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Saw this on the internet verison of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate when I was searching for another article:

Deadly mystery surrounds Houma area

Unsolved deaths of 22 young men puzzle families, southeast Louisiana authorities


Advocate staff writers

Published: Jul 23, 2006

HOUMA -- They roamed the streets at night. If they were lucky, they traveled on bicycles or caught rides with friends.

Almost all had addresses but most of them called the street home. They lived on the fringe, and now all are dead.

Their deaths remain unsolved more than a year after a southeast Louisiana police chief speculated openly that the slayings of five Houma-area men were probably the work of a serial killer.

That talk eventually gave rise to a multiagency task force to investigate the deaths. Formed in August and hampered by last fall's hurricanes, the task force has made no arrests and has no suspects, investigators said.

The Southeast Louisiana Killings Task Force earlier this year confirmed investigating the deaths of about a dozen men, mostly from the Houma area. But a recent newspaper report — confirmed by the task force — boosted that count to 22 men, adding many from New Orleans and its surrounding communities.

The task force was created amid skepticism among some law enforcement officials. Family members of several of the dead men share those doubts, saying they don't think their loved ones were murdered by a serial killer.

The New Orleans killings occurred between 1997 and 1999. The Houma slayings started in 2000. Bodies from both groups were dumped in the U.S. 90 corridor between New Orleans and Houma.

The earliest death known to be under investigation is that of David Levon Mitchell, 19, of Killona in St. Charles Parish. His body was found July 14, 1997, in a canal off La. 3160 in Hahnville.

The most recent death to draw the attention of investigators was that 21-year-old Nicholas Pellegrin from the North Ashland area south of Houma. His body was found in November in a field in the St. Charles community south of Thibodaux.

The task force has offered few details about its leads or progress. Kris Wartelle, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office, which leads the task force, said releasing such information would be premature.

"You will see people working together trying to solve these cases. We are committed to these cases, and we have spent many man-hours on these cases," Wartelle said.

Though the cause of death for some of the victims remains undetermined, many died from asphyxiation, Wartelle said. In one case, the death certificate is more specific: strangulation.

Wartelle was quick to say the deaths may not be the work of a serial killer and may not be connected. The possibility of more than one killer is also being investigated.

With that uncertainty, the families of the dead wait for answers.

"I don't think they are doing enough," said Angela Smith, the mother of 17-year-old Wayne Smith, who was found dead in August in Houma.

Similarities in life and death

Wayne Smith's body was found in a small bayou down a gravel road in pastureland south of Houma. It was so decomposed that, when police were trying to identify the body, they allowed his mother to see only a picture of the "Weezy Bo" tattoo on his arm.

Angela Smith said her son was nicknamed after his neighborhood group, the "Bo" clique. They lived in Mechanicville, an area in north Houma. She said her son had run-ins with the law as a juvenile, but was learning to be a welder, a good trade offering steady, well-paying work.

Smith's body was found just as the state Attorney General's Office was forming the task force to investigate similar homicides.

One of 13 mostly Houma-area men killed since 2000, Smith is linked to the others by the circumstances of his life and death. But so far, investigators aren't saying if they have found firm connections among the men.

Some, like Smith, had their scrapes with the law, court documents show. Some also led "high-risk lifestyles" involving drugs and possibly prostitution, investigators said.

All of their bodies have been dumped in remote locations, sometimes in ditches.

Angela Smith, 39, said she knew or is related to six of the Houma men who are possible victims: her son, Wayne; her boyfriend, 23-year-old Michael Vincent; Leon Paul Lirette Jr., 22, who often talked to her daughter; and her first or second cousins August T. Watkins III, 31, Chris DeVille, 40, and Datrell Woods, 19.

Wayne Smith's unsolved killing has rattled his relatives.

"It's like everybody who hung around his momma's house got killed," said 18-year-old Shahavaneeka Ronchelle Mosely, one of his cousins. "After that happened to him, I'm not going to no place I used to hang out with him."

Houma roads may link men

Many of the Houma-area men circulated in the same parts of town, where life centers on the street and travel is often by foot or bicycle rather than by car.

In the early evening, the streets are alive with people walking, talking and hanging out in the fading light. Investigators say many of the men may have disappeared at night.

Two major roads in Houma, La. 24 and Grand Caillou Road, thread through the areas where the victims lived or hung out — and where some were later found dead.

Smith often rode his bike across the La. 24 bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway to visit his girlfriend. His girlfriend's home is just west of where three victims lived: 22-year-old Leon Paul Lirette Jr., 20-year-old Michael Barnett and 26-year-old Anoka Jones.

Dorothy Ann Jones, an aunt of Anoka Jones, recalls seeing Smith hanging out in her neighborhood on Morgan Street near La. 24 just down the road from where his girlfriend lives.

The last night Smith was seen alive by friends, he rode back across the bridge after visiting his girlfriend despite warnings that it was too late to leave.

"He just said he was going home," said girlfriend LaSonya Walker.

Smith made it home, but according to his mother was quickly out of the door again. His family doesn't know where he was going.

The bayou where Smith's body was found is several miles down Grand Caillou from Ellender Memorial High School, where he attended a welding program. Smith rode the bus each day to class.

The school lies just north of the Houma-Terrebonne Airport, which is located between La. 24 and Grand Caillou (also known as La. 57). The bodies of Barnett, Lirette and Woods were found near the airport.

Another victim, Pellegrin, lived off La. 57 in the North Ashland area.

John G. Boulahanis, a criminal justice professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, said serial killers tend to work within "comfort zones."

"If it is a serial killer, most serial killers have a signature and &hellip don't deviate too much with respect to the mode of killing," he said.

However, Boulahanis said he can't say whether a serial killer is at work in Houma.

Boulahanis, who maps crimes as part of his academic research, noted that investigators sometimes look for patterns to solve cold-case homicides. Attributing deaths to a serial killer can be an attractive, if not always accurate, solution, he said.

He said the same uncertainty surrounds what importance to place upon La. 24 and Grand Caillou Road: Do they anchor the territory being prowled by a killer — or are they simply major byways in a small city that give rise to explainable coincidences?

Some doubt serial killer

Houma Police Chief Pat Boudreaux was the law enforcement official who first publicly suggested a serial killer might be picking off young men. Boudreaux did not respond to requests for comment from The Advocate, referring questions to the task force.

While Boudreaux's public comments helped lead to the establishment of the task force, some people in surrounding law-enforcement agencies thought he was overreaching.

That skepticism is shared by family members and friends of some of the victims. They suggest that rather than being slain by a serial killer, their loved ones fell victim to the dangers of living in a rough part of town.

"Ain't no such thing as a serial killer," said Angela Smith, who after waiting eight months received a death certificate listing the cause of her son's death as "undetermined."

Family members of Pellegrin, the last victim being investigated, recently discounted any connection between his death and a serial killer, insisting he was slain because of a dispute over money.

Not knowing more about how and why their loved ones died has taken a toll on some families.

The mother of Anoka Jones, Mildred, suffered a stroke and a heart attack after the death, her sisters say. She recovered, but is having trouble eating.

"That's mostly what she is worrying about now, is who killed her son," said Dorothy Ann Jones, one of her sisters.

Jones discounts the serial killer idea. But she has faith that, one way or another, justice will prevail in her nephew's death.

"I believe in the Lord and praying, and the Lord is going to handle what he's got to do," she said.

Skeptical of the serial killer theory or not, family members want the police to solve the slayings.

"I want to find out what really happened to him," said Judy Lirette, whose son has been dead for nearly 1 1/2 years.

Keeping a lid on the probe

The Attorney General's Office has become the central information source on killings, reigning in the sometimes-conflicting statements from the numerous jurisdictions that have become involved as the death count mounted.

The task force has not released any information to the public or the media without being asked and won't say much beyond generalities.

Task force officials, for instance, said they are reluctant to provide a possible profile of the killer for fear of repeating what happened in the Derrick Todd Lee case in Baton Rouge.

Early in that investigation, police said a profile suggested the killer could be a white man. Lee, who was eventually convicted in the killings, is black.

"If we give you those things before we are more than 50 percent certain, there's the danger of doing that," said Ricky Murphy, who heads the task force for the Attorney General's Office.

The task force turned down a public information request from The Advocate asking for the initial police reports of the homicides. An assistant attorney general said the office would not release the reports because no arrests had been made.

Early this year, the Attorney General's Office confirmed a list of 14 possible victims put together by The Advocate through reporting and other media accounts. The officials discounted reports that the number of deaths under investigation was higher than that.

But two months ago, the Houma Courier reported 22 homicides were under investigation. The Attorney General's Office has acknowledged that number is correct.

Wartelle and investigators still describe the deaths only in a highly qualified manner, saying they may be linked to a possible serial killer.

Wartelle said putting out a list of serial killer "victims" could create a false impression of connections when some deaths could wind up being removed from the investigation.

Wartelle said the task force will give information to the public on an as-needed basis.

Murphy said that while "there's a lot of work to be done," the investigation is progressing.

"We're not at a dead end," he said.

Story originally published in The Advocate

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