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In south central Louisiana, in a small town on the edge of Cajun country, a string of eight young women were murdered between 2005 and 2009.
They all knew each other. Some were related by blood, others shared apartments; they frequented the same bars and low-rent motels. They used – and abused – drugs together.
And one-by-one, they all became murder victims.
Loretta Chaisson Lewis, 28, was the first, her decomposing and partially clothed body found floating in a canal on May 20, 2005.
Less than a month later, Ernestine Patterson, 30, was found in a different canal with her throat slit, her body discovered by froggers.
Over the next four years, the toll would mount: Kristen Lopez, 21; Whitnei Dubois, 26; Laconia “Muggy” Brown, 23; Crystal Benoit Zeno, 24; Brittney Gary, 17; and Necole Guillory, 26.
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Their killings have gained national notoriety, often portrayed as the work of a serial killer. But police documents obtained by WWL-TV suggest a very different – and potentially more sinister – theory: that police somehow were involved in the killings.
Rumors of law enforcement involvement in the killings are not new.
A wide range of circumstances have fueled the rumors that police have blood on their hands, whether with a direct hand in the violence or by covering up the horrible acts of others.
The speculation starts with one basic fact shared by the victims. Each of the murders remains unsolved.
Given the violent nature of the murders and the hasty manner in which the bodies were dumped, the lack of progress in solving the cases seems suspicious to many local residents.
“Nobody seems to be able to find out who’s doing the killing. And all these people, we all know them. So why can’t the police find out who’s killing them?” asked Lionel Batiste, who lives on the south side of Jennings where most of the victims engaged in their high-risk lifestyles.
Batiste thinks there’s more to the mystery than just bad luck or poor detective work.
“I think it’s connected with the police,” he said. “Because it’s too many murders. You can’t solve them and it’s steady going on, back to back to back. How can you not catch this man?”
THE KILLING FIELDS
Then there’s the geography of the killings.
Jennings, a town of about 11,000, sits between Lafayette and Lake Charles along Interstate 10. It’s the largest town in Jefferson Davis Parish and the seat of government.
The paved streets of the town give way to dirt roads as you hit the rice fields and crawfish ponds on the outskirts.
These flat farmlands should be peaceful, but in almost every direction, the roads here lead to dark reminders of what happened to the eight young murder victims.
In each case, their bodies were dumped along the rural roads, some in the weeds, some half-submerged in canals. For a few spots, crime scene tape has been replaced by stark memorials.
Private investigator Kirk Menard knows every final resting place, along with the sordid circumstances attached to each one.
“This all points to something very local,” Menard said. “Someone right in the center of this if you go by geographical profiling. That’s it’s someone right in the center of this area, who knows this area.”
Menard was hired by the families of several victims after local police came up empty trying to solve the cases.
Kirk Menard and Mike Perlstein
While law enforcement still pursues a theory that the murders the work of a single serial killer, Menard quickly dismisses that idea.
“I think we have more than one killer here,” he said. “All the victims knew each other. They all ran in the same circles. All of the same names keep popping up. I think there are multiple people involved.”
In fact, different sets of suspects were arrested in two of the killings, but those cases quickly crumbled.
Two local men were booked in the murder of Patterson, the second victim, but the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence.
And two different people, a local man and his niece, were taken into custody in the killing of Kristen Lopez, the third victim. That case fell apart when the lone witness recanted her story.
“Sometimes I wonder, 'Are they any further along than what they were the first day they started?'"
FEAR AND CORRUPTION
The murder statistics of this rural stretch of Acadiana are sobering. The eight killings, along with nine other unsolved murders in the area since the first body was discovered, give Jefferson Davis Parish one of the lowest clearance rates for homicide in the country. According to the FBI, the parish has a clearance rate of less than seven percent, compared to a national clearance rate of 64 percent.
The prospect that killers might be living among them, melting back into the mundane rhythms of everyday life, keeps many residents on edge.
“It is a very high murder rate in a very short time,” Menard said. “That’s definitely another cause for concern. Are we safe in this town?”
Even more unsettling to people in Jennings is the idea that somehow police are tangled up in the eight killings. The notion is widely shared, and there is a disturbing pattern of police misconduct that raises uncomfortable questions.
Just last year, former Jennings Police Chief Johnny Lassiter, who served during the time period of the killings, pled guilty to stealing money and drugs from the evidence room. Lassiter, who is awaiting sentencing, could not be reached for comment.
A few years before that, Jefferson Davis Deputy Paula Guillory was fired after being accused of the same thing.
In fact, a 109-page report by a multi-agency task force created in 2008 to solve the killings contains dozens of interviews in which witnesses suggest police involvement.
The document, obtained by WWL-TV, has been heavily researched by author and private investigator Ethan Brown.
“They’re getting tons of information about specific cops and deputies and their involvement in these homicides,” Brown said. “Misconduct has really marred this case really from the get-go on the part of law enforcement.”
Brown, who uses his investigative skills as a true crime writer, has delved deep into the murders and just published a lengthy article about the case on the newly launched website Medium.com. In his opinion, police misconduct directly torpedoed chances for a break in the case.
Take Guillory, the fired deputy. When she was dismissed for mishandling evidence, she was a detective and key member of the multi-agency task force put together to solve the murders.
The missing evidence? It came from a drug case against a man who would turn out to be – and still is – a lead suspect in the killings.
Guillory did not return calls for comment.
Perhaps the most glaring missed opportunity to get a break in the cases can be found in a 2007 ethics violation by Jeff Davis deputy Warren Gary, the department’s chief criminal investigator at the time.
Gary was fined $10,000 for buying a truck from a parish inmate, then immediately selling it for a handsome profit.
The disappearance of the truck would prove to be a major blow. In a case with almost no physical evidence, two witnesses told deputies that a recent passenger in the truck was Lopez, the third victim.
The truck reportedly was used to carry Lopez’s body to a canal on the edge of a rice field, where her badly beaten body was found.
At the time, the sheriff’s office said the purchase and quick sale of the truck was unfortunate, but not intended to thwart the Lopez investigation.
But two witnesses, cited in interviews, told a detective precisely why it was critical to keep the truck as evidence.
“Two witnesses came forward to speak to a detective, then with the Jennings P.D., named Jessie Ewing, and said that the chief investigator at the sheriff’s office purchased this vehicle in order to dispose of the physical evidence in the case,” Brown said.
So, what happened to Gary, the criminal investigator, after the ethics fine? Instead of being demoted or disciplined, Gary was promoted to commander of the evidence room. Gary finally left the department in 2012 when Sheriff Ivy Woods was elected to take over from then-Sheriff Ricky Edwards.
Contact information for Gary was unavailable.
Like Edwards before him, Woods downplays the police misconduct as unfortunate – but unrelated – transgressions. But Brown and others see common threads that are too damaging to the murder to be coincidental.
“How does the misconduct play out? The way it plays out is it benefits the prime suspect in at least two of the homicides, Frankie Richard,” Brown said.
A SUSPECT SPEAKS
Frankie Richard, 58, still lives in the center of the south side of Jennings, beaten down by a life of cocaine addiction and frequent trips to the local jail. Now toothless and in failing health, he describes himself as “down on my luck.”
But some would call Richard very lucky. He’s been named as a suspect in two of the Jennings murders – and held in custody for 89 days in one of them – but neither case stuck. His criminal history shows a string of convictions for petty crimes like drug possession, theft and battery.
Aside from being a murder suspect, Richard’s arrest history includes major offenses such as aggravated rape, aggravated assault, arson and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. While he’s been in and out of prison, including time for violating probation, none of the major felonies has resulted in lengthy stretches behind bars.
Richard, who lives in a small house with his extended family, admits that his road through life has been rough. He said he spent most of his working years as the owner of a string of strip joints in and around Jennings. He also said he worked on an offshore oil rig, where he suffered a back injury that qualified him for federal disability payments.
As for his darker days of drug abuse and exploitation of women, Richard is candid up to a point. Here’s an exchange from a recent interview:
Reporter: “Let’s start with what we know. You had a history of owning strip clubs?”
Reporter: “And using drugs.”
Reporter: “Including hard drugs?”
Reporter: “Crack cocaine?”
Richard: “Crack cocaine.”
Reporter: “How much crack cocaine?”
Richard: “A whole lot.”
“I done my dirt,” he said. “Whether it’s my drugs, or whether I was involved in a little, some prostitution. I hooked my friends with some of these girls that I knew. And what they done, they done.”
On the subject of the murders, however, Richard flat-out denies being involved. What he does admit, however, is eye-opening.
He admits that he knew all of the victims, some intimately. He admits trading drugs for sex with some of them, although he doesn’t name names.
“I have gotten high with most of them, OK, most of the girls,” he said. “Had sex with a couple of them.”
According to witness interviews in the task force report, Richard has been linked to several of the killings. But he was only arrested in connection with one, the case of Lopez.
Richard was taken into custody along with his niece Hannah Connor, who was booked as an accessory in the killing. A witness came forward and named the two as the killers, but the case was shaky without corroborating evidence.
One piece of evidence that could have strengthened the case was the truck bought and sold by Gary, the chief investigator.
Richard admits he was one of the last people to see Lopez alive, throwing her out of a motel where they were getting high together.
He said he kicked her out because she was stealing from him.
He says that’s the last time he saw her, and it haunts him.
“The next day, or that night, she went missing,” Richard said. “Now I’ve got to live with that. If I’d have let that girl go back to my motel room, she might still be alive. And that bothers me. It bothers me a lot.”
Richard also admits being one of the last people to see the next victim, Dubois. Some witnesses in the task force report say Richard was involved in Dubois’ murder. But detectives never mustered enough evidence to arrest him.
Reporter: “If you were law enforcement, wouldn’t you come to you with questions?”
Richard: “Of course. Yes, I would come with questions.”
Reporter: “Maybe suspicions about your involvement?”
Richard: “Yeah, they could have suspected me.”
Yet, Richard adamantly denies playing any role in the victims’ murders. He also forcefully denies an aggravated rape charge that was dropped at the same time the Lopez murder case fell apart.
Richard said he has taken at least three lie detector tests, although he admits the results came out inconclusive.
“They tried to railroad me,” Richard said. “I didn’t have anything to do with any of the killings. I never hurt any of them girls in any kind of way.”
In fact, Richard said he has gone to task force detective with information about other possible suspects, including law enforcement officers and others who he says have been protected by the cops.
“There were these rumors going around about the cops killing these girls, so I told them what I knew,” Richard said. “I believe that if it wasn’t a cop that done it, there’s a cop that knows who done it.”
Living under the dark shadow of being named a suspected killer has taken its toll, Richard said. His children have been threatened and several times, he believes, he has been the target of retribution.
“Three different times somebody tried to kill me in the middle of the night while I was walking down the street,” he said. “But I don’t care about myself. What scares me the most out of all of this is somebody actually believes that I had something to do with one of these girls’ murders, and take it out on my kids to get back at me."
On top of clearing his name, Richard admits there's another motive for him to help police solve the cases. If he had answers, he said he wouldn't hesitate to put in for the $85,000 being offered in reward money.
SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS
The site where Crystal Zeno's body was found
Detectives assigned the task force continue to work to solve the murders of the Jennings 8. They say Richard has not been eliminated as a suspect, although there is no physical evidence linking him to any of the killings.
Even though the trail has grown cold, task force members said they still field tips. Sometimes new information comes in several times a week. Sometimes the phones remain quiet for a month or more.
But the task force, which is primarily run by the Jefferson Davis Sheriff’s Office and Jennings Police Department, with support from the Louisiana State Police and the FBI, remains determined to get answers.
“We handle every tip like it’s a fresh tip,” said Sheriff Woods. “We’re going to try to put fresh eyes on the investigation. And we’ve been doing that for a year and half.”
The task force is overseen by Woods, elected in 2012, partially on a campaign promise to revive the murder investigations.
To help jump-start the efforts of the task force, Woods said he has brought in new detectives to take a fresh look at old evidence. And he said he has tried to coax new evidence by posting reminders around the parish in the form of posters, fliers and billboards. Some of the posters repeat the $85,000 reward.
“We’re letting them know that we were going to continue the investigations on these eight murders,” Woods said. “We couldn’t solve it in the first week, or the first month, maybe not even in the first five year. Maybe not in my whole term, but we are continuing investigations.”
Perhaps most importantly, Woods said, he is trying to reverse suspicions in the community that law enforcement had a hand in the killings. But he admits that the wariness still exists.
“The rumor has 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,” Woods said.
Woods concedes that it’s not just the failure to solve the cases that fuel community mistrust. The sale of the truck by the former chief investigator – a truck that could have provided critical DNA evidence – was truly damaging, he concedes.
“That’s one of those awkward points within the previous department, the sheriff’s department, that happened,” he said. “That’s one thing I can’t say much about because I’m not aware of it, what all happened. And then that’s where the distrust started.”
A cross marks where the body of Kristen Lopez was found
Despite the many setbacks, Woods believes the cases can be solved.
“You realize how close they’ve got to solving it, and then they’ve had to, like I said, fall backwards within the investigation because their numbers are in a row, but all of sudden, one number falls out and you have to start all over again,” he said.
Detective Chris Ivey, a new task force member brought in by Woods, said patience is critical.
“You can’t get flustered. You do, but you can’t let it affect you because they’re not going to go away,” Ivey said.
Woods believe that fear is the biggest obstacle to getting a break in the case.
“What size reward will make a person come out and say it in fear of their life? That’s our biggest problem,” Woods said.
Menard, the private investigator, also believes the answers are out there somewhere, tucked away in some witness’s memory, perhaps being muffled by fear, intimidation, distrust of law enforcement – or a mixture of all three.
Yet since he’s been on the case, he has come as close as anyone in pinpointing the patterns in the killings. In one instance, shockingly close.
Working undercover, Menard discovered the drug hangouts, coaxed new information from reluctant witnesses and found evidence police overlooked.
But his most alarming contribution was a video he shot in June 2009. On the street where some of the other victims engaged in their risky behavior, he filmed 26-year-old Necole Guillory, walking alone, combing her long hair.
Two months later, she became victim No. 8.
“I went and parked. Turned on my camera. Started videotaping. Got her walking up and down the street. A little over two months later she became a victim,” Menard said.
“It was very unsettling that the girl that I videotaped later became a victim.”
Even though fresh tips are infrequent these days, Guillory and the other victims aren't far from Menard’s thoughts. And along with those thoughts is the nagging notion that there is a key out there to unlock these tragic mysteries.
"The answers are here in this town,” he said. “Somebody has those answers. Somebody knows who’s responsible for each and every one of these murders, but they’re scared to come forward.”
Anyone with information can call the task force at 1-337-824-6662. Callers may remain anonymous.