Ethan Brown is a New York journalist turned private investigator for defense attorneys in New Orleans. In his new life, he's still making time for the odd writing project. In keeping with his past journalism work—doggedly researched and sensitively observed books and articles about street-corner mythology, horrible crimes, the Kafkaesque corners of the legal system, and the survival tactics of marginal people—his latest book is a real-life True Detective story, with more horrifying conclusions than anything on HBO. (There was speculation that the first season of True Detective was based on the same case Brown covers, but creator Nic Pizzolatto has denied that.) Brown's new book Murder in the Bayou, is the product of a five-year investigation into the fate of the Jeff Davis 8—eight sex workers, who all ran in the same circles in the small, southwestern Louisiana town of Jennings, and who, one after one, turned up dead in the surrounding swamps from 2005 to 2009.

From the opening pages, Brown dispenses with the notion, favored by the local Sheriff's Office and once attractive to the national news media, that the killings are the work of a serial killer. Instead, he makes the case that the local cops, and the state and federal authorities that came to work with them on the investigation, have known of credible suspects in the murders since at least 2008 and done nothing. Worse than being ineffectual investigators, some in the town's law enforcement seem to be accessories to, if not involved in the murders—this is according to witness testimony, voluminous law enforcement documents, and interviews. As opposed to sensational ritual killings, the murders seem to be the product of the local underworld of drug-dealing and prostitution, which has no bottom given that Brown's evidence strongly suggests that local law enforcement are in on the act.

The book includes accounts of Jennings officers stealing, buying, and selling drugs, shooting people under questionable circumstances, turning the local jail into a brothel where inmates sometimes screw their way to freedom, and maintaining close relationships with the same local hustlers who had associated with all of the dead women, and in some instances were with them the last time they were seen alive.

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Jennings, Louisiana

The result is a narrative that is intensely claustrophobic, with all of Brown's interview subjects living under a shroud of danger. In re-investigating the murders, Brown attempts to reconstruct the frantic loops each of the dead women were constantly making in search of drugs, money, and safety, before the night they disappeared. There is no escapist thrill here, no Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson on the tail of a satanist pig man. There is only the feverish immediacy of a town where knowledge makes you a target and, with many police playing both cop and robber, it's impossible to know where to turn.

Revelations in the book are also making waves in the Senate race to replace Louisiana's prostitute-patronizing family values Republican David Vitter. In the course of reporting the book, multiple witnesses told Brown that one of Vitter's would-be successors was a regular client at a motel that doubled as a brothel and was owned by the candidate's aide. They said further that the candidate, Congressman Charles Boustany, had sex with some of the women who later wound up dead. (Boustany's wife has denied this in an extensive statement blaming the congressman's political opponents for getting the book written. Brown says he stands by his work and that he pursued his investigation independently, first for a magazine piece he had pitched, and then for the book.)

I spoke to Brown about his time in New York, how he parlayed being a club kid in the '90s into investigative journalism gigs, how New Orleans is treating the professional transplant crowd, and what precautions one takes when researching a book on drug dealers, crooked cops, and their roles in a series of unsolved murders.

Ethan Brown
Where are you from originally?

The DC suburbs. In Maryland.

And when did you come to New York? I moved to New York in '94.

Why? I went to an art school in Vermont—a very tiny art school, only a few hundred people—and everybody that I knew moved to New York.

And how did you get into journalism? I graduated from Bennington with a BA in literature but not really any idea what I wanted to do. I moved to New York with no idea what I wanted to do and spent a couple of years working a lot of odd jobs, including working in a homeless shelter for a bit. And then, I had a longstanding interest, although it wasn't really career-based in any way—I really liked Greil Marcus. He was one of my favorite writers. Pauline Kael was one of my favorite writers.

There was also a female rock critic for The New Yorker who is now deceased, named Ellen Willis, who I was a huge fan of. One day I opened a newspaper, and there was an advertisement for a new program at NYU headed by Ellen Willis. It was a journalism master's. And I thought, "Wow, that's crazy, because I've been a fan of hers for a really long time. I should check it out."

I went to that program, and studied with Ellen, which was great. The other aspects of it were not great, like: I really had no interest in being a journalist really, so I didn’t really like any of my classmates at all. Excluding one person, who was actually a very successful journalist: a guy named Dennis Lim, who was a big film critic for the Village Voice for a while. So, yeah, I thought that a lot of the journalists were incredibly dumb, particularly after my Bennington experience, which was really fantastic, and really challenging.

After my journalism program ended, I looked around for journalism jobs, and my first real job was working as an editorial assistant, a really low-level editorial assistant at Details. This was in the late '90s. I had a really good thought there, and the first investigative piece that I ever worked on came out of that.

I for much of the '90s was a big club person, like the whole Gatien empire stuff: the Limelight, the Tunnel, all of that. I was really heavily going out to clubs, and one night I was robbed at a club in a very methodical fashion. I had all of my stuff taken, and I asked around to people in the club scene about who may have done it, and they said that there was an organized gang that went around robbing raves and nightclubs, called Brooklyn Terror Squad. I thought, "Wow, that's really interesting."

I took it to my editor at Details, and he thought it was fascinating, but I was really young and inexperienced, and was unable to handle something like that. My editor called in Frank Owen, the journalist who broke the Michael Alig murder case at the Limelight—if there there was any moment that was the downfall of nightlife in New York, that definitely is it—which was great because he had a lot of investigative reporting experience, and I had no capacity to do something like this. But the arrangement was, I could assist on the story.

Ethan Brown's first big story (as a contributor), about the Brooklyn Terror Squad. (Details)

I assisted on the story and got some additional reporting credit, and what was interesting and very surprising was that the gang turned out to be vastly more significant than I’d ever imagined. After the piece came out, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, based in Brooklyn, indicted the gang, which is crazy. They were federally indicted, and then there was, I believe, connections from the gang to an Israeli ex-kingpin who was one of the biggest drug dealers in actually the United States at the time.

So an incident where I got robbed turned into this gigantic investigative piece that was very impactful.

And what was methodical about you being robbed? What did that look like? I had a backpack and a bunch of other stuff, and basically I set it down next to my feet in a super crowded club and these guys were crawling along the floor and snatching people’s stuff and running. It wasn’t obviously some brilliant heist or anything, it was just, "What the fuck are these guys doing crawling along the floor and grabbing people's stuff?" It was just interesting. It was so clear that they had come to this event to rob people.

So after that investigative piece that Owen wrote, I was really into the idea of doing more work like that. I stayed at Details a bit longer, then after that, I had a very odd, very short experience: a friend of mine was hired to basically run Teen People, which was a huge, huge Time Inc. property at the time. It was pretty much their biggest moneymaker. She asked me to help out there briefly, and it was a way out of a low-level editorial assistant job entirely.

I worked over there for a little bit and was freelancing at the same time, and the great thing about that job was that they just let me do whatever I want. Some of the things I did there were like—this is 1998 or something—we called Jay Z's publicist and were like, "Would Jay Z want to do something with us?"

Because he wasn't actually that famous at that point, and because that was such a huge Time Inc. property, everybody would say yes. And so, I, to use one example, spent the day Jay Z's record [Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life] came out, which was the first true commercial success for him, I spent the entire day with Jay Z, which is insane, especially looking back on it now.

It was his first true crossover record, you know. So I rode around with him that entire day and watched people recognize him, which I think was for him, the first actual star moment for him. He even wrote me a thank-you note, which I still have, after that.

And I was freelancing mostly at the time, too. Then I interviewed for a staff writer position at New York magazine. I got that job. I was hoping to do the investigative work that I’d begun to do at Details.

In 1999, I had a cover story about ecstasy trafficking, which was the biggest-selling issue of the magazine that year. That resulted in me getting calls from book agents, which was a first. I had been writing about drug policy and drugs for a long time by that point, and I spoke to a book agent about doing a possible book about ecstasy and the history of ecstasy. We kicked it around for a year or two. But then 9/11 happened and made that completely irrelevant.

Why do you think it became irrelevant? 9/11 happened. There was a huge recession. Now all of a sudden, who gives a fuck about ecstasy? That world of the ‘90s, raves and ecstasy, that was it. It was over. It peaked in the late ‘90s. That project was basically abandoned. I went back to just trying to figure out what to do with myself at New York magazine.

rapwars16.jpgI did a piece about the Black Top Gang in Harlem. It was sort of an embed piece with the NYPD. I did a couple of other things. Then, around 2002-ish, the feds started leaking to the press details about their Murder Inc. [Records] investigation, to the tabs.

At the time, there wasn’t anything bigger in hip hop. So I was fascinated by that. I started to work on a piece about it. It was unclear what the piece was going to be. The piece ended up being about the investigation, but also about the shots being traded back and forth between 50 cent and Murder Inc. It was planned as a feature, and at the last minute put on the cover. That was another one that was huge. It was either the bestselling issue that year or at the top.

Russell Simmons flipped out about it and called my boss. I kept the letter he wrote to my boss.

What was his problem with the story? He felt it was negative. I don’t know what it was saying. He didn’t like the piece. It didn't make a lot of sense to me.

So I'd had literary interest since that, with the ecstasy [publisher], we were still talking. Then I got another wave of literary interest after that piece. A literary agent said, "Would you like to turn this into a book?" I said, "Let me think about it for a bit and get back to you."

I did a LexisNexis search about Kenneth McGriff, Supreme, Lorenzo Nichols, and all the big Queens drug dealers all in the background of the Murder Inc. case. There were hits in the tabs, but it was like a 400-word piece in the tabloids. There was nothing significant at all written about this. I was like, "Holy shit this is fascinating these guys were the most significant drug dealers in New York in the '80s and there’s really nothing about them."

I worked on that project, which became Queens Reigns Supreme. In 2005, Murder Inc. was actually indicted, which surprised a lot of people, including me. and it changed the book completely. Because the book, for two years that I’d been working on it, was about an investigation with essentially no conclusion. That really changed everything for the book. Random House got behind it in a big way. Also, 50 Cent became a gigantic star. That was the peak 50 Cent moment, because his film Get Rich Or Die Tryin' was about to be released.

And then I began to hear that the plot of the film incorporated a lot of elements of my book, not that it was based on my book, but it dealt with a lot of the same history. It included a character named Majestic who was clearly based on Supreme. The book had going for it suddenly an indictment and a huge Hollywood movie by hip hop’s biggest star. The book was published right in 2005 when those two things hit.

To back up a little bit, you're a white kid from the suburbs—how did you come to focus on drugs, and gangs, and hip hop, and what in your background gave you an ability to navigate those worlds? Yeah, I became really interested in this stuff just from, it sounds weird, just from going out to clubs as much as I did, and being in this weird drug world in the ‘90s. I ended up doing a ton of self-teaching on this stuff.

For example, I was fascinated by the chemist who synthesized ecstasy, Alexander Shulgin, who passed a couple of years back. I did a ton of self-study on this stuff. Years later, I got flown out to San Francisco to interview Shulgin for Wired. I did a lot of reading.

I guess it’s also worth saying, especially since this is now a big topic in New York: Broken Windows in the '90s meant shutting down nightclubs. I got to see this firsthand. I became very interested in policing, very interested in drug policy, that whole world.

When my book came out in ’05, I had drifted in and out of being published at New York magazine, even though i was working there. I remember thinking, "Do i want to stay in New York? Do i want to stay at New York magazine?" I had been coming down to New Orleans for years, starting in 2001. I remember thinking, "It’s very cheap. It’s one of my favorite American cities. I should move there. I looked at houses pre-Katrina, but didn’t settle on anything. The book and Katrina happened almost simultaneously. I remember getting a call from my wife when i was sitting with Random House at a meeting that New Orleans is essentially underwater. Then i thought I should look at this even further in terms of possibly coming down here.

I was here, in New Orleans, in 2006 and a few days earlier there was a murder-suicide in the French Quarter that had gotten not only Nola media attention, but national and international media attention. A veteran killed his girlfriend, chopped her up, and jumped off the roof of a French Quarter hotel. I thought, "What an amazing story with all these dimensions to it." I immediately thought that the murder-suicide case could be a great book, particularly because of the Iraq dimension. I came down to New Orleans and began researching the case.

That book, Shake the Devil Off, was published in 2009. At that point, I decided for a number of reasons that I just wanted to step away from journalism.

In the past, you've talked about how interest in criminal justice issues in journalism was different when you were working in New York. Can you explain that? I would say pre-Black Lives Matter the interest in criminal justice, the way that it was covered, was entirely through the perspective of cops and DAs, and what you did as a reporter was talk to cops and DAs and write about what cops and DAs were doing, and if you wanted to be a successful reporter, you had to make friends with cops and DAs. I noticed, particularly with the reporters that I knew who were doing criminal justice, they were cop wannabes, and that was certainly not me. They were like overweight middle class white guys wanting to be Irish cops or something.

It was just not me. The other piece of it was, I had really strong feelings about drug policy and the drug war going back years at that point. These feelings were definitely not shared by other people in the writing-about-crime world. I was really interested in the whole sphere, not just the cop and DAs sphere. the whole sphere of drug dealers and drug users. It felt incomplete to me to just focus on the law enforcement side. and that changed in a hugely significant way, but not until 2014 when Black Lives Matter came about.

After the New Orleans book came out in 2009, I worked at this law office [dealing only with death-penalty cases] as a staff investigator for about two and a half years. I decided that I wanted to continue doing that work in private practice, and I've been doing that for four years. The only piece of significant journalism I’ve done during that time was the Medium piece about the Jeff Davis 8.

A house in New Orleans's Upper Ninth Ward in early-mid 2008. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)

What was it like moving to New Orleans? When i got here in 2007, the population was totally depleted [It had gone from a 2000 Census total population of 484,000 to the mid-200,000s]. And then you had a lot of people who were here in some capacity, but were not here. The city was a mess. It was totally un-recovered. So it was really pretty shocking to come down here. 2007 was also one of the worst years in New Orleans history for murder [There were 209 murders]. It was very scary, particularly given how low the population was. The murders per capita were stunning [at over 71 per 100,000 people]. New York's rate is [4 per 100,000].

It was also interesting. At that time there was a sense that you didn’t know how New Orleans was going to be resolved post-Katrina. I feel like there was a huge change here beginning in 2010 when Mayor Mitch Landrieu was elected, and Ray Nagin was out of office. The city in many senses has become much like it was pre-Katrina, which is tourism and prisons. Those are the main industries.

Have you seen an acceleration of people of your demographic—professionals from the East Coast—moving there? Yeah. Pre-2010 I can’t recall anybody that I knew being down here. In 2010, 2012 the big flood of people came down and there were all sorts of pieces people down here like to make fun of, the New York Times and whatnot talking about how cool New Orleans is. Since 2010 or '12, quite a few media people have moved here.

Do you miss New York? The big thing that I think I miss and I think other people who leave New York miss is public transportation. That sounds maybe weird, but it’s true. Not having a car, you know, walking everywhere. That’s a big thing that I miss. Also, conveniences, bodegas and whatnot. Those are the core things that I miss that are just not here, but they're not many places in America because we have shitty infrastructure.

I don’t miss that New York has become such a wealthy and antiseptic place now. I don’t really miss that. And also, down here, in New Orleans and generally in the South, people are pretty—not just friendly, people have a kind of human quality that they don’t have in New York. I was in New York this summer for quite a while doing some work, and the notion that you would just shove people, or shove my son—I have a 5-year-old son—or be an open dick to somebody for no reason. It’s just unheard of down here. If you did that down here, you’d end up getting hit, or worse. So it’s funny to see the difference.

It’s very different socially here. There's no aspirational culture down here. New York is all about aspirational culture of some kind. You're either aspiring to make money or be recognized in some way. It’s very non-competitive, even among the writer people down here.

Can you explain what you do as an investigator for defense attorneys, and how it differs from the popular conception of what a private investigator does? Sure. The popular conception is that private investigators do things like surveil cheating spouses or assist in some way in child custody cases. That’s not at all what I do, though it is what a lot of investigators do. My background is solely doing complex murder cases.

I do fact investigation, and in capital cases I do mitigation investigation, which is putting together a very complex social history of a client. The piece that is relevant to the work that I do as a writer has been my training in records collection, particularly working with Louisiana’s Public Records Act, which is actually a very good law. It's the basis of the work on the Medium piece and book about the Jeff Davis 8.

How does it compare to New York's Freedom of Information Law? My general impression is that it’s better. For example you can get police disciplinary records. [Ed. note: Even in a case where a judge has ordered it, that of one of Eric Garner's killers Daniel Pantaleo, the de Blasio administration is fighting such a disclosure.]

new160913MurderInTheBayou.jpgThere’s quite a bit that you can get under the Public Records Act, and because this is Louisiana, there’s also many parishes that are completely unaccustomed to getting public records requests. They may give you things that are not even public records. I have parishes that will send everything I ask for and not charge me a cent. It’s interesting: Orleans Parish [comprised of all of New Orleans] is very combative. More than combative—they violate the Public Records Act constantly. So when I started working on the Jeff Davis 8 case years ago, I got pretty much everything i asked for. I don’t think I was refused on anything. I also got things that were not public record.

I guess we should talk about your new book. Who are the Jeff Davis 8, and what is so disturbing about their case? From 2005 to 2009, the bodies of eight women from Jennings, which is the parish seat of Jeff Davis Parish, were found in and around Jennings, and one was found in nearby Acadia Parish. All of the murders are unsolved. All of the women were engaged in sex work to some degree. Six women were white, two black. The cause of death in most cases was suspected to be asphyxia. Both of the African-American victims were stabbed to death.

In 2008, a federal and state task force was created to solve these murders. That task force involves the FBI, the Jennings Police Department, the Jeff Davis Parish Sheriff's Office, and the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office. There’s been some extraordinary misconduct related to these cases.

One big example: A victim killed in 2007, Kristen Gary Lopez, was riding in a truck just before she was murdered with a number of people who are connected to her murder. That truck was purchased from an inmate who was close with Lopez by a high-level investigator at the sheriff’s office. Purchased and resold. So a potential key piece of evidence in that Lopez homicide was mishandled. The investigator was investigated by the Louisiana Board of Ethics, and he was fined. Nonetheless, that investigator was promoted to run the evidence room by the sheriff at the time.

In 2009, a big investigation into one of the key suspects in the case, Frankie Richard (pronounced "REE-shard" in Cajun southern Louisiana), an investigation unrelated to the homicides, involves a number of people involved in the task force. Evidence disappeared, charges in the case were thus dropped. and the sheriff’s office deputy who mishandled the evidence in that case, at the time of the mishandling of that evidence, was surveiled hanging out with Richard at his home. In one of many interviews with Richard, he said, "I’d like to thank her for the misconduct that led to the charges against me and my family being dropped."

Jennings, Louisiana

An arrest warrant issued in another case for a second-degree murder charge was dropped due to key pieces of evidence being lost. In 2007, two female inmates went to a police department investigator and said, "We have information about the Jeff Davis homicides." In statements, they told investigators that Frankie Richard, one of the prime suspects in this case, worked with sheriff’s office to dispose of evidence in the Lopez case. The Jennings department investigator took audio of these interviews to the FBI, and he was then terminated from his job for doing that, primarily because he broke the chain of custody on the recordings.

An interesting piece of this that relates to your question is the federal-state task force on this case. Typically the feds are there in a resource-sharing role. It’s not typically manpower. But in this case, I have looked at quite a few task force documents, and FBI agents are conducting many many task force interviews. It’s in these interviews that the FBI heard many misconduct allegations. That opens question to me as to why nothing has been done about that. There's the question of why does the sheriff’s office remain on this case when many of their employees remain implicated in this? Why haven’t these very serious allegations of misconduct been turned over to the Department of Justice?

[The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Louisiana acknowledged that it received a request for comment on the reported FBI laxity, but did not respond further.]

Do you have any idea offhand how many times people told you to fear for your life while working on this book? Many. From the beginning when I started working on this. I started talking to people in 2011, and the mother of Jeff Davis 8 victim Necole Guillory said she didn’t want to pick up the newspaper and see my name in it. I've gotten all sorts of messages. Someone told me I wouldn’t make it alive to see the book published. I was told that I was going to be robbed and killed in New Orleans, that it would be set up to make it look like a random robbery.

I’ve gotten these things persistently from the beginning. Who knows how serious to take any of this. A lot of people like to puff up threats to make their work seem more dangerous than it is. One thing I take seriously as a threat is the Jeff Davis Parish sheriff published a letter about me on the sheriff's office website. I take that very seriously, especially given history of law enforcement out there. It’s very frightening. It was basically a Most Wanted poster of me. For a few months after that I didn’t go to Jeff Davis Parish. I would avoid it entirely, or if I had to see witnesses, I would drive into the parish, not get out of my car, pull up to house, and, not getting out of my car, call the person and say, "Come out to my car," and after they came out and got in, leave the parish immediately.

That really subsided after a few months.

Did you take other precautions while reporting the book? Throughout the process I’ve never stayed overnight in Jeff Davis Parish ever, and when I’m there the location of where I’m staying is unknown— it’s not in the parish. I do a short commute every day into the parish. I do a day’s work, and then go to hotel or motel outside the parish.

Do you ever get tired of, in your investigation work, and your journalism, and living in New Orleans, constantly dealing with the darkest parts of life, the worst of human impulses? Not really. The part of it that I get sick of is seeing the same sorts of bad practices over and over again, seeing DAs violate Brady, that ruling from the Supreme Court that says you have to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defendant. DAs constantly break the law on that.

I get tired of seeing all these cop shootings that go unpunished, seeing the drug war march on the way that it does. There’s this weird disjuncture on the drug war. We all know that it’s ridiculous, but if you go to courtrooms or DA's offices, it’s business as usual with the drug war. That’s the depressing part of it to me, the sameness, the same bad policies and practices that just march on and on.

Postscript: In a brief phone call, when asked to comment on the book's allegations, Detective Ramby Cormier of the Jefferson Davis Parish Sheriff's Office said, "When we get a chance to read the book in its entirety... Definitely we want to read the book before we, you know—but I did want to respond to your email and let you know that we got it. We need some time to look at the book, see what all’s in there."

A witness's account in the book states that Cormier told her she shouldn't worry about being harmed by murder suspect Frankie Richard because, Cormier allegedly said, "He works for us." Asked about this claim, Cormier told Gothamist, "I’m not going to comment on our interviews. But as you probably well know, because a person says something doesn’t mean it’s always factual or accurate, you know. But I would say [Brown] has his sources. Whatever he prints, that’s his opinion. That’s his right to do that. I can’t really comment on any of our ongoing investigations."