In the tiny Louisiana town of Jennings, the line between the haves and the have-nots is a railroad track. The have-nots live on the south side. The haves live on the north.
It was on the south side where eight women turned up dead over a four-year period beginning in 2005. They were dumped in canals and along roads, their bodies so badly rotted it was sometimes difficult to determine how they died — except in the case of one woman whose throat had been slit.
The women all knew each other. They ran in the same crowd. They had children and families. They partied together and got arrested together and acted as confidential informants to local cops. They traded sex for money and drugs. And they all ended up dead in cases that have never been solved.
Author Ethan Brown spent years investigating their deaths, ultimately writing a best-seller titled "Murder in the Bayou," which has been made into an evocative, gripping documentary series for Showtime.
The murders occurred in a rural, southwest Louisiana enclave with only 10,000 residents. At one point, local law enforcement suggested a serial killer was on the loose. The then-sheriff of Jefferson Davis Parrish said the women shared "high-risk" lifestyles, as if the victims themselves were responsible for their gruesome deaths, their grieving families complained.
What happened to the Jeff Davis 8, as they are known, is a complicated morass of high crime, rampant drug use, corrupted lives and allegedly corrupt authorities. It is a story with no ending and no justice, at least not yet.
The writing in Brown's book, and the detail in Showtime's documentary, is searing. The scenes unfold in a lush and telling tableau — from the region's Acadian history to the ever-present crackle of lighters held to cigarettes.
South Jennings is oppressively poor, its despair as heavy as the Spanish moss on bowing tree limbs and the cloying humidity that drapes the town like wet cotton.
The Jeff Davis 8 first came to Brown's attention as he traversed Interstate 10 from his home in New Orleans to Calcasieu Parish, which is smack next door to Jefferson Davis Parish.
Interspersed with billboards for casinos, hunting shops and gas stations, were giant signs with glaring headlines: "Up to $85,000 Reward," they promised. "Seeking information about the death of these women. Call the Multi-Agency Investigative Team hotline." Below were photographs of eight smiling women.
"What is this?" Brown told InsideEdition.com. "This is so fascinating and strange that these women's names are on billboards."
And thus began his yearslong descent into the quicksand surrounding eight murdered women, ranging in age from 17 to 30, who died between 2005 and 2009. The victims were strangled or stabbed, their bodies tossed like garbage into water or along roadsides. Their families and friends were left to wonder in fear, and they have increasingly believed the killings were not committed by a single murderer, despite the local sheriff's suggestions.
After months of research and interviews, Brown said he also believes there is more than one killer, and more than one motive. Some victims were witnesses to the murders of others, he said. All of the women knew law enforcement officers, he said, both as informants and from being arrested and serving brief stints in jail.
Drugs and covering up corruption are common threads in the patchwork of these killings, according to Brown and the residents he interviewed.
"There's a law enforcement sense of impunity and a street sense of impunity that's very, very strong in this town," he said. It "plays an enormous role in this not being solved. ... Who do you trust? That's a big phrase you hear all the time in town," he said.
Law enforcement has denied allegations of corruption, saying there has been no evidence that shows investigators were involved with the killings or in covering them up.
Brown points to another unsolved homicide in south Jennings. In 2011, Brown was out one night interviewing folks in Jennings. He ran into a man who said he had dated two or three of the victims. They talked for a while and Brown went back to his hotel.
The next morning, his phone rang. The man he had been talking to was dead, he was told, murdered in his house. Brown doesn't think the killing, which is still open on the books, had anything to do with him. Rather, Brown said, it's indicative of how cheap life can be in Jennings.
When he mentioned the strange coincidence to others in town, they said, "Welcome to Jennings," he recounted. As if to say, that's how things go here.
That doesn't mean people have forgotten about the eight dead women, he said. They "have large families. They have partners, husbands, kids, sometimes multiple kids, and they are loved in their small community. They are loved by their families," Brown said.
The first victim was Loretta Chaisson, 28, a missing woman and mother of two. Her bloated body was found in a canal by a man out fishing. It was May 20, 2005, and the man initially thought he was looking at a mannequin. But mannequins don't draw flies, he said to himself. Chaisson's brother, in the Showtime documentary, said the last time he saw his sister, she was getting into the car of a local pimp.
Less than a month later, the body of 30-year-old Ernestine Daniels Patterson was found 6 miles from the canal where Chaisson's body floated up. She, too, was dumped in water, Her throat was cut. Two men were arrested for her murder, but the charges were eventually dropped. Evelyn Daniels, the victim's mother, says in the documentary that investigators have made no progress. "I feel like they don't care. I don't have no closure. No peace."
Nearly two years went by before victim No. 3 surfaced in 2007. In that time, the region battled the ravages and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Life stood still as residents scrambled to dig out of polluted floodwaters and decimated economies. Crime slowed in Jennings.
Victim No. 3 was Kristen Gary Lopez. She was 21, and her body was found in another local canal, which cross this tiny spot like street intersections. She had been reported missing 13 days before. Some initially thought she had gone off on a bender, a friend says on camera. But Kristin was acting increasingly paranoid before she disappeared, her friend said. Kristen wouldn't talk about what was bothering her.
Two months after Kristin's body was found, the remains of Whitnei Dubois, 26, were discovered. Victim No. 4 was dumped along a rural road, She had been severely beaten. Like the others, she was connected to drugs and sex work.
Later in May, the body of Laconia "Muggy" Brown was found by a Jefferson Davis Parish sheriff's deputy out on patrol. Her remains had been dropped in the middle of a country road. Bleach had been poured over her. The victim's grandmother, Bessie Brown, said Laconia knew the other four women, and was convinced "she would be the next victim," Brown said. She begged her granddaughter to stay off crack, but the addiction won out. She told Laconia, "Stay home until these people find whoever this is doing this killing, but it never sunk in."
Crystal Zeno, who was also known as Crystal Shay Benoit Zeno, turned up dead in 2008. The 24-year-old mother's body was found in the woods, reduced to little more than a skeleton. Though she had a child, and straightened out for awhile, she slipped again into using drugs. She was close to the other victims, according to her cousin. "They all got high together. They all hung out together," said Sarah Benoit. "They all ran together."
Brittney Gary was found dead on Nov. 15, 2008. She was 17, the youngest victim. Her mother, Teresa Gary, organized search parties and posted missing fliers after her daughter disappeared on Nov. 2. She had been waiting on Teresa to get home from the Family Dollar store, but Brittney never arrived. Her body was dumped next to a road. There were "maggots coming out her eyes and her nose and what used to be her mouth," her mother says in the documentary. The family pastor said of Teresa, "I don't think I've ever seen any mother hurting that much."
The last known victim was found on Aug. 19, 2009. Necole Jean Guillory's body was dumped on the side of busy Interstate 10, the highway that begins in Santa Monica, California, and bisects the South until it reaches Jacksonville, Florida.
Like Laconia, Necole had a bad feeling. Her mother said Necole "felt she could be a victim." Her birthday was approaching. When Barbara Guillory asked what kind of icing she fancied for her cake, "She said, 'Momma, it doesn't matter. I am not going to be here to see my birthday.'"
Necole was accurate.
In researching and writing his book, Brown said he spent hours and hours with family members. "They were very emotional," he said. "They were very interesting. I could tell, even from the very first visit out there, that there was this profound need to have this story told."
Now a decade after the last known murder, there remains a driving need to discover who killed the daughters of south Jennings, he said. In making the documentary, family members, friends and even those suspected of being somehow involved in the women's demise opened their lives and homes.
Asked what he hoped for the documentary about his book, Brown replied, "That the series makes people around the country demand answers to this case. And demand answers about how so many people in this [small] world ... did the things they did for so long with no accountability."