20091202-cover-0101.jpgOver the past four years, eight young women, ranging in age from 16 to 30, have been found dead, their bodies, either nude or partially nude, dumped in remote areas around Jeff Davis Parish. The women were all connected in the south side community of Jennings, a town with a population just over 12,000. Most knew each other, and all struggled with drug addictions; a few slid into prostitution to support their habit. A multi-agency task force was formed in December 2008 to investigate the murders. They remain unsolved.


The lawman
Pressure mounts on Sheriff Ricky Edwards to find a serial killer.

It was there in black and white. “Last week, my opponent, Ricky Edwards,” the quarter-page ad read, “said that, if elected, he would destroy Armin, the highly-trained, multi-purpose dog used by the Jeff Davis Parish Sheriff’s Office.”

“Ricky Edwards’ recent statements,” the ad continued, “are proof positive of his lack of maturity, compassion and basic knowledge in the field of law enforcement. Is this what we want for our parish — an immature and inexperienced sheriff making rash statements and uninformed decisions based on a lack of basic knowledge about police work?”

It concluded with a convenient rhyming slogan: “Save Armin, Vote Norman.”

Recalling that 1991 election, Sheriff Ricky Edwards says he could hardly believe his eyes. His opponent in the sheriff’s race, Norman Roy, was accusing him of wanting to “destroy” the beloved local K9. To make matters worse, the Jennings Daily News followed up with an editorial column, repeating the claim.

In truth, Armin’s owner, a deputy in the department, was supporting Roy, and had already stated that if Edwards won, neither he, nor his dog, were going to work for him.

Forced on the defensive, Edwards took out his own rebuttal ad with less than a month left in the campaign. “I have worked hard to fight the war on drugs locally and realize that drug dogs are an asset to law enforcement. I will not destroy Armin or any other innocent animal. We will continue to run our campaign with facts and will be available to answer any questions that may arise in the last few weeks of the campaign. For further information and facts, call.”

That was Edwards’ first run for sheriff. He went on to the win the race with 58 percent of the vote. Over the past two decades, the criticisms of Edwards have remained similar in each of his re-election campaigns: He’s an administrator, never an on-the-beat cop (Edwards was city marshal prior to being elected sheriff); his office hasn’t been proactive enough in combating the parish’s worsening drug problems.

Through it all, Edwards has remained popular, ushered back into office again and again with at least 60 percent of the vote. But now, he once again finds himself the target of sinister rumors and suspensions, the kind that have a way of breeding in a small town like Jennings.

For the sheriff, it’s only one of the distressing aspects of a four-year, eight-victim serial murder case that has deeply troubled and confounded the community.

“Is there some distrust?” he asks. “Sure there is. There’s more distrust now because of speculation and innuendo. [People say,] ‘Well, we can’t figure it out so it must be a law enforcement officer.’ If you look at all the cases, law enforcement is always the first one to be questioned if you can’t solve those cases because it is up to us to find that person.”

“And that’s human nature,” Edwards adds. “When we catch that person then we’ll deal with it and so forth but until then, we get the blame for it, and I think that’s human nature and pretty much, we accept that. It comes with the territory.”




20091202-cover-0102.jpg
Jeff Davis Parish Sheriff Ricky Edwards stands by a cross along Lacour Road near where Crystal Zeno, victim No. 6, was found.
Photo by Robin May
 
With all of the victims hailing from the same Lake Arthur/Jennings area and all acquainted with one another, family members question why there has not been a major break in the case, why no one has come forward with information leading to an arrest.

The seventh victim, Brittney Gary, is the second cousin of Kristen Lopez and was a personal or family friend of victims Laconia Shontel “Muggy” Brown, Loretta Lynn Chaisson Lewis and Crystal Shay Benoit Zeno. All of the victims were from Jennings or Lake Arthur and they all were known to walk the South Main Street area of Jennings.

The body of Loretta Lewis, the very first victim, spotted by a nearby fisherman in a drainage canal in May 2005, established the killer’s M.O. early on. She, like the others, was found at least partially nude, appearing to have been submerged in water for some length of time, and had a high volume of drugs in her system, particularly powder cocaine or crack. All of the victims’ bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition, despite the fact that some of the women had been missing only a matter of days. Ernestine Marie Daniel Patterson’s body was found in such a deplorable state that DNA tests could not confirm her identity since not enough viable body fluids were left to obtain a usable sample.

Muggy Brown’s body was found with her white tank top shirt stained pink. Detectives initially stated that they believed the shirt was soaked in blood, and that the use of bleach had turned the color pink. No further details were released.

Because the bodies appear to have left little in the way of crime scene evidence, the conjecture is that the killer must be familiar with forensics work, and could have current or past ties to law enforcement. As a precaution and to ease public perception that a current law enforcement officer may be connected to the murders, both Jennings city police officers and Jeff Davis Parish Sheriff’s deputies are in the process of being DNA swabbed.

Investigators have at times spoken about the unique circumstances of the case, indicating that there remain many unanswered questions, and that they don’t appear to be chasing just any criminal. Jennings Police Chief Johnny Lassiter references the BTK Killer and even the Randy Comeaux serial rape case in Lafayette — cases that took years to solve — in trying to put these serial murders in perspective.

While Edwards has been criticized for treating the cases too casually, the investigation has clearly taken a toll, and there’s a heightened sensitivity around the sheriff and his core supporters. One of Edwards’ close family friends reached by phone for comment for this story replied curtly, “I’m not interested, thank you,” and hung up.

Pat Englade, the former Baton Rouge chief of police who headed up the task force investigation into serial killer Derrick Todd Lee, says he knows first hand what Edwards is experiencing.

“I know it’s one of the toughest jobs that you will ever do in anything, to deal with family members that are looking for closure, and I would guarantee you not knowing the sheriff or anybody that’s on that task force personally, I bet that every night before they go to sleep this is all they’re thinking about, and it’s the first thing they think about when they wake up in the morning. It’s a horrible situation to live with knowing that you’ve got somebody in your community that’s doing something like this, and you’re faced with trying to find him and keep him from doing it again tomorrow. It’s horrible, I’m telling you; it took years off my life, I know that. Dealing with this every day, not knowing what’s going to happen next and somehow you got to stop them. I would think they’re doing everything they could possibly do to stop this, and you know, they’re just praying every day that it ends and you know that’s all you can do.”



20091202-cover-0103.jpg
 Ricky Edwards has been sheriff of Jeff Davis Parish for 17 years.
 Photo by Robin May
 
In appearance, Edwards is far from the rugged, steely-eyed mold of a small town sheriff epitomized on the silver screen by actors like Joe Don Baker or Tommy Lee Jones. Portly, with a bulbous nose, salmon cheeks, a balding forehead and grey hair at the temples, Edwards looks more like an affable, laid-back country attorney.

He generally dresses in casual khakis, a button down shirt and loafers. His office is a mishmash of sentimental family photographs and kitsch memorabilia: the family photo with all 10 of his kids and the 1991 state champion Jennings High team his son was a part of (the team posing around a green John Deere tractor) share space with a Wild West-themed photo of him and the three other sheriffs from southwest Louisiana (at a charity event) and black and white personal autographed promo photos of Cindy Lauper and a former Ms. Louisiana missing only the lipstick stamps.

Edwards’ Blackberry is constantly buzzing. An English-accented voice announces, “You’ve got a text message,” each time one comes through; his ringtone is the opening stanza to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.”

Despite some of the throwback décor, Edwards is widely credited with having brought the Jeff Davis Sheriff’s Office into the 21st century. He’s put a priority on updating to the latest technology. His SUV is outfitted with high tech communications. The JDSO was also one of the first two agencies in Louisiana to adopt database information-sharing technology, agreeing to serve as one of several hubs for the state’s civil and criminal information network.

Edwards’ critics have questioned some of the ways he has re-organized the department. Under budget constraints, Edwards consolidated the narcotics and detectives divisions. Budgetary issues also led to a cut back of patrol along I-10.

Among his staff, Edwards is generally respected as being a trustworthy and understandable boss. He’s also earned high marks from his involvement in professional and community organizations. In 2005, he headed the Louisiana State Sheriffs’ Association. In Jennings, he’s been an active member of the booster clubs for the Jennings High football and swim teams, as well as the Kiwanis Club and Lion’s Club.

In many ways, Edwards is the polar opposite of his predecessor in this office. Dallas Cormier was old school. He was a towering presence, a career cop credited with being tough on crime, but whose tendency to work favors for friends and take liberties with his expenses became his undoing. In the year prior to Edwards’ election, Cormier was indicted on 36 felony counts of malfeasance in office, criminal conspiracy and theft. The improper expenditures included a truck and fancy cowboy boots for the sheriff.

Cormier’s offenses can seem minor compared to some of Jennings’ other public officials of the past 20 years. Former city police Chief Donald “Lucky” DeLouche resigned amidst sexual harassment charges from one of his female employees, as well as charges that surfaced in a child custody case with his ex-wife that alleged he videotaped sexual acts with his minor step-daughter and other acts of beastiality with his dog.

Then there’s Judge Wendell Miller, removed from the bench in 2007 after presiding over a hearing involving his secretary with whom he had been having an affair, and her ex-husband. In the case, Miller ruled the ex-husband had to pay child support for a boy later revealed to be Miller’s own son.

 20091202-cover-0104.jpg
Andrew Newman, father of Kristen Lopez, the third victim
Photo by Robin May
 
Just before being removed from office, a state audit on Miller also revealed the judge’s penchant for the finest office supplies money can buy. The report found Miller spent nearly $19,000 of public funds on office furnishings, including $4,500 on seven writing pens that ranged in cost from $300 to $1,250 (Current District Attorney Michael Cassidy has also been hit with a recent audit report questioning some $120,000 in expenses).

Past corruption aside, Jennings law enforcement has other issues contributing to a lack of public trust. Residents of Jennings’ poorer, more blighted communities on the South and West side of town have long complained of a lack of police presence. When public tension boiled over at a city council meeting in December of last year, officials went so far as to bring in a crisis communications team from Mississippi that conducted a series of community dialogue sessions. The city followed through by hiring a narcotics officer and committing to more regular patrols of the South side.

Some of the city’s South-side efforts have been thwarted by the residents themselves. When, in the late 90s, the Jennings Police Department announced it had leased a building to open a Southside substation, the building was promptly burned down. “There is a big mistrust of the police,” says Rev. Gerald Perkins, whose Union Baptist Church on South Main Street sits near the epicenter of much of the drugs and violent crime that are plaguing the city. “Indifference, unfriendliness, being unfair, unprofessional. All of that makes for a mistrust of law enforcement.

“I know the chief of police is very adamant about his police officers treating the public fairly and the sheriff as well,” he continues. “Jennings has some good policemen. And I imagine that there are some who do not have the public’s best interest at heart.”

Danny Semmes, the city’s sole narcotics officer, says his job is made all the more difficult by a prevalent mindset on the street that anyone found to report information to the police will be punished.

“You’ve got this ‘no snitching’ attitude in the community,” he says. “That atmosphere has created a huge problem in getting witnesses to come forward and testify, especially if it’s drug-related.”

“There are a lot of people who won’t talk to the police,” adds Perkins. “There are some persons who feel the police may be involved [in the serial murders]. It is a feeling that only the police can help erase.”

In the serial murder investigation, some unfortunate misssteps have only served to fuel the skepticism.

Four suspects have been arrested in the cases, only to be later released from jail due to lack of evidence. Earlier this year, one of those suspects, Frankie Richard, was re-arrested in a major drug bust. Richard soon found himself back on the street after JDSO Detective Paula Guillory reportedly lost $3,791 in evidence against him. Guillory, who was a member of the serial murder task force, was promptly suspended and then fired.

She isn’t the only officer to arouse suspicion of the sheriff’s office. In 2007, JDSO Chief of Detectives Warren Gary found himself the subject of investigations by both the state police and the state ethics board after he purchased a truck from Conni Silar, an inmate at the parish jail.

Silar was booked on charges of writing hot checks two days after the third victim, Kristen Lopez, was discovered dead in a canal just outside of Jennings. According to the state police investigation, Silar was “known by JDSO to be a frequent drug user who was often seen in her truck with [Lopez]” and was questioned by JDSO as a witness regarding the death of Lopez.

Around the same time, Silar’s truck was found abandoned in a lot and towed into the JDSO Criminal Investigation Division, where it was searched. Silar told police she had “rented out” her truck to two men in exchange for crack cocaine. Silar also told them she wanted to sell her truck, needing money to post bond. Just over a week later, Gary approached her and negotiated a deal. He and jail warden Terry Guillory (ex-husband to former Detective Paula Guillory) drove her to a Lake Arthur bank to complete the transaction.

Soon afterward, but not before giving it a detail and wash, Gary sold the truck to a JDSO grant writer for a $6,500 profit.

After the sale, JDSO got a tip from another source that Lopez had been killed in the truck (the witness would later recant this story). Investigators brought the truck back in and for the first time conducted a forensic search. No evidence was found.

Gary has maintained his innocence in the debacle, insisting he had no knowledge the truck had any link to the murder investigation at the time he bought it.

The state police eventually cleared Gary of any criminal charges. A State Ethics Board investigation led to a $10,000 fine.

Under pressure, Edwards removed Gary from all aspects of the serial murder investigation and re-assigned him the evidence custodian for the sheriff’s office (Most of the serial murder evidence is being handled through state police and the DNA lab in Calcasieu Parish).

“I believe this is a personnel issue,” Edwards told the Jennings Daily News at the time, “but we want to make the public aware of this. I do think what happened is morally wrong, but I don’t want anyone to think I or [Gary] lied or covered anything up. It did happen, and I am truly, deeply disappointed by it.”



 20091202-cover-0105.jpg
 Jennings Police Chief Johnny Lassiter
Photo by Robin May
 
Edwards has had a somewhat strained relationship with the local media throughout the course of the investigation. At times, he and others have struggled to find the right tone in addressing the murders publicly. After the discovery of the sixth body, Edwards notoriously coined the term “serial dumper” on KPLC, in attempting to explain some of the lack of evidence in the case.

“There’s something going on,” he said. “We either have a serial dumper, we could have a serial killer, but at this point, we only have three of our six victims that have actually been identified as a homicide.” When a confused reporter asked what a “serial dumper” is, Edwards responded, “I really don’t know. That’s terminology I guess we’re making up. Basically, it could be the same thing where it’s the same person that is involved with them getting overdosed and just dumping their bodies somewhere else.”

The implication that the girls were being discarded like trash struck some nerves. Edwards’ use of the phrase “high-risk lifestyle” to describe the victims’ drug addictions also generated heat. The Jennings Daily News published an editorial questioning how seriously the murder cases are being treated.

“I’ve been accused of saying the words ‘high-risk lifestyle’,” Edwards says. “I only said it twice; I refuse to say that anymore. But I was accused because I said that at one point that I don’t care about these ladies and that is so far from the truth it’s impossible for me to even imagine.”

Rev. Perkins also believes the sheriff has been unjustly characterized as detached. “The sheriff is more sensitive than I think people give him credit for,” he says. “I think he feels the pain of the families and the citizens as well. But solving this problem calls for putting our emotions aside to a certain extent. Look at the facts and focus on finding the perpetrator. Sometimes our judgment can be clouded by our emotions. I sympathize with the families. I sympathize with the sheriff as well.”

Doubts about the police still haunt some of the victims’ family members.

 “Somebody has to know something,” says Barbara Guillory, mother of Necole Guillory, the last victim to be found earlier this year. She says the information she receives from police has been limited, and what she has heard has been inconclusive. “As far as I know, they give me the same old thing,” she says. “‘Well, we’ve got this and we’ve got that but we don’t have this and we don’t have that.’ Frankly, I think it’s nothing but a big cover-up.”

While Guillory is skeptical, other family members involved in the case put more trust in local law enforcement. Andrew Newman, father to Kristen Lopez, says he believes the local authorities are doing all they can, and feels satisfied with the degree to which they have kept him informed on the investigation.

“This is not one of those one-hour crime shows you see on TV,” he says, “where the crime happens at the beginning and one hour later they solve it. It’s not like that. It’s the real world right here. It might take several years [to solve].”

He adds that Edwards has told him that people may be shocked when they do find the perpetrator — that it could likely be someone who has managed to blend into the community without arousing suspicion. Newman also has faith that, at the end of the day, his daughter’s killer will have to answer to a much higher authority.

“Whoever did this thing,” he says. “They will one day die. And they can’t pass God.”

The divided views among the families have even resulted in inner divisions within each family — those who trust law enforcement, those who are consumed by a perceived lack of progress in the case.

Jennings private investigator Kirk Menard was hired by the families of three of the victims (which he declines to reveal) looking for more answers in the case. He has been conducting his own independent investigation, with a team of investigators, surveying the streets and trying to piece together possible leads and connections.

He isn’t the only one.

Jeremy Daigle, a cousin of Whitney Dubois, is among the minority in his family who feels law enforcement is not doing enough. “We’re tired of our family getting hurt and someone’s getting away with it,” he says. He adds that he and some friends have gone out on their own, surveying the streets for anyone who may be picking up unsuspecting women.

Daigle says that one night the local police pulled them over, and he told them what they were doing. After the police informed Daigle that this could land him in jail, Daigle told the cops that if he found the killer, he wasn’t turning him into police. “We’ll put them in the swamp and they’ll never see another girl alive again,” he said.

These complications underscore the difficulties facing the relatively small law enforcement agencies of Jeff Davis Parish. Edwards has stressed that anyone with information regarding the case should come forward directly to the task force or the local FBI.

After 17 years in office, Edwards says he’s keeping an open door policy and he plans to be back in the sheriff’s chair for another term after the 2011 election. He isn’t worrying about how much the current serial killer investigation may affect him or his legacy. “I don’t worry about legacies,” he says. “I serve God and will continue to do that.

“Does this case consume me? Yes, it does. Is it a priority? Obviously, it is the top priority. Will it make me or break me? I’m the person I am. I’m still Ricky Edwards, and that’s all that I think I can be, what God expects of me.”

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