Cover Story

The Killing Fields

by Nathan Stubbs

A special report on the search for a serial killer in Jeff Davis Parish. Over 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. This is the first story in an Independent Weekly series on the murders.

The Watchman

Private Investigator Kirk Menard leads his own controversial search for a serial killer in Jeff Davis Parish

She is tall, with a somewhat gangly walk. She moves at a leisurely pace, her hands all the while obsessed with her long, dark brown hair. She folds it over to the side and combs her fingers through it. Arriving at a familiar white wood-frame house, she slides a black hairbrush from her back pocket and bends to sit on the concrete steps. She pushes her feet out and begins working the comb, looking to smooth any kinks out of her silky tresses. Soon, she’s restless, twists around, stands, and begins drifting back up the street. Her white T-shirt, knotted up at her waist, slightly exposes her midriff as she lifts up the brush to again collect her hair around her shoulder, tilting her head to its side. She holds her hair and continues brushing as she ambles down the sidewalk.

“I was watching her,” says Kirk Menard. “I was about three blocks away.”

Five weeks later, Necole Guillory is allegedly last seen getting into a red truck at Tina’s Lounge in Jennings. Four days later, weeding crews find her body between the shoulder of Interstate 10 and the nearby treeline, just outside of Egan, some eight miles from Jennings. She is partially nude, her lower half exposed. The cause of death is later ruled asphyxiation.

“I had really been watching the house more,” Menard says. On his digital handheld, Menard captured the last known video footage of Necole, walking up and down Andrews Street in south Jennings, just over a month before her disappearance. “It was just an eerie coincidence really,” he says.

The circumstances surrounding Guillory’s death match those of seven other young women from the Lake Arthur and south Jennings area who were reported missing and then found dead, their bodies often in horrifying condition.

Private investigator Kirk Menard with Mike Dubois

Photo by Robin May

The families have struggled to find any closure. A distraught Barbara Guillory says her family found out her daughter’s remains had been identified after the Acadia Parish Coroner’s Office had already released the information to the media. Authorities had apparently identified Necole through tattoos and dental records rather than calling her family to ID her. Further distressing them and matching assertions from some of the other unsolved homicide victims’ families, the Guillorys say, they never got to see their daughter’s body. “[The funeral home] told us that it would be better if we didn’t see her the way that she was.” When the Guillorys persisted, the funeral home told them that it wouldn’t be possible.

Also similar to the stories from those close to the other seven victims, friends and family of Necole Guillory picked up an ominous mood shift from the usually blithe and outgoing 26-year-old just before her disappearance. In one of their last conversations, Necole told her mom, “I’m not going to see my 27th birthday.”

The Guillorys have been cautioned not to speak out publicly regarding their daughter’s case, because doing so could hinder the investigation.

“Nobody’s let us know nothing,” Barbara says. “We’ve been kept in the dark. Basically, I think what they want us to do is let it go, and I feel that we shouldn’t let it go because if we do, nothing will get done.”

When Menard knocked on Guillory’s door, she was initially skeptical. A private investigator, Menard claimed to be working for the families of three of the other victims, all of whom were dissatisfied with law enforcement’s lack of progress. Menard wanted to release his video of Necole to air on the evening news, suggesting that it may help someone recall seeing their daughter in the days she went missing, picking up on some of the traits captured in the video: her unique walk, her tendency to always carry a hair brush. He asked for Barbara’s permission.

“A lot of people didn’t want me even messing around with him,” Guillory says, adding that some residents are leery of Menard because of personal issues that got aired in a messy divorce with his first wife. “But I feel if he can get the job done, by all means go for it,” Guillory says. “Because it seems like no one else is doing anything.” Guillory adds she believed that the police and others have turned against Menard because he has been outspoken about the investigation.  “I think they were just trying to say things about him cause he wasn’t shutting up. And I’m glad that someone has the balls to stand up to them.”

She continues, “Because somebody’s doing [these crimes]. I mean they’ve had eight of them and they can’t find none of it, so something’s wrong. I mean, they can find who robbed the bank. They can find who beat you up. They can find who sold crack or something. But they can’t find someone who killed eight girls? I mean, there’s something somewhere.”

The Rev. Gerald Perkins has been fighting for a greater police presence
in south Jennings.

Photo by Robin May

Kirk Menard has a skeptical look on his face, his mouth turned down like a grimacing bulldog. It’s just after noon, and his home is crawling with reporters wanting his response to a just-concluded press conference that he did not attend. He is unsure of what to say, and his house is in the midst of what seems like the typical noontime bedlam.

An action movie blares on the TV in the next room entertaining his young son; his daughter scrambles to get ready for work. His wife and a friend discuss a recent spat with the neighbors. Outside, the two dogs, a chihuahua and a “chiweenie” — a cross between a chihuahua and dachshund — bark incessantly as people move in and out of the house.

Stout, with a slight paunch and a goatee starting to grey on his chin, Menard looks more like a one of the garrulous oilfield reps he generally works for than an on-edge P.I. who rides around at night investigating murder with a Luger 9-millimeter pistol tucked under his seat.

When, in October of 2008, Menard was approached by family members of the serial murder victims about helping them search for answers in the case, he says he was initially reluctant.

“I just didn’t think it was fair because of my inexperience with homicide cases,” he says. “But they kept calling.”

Menard began his career as a paralegal, then parlayed a knack for research and reporting into a career investigating offshore personal injury claims for attorneys and insurance companies. In 1996, at a hearing for a child support case with his ex-wife, Menard got a lesson in old school, small town politics when Judge Preston Aucoin subjected him to an impromptu trial at his arraignment hearing. Unable to call any of his medical witnesses to attest to why he hadn’t been working, Menard filed a complaint against Aucoin, who, in the end, was publicly censured by the state Supreme Court.

“That was my first run in with the law,” Menard says. “And then I realized with all the corruption that goes on and everything, I said well, you know, maybe I can do some good.”

In 2004, Menard got his private investigator’s license and launched Menard’s Investigative Services in Jennings. In 2009, he enlisted a partner, Terry Lacombe of Egan, and changed the company’s name to Advanced Investigative Technologies.

Investigating the serial murders has raised Menard’s profile. Unlike the local police, who have largely sought to keep a lid on publicizing any theories or inner-workings of the investigation, Menard has welcomed media attention, showing around a documentary film crew from Sweden and a reporter from Marie Claire magazine, and appearing on CNN for an interview.

“Our outlook is, we have another Green River Killer case or BTK Killer where it is going to take years to solve unless something gets done,” Menard says. “We’re trying to really focus on getting media attention right now in order to bring awareness to this case.”

A church annex building on Spencer Street has been grafitied with gang signs.

Photo by Robin May

Menard was the first, in an interview on KATC TV-3, to publicly state that the murders appeared to be the work of a serial killer. “I would rather be wrong about that,” he reasons, “than give the public a false sense of security. You always assume the worst in a case like this.”

Menard also beat local authorities to the punch in introducing a reward for any information that would lead to an arrest in the investigation. Menard set up a $100 fund at MidSouth Bank in Jennings, challenging local businesses to contribute to it, just weeks before the multi-agency task force announced its initial $35,000 reward (the multi-agency task force’s reward has since been upped to $85,000. Menard says his account is in a bank administrator’s hands, and he does not know how much money has been raised).

Currently, Menard says he has seven investigators working the case in shifts. His team has gathered word-of-mouth information from sources reluctant to go to the police, developed leads, and shot hundreds of hours of surveillance video. He’s retained a criminal profiling consultant in Chicago. They also keep a “potential victims list” of women in the Jennings area who fit the profile of who the killer might go after next. Prior to her abduction, Necole Guillory had been at the top of the list.

The extent of Menard’s operation has raised eyebrows across Jennings. Local police officers are largely dismissive of the P.I., viewing him as an amateur with an inflated sense of importance and in-bloom media fetish.

Menard has consulted with Pat Englade, executive director of the State Board of Private Investigators, concerning his appropriate role in this case. Englade was the Baton Rouge police chief and head of the task force that eventually brought in serial killer Derek Todd Lee and has traveled around the country speaking on the issue of serial killer investigations. According to Englade, in these cases it is not uncommon for family members to hire a P.I. However, that P.I. must be careful not to step on law enforcement’s toes. “I told Kirk this,” Englade says. “It’s a very fine line to walk; you gotta be very careful that you don’t step over that line that says I’m interfering with an investigation that’s going on right now.”

At a press conference last month, Jeff Davis Sheriff Ricky Edwards, flanked by representative members of the other agencies involved in the serial murder hunt — the FBI, state police, Acadia Parish Sheriff’s Department, Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Department and Jennings City Police, addressed Menard publicly for the first time, without mentioning him by name.

All the serial murder victims were known to walk the streets of
south Jennings.

Photo by Robin May

“We ask the public,” Edwards said, “to contact the investigative team with any facts, suspicions, or other information about these crimes. We want the public to understand that this investigative team is the only appropriate recipient of such information. We are aware of others who have represented themselves as cooperating with the investigative team in the investigation. Such is not the case. I don’t mean to slam anybody, but we are unable to confirm whether information is being relayed, some or all of it. Reporting case information to individuals who are not members of the law enforcement investigative team could delay or even prevent that information from being acted upon. This could result in irreparable harm to the investigation and possibly in further loss of life.”

Hours later, at his house, Menard looks over a script of the comments while two TV news crews set up cameras in his front yard. Menard has been waiting for his one publicly known client in the serial murder case, Mike Dubois, adopted brother to Whitnei Dubois, the fourth victim, and an outspoken critic of the sheriff, to join him for the interview. Dubois never shows.

Menard eventually steps up and gives what has become a boilerplate response: “Our first loyalty is to our clients,” he says. “My clients feel law enforcement may be under-resourced. All the information we gather we pass on to the task force. We’re not withholding anything from them. We have no reason to.”

Cross the railroad tracks on Main Street in Jennings and you leave behind the quaint, clean downtown area, with its 1950s store fronts and deco buildings and find yourself in a very different place. An old boarded up grocery store sits on one corner. The other is in the shadow of an abandoned rice mill.

All along South Main, on Madison and Market streets, occupied houses and trailer homes sit side by side with abandoned houses, some boarded up, some marked with “no trespassing” signs.

Twenty-five years ago, when Menard was in high school, the south side of town was a healthy business district, with a line of stores, banks and restaurants, all of which are now gone. In its stead, South Main has become the main drag for Jennings’ black market, with rampant prostitution, gambling, drug trafficking and violent crime. All eight of the serial murder victims were known to frequent South Main. “I think you had a lot different crowd than what you do now,” Menard recalls. “Back then the drugs weren’t as prevalent. They were still there, but it was mostly like your soft core drugs, marijuana, what they call baby pills now, black mollies, yellow mollies, stuff like that; now they got things out there I’ve never heard of. It’s just gone from bad to worse.”

At the Union Baptist Church on South Main Street, the Rev. Gerald Perkins has been one of the leading voices in an uphill battle to try to turn south Jennings around. Perkins, a tall, dapper man, speaks in a low monotone, often pausing to collect his thoughts. “I love Jennings,” he says, standing in the parking lot of his church. “I was born here, went to school here, was baptized in a wood frame church that stood in this parking lot. So if I seem emotional, it’s because I am.”

Perkins was one of the city residents who led a vocal uprising at a council meeting last December. An unprecedented number of residents turned out for the meeting, which came on the heels of a shootout on South Main Street Thanksgiving night 2008 that killed a 29-year-old bystander.

Perkins railed at city leaders for turning a blind eye to the crime and blight on the south and west sides of Jennings, even after he and others had met privately with them to express concerns. The Jennings Daily News reported Perkins inveighing, “If you cannot do the job, let us know soon, and we will legitimately seek other solutions to change the landscape and the elected officials who refuse to help us... Our area has become one of the more embarrassing cities in the state of Louisiana. We’re better than that.”

The city did take some steps that night. A new organization called the Jennings Community Renewal Team was formed with city leaders that has since begun to tear down some of the abandoned houses and buildings that serve as drug havens. The city also pledged to increase police patrols on the south side.

The step forward that night was followed by an immediate reminder of how dangerous the situation had become.

On the Wednesday night following the meeting, 25-year-old Derrick Jackson of Welsh and 20-year-old Mason Sonnier of Jennings were both victims of a drive-by shooting on South Main. Jackson was killed in the incident, while Sonnier sustained a severe injury to his arm.

“It has been difficult, discouraging and depressing,” says Perkins, “to have to endure what we have endured for many years. I’ve been in Jennings all of my life. I’ve never seen Jennings in the condition that it’s in now. It’s pained me to see how this city has degenerated into a place that almost seems foreign to us. I’m encouraged now by people who are interested and by people who want to put their hands together and say let’s change things. But there has to be more people who really care.”

Perkins has also been part of a group of ministers, who put together an account called “We love Jennings,” which is dedicated to putting up bullet proof street lights in areas along South Main where lighting had been shot out.

“It’s a hard time,” he says. “There’s a dark cloud over Jennings, and there’s a lot of uncertainty. Jeff Davis Parish needs some victories. We need some light shone where people can be hopeful. My fear is that if there is no light shone then the population of Jennings will continue to decrease.”

“It’s a mood that I’ve never seen in the people of Jeff Davis Parish,” Perkins continues. “It’s almost like a nightmare. Regardless of who these young ladies were, they were somebody’s daughter, and it drives me to tears to think of how somebody took the life of anyone, but most especially someone who appeared so helpless. I just hope that this would be the end of this terrible tragedy.”

Jamie Kershaw is one of the sources Kirk Menard checks in with regularly. A single mom going through a divorce and raising two kids, she comes out to meet Kirk as he pulls up in her driveway. They discuss the most recent word on the street — much of it now regarding everyone involved in the investigation including the sheriff, the district attorney and Menard — all rumored to be tangled up in the same ring of drugs and prostitutes that the case centers on.

Asked why she doesn’t go to the police when she hears something that may be relevant, Kershaw doesn’t mince words. “Because all the cops are perverts,” she exclaims, noting that police have been known to repeatedly try to pick up women while on duty.

“When I was younger, when I was going out and everything, oh yeah, I experienced it.”

Many teenagers, she says, hang out in a parking lot outside the old Movie Gallery, where police hang out, too. “They have police in there just sitting and talking to them; they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re watching kids do doughnuts in the parking lots and everything else.”

When Kershaw’s brother recently found some shoes on the side of the road that someone suspected may have belonged to one of the victims, she did talk her mother into taking them into the task force. (All of the victims have been found missing their shoes.) “It was some K-Swiss shoes,” she says. “And all of the stuff was ripped off of it, the name, the size, even the little logos on the outside was ripped off. Everything was ripped off of it.”

Menard is generally on the road by 9 p.m., circling his Ford Escape around the same general loop through the south and west end of town.

“We’re basically doing surveillance,” Menard says. “Looking for girls who may be out on the street, getting in and out of cars. There’s certain vehicles that we look for that may be of interest.”

Patrolling with him tonight is Mike Dubois. Perhaps the most outspoken critic of Sheriff Ricky Edwards, Dubois wears ostrich boots and is short and wiry with thinning brown hair he combs straight back. He admits to having had a drug problem, a blemish on his record that he says ironically helps in his new line of work with Menard. Dubois can pinpoint drug houses as well as ID many of their occupants. (Last week, Dubois was arrested on drug charges in Evangeline Parish.)

It’s a Thursday night. After riding around for three hours, they have only seen one cop car on patrol. Like Dubois, who has been searching for answers, Menard admits this case hits home for him as well. Menard’s daughter also went through a bout with drugs and knew one of the victims, Laconia “Muggy” Brown. In fact, two years before she was found murdered, Muggy Brown was picked up, along with three other men, on charges of conspiracy to commit rape. The victim was Menard’s daughter.

Menard says he now believes there may be some connection with his daugther’s case. “I didn’t realize it at the time,” he says. “But some of the stories we’ve been hearing is that some of these girls have been bringing other girls to these guys for drugs, and if they don’t have sex with them, they get raped. And I think at one point or another Muggy probably said she wanted out after she got arrested, and I think that’s whenever they decided to take matters into their own hands.

“One of the things we’ve noticed [is that] all these incidents kind of link together,” Menard says. “Somehow, someway, there’s a link.”

They drive down a dark street. Menard eyes a girl sitting alone on the steps of a white house that belongs to a known drug dealer. She’s smoking a cigarette, with a bicylcle propped up against the steps next to her. “There she is,” he says, turning his head back. It’s the girl currently at the top of the potential victims list. “She’s going to be the next victim,” Menard says. “I have no doubt about it... That just bothers me.”