of: people who intersected with one another over the years because of family, professional, social or criminal association, or who sound like they’re related because of common Louisiana surnames but aren’t.
The reader might benefit from scanning the appendices and timeline, both at the beginning and the end of the book, that detail the cast of characters and order of events first; the assistance in keeping it all straight may outweigh the spoilers.
The real-life characters Brown introduces, as the story speeds along, also might prompt a wish for more pages, just to get to know them better.
There’s Frankie Richard, a local crime kingpin who knew all eight murdered women and was charged, briefly, with the murder of the third victim, Kristen Gary Lopez.
Roxanne Alexander, a woman in her 60s who, though she was addicted to drugs herself, played the role of a protective housemother to the women living on the shady side of Jennings, letting them use her home as a refuge from the streets. Kirk Menard, the private investigator whose daughter ran in the same dangerous circles as the eight victims .
David “Bowlegs” Deshotel, a small-time local hustler and former boyfriend of two victims, Necole Guillory and Brittney Gary, whom Brown met with Menard on his first visit to Jennings in 2011. Hours after the writer saw him, Deshotel was dead, shot in his own home.
And of the Jeff Davis 8 themselves: vulnerable and flawed, living, it seems, with a heartbreaking sense of doom. The eighth victim, police informant and petty thief Necole Guillory, Brown reports, had — early in the 2009 summer of her murder — placed her four children with relatives and told her mother not to bother baking a cake for her approaching 26th birthday. She wouldn’t be around to celebrate it, she said.
Vivid and complicated, the players in “Murder In The Bayou” are nearly too cinematic to be true. Indeed, when Brown’s Medium report posted, shortly after the Louisiana-set HBO crime drama 'True Detective' started to air, many drew parallels between the true story and the fiction.
After show creator Nic Pizzolato tweeted a link to the article, Brown said, “'True Detective' obsessives took it as a reason to construct all sorts of narratives about how the show was based on the Jeff Davis 8.”
Before Brown, Campbell Robertson, the New Orleans-based Southern correspondent for the New York Times, went to Jennings in late 2009 to look into the story, intrigued by coverage in the Lafayette Independent. Robertson’s 2010 piece, “8 Deaths in a Small Town, and Much Unease” is captivating — it reads less like a news dispatch than a grim, hard-bitten slice of noir.
The Jeff Davis 8 victims all knew each other. The poverty-stricken, crime-ravaged underworld of a small town is an even smaller community itself. And Robertson reported from that place, conveying a chilling climate of hopelessness, desperation and dread five years after the first murder, with no resolution in sight.
“Obviously, the unsolved mystery part is the most compelling,” Robertson said. “But the longer you’re there, it’s just this unrelenting heartbreak. It’s just desolate.”
He had never covered a story like it, he said: the claustrophobic atmosphere of Jennings and the apparent grimness of daily life there, the sense of more lurking beneath the surface everywhere you looked.
“It’s like going to a dysfunctional family reunion, but just for one day,” he said. “You get a vibe, whose marriage is maybe in trouble or who’s mad at who. But you just don’t know. Ethan really did the shoe-leather work.”
Brown started his writing career in New York City in the ‘90s, close to the end of a sort of golden age of narrative magazine journalism. “My first real journalism job was as an editorial assistant at Details,” he said. “Part of what I did was coordinate writer travel, when writers got very extravagant paid travel. One writer was covering Trent Reznor when he lived in New Orleans, and I coordinated three weeks here for him, all paid for.”
Brown didn’t make it to New Orleans himself until his honeymoon in 2001. Together, he and his wife fell in love with the city and returned once or twice each year until six years later, when they finally bought a home in Bywater.
Over the years, writing for champions of longform investigative storytelling like New York magazine, Rolling Stone and Playboy, Brown developed a knack for stories where crimes revealed larger things about culture. His first book, 2005’s “Queens Reigns Supreme,” was a deep investigative dive into the shared history and co-mythmaking of New York hip-hop and big-time drug dealing at the end of the 20th century.
His second, 2007’s “Snitch,” interrogated the role of police informants in the war on drugs and the odd and problematic alliances that could crop up across the line of the law.
In 2006, on one of his regular visits to New Orleans, Brown read an unusual story on the front page of the paper.
Zack Bowen, a French Quarter resident and Iraq war veteran who had been interviewed frequently, along with his girlfriend, Addie Hall, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, had leapt to his death from the roof of the Omni Royal Orleans hotel. A note in his pocket confessed that he had murdered, dismembered and partially cooked Hall back in their Rampart Street apartment before sentencing himself to die.
Brown began to investigate his first story as a Louisiana resident. The book that resulted was 2009’s “Shake The Devil Off,” the story of a traumatized veteran with scars that went deep and the terrible combustion that happened after he spent months in a ravaged city whose wounds, arguably, were just as raw.
After writing that book, Brown said, he felt finished with media and publishing for a while.
He got a job as an investigator with the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, a nonprofit that represents indigent defendants in capital cases. He spent two and a half years there before setting up his own practice as a private investigator. And in 2010, he read Campbell Robertson’s New York Times report on the Jeff Davis 8.
With no particular plan, in summer 2011 Brown called Kirk Menard and arranged to visit Jennings. That was when he saw David “Bowlegs” Deshotel on the last evening of his life. After Deshotel was shot, Menard took him to the crime scene where, he said, he was startled to see civilians strolling through the house, touching and even taking things from rooms — none of which were secured with police tape.
“I thought, 'Oh my god, I’ve never seen anything like this before,'” he said. “Then I met some ex-cops, and they said, ‘Yeah, welcome to Jeff Davis Parish — we promise you’ve never seen anything like this in your life.”
Brown landed an open-ended assignment from GQ, which began five near-immersive years of reporting in Jefferson Davis Parish. He’d spend a week in Jennings, then a week back home making public-records requests and poring over the thousands of pages he received in response.
In fall 2013, trailers for the first season of "True Detective" began to appear. “Until that point, I had been very unrushed,” he said, but after seeing the promos, he emailed his editors to alert them to the similarities between the show and his story. When they stayed unrushed, he pushed to withdraw the piece, and got it to Medium in the first weeks of the show’s run on air.
The Medium story drew interest from publishers and the deal for “Murder In The Bayou.” But the attention it drew, Brown said, also changed the tone of his treatment in Jennings.
In March 2014, Jefferson Davis Parish Sheriff Ivy Woods released a statement that read, in part, “I would like to say I resent out-of-town journalists trying to paint our parish with a broad brush that insinuates we are corrupt.” The endless pages he got in response to his public records requests started turning up with redactions, where there’d been none before.
“They still charged me per page,” Brown said, “even blank pages and blacked-out pages.”
The buzz around the article drew sources to Brown, including former law enforcement officers and sex workers from the area. One family, he said, who had compiled a huge amount of research for a suit against the sheriff’s office but had run out of money, traveled to Lafayette to hand over their findings to him in person, at no cost.
“At times, it got weird,” he said. “People were saying things like, 'I was destined to do this' or ‘This is all planned.’ But it got people talking to me.”
His sources were encouraged by his work, but as publication approached, Brown didn’t seem especially optimistic that the book would spur any significant change. He pointed out that, going back to the 1997 Dateline report, there had been multiple instances of civil suits and media coverage questioning the practices of Jefferson Davis Parish law enforcement, with little outside intervention resulting. The best he can do, he thinks, is put it all down on the record.
“I’m hoping there’ll be some measure of justice for people out there that comes out of this,” he said. “If it goes back into the ether, like everything else has out there, I’ll be sad. Because so much of this case — whether it’s literally dumping women’s bodies in the garbage or working to erase things from history, has been about erasure.”