Who Killed the Jeff Davis 8?
A serial killer has allegedly been preying on Louisiana prostitutes. But a new investigation reveals a far scarier theory
On May 20, 2005, Jerry Jackson, a slim, gentle-voiced African-American retiree, prepared to cast a fishing line from a hulking bridge over the Grand Marais Canal on the outskirts of Jennings in southwest Louisiana. But as he peered down into the muddy rush of water, he spied the outline of a human body.
“It had come up on the news that someone had stole some mannequins,” Jackson told me, “so I thought that one of the mannequins ended up in the water somehow.” Jackson focused his eyes on the figure. “I saw flies,” he said, “and mannequins don’t attract flies.”
Panicked, Jackson dialed 911. More than a dozen deputies and detectives from the Jefferson Davis Parish sheriff’s office quickly arrived at the foot of the bridge. Hours later, a dead woman was on the banks, clad in blue jeans, blue panties, and a white short-sleeved blouse; her body was decayed but showed no evidence of injury aside from a small patch of blood under the scalp. Fingerprints later identified her as 28-year-old Loretta Lynn Chaisson Lewis, a local prostitute.
Between 2005 and 2009, the bodies of seven more women would be discovered around the swamps and canals that ring Jennings, a staggering body count for a tiny sliver of a town of about 10,000. Along with Lewis, the victims were Ernestine Marie Daniels Patterson, 30; Kristen Gary Lopez, 21; Whitnei Dubois, 26; Laconia “Muggy” Brown, 23; Crystal Shay Benoit Zeno, 24; Brittney Gary, 17; and Necole Guillory, 26. Both Patterson and Brown had their throats slit; the other bodies were in too advanced a state of decomposition to determine the cause of death, though the coroner often suspected asphyxia. The victims were mired in poverty and mental illness; and all had hustled Jennings’ south side streets for drugs and sex.
In December 2008 a multi-agency investigative team (MAIT) of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies was formed to solve the killings. At the time there were seven dead women, and the reward for information leading to the guilty party’s arrest was increased from $35,000 to $85,000. From the outset, the task force was searching for a serial killer.
“It is the collective opinion of all agencies involved in this investigation,” said then Jefferson Davis Parish sheriff Ricky Edwards, who was flanked by FBI agents, Louisiana State Police, and sheriffs from neighboring parishes at a press conference announcing the task force’s inception, “that these murders may have been committed by a common offender.”
This pronouncement brought a swarm of national media to Jennings. In early 2010, The New York Times ran a long feature on the murdered women, “8 Deaths in a Small Town, and Much Unease,” that described “fury at the possibility that a serial killer might be loose.” It has been nearly nine years since the first body of a Jennings prostitute was fished out of a murky canal, yet all of the murders remain unsolved.
Intricate murder cases like the Jeff Davis 8 can remain open for years, even decades. HBO’s new drama True Detective is very much true to life in at least one respect: the extraordinary expanse of time—17 years—that a pair of Louisiana State Police homicide detectives, played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, spent investigating a serial killer in West Louisiana. “They can go unsolved forever,” said John Jay College of Criminal Justice forensic psychologist Louis Schlesinger of serial killer cases. “Ridgway went on for 30 years. BTK for 30 years. It’s usually just luck that breaks a case. The Derrick Todd Lee case broke by a stool pigeon.”
Over the past two years, I have obtained and reviewed hundreds of pages of task force witness interviews, the homicide case files on several of the victims, the Jeff Davis Parish sheriff’s office’s and Jeff Davis Parish district attorney’s files on all of the victims, federal and state court records, and the complete personnel files of the cops and sheriff’s deputies at the center of the case. I have interviewed friends and family of all of eight victims, as well as some of the possible suspects.
The details of the Jeff Davis 8 case can be murky; the connections between victims, suspects, and police tangled. My investigation, however, casts serious doubt on the theory that the Jeff Davis 8 is the work of a serial killer.
One fact is clear: local law enforcement is far too steeped in misconduct and corruption—and this extends to the task force, which is dominated by detectives and deputies from the sheriff’s office—to run an investigation with the integrity that the murdered women and their families deserve after nearly a decade in which no one has been brought to justice.
It should have been obvious all along that these deaths were not the handiwork of a serial killer. According to the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit’s own research, serial killings typically involve “strangers with no visible relationship between the offender and the victim.”
The women themselves all knew one another intimately. Some were related by blood (such as cousins Kristen Gary Lopez and Brittney Gary) or lived together (Gary bunked down with Crystal Benoit in South Jennings just before she was killed in 2008). They tricked at the Boudreaux Inn, a now shuttered motel in Jennings that, with its sloping blue metal roof and nondescript white façade, could be mistaken for a storage facility. The inn was ideally situated in the heady drugs and sex trade in Jennings—just off a 400-mile stretch of Interstate 10 connecting Houston to New Orleans, favored by marijuana and cocaine traffickers and prescription-pill “doctor shoppers”—and cops were there on a near-nightly basis for busts. Loretta Lewis, the first victim, was the subject of several complaints to the police based on her activity at the inn.
It wasn’t simply that they traded their bodies at the same address. According to my reporting, all but one of the victims—Ernestine Patterson—were associated with the same fixture of the Jennings underworld: a 58-year-old oil-rig worker turned strip-club owner named Frankie Richard. “We shared something,” he said of the murdered women, his voice so raspy it sounded as though he has been gargling rocks. “When we were at the lowest point of our life and no one wanted to have anything to do with us, we had something to do with each other. And that means something to me. Them girls were my friends no matter how fucking low my life was. And I was their friend no matter how fuckin’ low their life was.”
Richard described Jennings when the killings began: “It was wide open… The drugs, the prostitution, the bars, the crooked cops.” Since the early 1990s, there have been nearly 20 unsolved homicides, including the slain eight women, in Jefferson Davis Parish, a statistic in a competent sheriff’s department that would be regarded as both a ridiculously low clearance rate and an astonishingly high murder rate for a small area.
According to information I’ve gleaned from witness interviews and the task force documents, each of the Jeff Davis 8 killings has different yet interconnected lead suspects. In 2007, Richard himself was briefly charged in the Lopez killing, but those charges were dropped after witnesses provided conflicting statements and a key piece of physical evidence was mishandled. (He remains free, and is often perched on the porch of his family home in Jennings.)
Two men—Byron Chad Jones and Lawrence Nixon (a cousin of the fifth victim, Laconia Brown)—were briefly charged with second-degree murder in the Ernestine Patterson case. But despite several witnesses implicating them, the sheriff’s office did not test the alleged crime scene until 15 months after Patterson’s murder, and found it “failed to demonstrate the presence of blood.” That botched crime scene work contributed, in part, to the collapse of the case against the two men. According to case files, Jennings street hustlers with connections to Richard were suspected in the deaths of some of the other women.
Though the task force has yet to unearth a credible suspect outside the Jennings drug scene, the official serial killer narrative persists.
Furthermore, the murdered women of the Jeff Davis 8 provided information to law enforcement about other Jeff Davis 8 victims—and then turned up dead themselves. Laconia Brown (the fifth victim) was interrogated about the 2005 killing of Ernestine Patterson (the second victim). And I’ve obtained a task force report in which one witness claims that Brown spotted the body of Loretta Lewis (the first victim) floating in the Grand Marais Canal before Jerry Jackson discovered her there in May 2005. In 2006, detectives investigating Lewis’s murder interrogated Kristen Gary Lopez (the third victim).
“She knew what was going on,” Melissa Daigle, Lopez’s mother, told me. She trailed off, tearing up at the memory. “They were scared, them girls. I think she knew about it and was too scared to say.”
That women who were questioned in high-profile homicides were turning up dead all over the parish should have immediately raised red flags among the task force investigators. But there was yet another factor that made the Jeff Davis 8 victims unique: I’ve learned that all eight snitched for local law enforcement about the Jennings drug trade, a detail that has never been revealed to the public.
When I confronted Sheriff Edwards with the allegation that the Jeff Davis 8 were informants, he stammered a non-denial. “I wouldn’t respond,” he told me. “If they were informants, I would still continue to protect their anonymity. I don’t know that’s the truth. I won’t comment on it.”
At the end of a bloody 2008—three bodies that year alone, bringing the total to seven—a Jennings prostitute warned task force investigators that Necole Guillory “might be the next victim.”
Guillory had wild, intense eyes, a dimpled smile, and long brown hair that she meticulously brushed while waiting for johns on the stoop of a South Jennings home frequented by all the murdered women. She was known for her street savviness, and in 2006, when she was 24, she savagely attacked a john with the handle of sledgehammer.
She racked up a towering rap sheet that was dominated by charges that ended up getting mysteriously dropped. I’ve reviewed the parish district attorney office’s case files on Guillory, and in at least six cases, the charges against her ended in a nolle prosequi (a legal term meaning “be unwilling to pursue” on the district attorney’s part). Though there is no record of Guillory’s cooperation—excluding a theft case in which she agreed to testify against her codefendant—snitches routinely have charges nolle prossed in exchange for their off-the-record cooperation.
“Necole knew a whole lot,” said Frankie Richard,
“about a whole lot.”
“She was always paranoid,” her mother, Barbara Guillory, told me one late summer afternoon as she was cooling off in her cramped trailer in Lake Arthur, clad in jeans and a tan T-shirt with a faded rainbow print. Barbara has short, almost spiky hair and missing front teeth and is prone to making thundering pronouncements. (“Do you like to live?” she warned me at one point, “I would hate to pick the newspaper up and see you in it.”)
“It got to the point where she did not want to go anywhere by herself,” she said. “I think she could feel that they were closing in on her.” With her 27th birthday approaching, Guillory refused to even entertain the idea of celebrating. “I bought some icing and cake for her birthday,” Barbara recalled. “She said, ‘Momma, it doesn’t matter—I’m not gonna be here.’”
Guillory also had her four kids placed with relatives. A task force witness supports the claim that in her final days she “was scared of someone,” but she would not say who, and that she “knew who killed the girls.”
On August 19, 2009, Barbara filed a missing persons report on her daughter with the sheriff’s office. (Among the last people to see Guillory alive was the father of Ernestine Patterson, the second victim—yet another odd connection in a case full of them.) The search didn’t last long: that same day, her body was recovered along a stretch I-10 West in nearby Acadia Parish.
Barbara believes that her daughter was murdered because she was witness to local law enforcement corruption or misconduct or worse. “She used to tell us all the time it was the police killing the girls,” Barbara said. “We’d say, ‘Necole, a name. Something. Write a letter and leave it somewhere. Let us know. We can help you.’ No, momma. It’s too far gone. It’s too big. I’d rather y’all not know nothing, that way nothing can happen to y’all… She knew, she knew, she knew, and that’s why they killed her.”
Several family members of the murdered women told me eerily similar stories. Gail Brown, a sister of the fifth victim, Laconia “Muggy” Brown, told me that just before Muggy was killed she worriedly informed her family that “she was investigating a murder with a cop; the cop wanted to give her $500 to tell what happened.” Gail put it as bluntly as Barbara Guillory: “She knew what was going on,” she told me, referring to her sister’s work as a cooperator. “I think it was a cop that killed my sister.”
The Brown family accounts are corroborated by task force witness interviews; one was noted as saying that “Laconia Brown told her that…three police officers were going to kill her.”
On May 26, 2008, the night Muggy’s family saw her last, she seemed overcome with emotion, getting on her knees and proclaiming to her grandmother, Bessie: “I love you, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you and Jaheim [her then-three-year-old son].” Bessie was touched by this spontaneous expression of love from her usually hard-bitten granddaughter but unnerved by it, too—it seemed like a goodbye.
The lack of resolution in this case can appear to be the result of an incompetent sheriff’s department or, more charitably, small local enforcement agencies mounting a mighty struggle to solve impossibly complex murder cases.
But, in reality, law enforcement misconduct is so commonplace at both the Jennings Police Department and the parish sheriff’s office that both engage in the very definition of what the Department of Justice calls “patterns and practices of unconstitutional conduct.” In other words, these law enforcement entities are not only unable to police themselves—they often engage in criminal acts that victimize instead of protect Jennings’ own citizenry.
Veterans of Jennings’ streets trace the unwinding of local law enforcement all the way back to the ’70s, when they say cops began getting involved in drug trafficking. But this is not merely street gossip. In March 1990, two local men burglarized the sheriff’s office, making off with a staggering 300 pounds of marijuana. When investigators interviewed one of the burglars, according to court documents, he named a surprising pair of accomplices—Frankie Richard and a man named Ted Gary, who was then chief deputy sheriff. (No charges were brought against Richard and Gary.)
Three years later, in 1993, Sheriff Dallas Cormier pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of obstruction of justice after he was charged with crimes ranging from improper dealings with inmates to using public funds to buy trucks, tires, and guns for himself.
In early 1997, Dateline ran an hour-long exposé on sheriff’s deputies from Jeff Davis Parish and nearby Calcasieu Parish who had made illegal traffic stops of drivers with out-of-state license plates. Illegal stops had long been a problem; in 1996, a Hispanic couple sued Sheriff Ricky Edwards (who succeeded Cormier) in federal court after they were pulled over on I-10 without probable cause by one of his deputies.
Subsequent scandals made the illegal traffic stops seem innocuous. In 2000, Jennings police officer Phil Karam shot fellow cop Kenneth Guidry and his wife Christine to death in their home. During an ensuing standoff with police, Karam killed one responding officer and wounded another.
In October 2003, eight female Jennings cops filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against Jennings police chief Donald “Lucky” DeLouche, a gaggle of male cops, and the City of Jennings, alleging widespread acts of sexual violence and harassment. Among the allegations in the complaint: a captain who shook his penis at female officers, saying “You know I like to lick pussy, I can numb it all night,” and forced oral sex on a female officer; a lieutenant who waved a knife at a female officer, warning, “Girl, I’ll cut you.”
In January 2013, former Jennings police chief Johnny Lassiter was hit with a battery of charges after a Louisiana State Police audit found $4,500 in cash, 1,800 pills, more than 380 grams of cocaine, and several pounds of marijuana missing from department’s evidence room. Just weeks ago, Lassiter pleaded guilty to malfeasance in office relating to that case; he’s currently awaiting sentencing.
Against the backdrop of decades of misconduct and corruption, a veteran Jennings cop made a decision that would forever change the course of his career—and the Jeff Davis 8 investigation.
In December 2007, Sergeant Jesse Ewing received word that two female inmates at the city jail wanted to talk about the unsolved homicides (then totaling four). He was stunned by what he heard: Ewing said that both women told him that “higher-ranking officers” had been directly involved in covering up the murders.
Ewing had long been wary of his fellow cops, and he feared that the audiotapes would simply vanish, just as drugs and cash had a way of disappearing from evidence. So Ewing handed the interview tapes over to a local private investigator named Kirk Menard, who rushed copies to the FBI’s office in nearby Lake Charles.
Ewing’s gambit to grab the attention of the feds backfired. The tapes ended up right back with the sheriff’s office–dominated task force, and Ewing’s fears of retaliation turned out to be justified. The parish district attorney charged Ewing with not only malfeasance in office, but also sexual misconduct. (One of the female inmates claimed that Ewing touched her inappropriately during the interview. Ewing denies it, and that charge was dismissed.)
Ewing and I sat in his trailer in the Paradise Park development in Jennings in July 2011. He is a short, wide-shouldered man with a cleanly shaved head, a graying goatee, and the bulky frame of a rugby player. The trailer was decorated with little more than a TV set and a couch—a no-frills lifestyle that he blamed on employment troubles since his termination after 20 years on the job. “I felt screwed for doing the right thing,” he said.
The contents of the interview tapes have never before been made public. I’ve listened to them in their entirety. They provide highly specific information about the murders of two of the prostitutes—Whitnei Dubois and Kristen Gary Lopez—as well as local law enforcement’s alleged role in covering up Frankie Richard’s role in at least one of the killings. I’m withholding the names of these witnesses in order to protect them from retaliation by cops or suspects.
The first inmate spoke about the night that Dubois died, in May 2007.
She claimed that a prostitute named Tracee Chaisson had told her that she was there the night that Richard and his niece Hannah Conner killed Dubois. They’d all been getting high, and when Dubois refused Richard’s sexual advances he “got aggressive, he started fighting with her, and when she started fighting back he got on top of her and started punching her.” According to the inmate, Chaisson then said that Hannah held her head back and drowned her.
Such a secondhand account might inspire skepticism. But earlier that year Chaisson had made a similar confession to detectives in the parish sheriff’s office about the Lopez murder, and been charged with accessory after the fact to second-degree murder.
Kristen Lopez was perhaps the most vulnerable of the Jeff Davis 8. At 21, she was physically gawky—she had a wide forehead, a thin nose, outsized ears, and a choppy, severe haircut that rested just above her shoulders. Lopez was intellectually disabled, and received Supplemental Security Income checks every month; when she was growing up in Jennings she participated in Special Olympics events in Baton Rouge. Lopez considered Richard a father figure and used to call him “Uncle Frankie.” She could often be seen wandering near his home, wearing Tweety Bird pajama pants and flip-flops.
Frankie Richard admitted to me that he had spent a portion of the last two weeks of Kristen Lopez’s life with her and Tracee Chaisson, partying in a rented motel room. But he claimed that he had suspected them of stealing, and thrown them out. “Kristen come give me a hug and said, ‘Uncle Frankie, you don’t want me back your room,’” Richard remembered. “And I said, ‘No, because you don’t have no respect, you want to steal everything.’” He never saw her again, he said.
Chaisson had told a similar story to investigators at first. But, according to the homicide file, in her second interrogation, she broke down in tears describing what she now said she had seen: that Richard and Conner had, on another drug-addled night, killed Lopez in a fit of anger, beating her severely by a levee near the Petitjean Canal on the outskirts of Jennings and then drowning her.
That confession—corroborated by the fact that Lopez’s body was recovered floating in the canal—led to both Richard and Conner being charged with second-degree murder. The second inmate corroborated Chaisson’s story, claiming that Hannah Conner had confessed her guilt while high on crack.
But the two inmates told another story, too, about a truck, and about a conspiracy between Richard and a top sheriff’s office investigator to destroy evidence in the Lopez case.
Richard, the second inmate said, put Lopez’s body “in a barrel,” and used a truck to transport it. The truck, she said, was later purchased by “an officer named Mr. Warren, I don’t know his exact name, he bought the truck to discard the evidence.”
By “Warren,” the inmate meant the sheriff’s office chief criminal investigator, Warren Gary. The first inmate had also spoken of Lopez’s body and a truck and an officer named Warren.
So you’re saying that this officer knew about the DNA?
Did Hannah say that?
Did he know about the killing?
Yes, sir, because him and Frankie Richard were good friends…
What did Hannah tell you about the officer?
That him and her Uncle Frankie are good friends and that he bought the truck so that the evidence wouldn’t come back to her Uncle Frankie. He discarded it. He cleaned the truck at the car wash.
Who cleaned it at the car wash?
What car wash did he clean it at?
Ray’s Laundry and Fixtures, on South Lake Avenue in Jennings, has a car wash out back; it is directly across the street from offices of the multi-agency investigative team.
Public records would seem to corroborate the second witness’ account. On March 29, 2007, Gary purchased a 2006 Chevy Silverado truck for $8,748.90 from Connie Siler, a Richard associate who had just been hauled into the sheriff’s office for questioning in a bad checks case.
On April 20, Gary resold Siler’s Silverado for $15,500, a nearly 50 percent profit in less than one month. (Siler in turn used profits from the sale, $3,207.13, to pay the parish district attorney’s office for the bad checks she had issued.)
Gary’s purchase of the truck was possibly illegal and definitely unethical—he was fined $10,000 by the Louisiana Board of Ethics in the incident. “What [Gary] did with that was wrong,” former sheriff Ricky Edwards told me. “Buying from an inmate, that’s what was ethically wrong.” He insisted, however, that his office “had no clue that [the truck] was even part of evidence [in the Lopez case]. That didn’t come out until way after the fact.”
There is some reason to doubt this claim. According to their own reports, investigators knew that Siler was one of the last people to see Lopez alive, and Paula Guillory, a former detective in the sheriff’s office who was later investigated for her own ties to the Jennings drug scene, recently told me, “We knew that Connie Siler’s vehicle was probably involved.”
In a town where everyone was related, and where the atmosphere had the feeling of a vicious family feud, it was Paula’s then husband Terrie Guillory, the warden at the jail, who brokered the Siler truck deal, according to the ethics board report on Gary. (That he shares a last name with one of the victims is not a coincidence: Necole Guillory was his cousin.)
Terrie also provided Richard’s niece Hannah Conner a thin but serviceable alibi in the murder of Lopez—he said her comings and goings were because of her day job at a cable company, but did not account for her whereabouts that night—according to police reports.
Because of Warren Gary and Terrie Guillory, two members of law enforcement, the Lopez case lost a key piece of physical evidence. Because of Terrie Guillory, one suspect found herself with an alibi. And because Conner refused to flip on Richard, and Chaisson had changed her story repeatedly, the charges against all of them were dropped.
(Later on, a man named Michael Prudhomme—who was Necole Guillory’s boyfriend and the father of one of her children—would admit to task force investigators that he was approached about helping clean out the Silverado.
Richard himself would claim to investigators that Prudhomme had said that “there was a little blood inside the truck in the front and rear seat of the truck.”)
Put simply: The statements from the two female inmates portrayed Richard and his associates working with the sheriff’s office to dispose of evidence in the Lopez case. Yet the sergeant who took the statements was forced out of his job, and the allegations were ignored by law enforcement.
Warren Gary, on the other hand, was soon promoted—to run the evidence room. “I don’t think it was a bad decision,” Edwards told me. “I understand how some people would question that, but no, I don’t think it was a bad decision.”
Edwards had initially not responded to my repeated calls for comment; however, after I submitted a public records request for the personnel file of one of his deputies, Edwards unexpectedly met me at the courthouse in Jennings to copy the file, and I interviewed him there.
And while Edwards said that he had received the Ewing tapes, he claimed ignorance of these witness interviews: “I’m not aware of that. You’d have to provide those witnesses to me. If you have that information, I’d love it. I don’t have that information.”
Warren Gary left the sheriff’s office around 2012. He could not be located for comment.
Ewing’s witnesses weren’t the only ones to provide information linking the Jeff Davis Parish sheriff’s office to the slain prostitutes. A review of hundreds of pages of task force investigative reports reveals a series of witness interviews in which local law enforcement were implicated in the murders. These allegations have never been made public.
Danny Barry, a 12-year veteran of the sheriff’s office when he died in 2010 at the age of 63, was named as a suspect by at least three separate task force witnesses in a single day of interrogations in November 2008. “Deputy Danny Barry would ride around on the south side with his wife,” one witness said. “And they would try to pick up girls….[Barry’s vehicle was] a small blue sports car…Barry would drop off his wife, Natalie, and she would get the girls. The couple would ‘spike’ a drink and then take the girls back to the Barrys’ house….”
One witness even told investigators that “Danny Barry had a room in his trailer that had chains hanging from the ceiling and that a person could not see in or out of the room.”
There was only one task force interview with Barry, on February 25, 2009. He wasn’t questioned about the myriad allegations against him, and there hasn’t been any substantive follow-up investigation.
Then there’s Paula Guillory, the 44-year-old former sheriff’s deputy. According to private investigator Kirk Menard, she was the person who recruited all of the Jeff Davis 8 as informants. Guillory, however, denies that any of the women were her snitches; “I’ve never had a female informant,” she told me in a recent interview.
As the murders in the parish crescendoed in 2009, Guillory participated in a raid on Frankie Richard’s family home. This was part of a sprawling investigation by the sheriff’s office into a drugs and theft ring that Richard, his mother, and Teresa Gary (the mother of the seventh victim, Brittney Gary) were later charged with running, in which guns, jewelry, and rare coins had been pilfered from residences across Jennings. Yet when Guillory turned over evidence, nearly $4,000 was missing. So the theft case collapsed under the weight of serious law enforcement misconduct.
Guillory denies that she stole or disposed of evidence in the case. She told me that she realized the money was missing when she was cataloguing the evidence from the raid and immediately contacted her superiors. (Warren Gary, the former chief investigator who had purchased the truck allegedly used to dispose of Lopez’s body, helped catalogue the evidence, another troubling coincidence.) She was sent home from work and, even though she offered to take a polygraph test regarding the missing money, was promptly fired by Sheriff Edwards. “I never even gave my own side of the story,” she told me.
Yet again the charges against Richard were dropped. It was a break that he relishes to this day. “I’m not mad at that,” Richard told me when I asked him about the missing evidence in his case. “In fact I thank her for doing that. If she had handled her business right, my momma would still be in jail.”
Guillory told me this sentiment infuriates her. “I believe he should be in jail,” she said.
I’ve obtained a copy of Guillory’s personnel file, and it details an internal investigation that was overseen by the nearby Vermilion Parish sheriff’s office. In the course of the inquiry, Guillory’s fellow deputies accused her of an array of misdeeds, from pilfering from the property room to involvement in the drug trade. Derrick Miller, a detective with the Jefferson Davis Parish sheriff’s office, spoke with investigators; according to their summary notes, he said that “prior to her being hired, they never had anything come up missing from the office,” and that he “does not trust her because there is information that leaked and knows that it came from her.”
Miller did not specify the nature of the leaks from Guillory—or who she leaked to. But any allegation that Guillory was improperly disclosing information is troubling because back then, in 2009, she was a core member of the task force.
No task force witness interview that I reviewed indicated that Paula Guillory was involved in the murders. But numerous interviews suggest that she was deeply connected to the drugs and sex scene in Jennings, and that Terrie, during his tenure as warden, tricked out female inmates, including his cousin Necole. I’ve also spoken to witnesses who saw them at both Frankie Richard’s house and a drug den at 610 South Andrew Street in Jennings that nearly all of the women frequented. “They don’t hang out at this house,” Richard told me, before clarifying: “They never hung out at this house unless they came for police business or unless they was coming to buy crack in the middle of the night from somebody else. I didn’t sell it. I smoked it.”
“That’s news to me,” Guillory said when I asked her about the task force interviews. “I’ve heard many rumors. That me and [Terrie] were serial killers.” (Guillory no longer works in law enforcement. Her ex-husband declined to speak with me.)
As 2009 ended, public outcry mounted at the cascade of local law enforcement misconduct. Sheriff Edwards ordered that every investigator working the Jeff Davis 8 case be swabbed for DNA; he told the media that the testing was meant to silence “gossip and rumors” that anyone wearing a badge was involved in the killings. Yet this is a dishonest characterization of the allegations. Task force witnesses have consistently fingered local law enforcement, and with great specificity.
After leaving the sheriff’s office in 2012, Edwards joined the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association. The office still refuses to comment on the results of the DNA testing.
Most of the murdered women seemed to have some knowledge about the other prostitute killings. But at least one victim from the Jeff Davis 8 witnessed a killing at the hands of state and local law enforcement during a drug bust in Jennings that went awry.
On April 19, 2005, a snitch tipped off local law enforcement that “there was ongoing narcotics activity” at a particular Jennings house. According to investigators, the snitch also claimed that “two other probationers,” including Richard associate Tracee Chaisson, “were frequenting the residence.” The next day, just after 10:20 p.m., a team of Louisiana Probation and Parole agents, Jennings Police Department detectives, and an investigator with the parish district attorney’s office burst through the front door of the clapboard home. They shouted “Police” and encountered a dozen drug users crowded inside in the front living room. The home was shrouded in darkness: with the exception of the agents’ flashlights, the only light came from a lamp in the kitchen.
Moments later, Probation and Parole agent John Briggs Becton encountered Leonard Crochet, a ponytailed 43-year-old prescription-pill dealer, standing on the north side of the living room. Briggs Becton told Crochet to show his hands, and, according to a statement he gave later to investigators, Crochet “then made a sudden movement with his hands toward his belt line.” Believing that Crochet was reaching for a weapon, Briggs Becton fired his departmentally issued Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun, with a single shot striking Crochet in the chest.
According to a statement provided later by a fellow Probation and Parole agent at the raid, Briggs Becton approached Crochet’s body muttering, “Oh shit.” Briggs Becton called an ambulance to the scene, and the inhabitants at 610 Gallup were taken into custody and transported to the Jennings Police Department for questioning. Police investigators concluded that they were “unable to locate any items in the immediate vicinity of Crochet’s location in the residence which could have been construed as a weapon. Further, no persons inside the residence at the time of the shooting, whether law enforcement or civilian, could provide any evidence that Crochet had brandished a weapon.”
That July, a parish grand jury heard prosecutors make their case that Briggs Becton committed the crime of negligent homicide, but came back with a decision of “no true bill”—no probable cause or evidence to show that a crime had been committed.
Was the Crochet killing the spark that led to the deaths of the Jeff Davis 8? It is one theory suggested by some in the parish. “The victims were being killed because they were present when Leonard Crochet was killed by the police,” one witness told task force investigators. “The girls were being killed because they had seen something they were not supposed to see.” Even Richard connected the Crochet killing to the murdered women: “Most of them girls was at a raid…when that Crochet boy got killed. Most of the girls that are dead today were there that night.”
I’ve obtained a witness list from the Louisiana State Police on the incident. It reads like a who’s who of players in the Jeff Davis 8 case, including the third victim Kristen Gary Lopez, Alvin “Bootsy” Lewis (the boyfriend of the fourth victim, Whitnei Duboisi, and the brother-in-law of the first victim, Loretta Lewis), and Harvey “Bird Dog” Burleigh, who later told Dubois’ older brother Mike that “I’m close to finding out who killed your sister” and was then found stabbed to death in his Jennings apartment. His murder, too, remains unsolved.
The slaying of witnesses appears to be a pattern in Jefferson Davis Parish. Soon after Crystal Shay Benoit Zeno (the sixth victim) was found in a wooded area in South Jennings in September 2008, a tip was called into the parish district attorney’s office from a 43-year-old Lafayette man named Russell Carrier. Carrier said that he had seen three African-American men—Richard associate Eugene “Dog” Ivory, Ervin “Tyson” Mouton (who is named as another possible suspect in the Lopez homicide in the task force documents), and Ricardo “Tiger” Williams—exiting the woods.
In the early morning hours of October 10, 2010, Carrier was struck and killed by a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Train in Jennings. Police Chief Todd D’Albor said that “for whatever reason” Carrier simply laid on the tracks and was run over.
At the center of the Jeff Davis 8 case is Frankie Richard.
For the past two years, I have been an unlikely friend and confidant to him. Every few months, my cellphone rings and Richard is on the line, either to complain about harassment from cops or to ask for a favor (a copy of the 2010 Times article about the killings, or, more strangely, everything from the Times’ archive on boxer Rocky Marciano).
Though Richard was well aware that I was deeply investigating the Jeff Davis 8, he never turned me down for an interview and didn’t flinch when I confronted him with my reporting—he has a knack for explaining away bad facts and constructing theories on alternative suspects. Deceased deputy Danny Barry is a favorite. “All these girls or most of these girls was found within a three-mile radius of Danny Barry’s house,” Richard told me. “Since he been dead, nobody died. All these motherfuckers on the sheriff’s department are some crooked sons of bitches.”
On an unusually warm and muggy late spring night in 2012, Richard sat shirtless, exposing his meaty upper body, on a pair of rockers on the front porch of his family home in Jennings. He has expressionless brown eyes, a thick head of black hair streaked with gray, and a salt-and-pepper goatee. He was trying very hard to project the image of a wrongly accused, down-on-his-luck, sobered-up former hustler. “I was a dope addict, a coke head, meth head, alcoholic, no-good sonofabitch,” Richard told me. “But I’m determined to get my head on right. I’m one year clean from meth and 100 days clean from alcohol and cocaine after 42 years. That’s a long fuckin’ time for a motherfucker like me.”
Standing nearby, on the ground below, was an associate of Richard’s, a towering African-American man in his 30s wearing baggy jeans and a white T-shirt. At one point, he interrupted the conversation to warn me that the story I’m working on will likely put me in the crosshairs of local law enforcement.
“You a bold-ass little man, dog,” he said.
“Don’t get caught in Jeff Davis Parish at night.”
Richard’s mother, Jeanette LeBlanc, who, with her short, silvery hair and T-shirt and jeans seemed more like a Southern retiree than the alleged grand dame of a prescription-pill ring, arrived on the porch to add another set of eyes on the interview.
“They doin’ a life history on me,” Richard said.
“Oh, lord,” LeBlanc replied.
“I’m not telling him everything,” Richard asserted.
“Keep some secrets,” she said icily.
Richard waved his hand, dismissively. He wanted his momma back inside, in part, he claimed, for her own safety. He said that he’d been the target of several recent assassination attempts. “One day I was walking down the street and”—Richard clapped his hands to make a gunshot sound—“where it was coming from I don’t know. If you gonna shoot me, look me in the face when you shoot me, motherfucker. Three different times that happened since this shit started with them murders.” Though Richard’s been the subject of several failed prosecutions, he insisted that he is a wanted man by just about everybody in town, from the sheriff’s office to the pimps and pill-pushers on the south side streets.
A series of beat-up, lowriding Oldsmoblies and Cadillacs then rolled by. “FRAN-KAY!” a couple of young African-American men yelled out the window, trying to grab his attention. “Hey, FRAN-KAY!” One saggy-pantsed man actually got out of a Cadillac, prostrated himself on the street, and began bowing. Richard half-heartedly acknowledged the men—he was visibly aware that the tributes contradicted the image he was trying to project to me.
That Richard continues to sit atop what police files and my own reporting suggest is an empire of drugs and prostitution is no spectacular stroke of luck. He is a prized informant who, according to task force documents, has provided a steady stream of intel to investigators. (He was debriefed in 2008, which challenges another official narrative: that no one is talking to the multi-agency investigative team, and that all investigators have is a series of unhelpful dead ends.) Criminal activity sanctioned by high-level law enforcement is hardly uncommon; a 2011 FBI report concluded the agency gave its informants permission to break the law at least 5,658 times that year.
Richard would push back against the snitch label vigorously. But, in May 2012, Kirk Menard, the private investigator, sent a pair of female witnesses who said they had tips in the killings related to Richard to the task force offices to be interrogated. “Do not worry about Frankie,” one high-ranking task force investigator told the stunned women, “because he works for me.” The investigator added, according to the witness account, that Richard has a task force–issued cellphone. Menard forwarded me an e-mail he sent to the task force outlining his concerns about the interview. Nearly two years later, he has yet to receive a response.
Richard’s cooperation is especially troubling given that two members of local law enforcement may have disposed of evidence in critical murder and theft cases against him.
The possibility that Richard is just circumstantially connected to all of the eight murdered women has also been undermined again and again. Soon after charges against Richard in the 2007 Lopez slaying were dismissed, he and associate Eugene “Dog” Ivory—who is, according to task force witnesses, a suspect in the murder of Crystal Benoit—beat a rape case in which, according to case files, Richard allegedly told the victim, “If you tell anyone, bitch, you will end up like the others.”
One night, not long before Richard and I met, Beverly Crochet, the sister of slain drug dealer Leonard Crochet, was leaving Tina’s Bar, a South Jennings haunt frequented by the Jeff Davis 8. Tracee Chaisson, the former prostitute who was once charged with being an accessory after the fact of second-degree murder in the slaying of Kristen Lopez, approached her in the parking lot.
“When I was walking out with my ride,” Crochet told me when we spoke several weeks later on the front porch of her home, which is just down the street from the Richard family home, “she was screaming out the car with some black people, ‘You’re gonna be number 9.’”
Crochet said she reported the incident to the task force. She cleared her throat nervously. “I could tell you more,” she said, “but I’m scared. I’m scared for my own life.” The Jeff Davis 8 killings, she said, “started right after” her brother Leonard was killed. “Right after. All them girls were in there at one point. They were all in there for two days in and out.”
The parish’s current sheriff, Ivy Woods, won a heated campaign in 2011 on a promise to solve this case, but he has made no discernible headway. Woods never returned any of my calls for comment, but he recently gave an interview about the case to WWL-TV, the CBS affiliate in New Orleans. “The rumor’s gotten out several times within this investigation that it has to be a law enforcement official that committed these murders because they can’t be caught,” he said in a story broadcast on January 31. “I’ve tried to bring the trust back to law enforcement.”
The multi-agency investigative team, meanwhile, remains a case study in conflict of interest, dominated by investigators from a sheriff’s office with a deep history of corruption and misconduct. The Jeff Davis 8 case is begging for a takeover by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, which intervened in a now notorious New Orleans Police Department case from 2005, where cops shot and killed innocent bystanders on the Danziger Bridge in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. My investigation raises a number of very real questions about the prevailing serial-killer theory of these murders, and it also indicates that local law enforcement is a hindrance, not a help, to a resolution being reached. Whatever the truth, these eight women, and their surviving families, deserve a fresh inquiry by an outside investigative body.
As the sky over Jennings darkened and we said our goodbyes on Richard’s porch, the mask of the anxiety-ridden, cornered onetime kingpin dropped, and he bellowed: “If something ever happens to my kids behind this shit, they can believe one fucking thing: Frankie Richard’s coming, and hell is coming with him.”
Ethan Brown, an investigative reporter in New Orleans, is the author of Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler, Snitch: Informers, Cooperators and the Corruption of Justice, and Shake the Devil Off: A True Story of the Murder that Rocked New Orleans.