A Texas prisoner’s confession to killing three New Orleans women may have solved a mystery from one of the city’s most violent eras.
Under a deal that will spare him a death sentence, Joseph Brant, 48, confessed last week to killing three women in 11 months in 2007-08, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said Thursday.
Cannizzaro's office dubbed Brant, who has already been sentenced to life in prison for killing a fourth woman in the same period, a serial killer.
The news about Brant’s trail of death came as prosecutors obtained an indictment on three counts of first-degree murder against Brant, who is currently serving time on a burglary charge in a Texas prison.
Prosecutors said they are seeking his immediate extradition to Louisiana. They believe he could plead guilty as soon as he is arraigned in a New Orleans court.
Brant is accused of the October 2007 killing of an unknown woman, the January 2008 killing of Jody Johnson and the September 2008 killing of Kirsten Brydum. He pleaded guilty in 2016 to the August 2008 killing of yet another woman, Jessica Hawk.
Brant gave detailed confessions to killing the three women listed in the indictment in an interview with a District Attorney's Office investigator last week, prosecutors said.
"This confession and indictment are the first steps toward bringing long-delayed justice to this defendant’s victims and their families,” Cannizzaro said in a statement. "The expected guilty pleas and mandatory life sentences that will follow cannot bring back the loved ones, but hopefully can provide some degree of closure for these grieving families."
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Criminal District Court Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson set Brant's total bail at $3 million.
All four killings came in the midst of a post-Hurricane Katrina crime spike that spurred angry protests by residents in front of City Hall. In 2007, the city reached a post-Katrina peak of 209 murders despite its diminished population.
Police and prosecutors were criticized for their perceived helplessness in the face of spiraling violence, especially after a number of murder suspects were released from jail because charges weren't filed against them before the lapse of a 60-day deadline — making them so-called "misdemeanor murders."
Brant's first killing came on Oct. 17, 2007, prosecutors said. Authorities said he has confessed to soliciting a prostitute for sex and then strangling her to death while attempting to rape her. He poured gasoline on her body and set it aflame inside a stolen car near Treasure and Arts streets in the St. Roch neighborhood, prosecutors said. The woman has never been identified.
Brant is accused of next killing Jody Johnson, 47, on Jan. 11, 2008. Brant confessed to soliciting her for sex, driving her to the abandoned 3600 block of Piety Street, in the Desire area, and forcing her to perform oral sex on him with a gun to her head, prosecutors said. Then, he said, he forced her out of the car into a vacant lot, shot her in the head and set her body on fire with gasoline.
The indictment next charges Brant with the Sept. 27, 2008, killing of Kirsten Brydum, 25, an activist from San Francisco who had come to town as a volunteer and was found shot to death in the 3000 block of Laussat Place, in the Florida neighborhood. She was leaving the Howlin' Wolf club after watching a show when she was last seen alive. Her bicycle and tote bag apparently were stolen after her slaying.
Court record show that Brant was in and out of jail for a series of petty offenses around the time of the killings.
Brant has already been convicted for the killing of Hawk, 32, who was stabbed to death in her Chartres Street home, in Bywater, on Aug. 11, 2008 — in the middle of the period in which he is accused of committing the other killings.
Nicholas Gernon, who now commands New Orleans' 8th Police District, helped investigate the case when he was a homicide detective. He recalled Thursday that inaccurate information gathered from canvassing Bywater led authorities to release a sketch of a potential suspect that bore no resemblance to Brant.
Forensic evidence recovered from Hawk's home was inconclusive, and those two facts helped her case go cold for five years, Gernon said.
But in 2013, investigators received information that Brant may have been involved in the killing.
Detective Winston Harbin traveled to the Texas prison where Brant was serving his 11-year sentence for burglary to interview him. Brant confessed to the killing.
Brant was charged with second-degree murder and obstruction of justice in the death of Hawk, an Ohio botanist who had just moved to New Orleans to begin a new job.
His attorneys with the Orleans Public Defenders raised questions about his mental competency, but a court-appointed panel of doctors found him capable of proceeding to trial.
He pleaded guilty to Hawk's killing in December 2016. Criminal District Court Judge Robin Pittman sentenced him to life in prison, to be served after he finished his time in Texas.
Brant is now serving out the remainder of his term on the burglary conviction at a prison near Huntsville, Texas, according to Cannizzaro's office.
After he approached the DA's Office through his attorneys, prosecutors said, investigator James O'Hern interviewed Brant in Texas in the presence of his lawyers.
Brant gave O’Hern specific details about the killings that had never been revealed to the public, prosecutors said. After returning to New Orleans, O’Hern corroborated Brant’s story with facts from the cold case files on the murders.
Cannizzaro said investigators plan to continue interviewing Brant to determine whether he was involved in any other killings.
Defense attorney Billy Sothern said his client is ready to accept his guilt.
"Joseph Brant came forward to accept responsibility for these previously unsolved murders. He wants to resolve these investigations and bring closure to the families. He is ready to do his time," Sothern said.
Brant fits the FBI’s definition of a serial killer, according to Mike Aamodt, a professor emeritus at Radford University in Virginia who maintains the Serial Killer Information Center.
Aamodt said about 31 percent of serial killers take only women as victims and 63 percent of them have confessed to at least one murder.
According to his confession, Brant’s modus operandi appears to have switched from strangling to shooting or stabbing and from burning a victim’s body to not doing so. Aamodt said that despite stereotypes to the contrary, it’s typical for serial killers to change their methods.
“It’s very common, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it very difficult to link serial murders,” Aamodt said.
Yet even at the time that the women were killed, some suspected a link between at least two of the murders.
Hawk's slaying occurred less than two miles from where Brydum was killed and a little more than a month later. Their youth and the fact they were recent arrivals to New Orleans fueled early speculation that their deaths could be linked.
But that wasn't confirmed until Thursday.
Gernon said it devastated him to learn he and his colleagues couldn't make a case against Brant before Brydum's slaying. "I wish we could've made a case before he was able to get someone else," he said.
He said he is glad technology to recover forensic evidence is better a decade later and is confident the NOPD is in better shape now than it was that soon after Katrina.
Relatives of some of the slain women met news of the indictment with mixed reactions.
Hawk's brother, Brandon Hawk, said he had the opportunity to listen to Brant's confession tape. The tape made it sound like Hawk was indiscriminately targeted — but the new charges make Brandon Hawk doubt that impression, he said.
"With it being similar people and a similar time, it's highly unlikely it was as random as it seemed," Hawk said. "For someone to do something like that, they have to be not right. He's obviously beyond not right."
Brandon Hawk said his family travels regularly to New Orleans to maintain a garden erected in his sister's honor on the St. Claude Avenue neutral ground, between Press and Montegut streets. Their next scheduled trip is in March.
On the other hand, Brydum's mother, Mamie Page, said the idea of ever traveling to New Orleans is too painful. She said she is glad authorities can close their investigation into her daughter's killing, but a sense of healing remains elusive for their family.
"There is no closure for losing a child in such a way," said Page, who lives in California. "It's horrible and it's unfathomable, because knowing her, you can't imagine anyone would want to hurt her."
Public records suggest Johnson's father has died. He once told a coroner's investigator that his daughter had left Georgia with her boyfriend so that he could work in New Orleans as a carpenter.
Staff writer Helen Freund contributed to this report.