The women were, quite literally, from the wrong side of the tracks.
They were local sex workers and drug users between the ages of 17 and 30; they were members of the parish’s thriving informant culture and provided a steady flow of information to local law enforcement; they were all linked to Frankie Richard, a known partyer, pimp and drug dealer; and they all knew each other.
Their murders — known as “the Jeff Davis 8” — have been cold cases for nearly 15 years, but a new Showtime docuseries has revived interest in the investigation. Based on a book written by investigative journalist Ethan Brown, “Murder in the Bayou” chronicles the eight unsolved homicides and the events that led up to them, and exposes the Jennings drug trade, systemic police misconduct and political corruption. The information for this article draws from reporting aired on the series, unless otherwise noted.
Days had passed before Loretta Chaisson Lewis’s corpse was discovered, decomposing in a canal in May 2005. Her body, the first of the eight, rocked the 10,000-person town; at the time, only one victim had been found, but the sheriff received multiple calls inquiring whether there was a serial killer on the loose.
A group of froggers found a second body several weeks later. Two months went by before authorities identified, through bone samples, the victim: 30-year-old Ernestine Marie Daniels Patterson. She had been discarded in a waterway six miles from where Lewis was discovered. Patterson’s injuries were different. Her throat was slit. The district attorney’s office charged two men with the murder and then dismissed the case, leaving the Patterson family with no closure, her mother Evelyn said in the docuseries.
Two years later, there was a third victim.
A fisherman found the body of Kristen Gary Lopez naked and rotting in the water. The strikingly similar circumstances led local law enforcement to treat it as a homicide.
The 21-year-old had gone missing nearly two weeks earlier. In the days leading up to her disappearance, friends remembered her increasing paranoia. Still, one said during an interview, they assumed she had gone on a drug bender.
In May 2017, Frankie Richard and his goddaughter were brought in by the sheriff’s department on a warrant for the homicide, and they were quietly released days later.
After Lopez’s murder, then-sheriff Ricky Edwards announced that the three victims were linked to prostitution and drug use. He attributed the deaths, in part, to their “high-risk lifestyles.”
“It made these girls sound disposable,” a victim’s relative recalled.
The same month, two new victims turned up. Whitnei Dubois’s badly beaten, nude body was found by Jamie Trahan, a known police informant, under circumstances that Brown said “didn’t add up.” Then Laconia “Muggy” Brown’s body was found by a local police officer; she had been doused in bleach and abandoned on the back roads. In 2008, the sixth victim, Crystal Shay Benoit Zeno, was discovered dead in the woods.
Brittney Gary, the youngest victim at 17 years old, was found later that year, dumped on side of a road. On Aug. 19, 2009, after the formation of a task force to help solve the cases, roadway workers found an eighth body along the side of Interstate 10.
“I am not going to be here to see my birthday,” the last-known victim, Necole Guillory, had warned her mother in the days leading to her death.
Edwards had avoided crediting a serial killer for the growing list of mysterious deaths. After Zeno, though, he hedged. “There’s something going on,” he said. Like the first three victims, with whom Dubois, Brown, and Zeno were acquainted, the women were also known to authorities as a drug users and sex workers.
“We either have a serial dumper," Edwards continued. "We could have a serial killer.”
After Guillory’s body was found, Edwards doubled down on the single-offender theory.
Brown, the journalist, happened upon Jefferson Davis Parish in 2010, more than a year after the last homicide. He noticed billboards featuring the faces of the eight women, offering an $85,000 reward to anyone with information about their murders while driving on Interstate 10 through Louisiana.
After reviewing thousands of documents and video interviews taken by the task force, Brown concluded, “The serial killer theory didn’t make sense.”
His research showed that many of the women were police informants who had witnessed other murders and most had relationships — often sexual — with members of law enforcement. Although the district attorney’s office dropped both prosecutions, he noted that two people were charged with Patterson’s murder and two people were arrested in Lopez’s, details that suggested multiple people, not one, were involved.
Brown also noticed a cast of characters and circumstances appear repeatedly, oftentimes from people with firsthand knowledge of the homicides: witnesses implicated the same officers and wardens in the murders and intimated that members of the sheriff’s office, including the chief investigator, may have been part of the coverup.
Law enforcement has denied involvement in the Jennings 8 murders.
“They all knew each other well,” Brown said, and most of them shared a pimp: Frankie Richard.
On camera, Richard said, “These girls lost their lives because they seen something, heard something, knew something that they was not supposed to know.”
To this day, Richard, who has been arrested in Jefferson Davis Parish 23 times but has never been convicted, denies any involvement in the deaths of the women. Still, in the last episode Ramby Cormier, commander of the parish sheriff’s office, said: “Frankie Richard remains a person of interest, currently.”
Hours before the series premiered, Richard overdosed, according to people familiar with the case. He was arrested after leaving the hospital and booked on unrelated soliciting prostitution and drug charges at the Acadia Parish jail, where he remains on $86,000 bond.
This is the first time since 2007, when he was held briefly in the Lopez homicide, that he has done any real time, Brown told The Washington Post. “Having Frankie on ice — which they haven’t had in over a decade — is a big deal in town. He flaunts his impunity. It has this really frightening effect on the entire parish.”
“Murder in the Bayou” is not a whodunit series; there’s no big reveal in the final episode.
“There was an effort to not only dehumanize but erase the eight women,” Brown said to The Post. In large part, his work is an attempt to ensure they aren’t erased from history.
Executive producer and director Matthew Galkin said that from the get-go it seemed unlikely they would crack the cases of the Jeff Davis 8.
“The idea that eight women who all knew each other could be killed in a town of 10,000 people and go unsolved seemed shocking to me,” Galkin said in a phone interview. “These women seemed to be completely marginalized. We were able to paint an emotional landscape of the town and bring them to life in a way they hadn’t been during their lives or in their deaths."
Investigators claim they hope the renewed and continued coverage leads to solving the murders. Others are less optimistic, some even skeptical that there is, in fact, an active and ongoing investigation; the public has yet to see any results.
And then there are the Jennings residents who are still mourning — the family and friends of the eight women from the wrong side of the tracks.
“It’s not 2000 anymore,” Lopez’s friend, Jessica Kratzer, said. “Maybe other people will get the courage to step up and speak on what they know. It’s just a wish. Hopefully it comes true.”