Ethan Brown is an investigative journalist and author who has written for the New York Observer, GQ, Rolling Stone, Men’s Vogue and The Village Voice. He has written three books that have covered the subculture that created Hip Hop, snitches and the corruption in the legal system, and the true story of the murder-suicide of Iraqi veteran Zachary Bowen.
Today marks the release of Ethan’s fourth book, Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8? This real life murder mystery highlights misconduct on the part of local police to reports that Louisiana Republican Representative Charles Boustany was allegedly a client of some of the victims.
I recently spoke to him about the book and about corruption and legal misconduct in Louisiana. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q1: For those not familiar with the Jeff Davis 8 murders, what are they? Who were the victims?
A1: They were a series of 8 murders that occurred in Jeff Davis parish in South Louisiana between 2005 and 2009. All eight of the victims were female sex workers, six white and two black. The six white victims are suspected to have died of asphyxiation and the two black females were stabbed multiple times. Their bodies were dumped in canals, sugar cane fields and along the side of the road.
Q2: How did you get involved with this case?
A2: In 2010, six months after the last murder, Campbell Robertson, of the New York Times wrote a short article about it. It was basically a quick recap of the eight murders but the role of law enforcement sparked my interest: the role of law enforcement and mishandled evidence. The article discussed Kristin Gary Lopez, who was murdered in 2007 and it mentioned that evidence was mishandled by a high ranking member of the local sheriff’s department.
Q3: When did you begin getting serious about investigating the case yourself?
A3: One year later, I went to check things out in Jeff Davis Parish. I met former law enforcement officers and visited family members of the victims. I came across a local drug dealer who had told me he dated a couple of the victims. At the time, he was using crutches and/or a wheelchair because he had recently been shot. Soon after he had spoken with me, he was murdered. I was shocked.
I visited the fresh crime scene and noticed that it was left unsecured as people, at their own free will, were coming and going out of the house taking things. I looked in disbelief at some former members of law enforcement and they just chuckled and said, “Welcome to Jeff Davis Parish.” This was highly unusual and decided I wanted to look into the eight murders. I pitched my idea to Mark Lotto at GQ, who ultimately published it on Medium. It was released in 2014 around the same time as the TV drama,True Detective, which prompted the show’s creator to tweet about my report. Ultimately that led to the book deal.
Q4: During your investigation, did you ever feel threatened or have any direct threats made?
A4: I was not really threatened directly, but threats were conveyed to me. One victim’s family member told me, “I hate to pick up the newspaper and see your name in it.” I was told I was a trouble-maker and outside agitator. The sheriff of Jeff Davis Parish posted about me on the sheriff’s official website where he openly warned the Parish to beware of me and called my investigation fiction.
Q5: Do you think the Jeff Davis 8 will ever be solved?
A5: If you notice in my investigation, the number of credible suspects is relatively low. However, due in part to severe misconduct the case may never officially be solved. It’s hard to rely on what one witness says, when evidence of that has been tainted. It would be hard at this point to hold up in a court of law.
Q6: In terms of law enforcement and the judicial system, is the South still worse than other parts of the country?
A6: The Jeff Davis 8 case may be an extreme case of police misconduct but police misconduct is a national problem. For example, A Grand Jury in Chicago is investigating a possible cover-up in the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. And recently Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who choked Eric Garner, has received a pay increase. However, I can say that there is something different about that kind of corruption in Louisiana and the rest of the South. In the South, the judicial and legal corruption is severe, rampant and widespread. And seemingly that’s how they want it to remain.