To hear Ethan Brown describe the small Louisiana town where his best-selling book, Murder in the Bayou, takes place is to feel it spring to life. "The swamps, the canals, the egrets flying, the crazy sunsets, the rice fields, the cane fields. The region has this natural beauty juxtaposed with eerie, bombed-out looking homes," he tells Bustle. "It blows me away every time I go there. The south side of Jennings looks like post-Katrina New Orleans."
That's the side of town where Brown set out to report when he arrived in Jennings for the first time, in 2011, to pursue a story on the murders of eight young women. Now, his 2016 book has been expanded into a five-part true crime series for Showtime — and we can hear the birdsong compete with the tires climbing the roads firsthand. "Cajun country is as compelling as any character you could draw," says Brown, who's also executive-producing the show.
First, a broad outline of the case: over the course of four years starting in 2005, eight young sex workers were murdered in Jennings, their bodies found in the drainage canals and rivers surrounding the rural town. The victims, who were connected by pasts interwoven with poverty, drug use, and mental illness, would come to be known nationally as the Jeff Daniels 8, named for the Louisiana parish where they lived and died. Initially, police suspected a serial killer, but Brown's book poked devastating holes in that theory, exposing a complicated relationship between the victims and the police and casting doubt on the investigation.
Not much has changed in the case or in Jennings since the book's release. The then-unsolved murders remain unsolved. "We're almost in 2020, the 15-year anniversary of the first homicide," Brown points out, more upset than surprised. "That's an extraordinary amount of time for nothing to happen." If Brown's not surprised it's because, after eight years on this beat, he's an expert on this tiny slice of southern Louisiana where "the girls," as they are referred to on the show, are still remembered by name.
But just because nothing's changed doesn't mean there isn't plenty for Showtime's Murder In the Bayou, premiering Friday at 9 p.m. ET, to add. Brown continued his reporting after the book's release and believes the show moves the ball forward. According to him, the producers were able to get "remarkable cooperation" from the sheriff's office, and there's a sheriff's commander featured in nearly every episode.
It also does what a book could never do: give Brown's subjects the opportunity to speak for themselves. "No matter how good of a writer you are, nothing can beat people sitting in front of the camera and being honest and open about their memories, their thoughts, and their feelings," says Brown. "I feel very small next to that kind of power."
Brown was heavily involved in the making of the series from the beginning, lending showrunners an enormous case file based on years of conversations with the victims' friends and families. "The first time I went to Jennings, I just walked around knocking on people's doors. I went with the idea of meeting people and hearing their stories, not interviewing them," Brown explains. "I knocked on the door of Kristen Gary Lopez's grandmother, and she let me in and we sat around a small table. She had laminated newspaper stories about Kristen and hung them on her refrigerator...She was so happy to have someone care about it."
The more Brown came to know the case and the townspeople, the less convinced he became that justice would be as simple as catching the killer. Long before these women were murdered, the institutions that were meant to help them had already failed them. "They never had their basic needs met: roofs over their heads, medical care. Instead, what they had was constant policing of their bodies and drugs and everything."
But while Jennings may not have changed much since Brown first set out to tell this story, America has. "Unfortunately, Jennings is a world where class distinctions are so clear that there are literally railroad tracks separating the homes of poor people from the not poor people," he says. "These women and the investigation itself are both victims of that divide. America's class stratification resembles Jennings more every day, and there are big social consequences to that."
If there's one thing to be taken away from the show, Brown hopes it's that people realize the story "doesn't just end with more people going to jail." It ends with a renewed focus on resources for mental health and drug misuse that communities like Jennings desperately need.