The details of the Jeff Davis 8 murders are so incredible – and so quintessentially bayou – that if they were fiction they’d seem a little heavy-handed. Between 2005 and 2009, eight women from the town of Jennings, Louisiana, in Jefferson Davis Parish, were murdered, their bodies dumped in crawfish ponds and canals in the area. For years, the police department has implied that a serial killer was in the parish’s midst, but it’s been over a decade since the killings began, and the cases remain unsolved. It sounds like the plot of True Detective, but when the details are laid out all at once, as they are in Ethan Brown’s mesmerizing new book Murder in the Bayou, it starts to make the hit HBO show seem downright restrained – and the bayou look a lot like the rest of the country.
Though the victims’ causes of death varied – several had or appeared to have asphyxiated, two women had their throats slashed – the women of the Jeff Davis 8 had plenty in common. All of them were from South Jennings, the poor side of town, and knew each other. They were all living in poverty and had criminal records filled with drug use and petty crime, often supporting their respective habits with sex work. And, as Brown writes, “all eight of the victims snitched for local law enforcement about the Jennings drug trade.”
Brown was a writer and a private investigator living in New Orleans when he first read about the Jeff Davis 8 in a 2010 New York Times story. Though the article wasn’t particularly long, it detailed the inability of Jefferson Davis law enforcement to get any leads on the case that had so far seen eight deaths – not negligible, especially in a town of only 10,000 residents. To Brown, something didn’t seem right, so in mid-2011 he spent a week in the parish, talking to residents and people who knew the victims, even though he didn’t have a story in mind at the time.
If Jennings seemed like any other rural Louisiana town at first glance, it only took a few days for Brown’s suspicions to grow deeper. Halfway through the trip, he met a drug dealer named David Deshotel, who had recently earned the nickname “Bowlegs” after a gunshot wound to the leg left him with a limp. Deshotel was a street player in town who had dated two of the Jeff Davis 8 victims. “He was either in a wheelchair or on crutches, and he made an impression just because he had been shot and he was kind of a mess,” Brown tells Rolling Stone. “I met him around sunset one evening and I woke up the next morning to the news that he’d been murdered a few hours earlier.”
What the evidence started pointing to was not a serial killer evading capture.
Brown drove to the crime scene – Deshotel had been shot to death in his home – and found it in chaos: Not only had the police not secured the scene or created a perimeter, but people were wandering in and out of the house, sometimes taking items with them. Brown was shocked – after all, this was the murder of someone intimately connected to other homicide victims. Could this really be chalked up to police incompetence?
Later that day, speaking with some former police officers, Brown recounted his experience. “And they said, essentially, ‘Welcome to Jennings. We’re sure you’ve never seen anything like this in your life.’ And these were cops.”
Over the next couple of years, Brown made repeated trips to the parish, interviewing sex workers who knew the victims, drug dealers, former cops, and witnesses that had been brought in by the multiagency task force assembled to help with the case. Many of his witnesses had been frequenters of the Boudreaux Inn, a now-shuttered motel where the town’s drug dealers and sex workers would convene to get high and see clients. Whenever he was back in New Orleans, Brown used Louisiana’s excellent public records laws to request thousands of legal documents, police personnel files and building liens, which he pored over.
According to Brown’s book, what the evidence started pointing to was not a serial killer evading capture but a steady escalation of blatant misconduct by law enforcement. There were allegations that officers had sex with the women who later became Jeff Davis 8 victims, and the task force was, Brown writes, “a near case study in conflict of interest.” There was also evidence in the Jeff Davis 8 cases – including the truck where one of the victims had her throat slashed – that was seemingly tampered with or was removed from the parish entirely. A prison nurse and a sergeant who had tried to voice some of their concerns were subsequently fired from their jobs. And most compelling, Brown writes, “is that most if not all of the Jeff Davis 8…witnessed other murders. Indeed, women who provided information on the first few cases wound up victims themselves.”
It seemed that a new lead, a new horrifying implication, or a new allegation against a high-level individual came up every time Brown scratched the surface of the case. He’d spent years compiling the story, but by the fall of 2013 it was languishing in editorial limbo at a men’s magazine. That’s when he saw a trailer for the first season of True Detective. “I was floored,” he says. “There was going to be an HBO show based in southwest Louisiana, which is where this case is set, and it was going be about unsolved homicides and sex work, to an extent.” He realized that if the show was a success, it could potentially renew interest in the case. He published the article on Medium on January 31st, 2014, under the title “Who Killed the Jeff Davis 8?” and subtitled it “an investigation into a real-life True Detective case.”
The show was a few episodes in and already a runaway success. Thanks to the connection, Brown’s article got picked up all over the internet, including by Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of True Detective, who tweeted it out approvingly. Brown got a book deal and got to work quickly on fleshing the investigation out. But he also got less than ideal attention. The Jefferson Davis parish sheriff, Ivy Woods, posted a note on the department’s official website, calling Brown an “author of fiction stories,” and decrying the article for “insinuating corruption in our Sheriff’s Office.” The note’s still up there, under the heading, “From the Desk of Sheriff Woods.” (In an emailed comment to Rolling Stone regarding Murder in the Bayou, Jefferson Davis Chief Deputy Christopher Ivey says that Brown “speculates on many of the instances [in the book] based on information he obtained from people he admits he doesn’t trust,” adding that “the cases have not been forgotten…. Every serial killer suspect that has been identified and/or arrested, in the United States, since 2009 are looked at by our investigator.”)
Following the publication of his story, he received a bevy of attacks from law enforcement, and not just the Sheriff’s post: the Jennings local newspaper, which had initially been very supportive of Brown’s investigation, published attacks on his reporting and, he says, stopped returning his emails. He wrote that one of his contacts in Jennings, who is “deeply connected to the case,” told him, “I’ve already heard more than once that you’ll never get that book out. You can take that however you want to.”
The backlash spooked him. “I stayed out of Jefferson Davis Parish for months,” he says. “Which was problematic, because I had to speak to a number of people in the parish.” For a long time after the sheriff’s note was published, Brown would meet witnesses and refuse to get out of his car, instead driving them outside the parish to conduct interviews.
The book, obviously a much more detailed account than the Medium article, includes a particularly jaw-dropping revelation that came to light since 2014: In the second-to-last chapter, Brown discovers a connection between some of the victims and Louisiana Congressman Charles Boustany. Throughout the years he’d been investigating the case, Brown had been told that the Boudreaux Inn – the former motel where some of the denizens of Jennings’ underworld, including the Jeff Davis 8, regularly went to take drugs and have sex – was operated by “people who were in politics,” he says, though he never got a name. Then, after a massive public records request about the inn, Brown found that it was co-owned by a Martin P. Guillory, a field representative for Boustany. Further digging revealed multiple witnesses who alleged that Boustany was not only present at the Boudreaux Inn on multiple occasions, but was a client of at least three of the victims.
It’s important to note that none of the allegations Brown highlights amount to accusing anyone of the murders. In a statement quoted in the book, Boustany’s communications director denied that Boustany had any connection to any of the victims or had ever even been to the inn. He also denied that Boustany was aware of Guillory’s stake in the inn. Since the publication of Murder in the Bayou earlier this month, Boustany’s communications director called the allegations in the book “completely false,” and Boustany’s wife sent a letter to his supporters in which she called the congressman “a good man, a loving husband, and an incredible father.”
On the surface, much about this case feels like classic Louisiana corruption. At one point in the book, a witness tells him, “Welcome to the Dirty South.” After all, for those in other corners of America, there’s something undeniably atmospheric about the bayou. It’s got some magical realism to it, with the power to represent the dark and unknowable – and maybe a little sinister – parts of our country.
You can almost smell it on True Detective – all chemical refineries and Spanish moss and creeping swamps – which captured it marvelously. “To me – and years later I actually feel the same way – it was the best representation of southwest Louisiana, visually, that I’ve ever seen,” Brown says of the series’ first season. Pizzolatto has denied that True Detective was based on the Jeff Davis 8 case, but the similarities are undeniable: he was born in Calcasieu Parish, right next to Jefferson Davis Parish, a place that’s had its own fair share of law enforcement corruption. HBO began airing the show during a real bayou moment in culture: The true-crime show Swamp Murders had premiered in fall of 2013 on Investigation Discovery, and American Horror Story: Coven, set in New Orleans, wrapped up in January 2014. Brown clearly recognizes the pull: he named his book Murder in the Bayou.
“Everything that I’m talking about in this book is not confined to Louisiana.”
But where shows like True Detective lean heavily on the built-in spookiness of the swamp, Brown almost instantly does away with the tropes you came for in favor of a more powerful idea. While what happened in Jefferson Davis Parish is a snarled web of power dynamics and deep-rooted corruption, Brown believes it’s symptomatic of a kind of system-wide brokenness that applies all over the country. “It’s easy to say, ‘Louisiana is terrible, it has the highest incarceration rate in America, it has the worst criminal justice system in America.’ All those things are true,” says Brown. “But at the same time, everything that I’m talking about in this book is not confined to Louisiana and Jefferson Davis Parish.”
Throughout Murder in the Bayou, there are references to other major cases where the same systemic problems exist. Writing about the death of the man in the bust-gone-wrong, which a parish grand jury ruled “no true bill” – meaning there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show a crime had been committed by the officers – Brown compares it to the outcomes of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, which were ruled similarly. There are references to mistaken deaths in Atlanta and Tampa as the result of shoddy police informant tips. In the acknowledgments, Brown gives his “incredible thanks and boundless gratitude to the protesters in the Ferguson/St. Louis area for bringing the issue of law enforcement misconduct into the public discourse.”
“Obviously I wrote the Medium piece years ago, and researched it years and years ago,” says Brown. “But the book deal came three to four months before Ferguson and and Eric Garner, and I believe that none of these issues were on the table in any real way pre-Black Lives Matter. I was stunned to see that these things that I’d been interested in and had written about for so long were finally in the national conversation.”
By largely ignoring the story’s bayou noir elements, Brown is able to show each individual victim as a real person, who is mourned and who couldn’t be silenced as easily as their murderers seemed to think. When asked what justice would look like in this case, he shrugs off things like a Department of Justice intervention, which he says would “produce very little actual change.” Instead, he points to street-level flaws. There’s a letter cited in the book from victim Loretta Chaisson’s attorney, written to a judge after one of her arrests, in which the lawyer pushed for leniency by outlining her health problems – tuberculosis, hepatitis, depression and anxiety, addiction. “Obviously these women were murder victims – individual people killed them,” says Brown. “But they were also dying under the weight of having no resources for their health problems, no resources for their mental health problems, no resources for substance abuse.”
Murder in the Bayou could be a story about unconstitutional policing run amok, but by focusing on the women themselves, the takeaway seems to be something far more heartbreaking. These women weren’t doomed because they were in a dangerous milieu. They were doomed by their own social status, by the inescapability of their poverty, and because the people who were supposed to protect them, at best, didn’t give a shit about them. “To me, rounding up whoever did this is important,” says Brown. “But it doesn’t change the facts on the ground in a place like that.”