Alix Lambert and David McMahon
Photo by Aubrey Edwards
Interview by: Nathan C. Martin
Ronald Dominique raped and murdered twenty-three men near New Orleans and Houma, Louisiana, between 1997 and 2006. Most of them were poor and black, and many were the wandering type—men Dominique picked up in his truck at night, not ones whose disappearances for a stretch of time would particularly alarm their families. After one of Dominique’s would-be victims escaped and alerted authorities, a task force that had been assembled to investigate the murders matched Dominique’s DNA to DNA found on one of the bodies. Dominique confessed over a period of two days to all of the killings.
A new film about the murders—Bayou Blue, directed by Alix Lambert and David McMahon—features an interview with journalist Robert Morris, who had been working at the time of Dominique’s capture for the Houma Courier, a subsidiary of the New York Times. Morris called headquarters in New York after Dominique’s confession, confident he had their story for the day, but the editors weren’t interested. In Morris’s opinion, it seemed as if the killings had occurred “so far down the bayou, the rest of the country just wasn't that interested in it.”
McMahon first began following the story via tidbits in news reports about Derek Todd Lee, a serial killer in Baton Rouge whose murders of seven white women took place concurrently with the end of Dominique’s killing spree. Mentions of the bodies that Dominique had dumped on the sides of roads or beneath overpasses appeared as footnotes in national stories about Lee, America’s first black serial killer. As McMahon searched for information about the murders around Houma, where Dominique moved after Hurricane Katrina, he noticed that even the New Orleans Times-Picayune hardly followed the case.
McMahon, who is originally from Birmingham but now lives in New York, approached Lambert, his friend, about making Bayou Blue. Lambert is a veteran chronicler of the morose. Her work includes, among many other things, a book about murdered journalists, a documentary about prison tattoos, and screenwriting for the HBO series Deadwood. They became curious about how Dominique had been allowed to kill so many for so long, and why there was so little coverage of it.
Bayou Blue is a grim film, but it’s often visually beautiful. One senses a photographer’s eye in the opening landscape shots, the camera’s stillness accentuating the subtle movement of water rippling down bayous and stalks of sugarcane swishing in fields. Only later do we learn these are places Dominique left his victims. Lambert and McMahon obtained the audio recordings of Dominique’s confession, and play them in the film over images of the killer’s dumping sites. At one point, the documentary cuts from one of these scenes to an interview with the victim’s family, and then repeats the sequence with the next location, the next victim, the next family, and then the next murder, and the one after that. The darkness becomes relentless.
Lambert currently splits her time between Brooklyn, where she lives, and Bloomington, Indiana, where she teaches. She is at work on a new film about a series of bullying-related suicides at a high school in Mentor, Ohio. McMahon returned home to Birmingham for his next project—a documentary about a theater troupe that performs in drag and has created a safe creative space for the area’s outsiders and homosexuals. I spoke with both of them recently over lunch at my home, while they were in town for the U.S. premier of Bayou Blue at the New Orleans Film Festival.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: David, after you learned about the Dominique case and thought you’d like to make a film about it, what made you contact Alix?
DAVID MCMAHON: Crime isn’t an area I’m usually drawn to—whereas Alix is an expert. She’s made a film about Russian prisons, she’s written an anthology about crime. Her expertise is in the study of crime, the analysis—making art out of crime. Though not actually being a criminal, as far as I know.
ALIX LAMBERT: I would never admit to anything on the record.
DM: When we first went down to Houma on a research trip, we were meeting with these guys from the Houma City Police Department, who tended to not look Alix in the eye. She would ask them a question and they would respond to me. And they had crime scene photos of the bodies. Most of the bodies had been found very quickly, because they were just right on the street, but there were a few that had decayed. When they pulled these pictures out, they warned Alix, but they didn’t say a word to me.
AL: David had gone to the bathroom. They told me that I might not want to see the photos, but when he came out they didn’t say anything to him. When they brought them out he was like, “Why didn’t they tell me they were showing me these?! These are terrible!”
DM: I’m collapsing against the wall, and Alix is just sort of combing through them. Maybe it was her experience with the autopsy in the morgue in Russia.
AL: I’ve seen some decaying dead people.
Photos by Alix Lambert.
The OA: Being from Birmingham, David, had you spent time in south Louisiana?
DM: I’ve been down to New Orleans tons, but I’d never been to Houma. Houma actually felt more foreign to me than New York City does. I was shocked at how unrecognizable that area of Louisiana was in some ways. It felt like there was this whole hidden world in the swamps that you have to know somebody who knows somebody to get into.
The OA: How did you find entry points into the community?
AL: You always start just by looking at all the newspaper articles and start calling people, seeing who will talk—call the journalists, call the cops, call anybody who’s named in any article. We drove around, knocked on doors. We were warned which doors not to knock on because someone will run you off with a gun. My experience has always been that people want to talk. Even when the person starts by saying they don’t want to talk to you, they’ll then tell you why not—for a really long time.
The OA: How did your understanding start to take shape, once you began talking to people, about how this could have gone on for so long?
DM: It’s not a simple story. It’s not easy to find one person to pin the blame on. It’s not like there’s some evil demagogue mayor of Houma saying, “Let’s ignore all this!” I think my inclination initially was to oversimplify, to look for a clear villain, an easy excuse—if you change this one thing, this would not have happened. To get down there and see the complexity and richness of the story was illuminating. And sad. I don’t think it would be any different now if it happened again.
AL: There were many factors—the demographic of the victims, poverty, race, drug addiction, homelessness, homophobia. Even the sexism. We kept running into people who we would talk to who had never heard of the case, who, when they found out the victims were men, would be like, Oh! Raping and killing women we get. But men! That’s something new!
Ricky Wallace escaped from Dominique.
I think one of the reasons it’s a tough film is that it’s not like a serial killer movie or a courtroom drama. Dominique didn’t go to trial. He plead guilty and he was sentenced. And he didn’t do anything crazy—I mean, obviously raping and killing is crazy, but he’s not a Ted Bundy, he’s not a Dahmer, he’s not good-looking, he didn’t eat his victims, he didn’t make clothing out of them. He was just this schlubby white guy who did nothing more than pick up people, kill them, and dump them on the side of the road. There’s nothing exceptional except for the numbers and the fact that it went on so long.
The OA: Alix, you photographed crime scenes for your book about murdered Russian journalists, and in Bayou Blue there’s a similar effect when you film where Dominique dumped his bodies. Talk about what draws you to this technique, why you think it’s powerful.
AL: I’m very interested in the memory that a place holds, the sense that you know something happened here—people don’t like to buy houses where crimes have been committed, for instance. There’s this kind of collective superstition about what happens somewhere that really only affects you if you know something happened there. It’s not necessarily intrinsically in the space. In the film, you see all the places where Dominique dumped the bodies—the detectives gave us a tour of those in the daytime, then we shot them again at night. And you hear Dominique’s voice on the interrogation tape saying what happened with each body, and where he took them.
With Louisiana and how beautiful it is, to see those places during the day and then to see them at night lets you reimagine these innocent exterior spaces—a bayou or a storage facility—in a way that doesn’t give you this kind of dark weight until you hear the story of what went on there, and then suddenly it recontextualizes that image. We had all the crime scene photographs, but I felt like they were too graphic to use, too sensational—you can engage the audience more by making them use their imagination than by showing them a maggot-riddled corpse.
The OA: David, you’ve mentioned that one of your motivations in telling this story was that, as a gay man from the South, you're interested in topics related to the South and homosexuality. Can you talk a bit about this motivation and what you’ve discovered pursuing it?
DM: I had been fascinated by the question of why people choose to stay in parts of the country where they are persecuted, to whatever degree, for their sexuality. Of course, many people don’t have a choice. I suspect it is a different experience to be gay in the South than to be gay in any other part of the country, and the answer to the question, “What does it mean to be gay in the South?” is very much tied to race and class. When I look at the story in Bayou Blue, in which some of the victims and the killer are gay, it strikes me that visibility is important. I think you have to be able to find each other, to speak out, to demand that your life is worth something and that you have value to add to your community. And that is a very difficult thing to do and to feel when, in general, society tells you in subtle and not subtle ways that you are a second-class citizen.
The OA: The film includes interviews with victims’ families who talk about Dominique’s sentencing—he got life in prison instead of the death penalty. There were mixed reactions among the families, but it seems like there was a majority who preferred a life sentence. Louisiana incarcerates more of its population than anywhere else in the world, and its execution rate per capita is one of the nation’s highest. Were you surprised at the reactions of the family members who preferred life imprisonment?
AL: Mark Rhodes, the district attorney who spoke about this in the film, made the point that the families didn’t prefer life imprisonment to the death penalty out of some kind of compassionate desire to spare his life, or a political statement about the death penalty. There was an idea—which turned out not to be true—that Dominique would be in the general population, and that would be a very unpleasant place for him to be. I was not under the impression that it was anything against the death penalty—it was a desire for Dominique to be in a very unpleasant situation.
The OA: I took away two things from that section of the film. First, the question of the death penalty is much more complicated than simple retribution—there are many reasons one can use to argue for and against the death penalty, and not all of them have to do with an objective degree of punishment. One of the biggest arguments against the death penalty is that it’s outrageously expensive.
AL: That was brought up. And it’s time-consuming: It could be more than a decade, if you pursue the death penalty, before you have closure on the death of your loved one.
The OA: The other thing that struck me, having watched the issue from Louisiana for years, is that the family members—in the film, at least—who spoke out in favor of the death penalty were white. It seems to me that there’s generally far more support among the white community for the death penalty than the black community.
AL: Well, sure. Look who’s getting executed. Black people.
The OA: In the film, the two detectives who led the investigation credit newspaper articles with helping them put together the fact that the murders that took place around New Orleans were connected to those that took place around Houma. You two said you use news articles as a starting point for research when you’re making a documentary. In light of the dramatic cutbacks to newspaper staffs recently in New Orleans and in Alabama, talk about how important daily news reporting is to your ability to tell stories like this.
AL: When I made The Mark of Cain, it aired on Nightline, about twelve years ago. I became friends with Leroy Sievers, who was the executive producer of that show at the time. I actually interviewed him for the LA Weekly about the death of news, and this was his quote: “News in this country has gone straight to hell.” It’s become really commercial and more about entertainment and less about factual information. It responds to consumer demand.
To try to answer your question, I think that news used to be more of a tool than it is for me now. There was a time when I might have trusted news and newspapers more. Now I feel like they’re good resources to start with, but then you have to back up that research with several sources. It’s still a good place to start. David was the one who had been paying attention to news stories about the Dominique case, and we definitely took names of people and followed up on those names. It was really helpful in that way, but you want to go from there. Maybe the reporters did a good job, but you just can’t be as sure that they did.