COUSHATTA, Louisiana – A convicted murderer's claim that he killed three women in this tiny Louisiana town in the 1980s, part of a sensational tale of dozens of slayings across the country, is creating challenges for the area's top lawman.
Red River Parish Sheriff Johnny Norman must now investigate the three cases anew, but he does not have any crime scene evidence and the body of one victim was never found. Many of the notes from witness interviews also have disappeared over the years, he said.
"We've got pieces and bits of it, but not the whole thing," Norman said Saturday.
Norman's challenges stem from the confessions revealed last week by Robert Charles Browne, who is serving a life sentence in Colorado for murdering a girl there in 1991. He has claimed responsibility for 49 killings and Colorado authorities said they corroborated six of them — including three in Red River Parish in the early '80s.
However, convicting Browne in Coushatta would require evidence good enough for a jury — something Norman said he does not have. He was not sheriff then and he does not know what happened to evidence from the crime scenes.
"I don't know where it went. That was two sheriffs ago," he said.
Browne grew up in Coushatta, a north Louisiana farming town of about 2,500 people, as the youngest of nine siblings, the son of a dairy farmer who later became a sheriff's deputy.
Acquaintances and friends have said Browne had a hot temper but was overall an unremarkable kid. In his seventh-grade yearbook picture, from 1965, he is the handsome, grinning boy in a white dress shirt, the only one in his class wearing a tie.
Browne joined the Army after high school and was kicked out for drug use, authorities said. He returned to Louisiana and worked for one of his brothers as a handyman, acquaintances said.
The Coushatta killings he says he committed started in 1980:
— Katherine Jean "Fuzzy" Hayes was just 15 when hunters found her body on Oct. 16, 1980, off a highway. Browne said he picked her up at a chicken stand, had sex with the teen and strangled her with shoelaces.
— Faye Self, 26, a neighbor, was reported missing March 30, 1983. Browne said he went to Self's apartment after the two met at a nightclub and killed her after placing a chloroform-soaked rag over her face. He disposed of her body in the Red River. It was never found.
— Wanda Faye Hudson, 20, was found stabbed multiple times in her apartment. Investigators think she was killed on May 28, 1983. Browne later moved into that same apartment with one of his wives.
Hudson's death was particularly vicious, police said. Royce Killingsworth, who lived here at the time, said he persuaded a sheriff's deputy friend to let him look at the bloody crime scene — an experience he now regrets.
"I've done a few things in my life I wish I hadn't. Looking in that house was one of them," Killingsworth said.
After Hudson's killing, Browne began demonstrating a newfound concern for the safety of women and children in the neighborhood, insisting that they remain indoors after dark, said Vicki Woods, a lifelong friend.
"He was so protective of us," Woods said.
Browne left town in the late 1980s, soon after he unexpectedly began driving around in a new pickup truck, Woods said. The last time she saw him, he returned her son and daughter after taking them for a ride in the pickup.
Police later told her the truck was stolen, Woods said.
Last week's announcement of Browne's claims caught the sheriff off guard.
Norman said Colorado investigators had told him months ago that they were looking into Browne's connections to the Coushatta killings, but he says they announced it publicly without letting him know. Reporters were soon calling him from around the country.
"I knew this was in the works, but I didn't know it was coming this quick," Norman said. "They could have given me a little warning. It hit like a bombshell."