Murder most mysterious: The house of horror in New Orleans

They were lionised for refusing to leave their city after Katrina struck. But then Zachery Brown apparently murdered his girlfriend and dismembered her body, before killing himself. David Usborne reports on the motiveless crime gripping America
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If this was a pitch from the sick imagination of a horror-film scriptwriter it could hardly provide more detail. Any studio boss, with the stomach for this sort of thing, would be transfixed. The protagonists are two young lovers with vagabond spirits and carefree good looks. The setting, moreover, is ideal: the French Quarter of New Orleans and an apartment one floor above the shop of a voodoo priestess.

The narrative is compelling also. The film moves quickly to a flashback of more romantic times when the couple - Zachery Bowen and Addie Hall - is profiled in newspapers all across the United States as two among only a handful of die-hards who refuse to leave the French Quarter in the days after Hurricane Katrina. They gather fallen tree limbs to make fires and trade beer and booze for fresh water. Then there is now: a suicide and a murder with a sickening culinary twist.

But this is as real as the shock felt yesterday across New Orleans, a city still striving to recover from the trauma of the storm. Yet anyone who hears this on the airwaves or reads about it in The Times-Picayune, cannot but see one glaring problem. Where is the credible motive for what happens? What could drive a seemingly decent man to such depths of derangement?

It begins on Tuesday. A guest at the luxury Omni Hotel in the heart of the Quarter notices a body on the roof of a parking garage below his window, an apparent suicide victim. The police, unaware that they are taking the first step on a path that will lead them to fearful gore, duly arrive and investigate.

The jumper was Mr Bowen, 28, a California native, who told friends he had served in Iraq and Afghanistan before settling in New Orleans. He had met Ms Hall, also 28, during the Katrina crisis and fallen in love. Both bartenders in the Quarter, they achieved their 15 minutes of national fame. Profiles of the pair appeared in newspapers, including The New York Times.

There was an obvious appeal to their adventure. There were perhaps 150 people still clinging on in the Quarter in the weeks immediately after the storm, defying an order by the city to leave. Hall and Bowen lived in a small apartment on Governor Nicholls Street, surviving on hoarded food and sheer determination. They had no electricity, telephone or fresh water, but they could get by and were happy.

"We're having a civilised hurricane," Hall told the Mobile Register, describing how they would share cocktails and cigarettes on their stoop with the occasional reporter or Red Cross worker who happened by.

"It's actually been kind of nice," Bowen added. "And I'm getting healthier, eating right and toning up." The pair told The New York Times of their novel strategy to ensure the police patrolled their street more regularly than others. Hall would occasionally flash her breasts to the passing officers.

A year later, Hall and Bowen had become a fixture in the Quarter, popular not least because they were attractive and garrulous. One local bar-owner this week explained that she had hired Bowen as "eye candy for the ladies" after meeting him. "The customers loved him," she said. "Everyone loved him." Bowen was last seen on Sunday and described as especially "jolly", talking about plans to take a holiday in Cozumel. "He was in a great mood," one drinking pal said, "the best mood I've ever seen him in."

He was in the best mood? We can only wonder now at the capacity of the human mind to deceive and contort. Bowen was days from his death because of an unspeakable atrocity he had already committed.

Even in recording the moment of Bowen taking his own life no detail is denied us. Video retrieved from an outside security camera at the Omni reveals the tall young man with light brown hair over his ears repeatedly approaching the edge of a high terrace near its roof-top swimming pool, before retreating to safety each time and pacing in circles. But, finally, he plunges into thin air.

When the police reached the body of Bowen on the garage roof they found a small plastic bag in a trouser pocket with a five-page, hand-written note inside. The dead man knew they would have work to do and he wanted to make it easier for them. He had jotted down directions to an address on North Rampart Street on the edge of the Quarter, the apartment above the voodoo shop.

And he left them in little suspense about what they would find when they arrived there. He was sending them to a murder scene. "This is not an accident," the note said. "I had to take my own life for the one I took."

The tourist appeal of New Orleans lies in its charming French, Spanish and Creole architecture, notably in the Quarter and the Garden District. Visitors are often intrigued also by a darker, more threatening side to the city, where cemeteries are above ground and Anne Rice wrote her vampire mysteries. Long before the storm of 2005, it was also a place known for high rates of violent crime and murder. But no police officer can have been prepared for what awaited them at North Rampart Street.

A spray-painted message on one wall directed detectives immediately to the kitchen and to two pots placed on the burners of the cooker. One contained the badly charred head of a young woman.

Though findings of a formal post-mortem have yet to be released, there remains no doubt that it was to Ms Hall. In the second pot were the woman's hands and feet, also cooked. Beside the burners, the Picayune-Times reported, were potatoes and carrots, already cut up, but not yet placed in the pots.

The meal - if that is what the dismembered body of Ms Hall was eventually to become - was more elaborate still. Opening the oven door, investigators found her arms and legs arranged in turkey pans. At least one of them, a source told the newspaper, had been seasoned with herbs. Finally, they discovered the bloody torso, stuffed into a black rubbish liner and stored in the couple's fridge.

As well as a synopsis of his crime in the suicide note, Bowen had left behind a far more intricate account written over eight pages of his former girlfriend's personal journal. He meant it, apparently, as a formal confession sufficient even for a court of law. The top began with his stating his name, his date of birth and even his social security and driving licence numbers.

"Today is Monday 16 October 2 am," he wrote. "I killed her at 1 am Thursday 5 October. I very calmly strangled her. It was very quick." He wrote that he had sexually violated the body several times after the strangling and that thereafter he drank himself into oblivion, eventually dropping unconscious to the floor.

Bowen, possessed by demons we cannot guess at, was not done. The next morning he went to work as usual, delivering groceries around the Quarter. On his return home, he moved the body to the bathroom, placed it in the bath, and proceeded to dice it with a kitchen knife and a handsaw. According to his notes, he stopped what he was doing when only half-way done.

A few days later, on 9 October, he resumed the butchery, set the air-conditioning thermostat at 60 degrees and falling upon the idea of cooking his victim, put the hands, feet and head in the two pots filled with water. Police said he cleaned the bathroom, which they found spick and span.

"Halfway through the task, I stopped and thought about what I was doing," he wrote in Hall's journal. "The decision to halt the first idea and move to Plan B (the crime scene you are now in) came after a while. I scared myself not only by the action of calmly strangling the woman I've loved for one and a half years, but by my entire lack of remorse. I've known forever how horrible a person I am (ask anyone)."

Even in New Orleans, which has seen a spike in domestic violence since Katrina, the horror of the crime scene was beyond anything seen before. "I've been on the job 40 years and it's the first time I've seen it at that level," Anthony Cannatella, the New Orleans Police Department's chief of detectives, said at a news conference. "It was obviously very gruesome."

So far, the only explanation available to detectives - a dispute between the lovers about the terms of their rental lease - seems hopelessly insufficient. "I would assume there was a lot more deep-rooted problem that he had," Mr Cannatella said.

But a happy couple they may no longer have been. In late September, they were thrown out of their home on Governor Nicholls Street and applied to take the tenancy of the North Rampart Street flat for $750 £400) a month.

Priestess Miriam Chamani, the manager of the voodoo shop and museum on the ground floor, said: "You see people and never know what's going on with them."

The landlord, Leo Watermeier, told police that shortly after the pair moved in, a dispute broke out. The date was 5 October, the same day, according to Bowen's confessions, that he killed Ms Hall.

The row was over the lease and whose names should be on it. Ms Hall told the landlord only her name should appear because her boyfriend had been unfaithful. Mr Watermeier said she told him: "I caught him cheating on me, and I am kicking him out of this apartment."

Soon afterwards, the same day, Bowen approached Mr Watermeier in a state of high agitation. "He said, 'Did you just let her sign a lease alone? Because I'm screwed. I'm totally messed up now. She's trying to kick me out of the apartment'," Mr Watermeier reported. That night, as we now know, Bowen solved his problem. A dead girlfriend could not put him on the streets.

For 10 days, Bowen's evil was a secret to everyone but himself. Only the owner of a bar where Hall had worked began to worry when she repeatedly failed to show up. "I had a feeling something was seriously wrong," he said. But this is New Orleans, the Big Easy, and eccentric behaviour is rarely considered anything to lose sleep about. The bar-owner never thought to sound the alarm.

But everything since 8.30pm on Tuesday - the hour that the body was found on the garage roof - has moved with dizzying speed. Thanks to the testimonies of Bowen, it may be that 48 hours later there is little else to learn of a crime as grisly as any in the city's often violent history.

For those with iron constitutions, one more detail is also now on the record; an autopsy of Bowen's body found no trace of human flesh in his digestive system. Cannibalism may have been implied but apparently did not happen.

But, finally, there is that one gaping hole in this script that may never be answered. How could love gone wrong and a fight over a simple rental lease trigger a crime of such staggering depravity?