“Of course I’m dangerous. I’m police. I can do terrible things to people with impunity.” – Rust Cohle (character), True Detective, Season One.
In the small town of Jennings, the seat of a Louisiana parish (or county) renamed after the president of the Confederacy, a string of unsolved murders, beginning in 2005 and now including at least a dozen victims, has ignited explosive allegations that suggest much more than law enforcement incompetence; instead, there are tomes of records, statements, and evidence that point to widespread collusion and corruption among the very agencies tasked with protecting and serving the community, the police.
On Monday, The Bayou Brief spoke with author Ethan Brown, whose most recent book “Murder in the Bayou” is the result of an extensive, five-year-long investigation into the true story of the unsolved homicides in Jefferson Davis Parish. It is a riveting and exhaustively researched book that offers the most definitive explanation of a story that has eluded detectives since 2005. Brown had been warned by people in Jennings that his book would “disappear in a black hole,” and it almost did, largely because of some salacious details at the tail end.
Last year, Brown dropped his book and, in it, a bombshell during the middle of a crowded and contentious campaign to replace U.S. Sen. David Vitter: One the men vying for the job, Congressman Charles Boustany, was employing Martin Guillory, the co-owner of a well-known brothel in Jennings, a nondescript motel off of Interstate 10 called The Boudreax Inn and, for a time, the epicenter of a narcotics and prostitution ring directly implicated in the murders of eight women.
Collectively, these women became known as the Jeff Davis 8, and to this day, with the exception of the location of Huey P. Long’s deduct box, their murders remain the most significant and most astonishing unsolved mystery in the state of Louisiana. It may also be the biggest cover-up in Louisiana’s history, which is saying something.
The case had already drawn substantial national attention: feature-length articles in The New York Times, Vice, and Rolling Stone.
When “Murder in the Bayou” was first published, the state and national media focused almost entirely on the allegations against Rep. Charles Boustany. After all, David Vitter, the man he sought to replace, was eventually brought down because of his associations with sex workers. The story about Boustany, however, is more like a footnote; he could adequately be described as a minor character.
Martin Guillory, also known as Big G, was the Congressman’s field director; he had a phone number in Boustany’s D.C. office. That wasn’t all: Brown learned that, in the fall of 2012, a witness alleged to the FBI that the Congressman had been sexually involved with at least one of the murder victims, claims that were considered credible and serious enough to necessitate several days worth of interviews with the witness.
But again, it would be a gross simplification to define Ethan Brown’s years of research around this particular aspect of the story as the story. For his part, Brown politely declined to speak about the allegations against Boustany, and The Bayou Brief was happy to oblige: That was never the real story.
Neither was the story in HBO’s True Detective.
On Jan. 12, 2014, HBO debuted the very first episode of True Detective, a staggeringly evocative and brilliant series written by Lake Charles native Nic Pizzolatto. The show, which starred Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, won massive critical acclaim, transporting viewers into the seedy underworld of law enforcement in the petrochemical dystopia of southwest Louisiana, a place haunted by unsolved murders, rumors of Satanic cults, and amoral men of power who built fiefdoms by leveraging corruption.
Eighteen days later, on Jan. 30, Ethan Brown published “Who Killed The Jeff Davis 8?” on the web publication Medium, and almost immediately, the Internet lit up with speculation about the connections between Pizzolatto’s show and Brown’s research and sensational story. The sheriff of Jefferson Davis Parish took to Facebook and dismissed Brown as an “out of town” fiction writer who was attempting to sell a story to HBO, purposely conflating Pizzolatto’s fictional television show with Brown’s true crime expose.
Pizzolatto and Brown have never met one another and have never spoken.
“I was stunned by the similarities between the first season of True Detective and this case,” Brown told The Bayou Brief. “Not at all that this is the same story, but it’s the same milieu. When the trailers dropped, it captured the milieu of the place so well, I thought it was a remarkable coincidence.”
We also reached out to Pizzolatto (full disclosure: his brother, Nath Pizzolatto, is a paid contributing writer for The Bayou Brief). “Ethan’s work had absolutely nothing to do with my work on Season One,” he stated via e-mail. “All one could say is that I must have succeeded in an authentic portrayal of the psychology of a place, which was validated in part by a crime journalist’s work. It seems like he (Brown) does worthwhile and important work.”
That milieu, the psychology of that place is rife with, as Brown puts it, “institutionalized corruption.”
Jennings is situated directly off of Interstate 10, in between Houston and New Orleans and in the center of one of the biggest drug corridors in the country. “This specific area is sort of a drug tunnel. It’s a major trafficking route,” Brown said. “That creates a big problem in and of itself. The second thing is: The drug war is so inherently corrupt that it leads to (this).”
It also helps to explain why all of these murders remain unsolved.
“It seems like there’s a feeling that this thing is an impossible mess. You can’t trust anyone. The witnesses are crap. There’s a lack of physical evidence,” Brown said. “On the other hand, you start looking at this, and it leads to power. It leads to people in the Sheriff’s office, people who are prominent in the community.”
For nearly a decade, law enforcement in Jennings and in Jefferson Davis Parish have pursued the theory that these eight murders were all committed by a single serial killer, a theory that is methodically and expertly debunked in Brown’s book.
The much more likely explanation is that at least four of these women were probably murdered by or at the behest of Frankie Richard, a white man from Jennings who is sometimes called Cajun Country’s John Gotti, and that at least two others were probably murdered by a former Sheriff deputy, Danny Barry, who died in 2010. Barry was never charged with a crime, but Richard has faced numerous charges, all of which eventually collapsed after witnesses recanted or evidence was mishandled.
Richard, surprisingly, spoke with Brown on multiple occasions during the course of his investigation, often making claims that were self-incriminating and contradictory. When asked why Richard was willing to be so candid, Brown offered his working theory.
“I wrote a book called ‘Queens Reign Supreme.’ When I was working on that book, there was a tertiary character named Jimmy Henchman, and Jimmy had been implicated in all sorts of things, including having Tupac (Shakur) shot in New York shortly before Tupac’s murder. And I spent a lot of time talking with Jimmy,” he said. “After spending a lot of time with him, I realized there are certain people who get away with things for so long, their defenses get completely dropped. Frankie, to me, is the white version of Jimmy.”
In Brown’s telling, it is impossible not to conclude a cover-up.
“These women witnessed other murders. Not all of them. But most of them,” he explained. “And these women witnessed police misconduct. Nearly all of them.”
Still, bafflingly, the Jefferson Davis Sheriff’s Department is the lead agency involved in the investigation, a fact that Brown cannot comprehend. “Some of their former employees are suspects,” Brown stated. “The former sheriff, Ricky Edwards, said that no law enforcement officers were suspects. That’s completely false.”
Brown was initially drawn to the story after reading a report in The New York Times by Campbell Robertson. “One specific part of it drew my attention,” he said. “There was a glancing mention of a high-ranking member of the sheriff’s office, Warren Gary, who had been disciplined for selling a truck allegedly involved in one of the murders. That piqued my interest.”
A year later, he visited Jennings for the first time. “While I was out there, the boyfriend of at least two of the Jeff Davis 8 victims was murdered, David ‘Bowlegs’ Deshotel,” he said. “This has never happened to me in my career, but I had met David hours before he was murdered. What was even stranger is that I went out to the crime scene hours later, and there were no investigators. People told me that this was normal.”
Deshotel’s murder remains unsolved.
In addition to the Jeff Davis 8 and Deshotel, there at least three other homicide victims connected to the investigation whose murders also remain unsolved.
Shortly before Thanksgiving last year, Warren Gary, the deputy who bought and then sold a truck that was evidence in one of the homicides, was also murdered, shot in his sleep by his grandson. That case is closed.