In October 2006, New Orleans transplant Zackery Bowen committed one of the most notorious crimes in the post-Katrina city: He killed and dismembered his girlfriend, bartender Addie Hall, before leaping to his death from the top of a French Quarter hotel. The murder made for gruesome, exploitative — and inaccurate — headlines around the world, such as The Times-Picayune's "Boyfriend Cut Up Corpse, Cooked it."
Journalist Ethan Brown spent more than a year investigating the case and found a more nuanced story — the tale of a two-tour Iraq war veteran whose post-traumatic stress disorder mirrored that of his adopted city. In this exclusive excerpt from his new book Shake the Devil Off, Brown examines the last hours of the life of Zackery Bowen.
From the book SHAKE THE DEVIL OFF: A True Story of the Murder that Rocked New Orleans by Ethan Brown. Copyright © 2009 by Ethan Brown. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Hey, Squirrel." Zackery Bowen was hovering over the bed of Greg "Squirrel" Rogers, trying to wake him. "Hey, Squirrel," Zack repeated, this time more forcefully. "C'mon, dude. Let's go party." It was 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, October 17, 2006, and Squirrel was stretched out in his bed in his small, shabby one-bedroom apartment on Burgundy Street in the Lower French Quarter. Squirrel had been out until nearly sunrise that morning and was sleeping off a nasty hangover. Perhaps later that afternoon he would make it over to meet Zack at Cosimo's, a bar nearby at the corner of Governor Nicholls and Burgundy streets. But for now, all he could manage was to sleepily rub his eyes, begin to rise from bed, and say that he'd take a pass on another night of partying.
Once he was up, Squirrel began to focus much more intently on his conversation with Zack. Inexplicably, Zack was dressed in an outfit that he wore when he bartended at the local watering hole Buffa's — a brown plaid Western-style shirt with loose-fitting blue Levi's and bulky black combat boots — even though he wasn't scheduled to work that night. The outfit made Squirrel uncomfortable, particularly because Zack was in the midst of a nearly two-week-long bender in which he'd been treating his closest friends to shots of Jameson's at Aunt Tiki's on Decatur, lap dances at the Hustler Club on Bourbon Street, and twenty-dollar bags of cocaine from Squirrel's stash. Even more curiously, during the partying spree Zack proclaimed to Squirrel that his girlfriend, Adrianne "Addie" Hall, had moved out of the apartment they shared on North Rampart Street on the outskirts of the French Quarter and returned to her hometown of Durham, North Carolina. "Dude," Zack told Squirrel one night, "she tried to rip me off for a bunch of money and then she split." Squirrel had been shocked by the story; Zack and Addie had been inseparable since they got together during the steamy summer months of 2005 before Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29. "She split?" Squirrel asked. "And ripped you off? That don't make sense." Zack insisted that he was surprised but that was what had gone down. "It was strange," Squirrel remembered later. "But these were strange times in New Orleans."
"Squirrel," Zack shouted, snapping Squirrel back from his memories of the past week and into the present. "C'mon, dude. Where is it?" Zack was looking for coke. Squirrel was, after all, Zack's drug dealer, even though they rarely exchanged money. During the fall of 2005, Squirrel had gotten into a bad car accident and Zack and Addie took care of him as he recovered. About six months later, the couple loaned Squirrel $900 after he couldn't make his rent. To thank Zack and Addie, Squirrel instituted a special policy for them: they could come by his apartment from time to time and take a small Ziploc baggie or two of coke completely free of charge. "You guys have been so cool to me, from the car wreck to the rent," Squirrel told Zack and Addie. "You're my people. Anything you need, just come by." But by the spring of 2006, the couple was visiting Squirrel's apartment so frequently that they were beginning to "spin out a little bit," according to Squirrel. Addie would kick Zack out of their apartment on Governor Nicholls Street and Zack would then crash at Squirrel's on Burgundy Street. But it wasn't just free drugs that brought Zack to Squirrel's: the men had served in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, and felt comfortable talking about what happened in their separate "over there"s with each other. Their military background — Zack had been a sergeant in the army, Squirrel a corpsman in the navy — created a strong bond between them, as had their refusal to leave New Orleans during Katrina even after Mayor C. Ray Nagin ordered a first-ever evacuation of the city on August 28, 2005. "Me and Zack were the survivors," Squirrel remembered later, "everybody else" — he nearly spat the words out in disgust — "they're evacuees."
Yet Zack and Squirrel, strong opposites in outward appearance and temperament, seemed unlikely friends. Zack stood at nearly six foot ten, had long, blondish brown hair and a tanned, dimpled face that easily earned him many male and female admirers. Squirrel — none other than U2's lead singer, Bono, gave him his nickname when he worked as a roadie on the band's "ZOO TV" tour in the early 1990s, because he had an almost preternatural ability to shimmy up towering light rigs — was short and stocky with a close-cropped buzz cut and an unkempt and scraggly reddish brown beard. Zack was admired by their circle as affable, gentle, and lighthearted, a bartender beloved in the French Quarter for his good humor and ability to entertain drinkers with magic tricks pulled from a bag behind the counter. Squirrel was prone to visibly dark moods and could occasionally become publicly violent, even engaging in bar fights in the French Quarter. Zack was so wary of violence and confrontation of any kind that he'd turn and walk away even when angry drunks would throw a punch at him. Still, their involvement in the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and their struggle for survival in Katrina's wake and love for New Orleans — made those differences seem insignificant. So Squirrel didn't mind when Zack grabbed a twenty-dollar bag of coke lying near his bed and left without so much as a thanks.
Zack headed out into the cool, crisp mid-October air of that afternoon, from Squirrel's apartment on Burgundy Street and over to the Omni Royal Orleans hotel on St. Louis Street between Royal and Chartres streets. He strode through the hotel's tacky red-carpet-and-white-marble lobby, rode the elevator to the seventh floor, and made his way past the hotel's sole penthouse suite and to the observation deck alongside La Riviera's rooftop pool bar. When Zack arrived, a popular local Latin dance band — Fredy Omar con su Banda — were setting up their instruments for a three-hour gig to start at 5:00 p.m. Zack then opened up a tab at the bar, sat by the pool smoking, and calmly enjoyed several shots of Jameson's. As Fredy performed the sound check, he couldn't help but notice the tall, blond, and handsome Zack, particularly because it was so early and the La Riviera was nearly empty. "He was smoking and drinking, sitting by the pool, and looking to the sky," Fredy remembers. "Even though he was dressed in just jeans and boots, he looked very elegant, like a rock star." When Fredy started playing, however, Zack began to pace nervously by the pool, arousing the suspicions of a La Riviera bartender, who worried that he was going to walk out on the substantial bill: Zack had been drinking since about four o'clock. Zack, meanwhile, took in La Riviera's expansive view of the French Quarter — the steamboats pushing down the Mississippi, and the iconic, soaring, triple steeples of St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. Zack had been married right in front of the church in 1998 and though the couple had two young children, they separated soon after Zack had returned from Iraq. Zack tried to remember the good times in Jackson Square — the beautiful wedding that attracted so many tourists that they outnumbered invited guests, and the afternoons when he and Lana would hang out on the park benches and feast on shrimp po'boys — but then his thoughts drifted to his failed marriage and, more recently, his turbulent relationship with Addie. To Zack, his twenty-eight years of life had amounted to little more than a successive string of personal and professional failures — from marriage to the military — from which he never seemed to recover.
It was nearly eight o'clock on a Tuesday night and the bar wasn't very crowded. So Fredy ended the band's set. And as they began packing up their instruments, they were approached by the La Riviera bartender, who was angry and anxious. A customer — Zack — had been drinking all afternoon and skipped out on the bill. Even though Fredy didn't know Zack, he remembered his physical description precisely. "I told my guitar player, 'Let's go look for that dude,' " Fredy recalls. The band took the elevator down to the Omni Royal's garage, packed the remainder of their equipment into their car, and took off into the French Quarter looking for Zack.
Unbeknownst to Fredy, just before eight thirty, Zack had put his final drink down and walked slowly up to the La Riviera's roof railing and back again. Zack then paced from the pool to the edge of the roof, back and forth, two more times. Finally, at eight thirty sharp, all of this according to hotel security tapes, he leapt over the side.
Zack landed with a heavy thud about five stories down, on the roof of the Omni Royal's adjacent parking garage. He died instantly. Just moments later, a frantic hotel guest who saw Zack's body sprawled on the parking garage called down to the front desk and then a panicked hotel manager dialed 911.
"29S, 29S, 29S" — NOPD code for suicide — came the call over the NOPD radios. "A white male has jumped off the upper deck of the Omni Royal hotel."
"This should be interesting," said Detective Tom Morovich, then of the NOPD's Person Crimes division, which handles robberies, stabbings, and shootings. That evening, Tom and his fellow Person Crimes detectives were sitting at the Eighth District police station at 334 Royal Street, just a few blocks away from the Omni Royal, preparing for dinner when the report of the 29S came over the radio. Suicides are common in post-Katrina New Orleans, but the news that someone had leapt off the roof of a four-star hotel seemed bizarre to Tom; a 29S call would have been more likely in a flooded neighborhood like Lakeview that was struggling to rebuild after the levees broke a little more than one year earlier. So he and a small group of detectives headed over to the scene of the suicide.
Tom, a muscular, dark-haired, broad-shouldered native of Empire, Louisiana, who at over six foot five resembled a nightclub bouncer, had weathered Katrina at a makeshift police outpost at the Omni Royal, so he knew the layout of the hotel well. When Tom arrived there, the hotel manager directed him to the parking garage's roof, where they found Zack's gangly body lying faceup, with blood pouring from his mouth and head. A thick trail of Zack's blood mingled with dirty rainwater that had gathered on the hotel's roof from a thunderstorm earlier that week. "I'd seen much worse," Tom remembered later. "This wasn't at all like a suicide where someone hits the cement. Zack's hips were twisted around, but other than that there was little visible damage to his body."
As an investigator from the coroner's office rifled though Zack's pockets, an NOPD homicide detective needled Tom about the case. "No question about it," he said to Tom with a gruff, sarcastic laugh, "this one's gonna be yours."
But then the investigator made a strange discovery: a Ziploc bag in Zack's right front pocket contained army dog tags bearing Zack's full name and a tightly folded sheet of notebook paper that read "FOR POLICE ONLY" on the outside fold. When the coroner's office investigator unfolded the paper, he found that Zack had written a long note. "Here we go," he announced to the cops. "We got ourselves a suicide note." The homicide detective, unsurprisingly, was sure that Tom was going to have to take the case that was suddenly — and most certainly — a suicide. "Whoo-hoo!" he said. "It's definitely yours now."
Then the investigator began reading the note aloud:
This is not accidental. I had to take my own life to pay for the one I took. If you send a patrol to 826 N. Rampart you will find the dismembered corpse of my girlfriend Addie in the oven, on the stove, and in the fridge along with full documentation on the both of us and a full signed confession from myself. The keys in my right front pocket are for the gates. Call Leo Watermeier to let you in. Zack Bowen.
When he finished reading the note there was a moment of shocked silence among the NOPD detectives, followed by scattered bursts of nervous laughter. Tom and his fellow detectives thought that the coroner's office investigator had just played a cruel and dark practical joke. But the investigator, looking profoundly disturbed, said that he was reading directly from the note. "Lemme see that," one NOPD homicide detective growled, grabbing the note from the investigator's hands. The detective's eyes scanned the paper and his face went white. This was no joke.
Just as Zack had instructed, the cops rushed to the North Rampart Street home of his landlord, onetime New Orleans mayoral candidate Leo Watermeier. It was just after ten o'clock when officers knocked on Leo's door at 812 North Rampart. Leo, a short, balding man with a slow, easy New Orleans drawl, who usually walked around with arched eyebrows and a wide, loose smile, was shocked to find NOPD detectives looking for a dismembered corpse. "What the hell are you talking about?" he said.
The detectives were cagey about the body in question — they would only say that it was a woman — but Leo let them into his own apartment anyway. "There's no body here," Leo insisted to the cops, "but have a look around." As the detectives toured the ground-floor one-bedroom apartment, Leo opened his refrigerator, stove, and closets for inspection.
"Then they realized, 'This isn't the apartment,' " Leo remembered later. So, Leo walked the cops about one block down the street to the 826 North Rampart one-bedroom unit that he rented to Zack and Addie for $750 per month. The apartment was on the second floor of a Creole cottage above Watermeier's other tenant, the Voodoo Spiritual Temple, run by Priestess Miriam Chamani, an iconic figure in the New Orleans spiritual scene since the early 1990s who had blessed the marriage of Nicolas Cage and Lisa Marie Presley and was much beloved in the neighborhood for quickly resuming her healing rituals after Katrina.
As they neared Zack's apartment, the detectives revealed more about what had brought them there. They told Leo that Zack had just jumped off the roof of the Omni Royal and left instructions directing law enforcement to the apartment he rented from Leo. There, according to the note, they'd find Addie's body. After hearing this, Leo opened the wrought-iron gate, which led to the courtyard beside Zack's apartment, and turned toward home. "I didn't want to go upstairs," Leo explains.
When the NOPD burst into the shabby second-floor apartment, they found a scene both gruesome and inexplicable. Zack had left the window air-conditioning unit on full blast, set to about sixty degrees, giving the tiny apartment the feel of a meat locker. Beer cans stuffed with stubbed-out cigarettes littered the floor, while a tall stack of unopened moving boxes sat near the door. On the apartment's walls, Zack had written a series of spray-painted messages:
"please call my wife."
"i love her."
"i'm a total failure."
"look in the oven."
Then, on the ceiling above Zack and Addie's bed, there was another message that seemed directed at some other force, one more difficult to address than the detectives of the NOPD:
"please help me stop the pain."
Ethan Brown signs SHAKE THE DEVIL OFF
Wednesday, Sept. 2, at 6 p.m. — Discussion and signing at Octavia Books (513 Octavia St., 899-READ. www.octaviabooks.com)
Saturday, Sept. 12, at 3:30 p.m.: Discussion and signing at Maple Street Book Shop (7523 Maple St., 861-2105. www.maplestreetbookshop.com)