Death, Drugs, and the Darkness of a Louisiana Bayou Small-Town

Book review: Murder in the Bayou, by Ethan Brown

Between 2005 and 2009, eight women were murdered, their bodies discarded outdoors on roadsides and in the waters of the small town of Jennings in Jefferson Davis Parish, a county in the Louisiana bayou. The population of Jennings is only 10,000, so obviously such a large number of murders didn’t go unnoticed, including nationally. Charges have been brought and dropped against several people in some of the cases, to date no one has  been convicted. All of the cases remain unsolved and the investigation ongoing.

The victims, known as the Jeff Davis 8, were connected to the drug and sex trade, which seems to be booming for such a small town. But I guess that in economically troubled parts of the country, that’s unfortunately not such an anomaly. What stands out about this whole situation as even more disturbing – yes, even more disturbing than the possibility of a run-of-the-mill serial killer, especially as the narrative progresses, is how clear it is that local law enforcement is deeply involved in the commerce of the Jennings underworld. But in exactly what way isn’t clear, or maybe it’s in every way – members of the police department are frequent customers of prostitutes, including indulging in crack-smoking binges with them, the warden regularly trades drugs and favors including release from custody for sex, and police informants have special privileges suspiciously beyond what’s normally afforded for their cooperation. Drugs and money go missing from police evidence, and it seems to be an open secret that officials sell drugs, or unload them to be sold.

It seems like in such a small town, it shouldn’t be a massive challenge to pinpoint who’s responsible, and indeed, one strong common thread is that all the women witnessed things they shouldn’t and openly “knew too much”. And yet, as mentioned, the investigation remains open with no prosecutions. That’s incredibly suspicious, particularly when connection after connection between law enforcement and support of illegal activity pops up.

As interesting and disturbing as this story is, and as much attention as author Ethan Brown’s original long-form journalism article brought nationally to the Jeff Davis 8, the book fell flat for me because it’s written like a report. There are a few sections that were more engaging, but the majority was just the facts, ma’am. He does a good job of piecing together sometimes disparate narratives from witnesses or those connected to the case to create realistic timelines of what occurred in the women’s final days or hours, and speculation about who was most likely involved. But a more fleshed-out picture of the town and its inhabitants was missing; although an attempt at scene setting was made, it felt clinical, lacking personality. For a region that’s so richly mysterious, so able to stoke the imagination of outsiders, that’s disappointing.

There are also some lively portraits of the people involved, some of whom must be culpable, at least to some extent, in some of the murders. A few are more detailed, like that of Frankie Richard, the pimp, drug dealer, and all-around underworld character who was connected to most if not all of the women and was considered a suspect for some time. “It takes a near-supernatural force to move Frankie Richard off his front porch,” Brown opens one chapter, so I know that as a writer and journalist he has it in him to write  compellingly and conjure up a vivid picture, it just wasn’t always done.

Then there are quick appearances in one event or another, like of a local prostitute who’s called, inexplicably, Potato. There’s a story behind this and I want to know it. More of Potato, please. For as much as I’m sure this was thoroughly researched and labored over, it just feels like dipping a toe into the water, like there’s still so much more under the surface.

I’d recommend it for those who loved the fictional first season of True Detective, with which this case strikes some eerie parallels, set as it is in Louisiana’s bayou region and involving corruption on a multilayered, far-reaching level. And it should appeal to watchers of Investigation Discovery’s documentary miniseries The Vanishing Women, which describes the still-unsolved disappearances and murders of a chain of women in Chillicothe, Ohio, an economically depressed region experiencing similar waves of drug abuse and prostitution as Jennings. There, too, it took a public outcry from families and friends of the victims to properly draw law enforcement’s attention to the severity of the situation, although it remains frustratingly open as well. Here’s hoping to more transparency, accountability, and resolution for all of these women and their loved ones.

Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8
by Ethan Brown

published September 13, 2016 by Scribner

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