May 26, 2010 9:17 AM by Kate Durio
Five years ago, Jennings was just like any other small South Louisiana town surrounded by rich farmland and wide open spaces. But just south of the downtown railroad tracks is a much harsher landscape. Infected with drugs and crime, South Jennings remains a hot spot for law enforcement frustration, casting a dark cloud over the rest of the city. In Jennings, eight unsolved murders and a high crime rate have residents questioning their safety and law enforcement stretched thin. Outsiders are also left with unanswered questions: Is there more crime in Jennings than there was five years ago? Are the eight unsolved murders just giving Jennings a bad wrap? Is law enforcement doing all they can to make residents feel safer?
South Jennings resident Ella Boxie says, " In a way I think he's still out there, and then in a way, the police are out too much right now, so i don't think he's going to do nothing right now."
Another challenge facing Jennings is a shortage of funding and resources. But Jennings Police Chief Johnny Lassiter says they are doing what they can with what they have to make the residents feel safer.
"It's always a challenge to figure out how to meet the crime head on and try to diminish it rather than trying to react to it. And we're doing proactive patrols and rather than reactive patrols. Proactive patrols when you get out there looking for stuff," says Chief Lassiter.
Chief Lassiter says his force is stretched thin.
"Our patrol division is made up of about twenty people. We have got three or four vacancies. We have reserve officers. Just like anybody else and everywhere else, we use everything we've got to do the best that we can, " says Chief Lassiter.
Chief Lassiter says the drug problem has actually been worse than it is now but most of the crime in Jennings is driven by drugs.
"Its kind of an inter-mix of it all. I mean, more of it's burglaries and thefts are because of the drugs. It's trying to get the money or the property to trade for drugs and some of the violence has been directly related to the drugs, " says Chief Lassiter.
The population of Jennings is just more than 12,000 residents. In a town that small, the crime rate per capita is startling. Though it hasn't increased since the first unsolved murder in 2005, the average crime index in Jennings has been well over the US average. But the Chief says he doesn't believe there are more drugs or crime in Jennings than any other town and that residents should feel safe.
But even with extra patrols and help from state police, some Jennings residents just can't seem to shake the uncertainty.
"Something's rotten in the cotton, " says Jennings resident Nellie Berry.
Berry has raised ten children in Jennings but many like her are left with more questions the longer the killer or killers remain on the loose. The horror of these murders haunts this small town and the people who call it home.
Mayor Terry Duhon says, "unfortunately, with some of the serial murders that have happened in the past. It makes people wonder 'what the heck is going on in Jennings?' I'm sure that question has crossed a bunch of people's minds."
-Written and Produced by Kate Durio