Were These 8 Women Murdered by a Serial Killer-Pimp—or the Cops?
The new Showtime true-crime series “Murder in the Bayou,” premiering Sept. 13, examines the mysterious killings of eight Louisiana prostitutes known as the Jeff Davis 8.
In small towns like Jennings, Louisiana, everybody knows everybody. So when, over the course of four-and-a-half years (2005-2009), eight women were killed, their bodies dumped in canals or on the sides of roads, and it turned out that they all ran with the same crowd, it was hard to imagine that the crimes were unrelated. Certainly the police felt that way, since after considerable investigative work, Sheriff Ricky Edwards declared that the atrocities were the work of a single serial killer.
Murder in the Bayou, however, isn’t nearly as confident about that supposition. Directed by Matthew Galkin, produced by Joshua Levine, and based on Ethan Brown’s 2016 book Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8?, Showtime’s new five-part true-crime series (premiering Sept. 13) is a peek into the tangled bonds and socioeconomic divides of Jennings, located in Jefferson Davis Parish, where train tracks separate the north side “haves” from the south side “have-nots.” It’s from that latter region that the victims, who came to be known as the Jeff Davis 8, hailed, although that wasn’t the only thing that bound them to one another. They all came from fractured homes. They were all crack addicts. They all apparently sold their bodies for money or drugs.
And, crucially, they all knew Frankie Richard.
A local pimp, dope-pusher and former strip-club proprietor, Richard was a notorious lout who shared intimate ties with the deceased. Thus, few were surprised when he and daughter Hannah Richard—with whom he regularly smoked crack, like more than one Jennings dad did—were briefly arrested for the slaying of third victim Kristen Gary Lopez. To relatives of Lopez and the other slain women, Richard was an obvious suspect, especially given his predilection for violence; according to investigative journalist Brown, he even had a trio of “hands-on men” who did his dirty work for him. Regardless, as Murder in the Bayou lays out, the charges against Richard didn’t stick, and he was quickly back on the street, free to continue his wayward ways. And in a newly recorded interview, the bushy-bearded, chain-smoking Richard proclaims his innocence, admitting that he enjoyed partying with the women but cared about them too much to have ever caused them harm.
The bodies, meanwhile, kept piling up, and Sheriff Edwards continued to make little headway in a case that soon attracted national media attention. The problem, at least at first, was that most of the victims were found in states of such extreme decomposition that forensic evidence was all but absent, and the cause of death was hard to discern. Furthermore, though the women were all acquaintances, and some had feared for their safety shortly before their demise, no concrete reason for their murders could be deduced. As a result, Sheriff Edwards, and the local press, fell back on blaming their “high-risk lifestyles” for their fates—a tactic compounded by Edwards’ initial decision to refer to the fiend as a “serial dumper,” thereby implying that the wrong-side-of-the-tracks girls were disposable.
The Jeff Davis 8’s drugging-and-prostituting proclivities certainly put them in the crosshairs of lethal forces. Friends, family members and reporters Scott Lewis and Brown, however, contend that biases against Jennings’ poorer residents both clouded public perception and undercut urgency to find the culprit(s). More damning still, Brown’s look into the murders exposed a thicket of crisscrossing paths and allegiances between the victims, Richard, and law enforcement. Chief investigator Warren Gary, for example, purchased a truck from an incarcerated Richard associate that may have been used in Lopez’s slaying, and then sold it for profit. Jailor Danny Barry, who knew many of the oft-incarcerated women thanks to his position, was known to pick up working girls, get them high, and then enjoy time with them in his home’s plastic-encased sex dungeon (alongside his wife, no less). And parish warden Terrie Guillory had long-standing relationships with many of the victims, sometimes of a carnal nature, and may have known about first victim Loretta Chaisson’s death before her body was found.
Facts are few but hearsay is plentiful in Murder in the Bayou, which casts intense doubt on the official version of events, and suspicion on Richard and his cop pals, through voluminous eyewitness accounts and speculation. The effect is simultaneously intriguing and frustrating, since it makes one think that something deeply fishy was going on in Jennings, and yet leaves one wondering if all these ideas are just fanciful conspiracy theories designed to fill a vacuum created by a dearth of concrete answers. Like so many of its true-crime brethren, Galkin and Levine’s series is spellbound by not only the unknown, but by the possibility that, because of the particular circumstances of these homicides, the truth may be fundamentally unknowable.
Murder in the Bayou is guided by the question of whether the Jeff Davis 8 fell prey to one man or multiple, interrelated perpetrators (who may have simply been copycatting each other, since decomposition did a great job of destroying evidence). Equally as beguiling as that mystery is director Galkin’s evocation of his rural Louisiana milieu. Though he employs the usual array of talking-head chats with principal players, Galkin embellishes his material with shadowy, off-center close-ups of hands and objects, panoramas of Jennings’ dilapidated and well-to-do homes, and cinematographic plunges into backwater locales. Just as a few early shots featuring Christian wall ornamentation convey, silently, the community’s religious foundations, the director’s haunting, expressionistic flourishes amplify the series’ atmosphere of unnerving menace, suggesting the corrosive underbelly of this superficially quiet enclave.
“There’s no closure, no peace,” says Evelyn Daniels, the grief-stricken mother of second victim Ernestine Daniels. As genre aficionados know, that lack of resolution isn’t uncommon in stories such as this. Nonetheless, Murder in the Bayou comes across not as a retread but, instead, as another stark example of the elusiveness of justice in a world riddled with vice, immorality, inequality and incompetence. With striking aesthetics that augment its keen investigative storytelling, it’s a defiant plea against indifference.