On first glance, Jennings, Louisiana appears to be just another sleepy village in Cajun country: flat farmlands, dirt roads, rice fields and crawfish ponds. Although officially a city, there are fewer than 10,000 residents, many of whom pursue decidedly rural hobbies in the surrounding swamps.
But those swamps held secrets, and in 2005 the residents started stumbling upon them.
First was the discovery of 28-year-old Loretta Chaisson-Lewis, whose corpse was found by a fisherman in May 2005. Then, less than a month later, a group of friends hunting for bullfrogs came across the body Ernestine Patterson, 30 years old.
Over the next four years the victim list grew, a new body showing up every few months: Kristen Gary Lopez. Whitnei Dubois. Laconia “Muggy” Brown. Crystal Zeno. Brittney Gary. Necole Guillory.
The sheriff’s office announced that they believed the murders to be the work of a serial killer. But others are less certain.
Ethan Brown, a reporter who spent years investigating the “Jeff Davis 8” murders—first for a magazine-length story and then later for a book, Murder in the Bayou—says there’s credible evidence to suggest that several offenders have blood on their hands, and that Jefferson Davis Parish’s own law enforcement may be implicated in the crimes.
Connections Between the Victims
The “Jeff Davis 8” (or “Jennings 8”) had a lot in common. All of them were sex workers who abused drugs—notably crack cocaine—and many of them knew each other. (Gary Lopez and Gary, for example, were cousins.) Several of the victims turned tricks at the same cheap motel: the Boudreaux Inn, where police regularly made arrests.
Brown admits, when discussing some of the connections between the town’s murder victims, that some of it might be coincidence. “It could be that it’s a small town,” he tells A&E Real Crime. But with eight victims emerging in such a condensed time, it strains credulity to imagine each death as an independent event.
One of the strongest connections Brown says he discovered in his investigation was that all the victims had worked as police informants.
“There’s a really dangerous interplay with the victims as informants for the cops,” he says.
According to him, one of the victims (Muggy Brown) told family members shortly before her death that she was working as an informant on murder cases. The officer she said she was working for—Michael Janise—ended up being the one who found her body.
The victims also seemed to know they were in danger. The last victim—Necole Guillory—died less than two weeks before her 27th birthday. She told her mother not to bother with a birthday cake, saying she wouldn’t be alive for it, according to Brown. She added that the police were responsible for the other women’s deaths.
The Pimps and Johns of Jennings, Louisiana
The fact that the Jeff Davis 8 were all sex workers-turned-police informants doesn’t mean that all the suspects hail from law enforcement. A more obvious place to look might be the men who rubbed shoulders with the women in the small town’s criminal underworld.
Chief among them: Frankie Richard, a pimp and drug dealer who worked with several of the women. Richard claims to mourn the deaths.
“We shared something,” Richard told Brown for his book. “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.”
Brown says there are several reasons to suspect Richard’s direct involvement, particularly in the deaths of Whitnei Dubois and Kristen Gary Lopez.
“He was one of the last people to be seen with Whitnei, and Frankie has attempted to give alibis for his time that do not check out,” Brown says. “On Kristen, very similarly he’s right there in Kristen’s last days.”
Then there’s the matter of a confession Richard allegedly made to another addict while in a drug-rehabilitation program, which Brown says was credible enough on its face to make local law enforcement track down the man for further questioning. Richard was later arrested for Lopez’s murder, but was eventually let go due to lack of evidence.
Still other killings point to the johns who hired the women. On the night of Ernestine Patterson’s murder she had sex with Byron Chad Jones—who has a lengthy, violent rap sheet—while Nixon waited outside.
Nixon’s wife, Lucenda Kagy, would later tell investigators that the two men came home that night with an enormous bloody garbage bag and that her husband confessed that the two men were responsible for Patterson’s slaying.
Her body, like the others, was found in a swamp. Nixon and Jones were initially charged, but the district attorney eventually dropped the case.
“The reason for the dismissal of the case by the DA isn’t at all clear,” says Brown. “They have very strong witnesses,” he says, adding that none had recanted or provided inconsistent statements.
Like the rest of the Jennings 8, Patterson’s case remains unprosecuted. It’s an endemic problem that extends beyond the eight women, revealing a parish with a significantly subpar record in solving murder. Jefferson Davis Parish has a homicide clearance rate of just under 7 percent; by comparison, the national homicide clearance rate is close to 62 percent.
The Law Enforcement Angle
While ineffective police work isn’t proof of corruption, the relationship between Jennings’ law enforcement and the murdered women raises eyebrows.
Several of the women had clients in law enforcement. Loretta Chaisson-Lewis’s cellmate told Brown that Chaisson-Lewis had a sexual relationship with jail warden Terrie Guillory, and that the pair had sex in the cell. According to Brown, a Jefferson Davis Parish task force assigned to the case was informed by several witnesses that one of the parish’s deputies—Danny Barry—regularly solicited prostitutes from his police car, including several of the victims.
And then there’s the theory that the case ties to Leonard Crochet, a drug dealer who was unarmed when he was shot and killed by an officer during a raid.
“The first couple of years at least when I was working on this, I was constantly told that all of the women—or most of the women—were at the Leonard Crochet shooting,” Brown says.
Now he’s not as sure. Chaisson-Lewis had been around the area, he says, but there’s scant evidence that the others were there. For now, what the women did or did not know—and who took their lives—remains shrouded in mystery.