MURDER IS MY BEAT: NEW ORLEANS
Butchered In The Big Easy: Songs In The Key Of Death
By David K. Frasier
Reading time 12 Minutes
During the group’s five year run
During the group’s five year, five night a week run at the Royal Sonesta Hotel’s popular nightclub, the Mystick Den, the Johnnie Bachemin Trio built a devoted local and tourist following performing Broadway tunes and jazz in the Big Easy. Seventy-two-year old group leader and pianist, Johnnie Bachemin, was the main attraction at the Bourbon Street landmark and had been entertaining, in one medium or another, since the early 1940s. The versatile entertainer served in the Special Services branch of the Army during World War II. In the 1950s, Bachemin danced for internationally famed ballet choreographer George Balanchine and was cast in the Sammy Davis, Jr. Broadway production of Mr. Wonderful, when a bone-breaking fall sustained during rehearsals knocked him out of the show and that career. Turning to piano, Bachemin appeared twice on the Ed Sullivan Show, played lounges in Vegas, toured briefly with Duke Ellington, and hobnobbed with jazz luminaries like Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, and Billy Strayhorn. Liberace, the King of Kitsch, bequeathed his friend a signature candelabrum.
Despite enjoying a respectable, if not stellar, musical career of some half a century crowned by a comfortable Tuesday through Saturday nights gig in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter, the septuagenarian entertainer worried about how he was viewed by the jazz fraternity. When informed by the Trio’s drummer that while his singing and piano interpretations of popular show tunes could never remotely rival the inspired improvisations of jazz heavyweights like John Coltrane or Miles Davis, fellow-musicians respected Bachemin as a serious player due largely to his passionate intensity. The performer valued that peer assessment, but wanted his musical legacy to extend beyond Bourbon Street. Although unable to read music, Bachemin undertook an ambitious collaboration with Jay Weigel that the pianist/composer felt would enshrine his name in the annals of musical posterity. In November 1997, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra helmed by Musical Director Klauspeter Seibel presented the world premiere of “Pyramids: A Classical Jazz Rhapsody,” the pair’s concerto for piano trio and orchestra, in the Orpheum Theater. The well-received work encouraged the collaborators to compose the “Millennium Suite” with the new offering and “Pyramids” scheduled to be recorded in August 1998 by the West Shore Symphony Orchestra (since renamed the West Michigan Symphony Orchestra).
Around 9:00 A.M. on Wednesday, June 10, 1998, co-workers dropped by Bachemin’s apartment in the 1700 block of Pauger Street in the city’s Faubourg Marigny district to determine why the never miss a set performer was a no-show at his Tuesday night gig at the Mystick Den. Entering through an unlocked front door, they found Bachemin gagged, hands and feet bound, dead in a bedroom, his throat slit from ear to ear, repeatedly slashed and stabbed, his head caved in from what appeared to be numerous hammer blows. The apartment had been ransacked in what investigators read as a classic robbery scenario.
A BOLO alert was issued for the dead man’s car, a white 1998 Pontiac Bonneville, missing from a fenced-in parking area near his residence. The torture killing was nearly identical to that of 47-year-old Curtis Moon, owner of Wizard’s Knight Club near Houma, Louisiana, whose bound, stabbed, and bludgeoned body was found in his ransacked home on May 31, 1998. The striking similarities between cases separated by only 10 days and 55 miles prompted local police officials to notify the district’s gay community (Moon was never identified as gay) that those responsible for the murders could be targeting the area’s homosexual population. In fact, law enforcement officials at every level credited the gay community with helping them to keep the cases in the public eye.
On the afternoon of the discovery
On the afternoon of the discovery of Bachemin’s body two young men (one white, one black) accompanied by two females attempted to use the murdered man’s credit cards in the Southland Mall in Houma. When the store manager and mall security tried to detain the men both bolted in different directions. The white suspect hopped into a white Bonneville and was quickly lost in traffic. The vehicle, identified as Bachemin’s stolen Pontiac, was found around 11:00 P.M. that night burning in a sugar cane field off Louisiana 308, along Bayou Lafourche north of Thibodaux, some 20 miles from Houma. Based on vivid descriptions given by mall employees of a white man with two gold rimmed eye teeth and a cross tattoo on his left hand authorities instantly identified Gary “Duck” Harrall. The 5’9, 153 pound 21 year old who bore “JESUS” tattooed on his chest was well known to detectives in Terrebone Parish as a drug addict who stole to support his habit. Harrall had been paroled on April 25, 1998 from the Allen Correctional Center in Kinder after serving two years of a five-year sentence for attempted armed robbery and simple burglary. Since his release, bartenders in the French Quarter had often seen him in the company of a slightly built, heavily tattooed black man later identified in a photo lineup by mall employees as 18-year-old Travis “Sugar” Johnson.
The unlikely duo managed to remain at large as authorities in Orleans, Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes traced a network of their friends. Their hard work paid off on June 16, 1998 with the arrests of five individuals either connected to the murder of Curtis Moon and/or the burning of Bachemin’s car. Harrall and some members of the group regularly met for cocaine parties at motels and other places in the area. One of the five frequented Wizard’s, knew Moon often carried the day’s large cash take home with him, and directed the murderous pair to the man’s flat in Houma. The group laid in wait for Moon to arrive then robbed and butchered him for fast money. Chrissy Rhodes, 18, one of the females briefly detained with Harrall and Johnson in the Southland Mall recounted to cops how the pair had cruised around in Bachemin’s stolen Bonneville for days prior to the incident bragging about the torture killing. The admission suggested the entertainer had most likely been robbed and murdered shortly after returning home following his Saturday night performance. Rhodes also identified one of those arrested, a convenience store clerk, as the individual who’d sold the killers five gallons of gas later used to torch the dead man’s car in an attempt to destroy fingerprints and other physical evidence.
Although “Duck” and “Sugar,” now the focus of a cross-country federal manhunt, were never in danger of being mistaken for “Napoleons of Crime,” they did manage to successfully flee the French Quarter. However, rather than lying low in out of the way locales like Dubuque or Peoria, they made a beeline for California where in mid-June they registered in the $40.00 a night Hollywood Vine Motel under their own names. While in the area, the fugitives visited Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm where they drew attention to themselves after security tossed them for trying to enter the amusement park without paying. By now, their faces plastered across the front pages of area newspapers and featured hourly on TV news, they repeatedly visited the East Side Jewelry pawnshop in Anaheim near Disneyland and pawned jewelry, including a neck chain. The owner, made uneasy by their hinky behavior, notified police after they left the shop. Authorities, positively identifying Harrall and Johnson after reviewing the tape from the store’s surveillance camera, issued a warning to the Southland’s gay community that the pair might again be targeting homosexual men as they had most likely Johnnie Bachemin.
On the morning of June 25, 1998, Duck and Sugar boarded a gamblers’ special Greyhound in Los Angeles bound for Las Vegas. The FBI, covering all means of public transport out of the city, shadowed the bus as it pulled into various rest and gas stops along the desert route waiting for a chance to arrest the pair without danger to fellow-passengers. Around 1:00 P.M. that day at a scheduled stop at Sunset Station Casino in Henderson, Nevada, 10 miles outside Vegas, passengers decamped to play slots and use the facilities leaving the sleeping Duck and Sugar alone on the bus. FBI agents tapped awake the dozing duo and arrested them without incident. Awaiting extradition in Vegas to the Big Easy, Travis Johnson (according to New Orleans Police Detective Dwight Deal) “sang like a bird” and had “a wonderful range.” Ultimately, Sugar supplemented his canary-like musings with an 80-page written confession describing in graphic and incriminating detail how he and Duck tortured then murdered and robbed Moon and Bachemin for quick drug money. Johnson quickly accepted a prosecution deal of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in exchange for dodging the death penalty. Co-killer Gary “Duck” Harrall, the “brains” of the outfit, initially planned to roll the dice at trial, but wisely listened to counsel and on September 7, 2000 avoided a trial by accepting a life sentence without parole in lieu of a near certain lethal injection.
David K. Frasier, a retired reference librarian at the Lilly Library at Indiana University, is the author of the books Russ Meyer – The Life and Films, Murder Cases of the Twentieth Century, Suicide in the Entertainment Industry, and Show Business Homicides. He was the associate editor of Russ Meyer’s three-volume autobiography, A Clean Breast, and wrote the booklet for the Arrow Films 13 DVD box set retrospective, The Russ Meyer Collection. Frasier is currently serving a life sentence in Bloomington, Indiana.