While creating the Showtime documentary series “Murder in the Bayou” about the unsolved murder cases of eight young women between 2005-2009 in Jennings, Louisiana, director Matthew Galkin, producer Josh Levine and executive producer Ethan Brown were all on the same page: There would be no omniscient narrator. There would be no dramatic re-enactments. The people of Jennings would tell their own story.
That’s evident from the first episode of the series, which opens with Jessica Kratzer, a friend of the first victim, 28-year-old Loretta Lynn Chaisson Lewis, lighting a cigarette, taking a puff and then slowly exhaling.
“I let the shit with the girls eat me up daily,” Kratzer says in the documentary. “They didn’t deserve what the hell they got. The girls have pretty much been forgotten in this town. You don’t really ever hear anybody speak of them. It’s like they never existed ... like they never mattered.”
Galkin isn’t a true crime director. (He previously had a hand in documentaries about animal rights, Jack Kevorkian and the rise of boy band One Direction.) He was more interested, he says, in telling the human element of the story, staying true to the facts of the case while also capturing the intense grief friends and family members of the victims — known as the “Jeff Davis 8” — still feel today.
That meant spending months talking with residents in the small rural town of Jennings in Jefferson Davis Parish — the area where the victims’ bodies were found in drainage canals and along back roads — before turning on the cameras. Interviews could last for eight hours at a time and sometimes transpired over multiple days. The result is footage of emotionally raw interviews, which Galkin says serves as “an amazing emotional record of these people’s lives.”
“There were multiple interviews where we stepped back and said, ‘Wow, you couldn’t write these people to say what they said in the way they said it,’” Levine says.
As Ethan Brown’s new book “Murder In The Bayou” (Scribner/Simon & Schuster) approached its publication date in September, initial coverage…
The series, which premieres at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 13, explores the idea that law enforcement saw the eight victims as disposable because they all lived on the poor side of town and had ties to the Jennings drug and sex trades. The victims knew each other, and all eight victims are believed to have snitched for local law enforcement before turning up dead themselves.
The episodes build upon Brown’s 2016 book “Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8?” published by Scribner, which became a New York Times best-seller. The book delves into the details of each death and suggests that law enforcement officials may have played a role in the crimes and/or hindered investigations by tampering with evidence.
Brown writes about systematic law enforcement misconduct, where drugs and cash would sometimes disappear from evidence lockers and murder and rape charges were dropped. Interviews conducted by a multiagency task force formed in 2008 to help solve the case, and accessed by Brown, show witnesses implicating cops, deputies and wardens as suspects in the murders. Multiple allegations of law enforcement officers having sex with the victims also surfaced.
Additionally, two inmates alleged that Jennings drug dealer and pimp Frankie Richard worked with Warren Gary, a veteran detective with the sheriff's office, to dispose of evidence in the murder of the third victim, 21-year-old Kristen Gary Lopez. They said Gary bought a truck suspected to have transported Lopez’s body, in order to clean it at a nearby carwash, ridding it of any evidence that would link it to Richard.
The book also posits that high-profile Louisiana politicians could be connected to the victims. Allegations in the book made national headlines when Brown cited anonymous sources who said Louisiana’s former U.S. Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr. had been a customer of at least three of the victims, who were prostitutes. Boustany denied the allegations and sued Brown for defamation, then dropped the lawsuit two months later.
In the book, Brown mentions a public records request that showed Boustany’s former field director Martin Guillory co-owned the company that ran the Boudreaux Inn, a motel the victims and their customers frequented. Boustany said he was unaware of Guillory’s involvement with the inn, and Guillory said he did not know of any criminal activity occurring there.
“These girls lost their lives because they seen something, heard something, knew something that they was not supposed to know,” Richard says at the end of the first episode in the series.
Because of these allegations, Galkin says the Showtime documentary team tried to be as transparent as possible with local law enforcement, notifying Jefferson Davis Parish Sheriff’s Office Investigations Commander Cormier when and where they were filming each day. Cormier appears in the series several times.
“We wanted to give them a seat at the table because we felt no one had done that before,” Galkin says.
While Brown has been researching the murders and the corruption entangled with them since 2011, the series premiere will mark the first time his research will be presented in a visual medium. The five episodes, each about an hour long, add another layer to the story — helping viewers put faces to the names of the victims, their friends and families, law enforcement officers and even potential suspects.
“It's stunning to me to see the Jeff Davis 8 story depicted this way,” Brown says. “On the one hand, it's stunning to see this world that's been in my head for so many years in a very ambitious series, but even more impressive to see the area captured this way. ... It's such a different experience.
“If it was like a shitty true crime doc that's like a bunch of people running out there and doing re-enactments … or cameras that you're shoving in people's faces, I'd probably feel differently,” he adds. “In fact, I'd probably feel like, ‘Wow, my book actually does better than this.’ But this is quite the opposite. I feel like it really towers over my book in terms of its abilities to capture this area.”
Brown has worked as both an investigative journalist and an investigations/mitigation specialist. During a hiatus from writing, he was working for a law office in New Orleans that handled capital cases exclusively. A case in 2010 in Calcasieu Parish caused him to drive back and forth between New Orleans and southwest Louisiana.
That’s when he noticed the billboards — large signs along Interstate 10, offering rewards to anyone with information about the eight murders. He already was interested in the area from his work in Calcasieu Parish and decided to dig a little deeper.
“At the same time, the case that I had in Calcasieu Parish brought me into a world that is very much the Jeff Davis 8 world, which is the world of drugs, substance abuse disorders and sort of rogue southwest Louisiana law enforcement culture,” Brown says. “So I became kind of fascinated by the area.”
A trip to Jefferson Davis Parish in the summer of 2011 solidified his interest. He spent two weeks in the parish, meeting and talking with people in town. But what really sold him happened within 24 hours.
He was out one night in south Jennings — where all the women who were murdered had lived — talking to a man who said he’d dated several of the women. Early the next morning, he received a phone call from someone notifying him that the same man had just been murdered in his home.
“It was just a totally sort of mind-blowing experience to meet somebody and then a few hours later, that person is murdered,” Brown says. “That's never happened in my history as either an investigative reporter or as an investigator on death penalty cases.”
Brown went to the crime scene and was shocked to find it unsecured. He watched people go in and out of the house, some taking items with them as they left, he says.
“I went around that afternoon speaking to more folks, including very memorably Barbara Guillory, the mother of victim No. 8, [26-year-old Necole Jean Guillory],” Brown says. “I asked her, 'Hey, is this like a normal thing what I'm seeing here, like does this happen a lot?’ ... The answer was, ‘Yes, this is Jeff Davis Parish. This is how it is here, and welcome to Jennings.’
“It was that sequence of events, which was really only about 24 hours, that got me sort of hooked, like, oh, there's something strange happening here,” he adds. “This is not like any place that I've been.”
Brown was still researching the cases after his 2014 Medium article was published — and given a blessing by “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto — and his book hit stands three years ago. He started working with the documentary team in 2017 to make additional public records requests and look further into areas he hadn’t had time to research for the book. The final installment of the series draws primarily on material gathered after the book was published.
By this point, residents of Jennings were accustomed to the national attention devoted to the case. CNN anchor and Baton Rouge native Don Lemon did a piece on it in 2009 and an article on the murders ran in the New York Times in 2010. During the creation of the Showtime documentary series, a two-part Investigation Discovery documentary on the case was in the works. It premiered in June.
“(The national interest) is something that they're aware of, and it's a part of this,” Brown says. “I think the interest in it sort of goes in and out. There is, particularly because there's no resolution in this, just a sense of like, ‘OK, folks come in and out of here from out of town but our lives go on as is.’”
After the third murder in 2007, then-Jefferson Davis Parish Sheriff Ricky Edwards officially linked the victims to prostitution, in addition to drug use, in a statement to the Jennings Daily News. He said that the ‘high-risk lifestyles’ the girls were leading contributed to their deaths, says Scott Lewis, a former reporter for the paper, in the documentary.
“As a matter of fact, he said, if you’re in this lifestyle, it’s time to get out,” Lewis says. “And at the time, when the term ‘high-risk lifestyle’ comes out, there’s all these connotations that suddenly spring to mind, especially the idea that these women have chosen this sort of lifestyle. The connotation is that they chose for this to happen.”
The documentary seeks to dispel that notion and humanize the victims by providing loved ones with a chance to tell their stories and verbalize their loss.
When Chad Chaisson talks about his sister, the first victim, in the documentary, he speaks of her devotion to her family and helping others.
“Loretta was married, had two kids,” Chaisson says. “She was always about her kids, always had a smile on her face, would never hurt nobody. She’d always try to help somebody before she’d hurt somebody. Me and Loretta were … my mom’s first two kids, so we was close.”
His voice trails off. “I just miss her,” he says.
A particularly heartbreaking scene in the first episode is with Evelyn Daniels, the mother of the second victim 30-year-old Ernestine Marie Daniels Patterson. She’s holding tight the sole picture she has of her daughter.
“I don’t have no closure, no peace,” Daniels says. “I can’t rest at night.”
No exploration of the lives of these women would be complete without an examination of the town where they grew up. In the documentary, Jennings is a character in itself. The town of 10,000 is divided by railroad tracks. On the north side of the tracks, doctors and lawyers live in massive multi-story houses. On the south side are much smaller old homes, some dilapidated, that house a population plagued by poverty, unemployment, mental illness, drugs and prostitution.
The economic inequality in Jennings becomes palpable as the camera pans across neighborhoods on both sides of town, illustrating the stark contrast that exists on opposite sides of the tracks.
The series tells not just the story of eerie murders in a small town but the stories of eight women who were disadvantaged by societal structures and did not receive the help they needed during their lifetimes, Brown says.
“These women were totally ill-served by the way that our society is set up,” Brown says. “The many problems that they had — whether it's enormous problems like I can't get something to eat today or I have bipolar disorder and I don't have treatment for this, on and on and on — the way that our society is set up does not address these problems in any way.”
Brown says without that help their problems sometimes escalated and they often ended up in jail as a result.
“There was at all times a law enforcement response to these women — and I don't mean a law enforcement response after they were murdered, I mean their problems were handled at the parish jail,” Brown says. “The parish jail, and the cops and the sheriff's office were always there as a presence in the lives of these women, and yet the things that they actually needed, whether it's food, shelter or mental health care, were never there.”
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The murders remain unsolved, but the series brings up a few questions worth asking: Will any of these murders ever be solved? What impact would solving them have on the town? And furthermore, what would be true justice for these women, their friends and their families?
“I am not a family member or friend of any of the Jeff Davis 8. I didn't know any of them. I'm not related to any of them. I don't live in Jeff Davis Parish,” Brown says, “so it's going to seem kind of obnoxious or inappropriate for me to say this, but I don't believe that justice comes necessarily with, 'OK, we've got the killers here.’ I think that the problems in this parish are so profound that they go way beyond these women.”
To Brown, justice would be progress on solving the underlying issues that affected these women before their deaths and were an obstacle in solving their cases. That could be addressing economic inequality, holding law enforcement accountable and providing residents with mental health care and addiction treatment services.
“To me ... justice is nobody having to live the way in which these women lived. That's a greater justice to me than just, OK, we're going to slap some handcuffs on people,” Brown says. “This is not to say that people didn't love them. It's not to say that they didn't have kids, husbands or partners. They had all of those things. It's to say that the way in which they lived, this life so beyond hardscrabble — Where do I get a cheese sandwich today? Where do I rest my head today? — that nobody has to live that way again. That's, to me, the true justice.”