I lived in Jennings, Louisiana, a few years back and the hottest topic in town was the unsolved murders of eight women in what has become known as the Jeff Davis 8. Over the past few years I read that an investigative journalist named Ethan Brown set about writing about the killings. His recently published book is the result of years of public record searches and interviews. So without doubt I was very interested to read Ethan Brown’s Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8?
“As Jackson peered deeper into the Grand Marais Bayou, he spied the outline of a human body. ‘It had come up on the news that someone had stole some mannequins,’ Jackson told me, ‘so I thought that one of the mannequins ended up in the water somehow.’ Jackson focused his eyes on the figure. ‘I saw flies, and mannequins don’t attract flies.'”
Jennings is the seat of Jefferson Davis Parish. Growing up there we rarely locked the backdoor. And I returned for a three year hiatus from 2007 to 2010. Murder in the Bayou is a true-life southern gothic novel chronicling the shocking murders of eight women between 2005 and 2009–which happens to take place in my hometown.
It is difficult to comprehend that these horrific scenes played out within miles or even blocks of my own home. Victim #6 was assaulted with a lead pipe during a party that took place on the same block a few doors down from the charming little house where I was living at the time. I had no idea!
And please note, while the conclusions that Brown forms in Murder in the Bayou are scandalous, there is no proof of malfeasance by public officials. But it was an enthralling read nonetheless.
The ease at which Brown describes the scope of sex work and drug deals in our sleepy little town on the Cajun prairie was jarring. It is a side of Jennings I do not know and had no idea that those kinds of enterprises not only exist but thrive there.
That said, another weird phenomenon occurred while reading the book: the familiarity to which I knew the streets, the places, and even the people in the story. There was no need to conjure images in my head of what the Jeff Davis Court House, Boudreaux Inn, Budget Inn, Hanson Super Foods, Ray’s Laundry & Cleaners, Paradise Park, Popeyes, Tina’s Bar, and Family Dollar looks like—though not the most upscale places in town, I know these exact places. And it was also bizarre to see names that I know; shout out to Greg Marcantel, Ricky Edwards, Ric Oustalet, Scott Lewis, David Marcantel, Michael Cassidy, Richard McElveen, Nina Ravey, Sheila Smith, and Kevin Millican—these are not just characters in a book; I have met these people, know them on a first name basis, and consider some as old friends.
“Crystal was plodding along slowly, smoking Newport 100s, when she spotted a stranger in a parked car. She asked to borrow it, but the stranger refused. When she finally reached the Phillips 66, she used a pay phone to call Warden Terrie Guillory … It’s unclear what Crystal told Guillory. But this was the last time she was seen alive.”
I was present for the fear, speculation, and dare I say excitement whirling around the sensational cases–everyone was talking about it. I attended the press conference on the steps of the courthouse, standing about ten feet from Sheriff Edwards; I witnessed firsthand the backlash, rebuke, and protest shouted by members of the victims’ families.
An important aspect of the book is the way that Brown personalizes the victims. Right or wrong, many of the town elite justified the deaths with a mantra that the women lead high risk lifestyles. But with the reconstruction of their final days, Brown relates the agonizing stories of women who might have taken the wrong path–some of them did heinous things–but who were still loved by family and friends, and certainly did not deserve to be murdered, their bodies thrown in a ditch like garbage.
“By the summer of 2009, Jennings was still staring down seven unsolved murders. A charitable explanation for the Taskforce’s failures would be incompetence. But that theory ignores the Taskforce’s close relationship to one of its prime suspects, Frankie Richard. Jennings residents, especially those in South Jennings, remained frightened and distrustful of law enforcement, and their fears were justified.”
Brown asserts that these murders were not the work of a serial killer but rather the violent fallout of the brutal sex and drug underbelly in small town Louisiana. Is it possible that confiscated drugs leak back onto the streets via rogue police? Are we asked to believe that corrupt peace officers not only intentionally mishandled and lost evidence related to the murders but were in varying degrees involved?
It is disturbing that such an idyllic southern town with charm and Christian values has been tarnished by not only the number of unsolved murders but by such salacious allegations against those avowed to protect it.
Again, there is no proof of wrong-doing by public officials. Brown cites Ivy Woods, the current sheriff, issuing a statement on the Jeff Davis Parish Sheriff’s Office website calling Brown “an author of fiction stories” and that he was “insinuating corruption.” I also saw that Sheriff Woods was quoted last month in the Washington Post, “I think he just wrote the book to make money and embarrass the people of Southwest Louisiana.” ( Source: The Washington Post – (09/2102016) A New Prostitution Scandal Roils a Louisiana Senate Race.)
While I was in Jennings last week everyone was talking about this book but no one wanted to talk about it. And I did not see the book for sell anywhere I stopped.
No matter, I ordered my copy from Amazon.com and we found signed copies of Murder in the Bayou at Books-A-Million on Ryan Street in Lake Charles.
Murder in the Bayou is so intriguing and the bodies really pile up as Brown’s account unfolds; the book moves quickly, draws precise and shocking conclusions, and caused me to have bad dreams until I finished it.