The New Orleans-based writer and investigator goes deep into what’s known as the “Jeff Davis 8” case to expose why and how so many women were killed in a small Louisiana town.
“Ethan Brown’s daring and dangerous exposé uncovers a murky inferno of violence and corruption in south Louisiana, where it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad, and the brutal murders of eight prostitutes go unpunished, though not necessarily unsolved,” is the praise that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil author John Berendt gave to Murder in the Bayou.
Berendt’s blurb hits on two important points: that Brown’s research was dangerous and that these murders have gone unpunished. As Brown shares in his interview below, it was a media report that initially got him interested in the case, but when he first went down to Jennings, Louisiana, to poke around, things got a lot more interesting. The premiere of “True Detective” on HBO, which seemed to be based on the case, only fueled the fire.
Coming from New Orleans, Brown is no stranger to corruption and violence, but what he finds in Jeff Davis Parish is a tightknit community of law enforcement intent on keeping their secrets. As the body count grows, Brown begins taking his interview subjects to a neighboring parish just to be safe, and when the sheriff’s office posts what he describes as a “most wanted poster” on its website, he’s not sure whether he should step foot in the parish again.
It’s been 11 years since the first woman in the “Jeff Davis 8” was discovered in a drainage canal. Seven more bodies would follow hers, yet no “serial killer” has been brought to justice. Brown offers up his theory about what happened to these women and debunks the serial killer myth, making it clear there were several killers. He also charges that disposal of their bodies and coverup of the crimes was assisted by law enforcement. It’s a dangerous allegation, but one he stands by with thousands of documents as evidence and the belief that these women and their families deserve justice no matter how long it takes.
Note: The interview below does contain some harsh language and disturbing material.
Welcome to Jeff Davis Parish …
“In 2010, I think it was January, Campbell Robertson at The New York Times, wrote a piece about the Jeff Davis 8 case. Campbell’s title I believe is Southern correspondent, and so this piece was a fairly standard newspaper piece. It was essentially a kind of overview of the case, but it was very compelling within that sort of frame. There were a couple of pieces of info in that piece that were interesting to me, one of which was Campbell wrote about the 2007 murder of Kristen Gary Lopez, who was one of the Jeff Davis 8, and he wrote about sheriff’s office misconduct in that case involving a piece of evidence, specifically a truck that was purchased by a high-ranking investigator at the sheriff’s office and then resold.
About a year and a half later, I was thinking about potential writing projects and I thought back to that piece. I traveled to Jeff Davis Parish on my own without any magazine assignment or book idea in mind and spent about a week just simply meeting people. In the middle of the trip, I was introduced to a South Jennings drug dealer named David Deshotel. David, according to a number of witnesses, had dated at least two of the Jeff Davis 8 and he was from South Jennings, which is where all the Jeff Davis 8 were from. I met David on that trip and then a few hours later, David was murdered. It was pretty shocking to say the least to meet somebody and then have them murdered a few hours later.
I went to the crime scene just a few hours after he was murdered, and the crime scene was his home and the crime scene was completely unsecured. There were people walking in and out of the crime scene, people were moving items from the crime scene and that also struck me as pretty shocking, in addition to this murder. That afternoon I continued talking to people in Jennings, including former law enforcement, and I related the story that I just told you to them and their response was essentially welcome to Jeff Davis Parish. It was really that incident that got me interested in this. I thought, well, something unusual is happening here.”
Tweeting with Nic Pizzolatto
“I pitched a magazine piece about the Jeff Davis 8 to GQ, and it was assigned, and I had an editor there named Mark Lotto who had come from The New York Times and is really smart and a phenomenal editor, and we worked on the piece together for about two years on and off. In late 2013, Mark went over to Medium and he offered to take the piece with him. I thought that was a great idea, because he had worked on the piece for so long and there’s really no way to understand this case quickly.
The other thing that was happening at that time, which was the end of 2013, is I had seen teasers for “True Detective,” and I was immediately struck by the similarities between the show and the Jeff Davis 8 case. Visually, the “True Detective” aesthetic was exactly what the area that I was working in looked like. That was particularly striking to me. To be honest, once I saw the “True Detective” teasers, I thought, wow, we’ve had a slow approach to this, but I can’t let the moment pass where this show is premiering that’s so similar to my piece. So, the piece moved to Medium and in January of 2014, “True Detective” premiered and my Jeff Davis 8 piece was published nearly at the same time. Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of “True Detective,” tweeted about the Medium piece, and it was so early in the “True Detective” season that he had an unverified Twitter account, and I thought it was a joke. I didn’t believe it was the real Nic Pizzolatto, but it was. Because of Nic Pizzolatto’s tweet and because the “True Detective” obsessiveness was at its peak at that moment, the”True Detective” masses—millions of people around the world—began creating theories about how”True Detective” was made, and one of the theories was that he was inspired by the Jeff Davis 8 case.
My feeling about it, obviously not speaking about it as the creator, is that Nic Pizzolatto grew up in Calcasieu Parish, which is the parish next to Jeff Davis, and that if you grow up in Calcasieu Parish your sensibilities are going to be very formed by that area. And that’s all it is to me. His sensibilities were formed in that part of Louisiana, and his art reflects that.”
Most Wanted in Jennings
“The sheriff’s office wrote this ludicrous message about me on their website. They called me a fiction writer and all sorts of other bizarre kind of statements. It was framed at me as a kind of most wanted poster. It was a very direct attack for me coming from the sheriff’s office. What it did momentarily was pause my Jeff Davis Parish trips for three to five months or so after that message. I either avoided the parish entirely or if I had to see witnesses in the case, I would drive out there, make arrangements for them to come out of their home and then get into my car quickly, and then I would drive them out of the parish typically to Acadia Parish. You can get to Acadia Parish in like five minutes.”
Business as Usual Despite the Body Count
“In 2014 when the Medium piece is published, there’s a huge response from the sheriff’s office, from the Jennings PD, the DA’s office. Then, a few months later, that really died down and it became very quiet again. What I think is a pattern out there, is that something like this happens, meaning some kind of attention goes on the case, whether it’s the Campbell Roberts piece or my piece, and then everything goes back to business out there. What happened is after the first few months, it really died down and I was out there very regularly and obviously in a parish that’s only 30,000 people—the town of Jennings is about 10,000—there’s no way for me to be there in a hidden sort of way or a secretive way, especially when I’m doing things like picking up records from the sheriff’s office.
The Medium piece is 2014, the book is 2016, and I was able to write and report for the book until June of this year, so really for most of the two-year period it was very quiet. I continued essentially the sort of practice that I engaged in for the Medium piece, which was spend a few months doing public records ac [access] requests and then alternate that with visits out to Jeff Davis Parish and all of that was really unencumbered or sort of uninterrupted by anybody.
The major difference was this: Pre-Medium piece, I did a lot of records collection and that records collection had been very, very easy, meaning that when I sent out public records ac requests, nobody denied them and in fact often they were overly compliant with Louisiana’s public records act. Post Medium piece, and I was lucky that it worked out this way, the major difference was the public records ac requests I submitted were scrutinized in a completely different way. For example, one specific request that I’m thinking of where I submitted this big request to the sheriff’s office, they dragged their feet for months in responding to it. They at first said you can review the records and then decide what you want to copy. They then sort of pulled back on that and said no, no, you have to pay for everything. Then they submitted a bill to me that was $1 per page, and the bill ended up being nearly $2,000. And this is just for one request.
So, the clear intention there was, pardon my language, fuck you, you’re either gonna pay us $2,000 or you’re just gonna walk away from this. I did pay them the nearly $2,000 by the way and when I picked up the records, I received records that were heavily redacted. In fact, I believe, but I’d have to hire an attorney to fight this, that they redacted information in a way that is not compliant with the public records act.”
An Untouchable Power Structure
“I don’t know that they’re concerned right now even. Pre-Medium piece, again this sort of pattern I mentioned of attention and then things going back to normal. Another great example of this and I write about this in the book is in the ’90s, the sheriff’s office was hit with a series of civil rights lawsuits in federal court regarding illegal traffic stops. It got so bad that “Dateline” of all things came down to Jeff Davis Parish. That’s a really important moment I think in Louisiana history, not just Jeff Davis Parish history. I’ve talked to a lot of people about it. No one knows about it. Twelve million people watched that episode of “Dateline.” It didn’t get anywhere, but there was a call to boycott the entire state of Louisiana based on that show. What happens afterward? Everything goes back to the same. Business as usual in Jeff Davis Parish. So something that big, a “Dateline” expose watched by 12 million people, it has an effect, but there’s a way in which the power structure out there just withstands a blow like that.”
What Happened to the Jeff Davis 8 and Why?
“I’ll frame this as this is my theory. I’m not a prosecutor, I don’t have charging abilities, so this is only my theory. These eight women were all from South Jennings, they were all very closely connected to one another. They were in some cases related by blood. Kristen Gary Lopez was related to another victim, Brittney Gary. There were more significant connections. This is the big one: Many of them witnessed other murders and were then murdered themselves. For example, Kristen Gary Lopez was interrogated in the murder of victim No. 1 Loretta Chaisson. Muggy Brown, who was murdered in 2008, she was a witness to the 2005 murder of Ernestine Patterson. So, you see that pattern repeatedly on these eight women.
The eight women were intimately aware of law enforcement misconduct. If you were in that Jeff Davis 8 milieu back then, you were aware of a lot of sexual misconduct going on at the jail. Task force witnesses talked repeatedly about this sort of dynamic, where women had sex with members of the sheriff’s office who ran the parish jail in order to get out of jail and things like that. So these are the kinds of patterns consistent across the victims. As for the actual murders themselves, it’s a combination of this: I believe some of them were targeted to be killed, although I think that’s a minority, others were killed in sort of heat of the moment killings, like arguments or refusals of sex and then. Again, this part of the killing is sort of a commonality, the disposal of the women and the coverup of their murders is a couple things. One, I think that there were a specific set of people who disposed of the women and, two, in several of cases, the disposal/coverup was assisted by members of law enforcement.”
Debunking the Serial Killer Myth
“The serial killer theory is particularly bizarre when you think about the fact that in two of the cases, Ernestine Patterson and Kristen Gary Lopez, arrests were made. In Patterson, there was indictment of two people, but both of those cases collapsed. So, if you believe there was any substance to those cases, then you have to believe that there was more than one person because there are multiple people charged in those cases. Indeed, in Kristen Gary Lopez alone, there were three. In Ernestine Patterson, two, so that’s five right there.”
Will These Murders Ever be Solved?
“Obviously, the longer murders go unsolved, the harder they are to solve. When homicide cases have misconduct involved in them, they become even harder to solve. Let’s say one brings a homicide case that has misconduct involved in it, let’s say a DA brings charges in that case, its chances in the criminal justice system are in peril, because if one brings that to trial, that has to be disclosed to the defense for example and then, well, your witnesses would likely be very compromised law enforcement as well. So, those are the two pieces and then the third one, from kind of a forensic standpoint, is the women are dumped and in many of the cases, they’re not found for quite a while, so you lose your forensics.
Six of the cases, they basically have a suspected cause of death, which is asphyxia, and it’s really only two that they have a real definitive cause of death on. It’s Ernestine and Muggy—they were stabbed to death. Regardless, in all eight, they were all dumped in very difficult environments, like an area near crawfish ponds or an actual canal. Victim Crystal Shay Benoit Zeno, interestingly she was dumped by the side of a road, which you think would not be as bad as the other victims in terms of forensics, but it took forever to find her, so she was, I believe, nearly skeletal when they found her.”
A Broken System
“I was looking back at the book again recently, and one thing that really leapt out at me that I hadn’t thought a lot about in quite a while was I had seen a letter from Loretta Chaisson’s attorney—that was victim No. 1—and her attorney had written a letter, I believe it was to the DA’s office, and she had a sort of cluster of charges against her right before she was murdered. I think what the attorney was doing was on the one hand asking for leniency and then on the other hand sort of trying to resolve them all at once. In the letter, he mentioned this kind of laundry list of ailments that Chaisson was suffering from. She had TB, I believe he said she was bipolar, schizophrenic, she had substance abuse. And I looked back at that letter and I was thinking—and this is not just Jeff Davis Parish—Jeff Davis Parish is acute on this, but it’s really the whole country.
We have problems like substance abuse problems and we really don’t have any resources for anybody except for jail, and that’s the way we’re choosing to address these problems and it’s a woefully misguided way of doing it. I feel that these women were particularly badly served by this system that we have, because Loretta was not unique in that laundry list of ailments. All of them really had those kinds of problems, and they were unaddressed. So I feel like the book in part is about that.
It’s also about a place where it’s sort of in the arteries of the drug war that this particular stretch of I-10, there are drugs coursing through it at all times. You have this kind of pipeline or artery choked with drugs going through a very small town and this small town becomes sort of victim to it. And then there’s this other piece about class divides, which again acute in Jennings, but exists everywhere else too now. The north side of Jennings is a very typical small town, there’s a couple of car dealerships, a courthouse, a library and then you cross the railroad tracks—it’s a cliché the other side of the track or the wrong side of the tracks—and there’s enormous poverty, there are blighted homes, there’s just this enormous divide. There’s a lot going on in terms of how these women play into these larger dynamics.”
Enter Jeff Davis Parish photo by J. Stephen Conn on Flickr Creative Commons.