Last week, we told you about Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8?, the new book by investigative reporter Ethan Brown on the “real life True Detective” case that drew lots of attention in 2014 following the publication of a Medium piece by Brown. The book explores the unsolved murders of eight sex workers who were all killed in Jennings, a town of about 10,000 that resides in Jeff Davis Parish in southwest Louisiana, between 2005 and 2009. The murdered women — who all plied their trade out of the same roadside motel, the Boudreaux Inn — have come to be known as the Jeff Davis 8. Local authorities originally pushed the theory that the murders were the work of a single serial killer, but Brown’s five-year investigation reveals that something far more sinister may be at play.
As we noted last week, “the police incompetence and misconduct meticulously outlined by Brown… are downright staggering, even knowing what we know today about how pervasive police corruption is in some parts of the U.S., to the point where it feels as though Jennings, Louisiana isn’t a place that could possibly exist in the United States of America in 2016. It comes off as the type of depraved, sordid, unsettling place you’re more likely to find in a third-world country ruled by a dictator.” Additionally, Murder in the Bayou reveals that the Boudreaux Inn was run for years by Martin “Big G” Guillory, a member of Rep. Charles Boustany’s congressional staff, and alleges that Boustany, who’s currently running for Senate, himself was a client of some of the murdered sex workers. Boustany has denied the allegations in the book through his spokesperson, and yesterday his wife publicly defended him in an email to supporters.
“He’s a good man, a loving husband, and an incredible father to our two children,” Bridget Boustany says in the email. She went on to allege that Brown’s book is the work of her husband’s political opponents, charging that “Charles’ opponents have resorted to lies about him,” adding that the explosive details in Murder in the Bayou are nothing more than “false attacks aimed at bringing down a candidate who threatens to take the lead and win the race for U.S. Senate.” In response to Bridget Boustany’s email, Brown said, “I stand by what I reported in my book.”
Recently, we sat down with Ethan Brown — a former New York Magazine staff writer who now also works as a private investigator — to discuss Murder in the Bayou and how he first learned of the Jeff Davis 8 case and became captivated enough by it to devote five years of his life to investigating it. Brown also details how he essentially accidentally stumbled upon the connection to Rep. Boustany detailed in the book.
How did you first become aware of the Jeff Davis 8 case and when did your fascination with it start? You obviously dove in head first and devoted a few years of your life to it.
So, the origins of the story, or my interest in the story, begin in the summer of 2011. I became professionally friendly with a guy named Kirk Menard, a licensed P.I. who had done some work on the case. I think Kirk had done some sporadic pro bono work on the case on behalf of one of the victim’s families. Anyway, I became professionally friendly with Kirk and went out there to Jeff Davis Parish at his invitation in the summer of 2011. Actually spent about a week out there. I did not have any idea what I was doing out there other than the case seemed interesting.
What were you doing at the time?
My wife and I had just had our son. I was working at the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center. I was staff investigator there. I had accrued vacation time, some time off, and I said, “I’ll just…”
So you used your vacation time, your time off, to go poke around in murder cases in Jennings, Louisiana?
[Laughs.] Yes. Actually, you know, I went with nothing really in mind other than meeting people. I rode around with Kirk and met people. Did some more reading about the case; Campbell Robertson at the New York Times had reported on it a bit. Here’s the actual hook of the entire thing for me: I was riding around one night with Kirk. This was like July of 2011, same trip. First trip there. We were on Hobart Street in south Jennings and I remember this very well. There was an odd guy named Bowlegs that Kirk introduced me to who was hobbling around Hobart Street. He dated at least two of the Jeff Davis 8 victims. I met him around sunset one night in early or mid July and I vividly remember meeting the guy because he was a character. He was a hobbly, south Jennings hustler guy, right?
It was just a funny — an odd little meeting, even for Jennings. A good example of the weird culture of the area. These odd white dudes that are like, you know, street hustlers, little white dude gangsters, basically, you know? He was one of them. I was introduced to him by Kirk. Said hello. Went back to my hotel that night. The next morning very early I got a call from Kirk that Bowlegs had been murdered.
I had just met him hours earlier. That had never happened to me, ever. In all of my time writing about crime or working as an investigator. I’d never met somebody who was murdered hours later. So that in itself was fascinating.
Then Kirk suggested we meet up at the crime scene, which was a very, very fresh crime scene. We meet at the crime scene and I’ll never forget it. I wrote about it a little bit in the book. There were multiple people going in and out of the crime scene. Removing items out of the crime scene. There was no crime scene tape. There were no cops around. It was mind-blowingly strange. Now, number one it’s a murder case, obviously. Number two the guy was connected to the Jeff Davis 8. And it’s a free-for-all at the crime scene. I just thought, “My God, what on Earth is going on in this Parish?” Then that afternoon I met with a bunch of people, including cops, former cops. They said to me, I don’t want to quote them exactly because this was five years ago, so I’ll paraphrase: “Welcome to Jeff Davis Parish. I’m sure you’ve never seen anything like this in your life.” I said, “Right.”
And you’re someone who’s devoted a good part of your life to investigating crimes…
I have never seen anything like this in my life. That was the hook for the story, honestly, this one murder.
Wow. That’ll do it. Do you think there was any connection to Bowlegs having talked to you and Kirk, or just coincidence? Do you think he was murdered because he was seen talking to you guys?
I don’t think so.
You don’t think that you guys were being trailed or anything like that?
No. Not at this point. He had been shot months earlier. That’s why he was hobbling around. He was still injured from a previous shooting, and it’s likely his murder was connected to that earlier shooting in some way.
And, FYI, I think it’s important to note that this murder’s also unsolved.
Five years later.
Obviously, we know that none of the Jeff Davis 8 murders have been solved, but a number of people with ties to them, like this guy, have been murdered as well. Have any of those murders been solved?
None of those are solved.
None of those are solved either?
Not a one.
That was the hook. I then came back home to New Orleans and I wanted to go into private practice as a private investigator. I thought, “You know, I should have a side project that I’m working on, a slow burn project that I’m working on while I’m in private practice.” I picked the Jeff Davis 8 case to be that slow burn project. Somewhat shockingly, Louisiana has great public records law, but it’s not used all that often. So I started a blitz of public records requests. I decided, let’s just fucking make it rain public records requests. Jeff Davis Parish D.A., Jeff Davis Parish Sheriff, Jennings Police, Louisiana State Police. I just went nuts, like totally blitzed everybody at public records with requests.
What were you asking for specifically? Emails, phone records?
Everything, basically everything on these victims. Anything pertaining to the victims and also some of the peripheral players as well. I just went on this blitz of Public Records Act requests and my thought was, “I’ll just wait and see what I get.”
A fishing expedition, basically.
Yeah, yeah. I figured I’d see what I got and Public Records Act requests take a long time to manage, but piece by piece they all started coming in. I think it was Christmas 2012, I’d gotten everything back in terms of what I’d ask for. I remember that Christmas Day I was sitting with these towers of records at my kitchen table.
That was a memorable Christmas, I’m sure.
Indeed it was. Then, a few months later, in the early fall of 2013, HBO released teasers for True Detective — 10 second, 20 second, 30 second teasers. I saw them and I said, “Oh my God. I can’t believe this.”
I mean, the title of the show could have been Murder in the Bayou.
Right, right. I was just thinking, “What an insane coincidence that this is set in Erath, which is like 40 miles from Jeff Davis Parish. It’s about unsolved homicides. It’s about sex work.” I mean, I was just floored.
Then the Medium piece comes out in the middle of the show’s run. Obviously there’s a splash. The sheriff of the parish at the time posted a rant about “out of town journalists” needing to mind their own business or something. When did the idea for digging further and turning it into a book come about?
A number of publishers approached us after the piece ran on Medium. I’d worked on the piece for so long and it was 8000 words, which was obviously a long piece, but the drafts that I had were 28,000 words. When the publishers asked about the Medium piece, my feeling was, “Well, I already have 28,000 words, that’s a good start.” So I thought, “You know, I’ve got a lot going already. I’ve done a lot of investigation. This could be a great idea.” Then the other piece of it is when Sheriff Ivy Woods did his anti-Ethan Brown rant, which is still on the Sheriff’s Department website, by the way, I got a wave of people coming to me, a tidal wave. I actually remember sitting at my computer and my fingers felt like they were going to fall off, I was responding to so many emails.
From people with stories to tell?
From people with stories to tell. People with leaks. People with real stuff.
Thank you, Sheriff Woods.
Seriously. It brought more attention to the whole thing. It sent tons of people my way with information. The only difficult part about the Sheriff Woods message was that I became a little frightened for my safety.
Of course. I was going to ask you that. At any point did you think, “I need to stop going to Jennings.”
Yes. The Sheriff Woods period was the scariest part, by far. I ended up not going into the Parish for quite a while. It may have been five or six months, actually.
Did you drive your own car or did you rent a car when you went there?
I drove my own car. I would actually drive into Jeff Davis Parish, call a witness and say, “Run outside your house, jump in my car, we’re driving out of the Parish.” Seriously.
Wow, I don’t blame you.
That’s how I felt about that period. I really felt that the Sheriff Woods message was essentially…
A bit of a warning?
No, it was more like a “Most Wanted” thing to me. It was like, you’re a marked man. You know, stay out of here. That’s the way I took it. I don’t think I overreacted. I spent like five or six months completely out of the Parish. Then I’d do these witness interviews where I’d drive into the Parish…
Pick them up and then drive out.
Tell the people to get into my car and then drive out. I’d drive to Acadia Parish and we’d sit in my car in parking lots there to talk. Acadia Parish is really close, it’s right next to Jeff Davis. You can be in Acadia in five minutes.
That’s the back story.
Obviously there are a lot of fingers that you subtly point at in the book in terms of who’s responsible for all these murders.
I think this is the case where there are multiple suspects. It’s absolutely not a serial killer case. There are multiple suspects. Multiple suspects who all are connected in some way, who all exist within a very specific Jeff Davis Parish drug and sex ring.
Do you think there’s one person who knows definitively what happened to all of these women?
No, I don’t think there’s one person. I think that there are people like sex workers who were running in that circle and who are still living. They may have information about specific homicides, but I don’t think there’s one person who knows everything.
So the Boustany part of all this: When did you first make a connection between him and the Jeff Davis 8?
I had heard from the beginning that there were powerful people, or a powerful person, who was the proprietor, or proprietors, of the Boudreaux Inn, but did not investigate that claim because it was so vague.
It could mean anything.
It could mean anything, especially in a small town where power can mean a number of things, it can be defined in so many ways. A dentist can be powerful in that town.
It was so vague and it could mean so many things in a small town, I didn’t investigate it. But I started hearing more and more murmurings about the Boudreaux Inn. Again, very vague. So I thought, “Why don’t I just see what this is about?” With no goal in mind at all other than just see what it was about, I again went back to Public Records Act requests. Did a huge public records search. What I found was that Martin Guillory — he’s known around the area as “Big G” — who is the field representative for Congressman Charles Boustany, was the proprietor of the Boudreaux Inn from ’99 to 2008-ish. That was very interesting to me. Then I spoke to other witnesses who told me — and these are people who grew up with several of the Jeff Davis 8 — that Boustany was a client of theirs.
Do you think the sex workers knew who he was?
That’s a good question. No, I don’t think that they did, to be honest with you. They had some sense that he was in politics, but I don’t think they knew exactly who he was.
He wasn’t a local guy. He’s from the Lafayette area.
Correct, he’s from Lafayette. At the time he was Congressman, a Congressman seeking a higher office.
Most people couldn’t recognize their Congressman in the street.
Correct, especially in a small town like that. That’s the evolution of that part of the investigation.
The Boudreaux Inn is no longer there, right? It’s been torn down?
No, it’s still there. It’s just off I-10. It’s visible from the Interstate. It’s shuttered up. It’s two buildings, two very small buildings. There’s a front bar and then there’s a back motel. It was explained to me by sex workers in Jennings that what you would do, they explained it very carefully, they said what you would do is you went to the bar, met up with Johns at the bar, and then you went to the back building quietly to engage in sex. They said, this is again according to them, this was what you did at the Boudreaux Inn as a sex worker. That’s where you went at that time to be a sex worker. From the late ’90s to the early/mid-2000s, it was one of the key places for the drugs and sex trade in Jeff Davis Parish.
Refresh my memory, how many of the Jeff Davis 8 is Boustany alleged to have been a client of?
At least three.
What do you think happens next with the Jeff Davis 8 case?
I don’t know. I mean, that’s a good question. I don’t know. A number of people obviously are looking at this. There was a Federal/State Task Force created in 2008 to look into these murders. But where’s Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division on this? We see now DOJ civil rights division doing these investigations with the Baltimore police. Where are they on this? This case is not a secret. For a small parish, there’s been a staggering number of unsolved homicides, and there’s the decades of unconstitutional policing on top of that. As I write in the book — and I’ve got the complaints, the actual complaints — they were the subject of multiple civil rights cases in Federal court over this stuff. They’ve got the unsolved homicides. They’ve got the pattern of unconstitutional policing going back decades. They have extraordinary police misconduct in these cases themselves. There’s a lot to look at. It’s remarkable. To be honest with you, I feel like this area, meaning southwest Louisiana, has had essentially totally rogue law enforcement.
I guess to answer your question, what happens next, I honestly don’t know.
Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8 goes on sale Tuesday, September 13.