David "Bowlegs" Deshotel was a street hustler who spent a lot of time on the south side of Jennings, where drug use and prostitution were rampant. Deshotel limped because of a gunshot wound he received months before Ethan Brown met him on his first trip to Jennings in July 2011. Brown was there at the invitation of Kirk Menard, a private investigator who worked on behalf of some of the families of eight female sex workers murdered between 2005 and 2009. Police have not solved any of the cases. Deshotel had dated two of the women.
Deshotel was dead the next day.
"I have been doing this kind of work for a long time," Brown told Gambit. "But I had never experienced something like meeting someone and having them murdered hours later."
Brown went to the crime scene.
"I met Menard at the crime scene, which was the guy's house," Brown says. Someone broke down the door and shot him dead. The crime scene was totally unsecured. There were people taking property from the crime scene. It was mind-blowing to see this.
"That afternoon I spoke to ... former law enforcement. They said to me — point blank, essentially — after I told them: 'Isn't this interesting that this guy, who is a south Jennings drug dealer, where all eight of the women are from — this guy who dated two of the women — isn't it interesting that the crime scene isn't secured?'
"They said, 'Welcome to Jefferson Davis Parish. We're sure you've never seen anything like this in your life.' That specific instant was the seed of my interest."
Brown spent more than two years investigating the murders of the women before publishing a long feature on Medium in January 2014 — within weeks of the launch of the HBO series True Detective, starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, about similar unsolved murders in southwest Louisiana.
Brown has spent the last two years delving further into case files and witness testimony he acquired through public records requests and interviewing families of the victims, suspects and law enforcement.
Murder in the Bayou (Scribner), his page-turning account of the murders and the state of local law enforcement, is out this week.
Brown is best known locally for Shake the Devil Off, an account of the notorious post-Hurricane Katrina murder-suicide in which Zack Bowen killed, butchered and partially cooked his girlfriend Addie Hall. Bowen leapt to his death from the roof of a French Quarter hotel, in his pocket a note leading police to his French Quarter apartment, where Hall's dismembered body was left in pots and pans in and on the stove in their kitchen. Brown based much of that book on military records of Bowen's time in Iraq.
Before his trip to Jennings, Brown wasn't interested in the so-called Jefferson Davis 8, whose deaths law enforcement ascribed to a serial killer. But as Brown researched the murders, they didn't fit the norms of a serial killer, in which the killer and the victims typically are unacquainted. In tiny Jennings, a town of 10,000 people between Lake Charles and Lafayette, the victims knew each other and two were related. The women were between 17 and 30 and had dealt with broken homes, drug addiction, prostitution, mental health issues and poverty. Their bodies were found in canals, fields or ditches on the outskirts of Jennings, some with stab wounds and others too decomposed to identify a cause of death.
The third victim, Kristen Lopez, 21, was mentally disabled and received Supplemental Security Income. She was gawky and could be seen walking the streets of south Jennings near a former pimp's house wearing Tweety Bird pajamas and flip-flops, Brown writes. Her dead body was likely transported in a truck that was cleaned and later purchased by an investigator from the Jefferson Davis Parish Sheriff's Office shortly afterward, according to the book. That officer later was placed in charge of evidence storage.
Brown pieces together accounts of each woman's murder, but in his research, law enforcement also became a focus of the book, not as murder suspects as much as for their close ties with victims and suspects and other eye-raising concerns. Brown outlines chronic problems including money and drugs disappearing from evidence. Cases fell apart and charges of rape and murder were dropped. Witnesses alleged that some law enforcement officers had sex with some of the women, including parish warden Terrie Guillory and the first victim, Loretta Lewis. As Brown researched the case, he took more personal precautions.
"I was concerned about my safety from the beginning," he says. "I did not have any sense who to be concerned about. I never stayed at a hotel or motel in Jefferson Davis Parish. ...
"I began to compare the public statements that were made by law enforcement versus what was actually being said (in the records). The sheriff at the time, who is no longer the sheriff, Ricky Edwards, used the phrase — I am not quoting him exactly — about 'gossip and rumors' that law enforcement were involved in this in any capacity. What I began to learn through public records and leaked task force interviews that I attained is that that's completely false. In fact, task force materials are vast accounts of sheriff's department corruption, police department corruption, law enforcement's own witnesses naming specific cops, deputies and wardens as suspects in the case. The public account is (that) there is no account pointing at law enforcement. The actual law enforcement account, via law enforcement's witnesses — not people I talked to — is exactly the opposite."
Jefferson Davis Parish law enforcement corruption made national news in 1997, when Dateline NBC ran a 45-minute expose about police in Jefferson Davis and Calcasieu parishes unlawfully stopping cars with out-of-state license plates and seizing cash.
Brown also interviewed suspects, including frequent conversations with Frankie Richard. The hard-nosed former pimp battled addiction to cocaine, crystal methamphetamine and alcohol. He knew most of the victims and was charged with the murder of Kristen Lopez, though the charges were dropped after alleged witness Tracee Chaisson (a cousin of the first victim, Loretta Chaisson Lewis) changed her account. (Chaisson also had been charged with accessory to Lopez's murder, and Richard denied killing Lopez in an interview with Brown.)
The book is filled with vivid characters, including south Jennings hustlers, brokenhearted family members, law enforcement officers and others. There also are other unsolved murder cases. It's both startling and haunting how the webs of drug users, prostitutes, johns and cops overlap.
In his pursuit of public records, Brown requested a list of all phone calls between the police department and the Boudreaux Inn, which was patronized by Richard and many of the victims. Brown discovered the hotel was run by a company co-owned by Martin Guillory, a field representative for U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, who currently is running for the U.S. Senate. Police records show frequent responses to incidents at the Boudreaux including fights, intoxication and theft, and Brown offers a partial list involving Jefferson Davis 8 victims or Richard from 1998 to 2006. Guillory told Brown he had no knowledge of criminal activity at the Boudreaux.
A task force involving local, state and federal agencies was formed in 2008 and it still exists, though it has not solved any of the murders. Several of the victims told family or friends that they feared for their lives. It's difficult to believe that no one in Jennings knows more about the murders. But as Brown traces their connections, it's easy to believe these women knew too much.