In 2011, investigative reporter Ethan Brown grew transfixed by and began probing into eight unsolved murders that occurred in and around the small town Jennings, Louisiana between 2005 and 2009. Known as the Jeff Davis 8 (so-named for the parish where Jennings is situated), the women’s bodies surfaced in drainage canals and on desolate back roads. These murders remain unsolved, long after law enforcement arrested and cleared a few suspects, including a notorious pimp and drug dealer named Frankie Richard. Brown has been working this case for eight years, which led to a 2014 Medium article (that caused quite a stir) and his 2016 book, Murder In The Bayou. The best-seller is the launching point for Showtime’s new docuseries of the same name.
It’s worth pointing out that this case has become known as the “real life True Detective case,” given the striking similarities between the HBO series’ first season and what actually went down in Jennings. We initially interviewed Brown — who has long maintained that the evidence eliminates the possibility of a serial killer (as law enforcement has insisted) and instead suggests a sinister conspiracy — around the time of his book’s publication. His extensive findings included a tie between then-Congressman Charles Boustany and the Boudreaux Inn, an establishment run by a close Boustany associate and where all eight Jeff Davis victims turned tricks as part of the same local prostitution ring. It follows that Brown’s research also pointed toward a long-standing pattern of local law enforcement misconduct and corruption.
As a co-executive producer of the five-part docuseries (that began airing on Sept. 13), Brown was gracious enough to sit down with us again and discuss his mind-boggling time spent working the case and how the series goes even further than his book.
It seems really important to touch on the structure of this Showtime docuseries. There’s no narrator. How did that come about?
I don’t want to speak for the filmmakers, but from my perspective and likely the perspective of everyone on the team, I think, without fully speaking for them. We wanted this to be the folks in this case — the family members and the people who populate this case in Jefferson Davis Parish, really at the center of this piece. And a narrator, even with all the interviews, would really undercut that. Again, not speaking for the filmmakers, but I think they wanted a very natural kind of narrative flow, and something that would seem to be ongoing, which is the direct nature of the case. Even though this happened in 2005 and 2009, there is nothing really that’s come of it in terms of justice. It’s a very ongoing kind of case, and having a narrator would put this in the past, which is where it doesn’t belong. It’s very much in the present.
A few years ago, you told us that this case was your “slow-burn project.”
You picked the case up in 2011, and it’s still burning. All the Jeff Davis 8 murders remain unsolved, almost 15 years after the first homicide.
Did you have any inkling that this would be as much of a slow burn?
That’s a good question. I think yes, in some ways. When I started looking at this soon after pitching my editor, what was so interesting about this case, both to me and my editor, was that almost on a weekly basis, we would come back and say, “Wow. How does it happen that every time we talk, there’s another layer added to his?”
At that point, had you made the connection with then-Congressman Boustany?
No, that was years later. In the very beginnings of me looking at this, when I was pulling public records requests, we’d talk about how the folks in town were talking about a police shooting that happened with an unarmed man that occurred just before the [Jeff Davis 8] homicides began in 2005. When you hear some of these stories, there was a sense of, “Can this be true, really?” And by the way, this was the shooting of a man named Leonard Crochet in 2005 that had been turned into this monumental event that kicked off these murders. I pulled every document that I could, and I found that only Kristen Gary Lopez, Victim #3, was present when this happened. In town [talk], it had been that all eight victims were there, but the shape of that incident was still a thing. It was still true. So there are so many examples of pulling on a thread and something tumbling out. Very early on (the Medium piece wasn’t published until 2014) there was a sense of this being unending. Did I think I would still be on it in 2019? I don’t think so, but at the same time, just the threads aspect of this — pulling on one and opening up a whole world — was there from the beginning.
The people of Jennings didn’t hesitate to contact you while you researched your book, and they appeared on camera for the series. Were you surprised by how candid they were?
Because I’ve been on this for so long, I sometimes forget what it was like to talk to people as a stranger. I don’t know that the reception to me at the beginning, particularly, [well], it may appear to be seamless, but it was difficult. On one hand, I would go out and just knock on doors and talk to people that way, and it was really successful. I would sit in people’s living rooms, in their kitchen, just listen to their stories. Then there were times (the six-month to a year period) before the piece was published [when] there a lot of people were saying like, “This is taking forever. It’s never gonna be published. Fuck you.” It was tough, feeling really bad because the piece hadn’t been published yet, people were pissed, and I’d been in and out of there a lot. I was wearing thin on people and had nothing to show for it. I felt like, really, that I had let people down, and they were right to be unhappy with me. So it hasn’t been easy or seamless, but by the time the (Showtime series) shooting had started in 2018, I’d been in and out of there for seven years. And it was remarkable because whenever you’re been filmed for an interview, when it comes down to actually sitting down and doing it, that’s a big decision to make. I felt like that would be an extraordinary decision for people here. There’s embarrassing stuff and traumatic and violent stuff here; there are secrets here. But I think out of the entire series, there’s maybe one who appears in silhouette. I understand why that’s the case, but that’s remarkable that just one out of many people is anonymous.
Everybody else just really put it all out there.
What’s truly wild is that Frankie Richard was just calling you up for years. How did you first make contact with him?
It was my first trip. I knocked on the door of his home. His mother answered the door, and I asked if Frankie was there. She said he wasn’t, but I was welcome to come in and sit down. A very sort-of classic Deep South hospitality but also interesting because mom had a long history of running afoul of the law.
I assume you identified your purpose to her.
Absolutely. We were chatting, and she asked, “Want me to get Frankie on the phone for you?” I said, “Wow really, sure. I’d love that.” She dialed Frankie and put me on the phone, and he was in Breaux Bridge at the time, just to the east of Jennings, in Cajun Country. He said, “Sure sure, come on out.” He was at a friend’s camp. I said goodbye to his mom, and the next day, I pull up to the camp. It was reaaaaally small. So small, that it was putting me and him face-to-face. And I don’t mean like opposite sides of the table. I mean face-to-face like almost kissing or intimate. This is my first meeting with Frankie, and obviously by 2011, he’s had this rep forever, but in 2011, he has the reputation of a prime suspect in these homicides. And I’m sitting inches away from his face when I did this interview, and it was so intense. I’ll never forget the sound of a window air conditioner. Sort-of fixating on that, like if I can just focus on something…
You had a lot of fear, right?
Yeah, like it would somehow allay my fears. I was focused on this sound. And then very quickly, this is something that I think you see somewhat in the series, but it’s definitely not there anymore because of the mental and physical degradation of Frankie. He was such an expert storyteller, just in that one interview, that I was like, I can’t believe this person. This is not only the primary suspect of a serial homicide case, but this guy can really tell a story. He’s so quotable, it’s off the charts, and when I say this, I know it’s gonna sound terrible because of what he’s accused of, but I just found him so entertaining. He would call me, a lot, in the middle of the day, like, “Hey, what’s going on?” I always picked up because it was so entertaining. That was helpful. We never had a broken chain of communication. So when I went back to do interviews, there was one I did in 2012 and sat on his momma’s porch with him, and he was just slinging quotes that were amazing. To paraphrase, he said, “I’d like to thank Paula Guillory from the Task Force for her misconduct in my case, which allowed the charges against me and my mom to get dropped.”
So he kept up with everything, all the case details.
Oh yeah, he was very sharp. And I think the comfort level with these phone calls led him to say things like that that he framed as “haha, I’m joking,” but it wasn’t a joke.
Well, I was trying to make a mental list of the red flags in this case that make no sense, and it’s all so overwhelming. I mean, there’s everything from delayed blood-sample testing to the Visqueen-encased sex dungeon of a jailor.
Run by the man who was second-in-command of the jail!
Is it possible to pinpoint the one finding that made you shake your head the most?
It’s all so bizarre. I’m glad you mentioned the Visqueen piece. Danny Berry, who is no longer with us, died of cancer in 2010, was second-in-command of the jail, a very powerful member of the sheriff’s office, and there was constant information going to the Task Force about Danny. He’s picking up sex workers, recruiting sex workers, putting sex workers into his vehicle, just an incredible amount of information, and it’s not my stuff, it’s information gathered by the Task Force. And that’s always blown my mind about this … and they [interviewed him] by saying, “We have this information about you raping Brittney Gary,” one of the Jeff Davis 8 victims. And Danny just blows it off and laughs, basically … and the interrogators sort-of agree with it in this jovial way. And that’s it, and then Danny Berry dies, so to me, that’s one of the most shocking aspects.
Do you think the Department of Justice will ever move on this case at all?
I hope the DOJ moves on it. There are so many examples of civil rights violations committed under the color of law. I don’t know if they will.
At a certain point, you started shuttling interview subjects out of the parish to speak with them after Sheriff Ivy Woods published a negative statement about you. These days, do you feel any sense of danger, in or out of the parish?
We’ll see when I go back to Louisiana. I’ve been in New York all summer, working at my day job at The Appeal and working on this. So we’ll see how I feel when I go down South. The period that you’re referencing, the spring of 2014 — after the article was published, the sheriff’s office posted that letter about me on their website. That really shook me, and I hope it doesn’t come off in any way like I’m saying that in 2014, I was being targeted to be harmed in any way by the sheriff’s office. I’m not saying that. Back then, I was thinking it made sense given how high-profile this kind of back-and-forth between me and the sheriff’s office had become, that I just stayed away for a bit. That’s all. During that period, people would call me, and I remember one person in particular [wanted to talk], so I came and picked her up and drove to Acadia Parish, which is a 10-minute drive. So it was easy. It wasn’t a big deal. And “back-and-forth” was probably the wrong way [for me] to put it. My piece was published, the sheriff posted the message about me on their website, and then there were like two weeks of front-page articles in the Jennings Daily News in which the DA, the police department, and the sheriff’s department attacked me on the front page. And I never responded because I didn’t want to get into a back-and-forth with them. I wasn’t going tit-for-tat with the sheriff’s office. That would have been counterproductive.
They did call you an “author of fiction stories!”
Yeah, that’s incorrect, unfortunately. Sometimes people call Murder in the Bayou a novel, so maybe it’s something like that.
It was a lot of shade, I think.
You were understandably surprised when True Detective teasers started dropping in 2013 with similarities to this case. Did you watch the series when it came out?
Oh yes, I watched season 1 of True Detective, which I liked, a lot. I know that people have retrospectively mixed feelings about True Detective, maybe because of seasons 2 and 3, but I particularly like the way it looked. Director Nic Pizzolatto did a beautiful job capturing the way the area looks. I really liked — and I’m a weirdo for saying this, maybe — there was a sheriff in the series named Steve Geraci, like a bumbling sheriff, who’s keeping a lot of secrets for powerful people. And there’s a confrontation on the sheriff’s boat with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It’s sort of ridiculous, they pull a gun on him. And that seemed like a great character, like a very Louisiana sheriff. The way he looked, the way he acted, the way he was masking all this other stuff.
The intimidation factor from Rust Cohle and Marty Hart was almost too easy.
With the gun pulling, exactly. I thought it was wonderful.
What do you hope this docuseries will accomplish because it seems like justice and closure aren’t in the cards?
Right. There are a few things. The first is that I hope people see this world in the most full and human way possible through our interviews. And I don’t want to argue that people should like certain people, but I hope that people see that these folks are amazing. They have persevered through so much, and they’re actually wonderful talkers and storytellers, too. They’re just incredible people. I hope people get a sense of the family that’s very intimate. Like, when you see Teresa Gary, one of the most powerful people of the series, I hope people feel that power. I hope that people get angry about this because it’s a lot more than unsolved homicides at work here. It’s the marginalization of an entire community, and they’re also made disposable, and I hope people are angry about that. Angry enough to really demand action on this and say that this is not tolerable, that these homicides have got the kind of investigative treatment that is poor. And also, I think this is a part of this, the lives that these women led, which is described as a “lifestyle” by the sheriff and others?
Yeah, the sheriff called it a “high-risk lifestyle.”
Lifestyle, to me, means traveling or golfing or something that we choose to do. This is not a lifestyle, it’s a life. And it’s a life defined by poverty, mental health issues, substance use disorder. These are not choices, this is life. And I hope that people see this and think that nobody should have to live like this, especially, and there’s an amazing quote in the series from Necole Guillory’s mother, Barbara, where she says, “Necole’s second home was the jail.” What that means to me is something very profound, which is that the problems that people face in America, and it’s not just Jeff Davis Parish, whether it’s substance abuse or mental health issues or poverty, are dealt with not by helping people or getting people services, but through the jail. Jail in our big cities now are the largest mental health providers in these cities. That is intolerable.
‘Murder In The Bayou’ airs Friday nights at 9pm EST on Showtime.