5. Jennings 8: Unsolved murders haunt town, police 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. 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. 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.