Watching the documentary series Murder in the Bayou reminded me of a particular scene from Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, where the Police Sergeant Nash takes little interest in Jess’s plea for assistance to look into some obscene phone calls, stating curtly that he has other matters to look into. As soon as he puts down her call, there are other people (looking for a missing girl, Claire), shrugged off by him in an earlier scene, walking up to him with an interest in what is going on (Claire and Jess belong to the same sorority home) but Nash ignores them. All of this in the background of the recently recovered body of a little girl, who had been missing for some time.
The sequence is a representation of the police force’s lack of interest in issues concerning women. Complaints of missing persons, when coming from the economically weaker sections, are often not taken seriously till an actual crime occurs. While the resources at hand are always stretched, there seems to be a conflict in how they deal with crimes, responses varying depending on the class, gender, race and profession of the victim. A similar tone appears to represent the local police force in Murder in the Bayou, though as the series progresses one gets to understand that the issue is way more complicated than a simple case of police ‘disinterest’.
The series discusses the murder of eight women in the area of Jefferson Davis Parish in the US state of Louisiana (thus the victims are termed ‘Jeff Davis 8’) between 2005 and 2009. The women belonging to the ‘south’ side of the city of Jennings, from poor families in need of money, ended up being involved in prostitution to support themselves and their drug habits. This led them to be involved with criminal elements and put their lives at risk.
The documentary begins with the first case and traces the ones that followed over the next few years. The first couple of episodes develop a skeleton of the crimes. Most of the cases begin with the girl disappearing while she was working and her body being recovered weeks later, in an advanced stage of decomposition. The episodes state the exact details of the disappearances, the whereabouts of the girls before they went missing and the time period before their remains were located. What they do on the side is to build on this framework with details about the victims, how they grew up and what company they hung out with in their lifetime. This is done through interviews with close family and friends. From there it grows towards examining the explanations behind these crimes and whether they fit the jigsaw or not. This not only humanises the victims, but is also able to develop a picture of the city of Jennings: its class divide, drug problem and broken system.
Whenever a mass-crime such as this is heard of, the popular consciousness looks for the words ‘serial killer’ as an explanation. Eight deaths over four years, victims from similar backgrounds, similar modus operandi: all fall into the pattern of crimes that a serial killer would commit. That is what the police department at Jennings get at as well, believing these crimes to be a work of such individual(s).
‘Serial killer’ brings certain connotations with it, which have been ingrained in our minds, based on popular portrayals. Unsound minds, crimes of passion, tough childhoods, random victims (though possibly belonging to a similar background/age bracket), etc., are what someone might associate with the term. However, there are often hints that these might be more than works of an ‘unsound’ individual and the series does well to explore them. For example, the victims knew each other pretty well, besides having literally lived around each other and hung out with similar people. This is something that is pointed out as being out of line with the usual working of a serial killer.
One of these people they have been seen frequently with is Frankie Richard, who is seen as a prime suspect in one of the disappearances and involved with nearly all the victims at some point of time in their lives. His arrest and release are examined and he appears in the series, giving his version of events.
The show cleverly keeps certain characters under wraps; for example one of the interviewees who was a friend of the girls is later shown to have been arrested along with Frankie Richard under suspicion of being involved in one of the murders. Frankie Richard himself appears almost as a surprise but as the series develops he is shown to be a willing subject, discussing his past and his activities in a frank manner.
We then move towards the goings-on inside the Jennings Police Department, where the local police enforcement members are shown to have a sordid past: from being involved in extortion, having close links to drug dealers and prison abuse to even destruction of the evidence linked to one of the cases. Even though the documentary makers hit a dead-end on nearly all inquiries with the police department officials (the one who agrees to be interviewed acts like a good scout, insisting that there is nothing wrong with the department, while the rest of the show increasingly hints in the other direction), they do a decent job in showing that all was not hunky-dory in the working of the police department through documentary evidence and eye-witness accounts. They are able to point out inconsistencies in the police version.
The crimes, still unsolved, have left a deep mark and divide in the Jennings community. For some they are forgotten crimes, while others want to keep fighting for their lost ones. One thing that is agreed on by everyone is that had the social status of these girls been better, the crimes would’ve been solved long back.
The series keeps itself up-to-date (on crimes belonging to the previous decade) by involving the author Ethan Brown, on whose detailed 2016 book it is based, and a set of former state police officers who are trying to keep the case alive. It looks again at events and individuals involved, showcasing some other deaths that might be linked to the case. They also put a lie detector test on Frankie Richard, the result being inconclusive.
The series’s strength lies in being able to keep the viewers engaged through a natural portrayal of the events and people surrounding them. The relatives and friends of the deceased girls openly discuss their own usage of drugs (showing how rampant the problem is, rather than simply being a ‘lifestyle choice’), how vulnerable the situation was for these girls when cornered by dealers, pimps, corrupt officials, and who they think the perpetrators might be, with some naming Frankie Richard as the main suspect and others pointing fingers at the police department.
The drug issue becomes an important angle in these crimes. A linkage is developed between prostitution, drug dealers and the possibility that some of the girls might have known about these crimes, before they eventually went missing.
The list of suspects, which starts with Frankie Richard (his name being mentioned by a lot of people around the beginning of the series), slowly moves towards a couple of officers who were known to associate with the criminal elements in the city of Jennings and finally to people who might be associated with a Republican politician, Charles Boustany Jr., who was a Senate candidate when the book was released.
A remarkable facet of the series is the fact that it doesn’t engage in sensationalising the crimes. It makes extensive use of old footage, documents and other concrete evidence, to engage the viewer with the crime in question rather than its nature. A few issues remain: the linkages with higher-ups are referred to a number of times but not sufficiently explored (other than a quick and inadequate reference to the Republican Boustany and the people surrounding him), and the ending is dissatisfactory: there is no way forward, other than a few people trying to keep the fight alive. I did not expect a The Jinx-style turnaround but it seems that towards the end, the series points at a further set of suspects and possibilities, but doesn’t go ahead to explore these issues.
The issue of missing women who are forgotten, their cases ignored based on their class or profession, resonates with audience all around the world. Murder in the Bayou revolves around the ‘human’ element of the crimes rather than presenting them as unsolved mysteries. People interested in instances of true crime, open cases or shows along the lines of True Detective will find this an interesting series to watch in the chilly winter, about a system that failed these women and the few who are still trying to fight for justice.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.