‘Cain and Abel and Oil’: New York Magazine tells the Knight story

Illustration by Kelsey Dake for New York Magazine/courtesy New York Magazine

There is so much we didn’t know outside of the narrative investigators painted: In a fit of desperation to keep control of the lucrative family business, a filthy rich oilfield CEO allegedly hires a bumbling fool and two dirty cops to set his younger brother up in a June 2014 drug bust. 

Red flags everywhere, prosecutors opt not to pursue the charges the following January.

A few months later, after being threatened by said bumbling fool, a frightened company employee tips off (legit) law enforcement, and the perps are arrested and charged in the conspiracy. 

The story dropped like a bombshell, rocking the community. It was the beginning of the end of Knight Oil Tools. 

Now comes a detailed story of what led to the sibling rivalry that left a mother and sister caught in the middle and ultimately stripped each sibling of tens of millions of dollars of net worth. 

In the most recent issue of New York Magazine, out this week, freelance journalist Ian Frisch takes you deep into the family saga (get ready for some jaw-dropping revelations). The Current’s staff visited with Frisch while he was reporting the story in December and talked with him again as he finalized the piece (it came out in print Monday and was published online today). 

What sparked the interest of a Massachusetts boy now living in Brooklyn to look into this corrupt family saga in little ole Lafayette, La.?

To be honest, I came across the story of the Knight brothers entirely by accident. Last April, I published a big investigation into a black veteran with PTSD, from Coushatta, La., who was killed by law enforcement. While I was reporting out that story, I invariably started following a bunch of local news outlets in Louisiana on Twitter. Then one day, I think it was last May or June, I was aimlessly scrolling through Twitter and saw a story posted by The Advocate, I think it was, saying that Mark Knight’s trial date was set for framing his younger brother. I was pretty intrigued, obviously, so I read the story, which was kind of a round-up of everything that had happened, and my jaw just hit my desk. What a wild story! And, from the looks of it, no one had reported on it at the national level. It had all the hallmarks of a really strong narrative crime story, so I knew it had legs even before I really dug into it. And, once I did, it only got better and better. 

How’d you pitch the story to your editor at New York Magazine?

I had never worked with New York Magazine before this, but I knew they published kind of over-the-top narrative stories, and had a strong team of editors, so I cold-pitched David Wallace-Wells, the deputy editor, who had edited a story by a friend of mine a few months earlier. By this time, I had read just about everything I could about the Knight brothers and Knight Oil Tools, so the pitch was quite robust. 

Did they bite from the get-go?

Yes (laughs). I mean, just the basic facts of this story are irresistible, you know? And by this time, late summer 2018, I had already made contact with Bryan Knight, who agreed to speak with me if I came down to Lafayette. His participation was crucial because this story is about Mark framing Bryan, yes, but it’s much more about how wealth can tear a family apart. That emotional thru-line had to be excavated pretty deeply for the story to resonate with readers.

You certainly had much more success getting people to talk to you for the story than I did in 2015 while this was going down, which is to be expected. How many people did you interview? Did you feel like folks here finally wanted the real story to be told?

I think I came into the story at the right time; everyone involved had gotten over the initial shock of what happened, and many people were now willing to talk about their experiences. And I was not coming into this with a local news perspective; I wasn’t just trying to get the newest tidbit of information. I wanted to tell the entire story from front to back, so I think that made sources more trusting of how this was all going to go down. I was in Lafayette for a week, and once word got around that I was here, many people came out of the woodwork to talk with me. I interviewed over a dozen people and obtained hundreds of pages of documents (and the interrogation videos), which helped shape the story tremendously. 

The air conditioner incident is a pretty “shocking” revelation in the piece, as are the money barrels, the extravagance of Mark’s spending. How many times did you think to yourself, this just cannot be true? 

I mean, you have to realize that I didn’t know about any of that when I first started reporting this story. I remember sitting in a diner with Russell Manuel (he was eating pancakes) and he told me the air conditioner story. I had to try to keep a straight face because it was just so, so wild. Russell had a good laugh at his own expense, which I felt made it easier for him to talk about. As more sources began speaking with me, about the things Mark purchased, and about him allegedly stealing Eddy’s hidden stashes of money, I realized this story is just full of caperish anecdotes. And, once I obtained some of law enforcement’s records, I realized, too, that there were more people involved in this than just Mark, Russell Manuel and the two cops. 

Mark Knight arriving at the Lafayette Parish Courthouse in December 2017 (photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate)

You don’t go into a lot of detail on the extent of the role Mark’s wife and daughter allegedly played in setting Bryan up. But do you get the sense the DA’s office held the potential prosecution of family members over Mark’s head to negotiate a plea deal?

The evidence against Trish and Heather Knight was definitely more thin than anyone else. There were text messages recovered from Russell Manuel’s phone that indicated that he and Heather met after Bryan was arrested to talk about payment. I never really understood why the district attorney’s office didn’t fold them into the criminal indictment, or didn’t investigate further, but it’s clear that Nicholas Knight was involved in a money laundering scheme orchestrated by Mark concerning scrap pipe, which the DA probed into pretty thoroughly. I think it’s likely that played a role in getting Mark to plead guilty, especially considering one of the conditions of his plea was that the DA wouldn’t prosecute any of his family members regarding the scrap pipe situation. But what else went on behind the scenes? I’m not too sure. 

Mark’s reckless spending, using company resources for personal expenses, had long been the source of much speculation and was well-documented in the legal battles between the Knights and interior decorator Judy Lyons, so that was not surprising when this story broke. Did you get the sense that this is somewhat common practice in the oilfield business here?

It’s really hard to say, because a lot of these companies are privately owned. Their books are a black box. And, normally, the owner has complete control on how funds are acquired and spent, and how they are documented internally. I do think, however, that the culture in Lafayette is quite unique; as an oil boomtown, it was kind of its own universe for many decades, and unscrupulous, eccentric and entrepreneurially aggressive characters were rewarded heavily for how they did business. And many of them, I think, were definitely willing to push the envelope in some regards. 

Bryan’s obviously still struggling with what his family did to him. He wrote a letter to the judge before Mark was sentenced, but it’s sealed from public view. Do you think Bryan will ever forgive them?

Bryan told me more than once that he didn’t want Mark to go to jail. At first, that was hard for me to understand. This guy framed you! But, over time, I realized that the one thing Bryan has wanted from his family was acceptance. In a perfect world, Bryan told me, he and Mark would have ran the company together, as equals. Sadly, it didn’t work out that way, and their relationship still seems fraught, to say the least. 

Looking back on the initial arrest report on Manuel, it seems excellent police work was done by Kip Judice, who as the lead investigator with the sheriff’s department found himself investigating one of his own deputies, and that had to be distressing. It was pretty demoralizing for investigators as well as the officers who were unwittingly pulled into the arrest part of the scheme that no one went to jail.

You’re exactly right: None of this would’ve come to light if not for Kip Judice. It’s funny, when Kip and I spoke, he told me straight-up: This entire theory, of Bryan being framed so Mark could take control over the family business, sounded like a fairy tale. And it did! But Kip is a very perceptive man, and a very curious one, I think, and he kept digging. He didn’t let it slip away as some far-flung conspiracy. And once he got Russell Manuel into the station, the entire plot revealed itself and came crumbling down. Kip, too, made sure to cover his bases, and amassed a trove of corroborating evidence. What a way to go out for him, as this was the last big case he worked on before he retired from the sheriff’s office and went on to serve as chief in Duson. 

You mentioned to me that you initially filed a 10,000-word piece or was it even longer? Is there a lot more to this story than what we’re getting here? Do you plan to follow up as the federal civil suit Bryan filed against Mark progresses?

There are tons of little details that didn’t make it into the story because of space constraints, but I feel the story reads a lot better than it did in its earlier stages; it’s crisp and fast, thorough where it needs to be, and light where it doesn’t. And I have the team at New York to thank for that, as I can get carried away on the keyboard sometimes. As for where the story is going from here: I do plan to continue to follow the civil litigation between Mark and Bryan, to see what comes out in the public record. I’d love to keep writing about this family, and Lafayette as a whole, so time will tell in that regard. 

How much time did you spend in Lafayette interviewing folks? Any opportunities to experience the joie de vivre while you worked?

I spent a week in Lafayette and ate enough boudin and cracklin’ to last me a lifetime. OK — maybe not a lifetime. But I do think I am due back down there for a visit. It’s a wonderful little city!

Totally shifting gears here to a much lighter note: What was it like, on a personal level, to experience our most famous ex-reserve city marshal’s deejay debut at TomorrowWorld in 2015 for that Vice piece? Shaq killed it that night, right?

That was probably the most surreal experience of my life, to be honest. Shaq had been a childhood hero of mine — he also makes a cameo in my book, MAGIC IS DEAD, which came out in February — and it was great to be able to get to know someone so public and famous on such a personal level. He’s a great guy, really kind and funny, and my time with him will certainly stand as one of my fondest memories. I’ll have to send him my story on the Knight brothers. That may bring it all full circle. 

Read Frish’s feature story, “Cain and Abel and Oil” here.