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Looking for Laura

At first, the news spread by word of mouth: 12-year-old Laura Smither had failed to return home from her early morning jog. Hours after her parents realized that something had gone terribly wrong, the over-the-phone, across-the-fence early notification system was working full-tilt. Friendswood, population 29,000, was behaving like the small town it is -- a place where people care about their neighbors.

As the spring morning turned to afternoon, scout troop leaders, members of local churches and home-schooling groups spread the word: Come out and help us literally beat the bushes. Help us find the missing girl.

Volunteers fanned out across snake-infested swamps and rain-soaked underbrush. For more than two weeks, the nightly news flashed photos of Laura, a skinny, sweet-faced girl with brown hair and a big smile.

Over 17 days -- from April 3, 1997, until April 20 -- close to 8,000 volunteers signed on to the search effort; most had never met the girl. U.S. Marine reservists joined the hunt, as did Texas State Guard troops in fatigues and steel-toed boots. There were also moms, dads and kids riding bikes.

"I remember one little girl who pedaled up to the center and said she wanted to help," recalls Mike Barker, the volunteer director of the Laura Recovery Center. "She handed me a half-roll of yellow ribbon that she said we could use to tie around trees."

Friendswood rallied still further. The Texas-New Mexico Power Company donated use of a vacant building to serve as search headquarters. And local merchants gave close to $8,000 in supplies and food to aid the effort.

Everyone wanted to find Laura. But as the search dragged into its third week, hopes grew dimmer. And when at last she was found, it wasn't the joyful scene Friendswood had hoped for.

Laura's body turned up in a retention pond about 12 miles from her home, in a rural area not covered by the volunteers. With that news, the search grimly shifted gears. Now, the best Friendswood could hope was to find -- and punish -- her killer.

Once again, the search has met with little success. Almost a year after Laura's disappearance, no one -- not even the man publicly named as the police's prime suspect -- has been charged with her murder. "It was like someone in our community had been struck by lightning," says Barker. "And we've been chasing lightning ever since."

On TV, as the search for Laura Smither wore on, a family friend described the girl as the only child her age whom the friend had never heard raise her voice to her parents.

"You couldn't help but love her," concurs Gay Smither, Laura's adoptive mother. "She didn't have a mean thought in her body. She was just an incredible child who had so much to give the world, because she could do anything she wanted to do."

Laura had been a Girl Scout and knew how to scuba dive and play tennis. But more than anything else, she loved ballet -- and was good at it. In the summer of '96, the Houston Ballet Academy considered 300 candidates; the school accepted only Laura and one other applicant.

Gay Smither's voice cracks as she tells how she came into Laura's life. The girl was about a year old when her mother died from breast cancer; her father, Bob, decided to hire a nanny. Gay, a round-faced, red-haired native of Zimbabwe, had paused in the Friendswood area during an around-the-world trip. Out of money, she was working as a nanny, and Laura's pediatrician recommended her to Bob. The arrangement worked out better than either side anticipated.

"First, Gay fell in love with Laura," Bob explains. "Then she fell in love with me." It's one of the few times during the interview that Bob smiles -- one of the few times the tall, slender man with silver hair and glasses doesn't appear to have had his life sucked out of him.

For just over seven years, Bob and Gay Smither have lived in a one-story, split-level ranch-style house at the end of a gravel and dirt road on the southwestern edge of Friendswood. Out here, Houston's urban sprawl gives way to undeveloped saltgrass prairie; not surprisingly, the Smithers' front yard has a country feel. Only a yellow ribbon still tied around the trunk of a small pear tree -- a present from the Texas State Guard -- reveals that the scene is anything but tranquil.

A stranger visiting the Smither home might reasonably assume that Laura was still there. In her yellow-trimmed bedroom, little has changed. Dolls and stuffed animals rest on a built-in desk. Beside them lies a white board on which Laura had written, "Only 20 more days till my birthday."

 

The room, though, isn't precisely the way Laura left it. Four plastic evidence bags containing some of her possessions were sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for testing. Though the bags have since been returned to the Smithers, apparently no one has had the heart to unpack them. Inside one is a pair of pink ballet slippers.

When Laura was accepted by the Houston Ballet Academy, Bob and Gay Smither knew their time with their daughter would become extremely limited. To spend more time with her -- and with their son David, now ten -- they decided to home-school the kids.

While Bob worked at home in his electrical consulting business, Gay taught the children. David would usually finish his assignments by noon; Laura would take the entire day. They went to the library and on field trips; once, the family traveled to England while Laura was studying Jane Austen.

The family enjoyed the flexibility of home-schooling -- especially because none of them moved very fast in the mornings. It was a tad unusual, one Thursday morning, that Laura announced she wanted to go for a jog. "Laura did not move swiftly on things like getting dressed," says Gay. "So, when she said she wanted to go run, I really thought breakfast would be on the table before she was ready."

But Laura's dedication to ballet had spurred her to a new level of health-consciousness. The night before, says Gay, Laura stayed up reading a book entitled Fit or Fat? That morning, Laura lectured Gay that she should never go on the Rotation Diet again, that fad diets were bad for the body, and that, from now on, they would exercise instead of fasting.

Bob was a runner, and both Laura and David sometimes tagged along on his frequent runs. But that morning, Gay says, Bob was taking a shower when Laura asked if she could go for a jog by herself.

"David and I were in the kitchen getting ready to make pancakes," says Gay, tears rolling down her face. "And Laura said, 'I really want to run, Mom.' And I should have said, 'No,' but I didn't. Because you don't think something like this is going to happen in front of your own house at nine o'clock in the morning."

The last time she saw her daughter, Gay says, Laura was standing at the top of the stairs that lead from the living room to the kitchen.

"She said she was leaving," says Gay. "She also asked David how long till the pancakes were ready, and he said about 20 minutes, because we had just starting putting the stuff together. So she said, 'Okay. Bye.' "

Twenty minutes came and went; then half an hour. The pancakes were on the table, but Laura had not returned. Bob emerged from his shower, asked where Laura was and immediately became concerned. It wasn't like her to be late.

One of Bob's clients arrived at the house at 9:30; Bob ushered him into the kitchen and told him to have some pancakes. As the client ate breakfast, Bob drove along their usual jogging route to look for his daughter. Unable to find her after about five minutes, Bob drove back to the house. He, Gay, David and the client then went back out along the roads near their home for a second look. But there was still no sign of Laura.

"We knew something was wrong," says Gay. "We knew something bad had happened to her."

By 9:45, the Smithers were back at their house and Bob was on the phone to the police. Gay worried that since Laura hadn't been absent for 24 hours, the police might not take the report seriously, but Bob called anyway. Within ten minutes, an officer was at their door making a report. Shortly after he left, another officer arrived and asked for a photo of Laura.

By that time, the Smithers were already busy printing fliers with information about their daughter. Bob took the first batch to a group of people who were tending horses at a nearby stable. They distributed the fliers and made copies of their own; and people who distributed them, in turn, made more copies. It became a kind of emergency chain letter.

"To be honest," says Bob, "I don't recall a lot of that day. There were people in our house all day. We were doing our best with the fliers. We went through a whole cartridge on the copier. People would come in and take bundles off the table and head back out."

"It was chaos," adds Gay. "Everybody who heard about it flooded in and tried to help us. It just spread by word of mouth."

 

By that point, Laura may have already been dead. But the effort to find her was taking on a life of its own.

Chief Jared Stout appears as weary now as he did during the height of the search for Laura Smither. His office is a converted kitchen at the Friendswood police station; his desk is covered with stacks of files and papers. While a cigarette butt smolders in an ashtray on the desk, Stout caresses a fresh smoke between the first two fingers of his right hand. At the same time, he rubs those fingers deep into the lines of his forehead.

"The fact that most missing children are runaways is a trap," explains Stout. "And law enforcement has to be careful to overcome that jadedness."

According to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice, the vast majority of children who are reported as missing turn out to be either runaways or pawns in domestic disputes. Nationwide in 1997, 801,652 juveniles were reported to authorities as missing. Of those, fewer than 34,000 were forcefully abducted.

Stout also cites a darker statistic. Of the kidnapped juveniles who are killed, 74 percent are killed within three hours of their abduction. "If you're going to act," explains Stout, "you need to act quickly."

His officers started working the case after being contacted by Bob Smither, but it wasn't until that afternoon, when Stout received a call from the chief of police of Alvin Community College, that he became convinced that Laura's disappearance was serious. Chief Andy Tacquard -- a friend of the Smithers through both home-schooling and scouting -- told Stout that, in his opinion, there was no way Laura Smither was a runaway. Stout immediately put his 39-officer force on full alert. He also notified the FBI.

By the time Stout and his officers established a command post at a park near the Smithers' home, more than 100 volunteers were already searching the surrounding area. The home-schooling and scouting grapevines had been busy.

Nightfall halted the search, and Stout returned to his office to plan the next day. A short time later, he was joined by Mandy Albritton, a scouting leader. Stout told her he would need additional volunteers to renew the search; Albritton pledged to find them through scouting and local churches. She did her work well.

At seven o'clock Friday morning, Mike Barker, a heavy-equipment dealer, was the first to arrive at the police command post. A friend had told him about Laura the night before. Though Barker didn't know Laura, he felt the ties that bind small towns: He'd met Bob Smither through the Cub Scouts' pinewood derby, and Laura herself had recently cared for Barker's son's guinea pigs.

Within minutes, Barker was joined by other volunteers. And since there didn't appear to be any sort of game plan, Barker took it upon himself to start lining people up and assembling teams. By 9:30, when the police showed up, approximately 400 people were ready to help with the search.

Several days of rain had left ditches filled with water and made for treacherous footing amid the vines and underbrush. Many of the volunteers were ill-prepared for the elements: Few had adequate footgear, and women in expensive jewelry found themselves wading through swamps.

Shortly after the volunteers fanned out across the countryside, the search was interrupted by the scream of a woman who had been snake-bitten on the heel. Barker was quick on the scene. With his machete, he severed the head of the snake from its body, planning to use it to identify the species in case the woman needed antivenin. Luckily, close inspection of the woman's foot determined that the snake's fangs had not penetrated her shoe. To Barker's surprise, the woman resumed the search.

At sundown, the searchers gave up reluctantly. But there was little rest for Barker: Until about 3 a.m., he received call after call from people asking whether anyone had thought to look for Laura at one location or another.

Early Saturday morning, after searching some sandpits near town, Barker received a call on his mobile phone asking him to attend a 10 a.m. meeting at the Friendswood Chamber of Commerce. There, Barker was asked to serve as director of what had become the Laura Recovery Center. Barker says he declined. Apparently, no one heard him.

"It just kind of happened," says Barker.
From that point, the effort to find Laura Smither exploded. Friendswood received help from the Heidi Search Center in San Antonio, a group that helps set up volunteer searches for missing children. And for the next two weeks, the question was not if the Houston media would continue to cover the story each day, but what the new angle would be.

 

The Laura Recovery Center was flooded with pies, cakes, boxes of sandwiches and truckloads of ice. Southwest Airlines donated soft drinks and water. Wal-Mart brought in 200 pairs of socks for the searchers' waterlogged feet.

Volunteers continued to pour in. It was decided that anyone wanting to take part in the search would have to be at least 18 years old and must show proof of identification. The searchers were assigned to one of three eight-hour shifts, with approximately 300 volunteers per shift. The search borders extended from Interstate 45 northwest to Sugar Land and southwest to Freeport.

Working on the theory that the criminal often returns to the scene of the crime, Barker also had several video cameras installed at the recovery center. The videotape didn't turn up any suspects, but it did have an effect on Barker.

"I'll never look at people the same way again," he says.

In Chief Stout's opinion, the search for Laura Smither gave Friendswood a way to fight against the unspeakable. The volunteer effort also gave Stout and his detectives the time they needed to spend on investigation, rather than the search.

The first targets of that investigation were Bob and Gay Smither -- although it took the couple some time to realize it. Bob says he didn't notice until the Saturday after Laura's disappearance. Smither and an FBI agent had gone out to the front yard. While the agent stood near the mailbox, Smither scolded his son David, who was trying to crawl underneath the house's large deck. At the same time, Smither locked eyes with the obviously curious agent -- and realized the dark thoughts on the investigator's mind.

"I thought to myself, 'Well, he should be wondering about that -- that's his job,' " recalls Smither. "So, when I saw him looking at me I said, 'Oh, by the way. You might want to look under here, and we have a basement you might want to look at.' And they did."

Stout says the investigators were also careful to separate Bob, Gay and David before questioning them. Each family member was questioned more than once, and each time by a different investigator. At no point, says Stout, did the Smithers hesitate to do anything the police asked of them; the investigators soon turned their attention elsewhere.

But with no physical evidence, they had little to go on. "It was as if she had been on The X-Files and just beamed up," says Stout.

With help from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, investigators obtained a registry of all known sex offenders in the Friendswood area. The zip codes of northern Brazoria, Galveston and southern Harris counties produced a list of more than 2,100 known pedophiles.

Stout suspected that the perpetrator might be on that list. "In an abduction," he explained, "the majority of time, the individual who is responsible lives, works or has some other legitimate reason for being within a half a mile of where the kidnapping took place."

With assistance from the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies, Friendswood police began canvassing homes and businesses in the area, as well as eight construction sites near the Smithers' home. On April 3 -- the day Laura disappeared -- bad weather had forced the foreman of one construction crew to cut his men loose for the day. One of those workers, William Reece, appeared on the list of known sex offenders.

Reece had served time for rape after kidnapping an Oklahoma University freshman who was having car trouble. According to Stout, the Oklahoma police report says that after befriending the woman, Reece assaulted her, then tied her up with duct tape before placing her in the sleeper of the 18-wheeler rig he was driving. Reece apparently continued to make deliveries until the woman managed to escape.

Stout says the report characterized Reece as an impulsive risk-taker who was not very well organized -- less a stalker than the kind of person who would see a target of opportunity and immediately act.

Investigators decided to take a hard look at Reece, a bulldozer driver who shoed horses on the side. After being questioned, Reece agreed to allow the police and FBI to examine his home and his truck. But what Stout calls a "cursory search" turned up nothing incriminating enough to charge Reece with murder.

For the 17 days following Laura's disappearance, the lives of Bob and Gay Smither were no longer their own. During the first 48 hours, at least one FBI agent and a Friendswood police officer were with them around the clock. For the next several days, Chief Stout and FBI Special Agent-in-charge Don Clark gave the Smithers regular briefings at their home. A tape recorder was placed on the Smithers' phone, and they were shown how to operate it. Most of the calls came from would-be psychics offering vague clues.

 

To occupy themselves, the Smithers stayed at the Laura Recovery Center, spending time with people they didn't know -- people who had put their own lives on hold to help them find Laura. But as the investigation dragged on, the Smithers began to believe that the search for their daughter was not going to end well.

On the Sunday night of April 20, 1997, several hundred people crowded into the auditorium of Friendswood High School. The meeting was an opportunity for the police to give the community an update on the investigation, and for the Smithers to thank the volunteers via a videotape about Laura. As the tape rolled, Chief Stout abruptly left the auditorium.

"We all knew it was something significant," says Gay.
As he left the school, Stout drove toward Pasadena to a heavily developed area east of Interstate 45, inside Beltway 8 -- a triangular plot of land that had been turned into a retention pond to handle drainage from a nearby subdivision and the freeways. The search for Laura had focused on the more rural terrain south and west of Friendswood, an area with fewer people and less traffic, more conducive to a quick getaway.

But earlier that day, a man and his son had been exercising their dog near the retention pond when they came across a partially decomposed body -- nude except for a couple of tan socks. The body appeared to have passed through one of the pipes that feed into the shallow water and looked to be that of a young female.

Later that evening, Stout went to the Smithers' home to give them the news. Gay, who had already seen television reports speculating that Laura's body had finally been found, asked the chief not to tell her it was Laura until Stout was absolutely certain. Gay also prayed to God to let it be some other mother's child -- and then she prayed for forgiveness for wishing that pain on someone else.

Despite her prayers, the Smithers' worst fears were confirmed the following day, when the body was identified. At the Harris County morgue, pathologists determined that the victim had been killed as the result of "trauma of the neck and undetermined trauma." They also discovered a black ring on the victim's right middle finger. Inside the ring were the initials "LKS."

Over the next several weeks, police retraced their steps, knocking on doors and talking to anyone known to have been in the area of the Smither home on the morning of April 3. They checked on any sex offender who was supposed to have reported to his parole officer that morning and didn't.

Suspecting a serial killer, they also consulted Arlington, Texas, police detectives, who had been investigating the murder of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman. In January 1996, Hagerman was dragged screaming from her bicycle as she played with her brother. Her body was found five days later in an Arlington creek. No one has been charged with the murder.

Likewise, Friendswood police also conferred with authorities from Tiki Island and Galveston County following the disappearance last August of 17-year-old Jessica Cain. Cain's car was found abandoned on the side of Interstate 45 near La Marque. She has yet to be located.

In September, investigators in the Smither case submitted their findings in Austin, to a panel assessing major crimes in the state. In the opinion of the panel, Laura had been killed within 12 hours of her abduction and she had been terrorized and tortured before her death. Stout says the panel encouraged his investigators by assuring them that they were pursuing all the right options.

The panel produced a profile of Laura Smither's likely killer -- in its opinion, a cold, impulsive murderer. The profile didn't point directly at Reece, but it was close enough for the police to keep him at the top of their suspect list. But Reece was certainly not the only suspect. Over the course of the investigation, Friendswood police obtained warrants to search the homes of three separate suspects.

The first warrant was executed just four days after Laura disappeared. According to an affidavit police filed with the court to obtain the warrant, the suspect was a 23-year-old Brazoria County man who was free on bond, having been charged with the sexual assault of a minor. A 13-year-old girl reported that, while she stood outside her house, the man had driven by, making sexually suggestive comments to her. But a search of his residence -- assisted by tracking dogs -- produced nothing to link him to Smither.

 

In late May, a second search warrant proved equally fruitless. In applying for the warrant, police explained that they had been contacted by a 43-year-old man, Samuel William Cocke, then jailed in Harris County on theft charges. The inmate told investigators he had been present when Laura Smither was murdered. According to Cocke, he and a 35-year-old male friend had kidnapped Laura, grabbing her by the side of the road as she jogged.

Cocke claimed that he and his friend took her to the other man's trailer home. Cocke said he was snorting cocaine and watching television in the living room as his friend forced Laura, screaming, into the bedroom. Later, in the bloody bedroom, Cocke said he noticed that the girl's head had been severed from her body.

That gruesome detail seemed to be more than a lucky guess: The beheading had been withheld from the media. Again, however, a search produced no evidence. Cocke was subsequently charged with perjury.

Police were still keeping the decapitation detail close to their vests in August. In their third warrant affidavit, police said that their latest suspect was in the Harris County jail, having violated his parole for a child sex-abuse conviction. At the time of his arrest, authorities said a photograph of a young girl resembling Laura Smither was found in the suspect's wallet, along with newspaper clippings about the abduction of young girls in New York City by someone known as the Candyman. Additionally, according to relatives of the suspect, the 29-year-old man also claimed to know the Smither family, as well as the fact that Laura had been beheaded.

Once again, the warrant did little good. Blood and hair samples taken from the suspect did not match evidence found on Laura's body.

The near-misses and false alarms were taking a toll on Stout and his officers. "It was as tough a situation as a lot of us had ever been through," says Stout. The closest he had ever before come to a case of this complexity, he says, was an investigation of a long, drawn-out probe of misappropriated union funds in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Before coming to Friendswood, Stout had spent much of his life in the Washington, D.C., area, first as a journalist and, later, in and around law enforcement. According to his resume, from 1967 to 1971, he reported from Washington for United Press International, the Washington Post, the Newhouse National News Service and the Chicago Daily News Syndicate. Most of his assignments dealt with law enforcement.

"I got to the point where I was no longer comfortable just writing about it," says Stout. "I felt I had to do it."

In 1971, Stout landed a job as assistant director of the Police Foundation in D.C., where he was involved in generating grant money for municipal police departments. Three years later, after going through a police academy in Virginia, he landed the commander's job in nearby Fairfax County, where he spent five years before being named police chief of Rockville, Maryland. In 1989, after a one-year stint as a management consultant, Stout hired on as Friendswood's chief of police. He also fills in occasionally as city manager.

Friendswood, 30 minutes south of Houston, has been relatively untouched by violent crime. From 1993 through 1997, the city recorded only seven homicides. When he applied for the job, Stout, now 62, wrote a letter to the Friendswood city manager stating why he was interested in relocating. In addition to having family in the area, Stout wrote that he would "like to combine professional challenge with the life that Friendswood living would provide." Eight years after getting the job, Stout found himself faced with the professional challenge of his life.

On May 16, 1997, 19-year-old Sandra Sapaugh was changing a flat tire on NASA Road 1 in Webster, just across Interstate 45 from Friendswood. A man stopped and offered to help. Sapaugh says that after she walked with him toward his truck, the man pulled a knife and forced her into his vehicle. As they drove north on I-45, he pointed the knife at her and ordered her to undress. Instead, Sapaugh opened the passenger-side door and jumped out of the truck, which was traveling approximately 65 to 70 miles per hour. She sustained serious injuries, but was rescued by another motorist.

It was several weeks before Sapaugh spoke with Webster police. And not until undergoing what Stout describes as "forensic hypnosis" was she able to identify her abductor.

The hypnosis was conducted by Sue Dietrich, an officer with the Alvin Police Department who would become the police chief of tiny Tiki Island near Galveston Island a few weeks later. Chief Dietrich was also involved in the investigation into the disappearance of Tiki Island resident Cain, who had vanished from the same general area where Sapaugh was abducted and Laura Smither's body was found.

 

In October, five months after she was abducted, Webster police brought Sapaugh in to look at a lineup. She picked out Reece as her attacker, and he was charged.

After Sapaugh pointed the finger at Reece, so did Chief Stout, even though the suspect was only charged with the aggravated kidnapping of Sapaugh.

"There is no doubt in my mind that he is our man," says Stout. "Now, proving that beyond a reasonable doubt is another question."

Stout didn't wait for that kind of proof before releasing Reece's name to the media after he was charged in the Sapaugh kidnapping -- a move that raised eyebrows among many veteran lawmen in Houston and Harris County.

"I made a conscious choice," explains Stout. That choice was to plaster Reece's face across newspapers and television screens to see if he might be identified by anyone else who'd been attacked. The tactic, says Stout, produced approximately 40 unsolicited statements from women who claimed that Reece had acted in what the chief describes as "an inappropriate manner." At least two of those reports, says the chief, indicated Reece did more than act inappropriately. Stout declines to elaborate.

But even now, five months after the media blitz, Reece has still not been charged with the abduction or murder of Laura Smither. Whether he ever is will depend on the results of tests being conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Soon after Reece was charged with kidnapping Sapaugh, Webster police obtained a warrant for a second search of his vehicles and home. Friendswood police went along for the ride.

In one of Reece's vehicles, investigators found evidence of blood and semen. Both were determined to belong to Reece. However, amid the semen was evidence of vaginal cells. So far, the donor of those cells has not been determined.

Also in October, investigators from Friendswood and Tiki Island searched a ranch in nearby Alvin where Reece had worked. For two days, authorities used heavy equipment to sift through piles of manure -- apparently looking for either a murder weapon or Cain's body. But after the massive exercise, investigators were left with nothing but, well, manure on their hands. Reece's court-appointed attorney describes the effort as a metaphor for the entire investigation.

"I am not real worried about my client ever being charged in the Smither case," says attorney Anthony Osso, who also points out that, at this point, he only represents Reece regarding the aggravated kidnapping of Sapaugh. Osso believes if there were incriminating evidence to be found in either Reece's home or vehicle, it would have been discovered the first time around.

"I've never known the FBI to do a cursory anything," says Osso. "They were in his truck a short time after recovering the body. But we're supposed to believe that Friendswood is now going to do a better, more thorough search six months later?"

Although Osso says he likes Stout personally, the lawyer finds it outrageous that the chief would declare that Reece is Smither's killer.

"I have talked with law-enforcement officers with other agencies in other cities," says Osso. "Uniformly, they will tell you that they are disgusted with the fact that a police chief would come forward and name someone as a prime suspect when charges haven't been filed. It's just not done."

Reservations about Stout's handling of the Smither case are not limited to Reece's attorney. In fact, two members of the Friendswood City Council have recently expressed concern that, if Reece is not charged, the chief may have set his suspect up as the next Richard Jewell -- the Atlanta security guard wrongly accused of setting off a bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics.

The initial criticism of Stout came from Councilwoman Aline Dickey. In 1991, Dickey moved from Houston to Friendswood, and three years later, was elected to the city council. Dickey says that she ran because she got the impression that important decisions were being made behind closed doors. She set out to change that.

For four years, Dickey has been one of the most vocal members of the Friendswood City Council. So in one way, it wasn't surprising last October when she first asked for an accounting of the $249,000 the council had appropriated for the Smither investigation; and, second, began questioning the wisdom of Chief Stout's announcement that Reece was his prime suspect.

"I was alarmed to see our police chief convicting this man in the media," says Dickey. "Certainly, if he was guilty of the murder, I wanted him convicted. If he was not, then I didn't want a murder conviction put on him. I felt that the chief was either going to damage the case against this man or he was making the city vulnerable to a lawsuit."

 

And after the initial DNA tests were returned in January -- tests that did not link Reece to the killing -- Dickey was upset to learn about it from the media rather than the chief. In turn, she voiced her displeasure to reporters. Dickey's criticism did not sit well with some Friendswood residents; Gay Smither was among them.

In late January, Smither and several other concerned citizens attended a meeting of the Friendswood City Council to call for Dickey's removal from the honorary position of mayor pro tem.

"It was a sad moment," says Dickey. "I didn't know it was going to happen and it caught me by surprise. I had no idea that my comments would upset them quite that much."

Dickey apologized publicly to the Smithers, saying her words were in no way intended to offend them. But it was too little, too late; Friendswood still rallied around Laura and her family, and Dickey had clearly offended Gay.

Two weeks later, in a 5 to 2 vote, Dickey was stripped of her title of mayor pro tem. Besides Dickey herself, Mel Austin was the only councilmember who dared to support her. Like Dickey, Austin is also displeased by Stout's rush to convict Reece in the media. But, says Austin, hard questions are not tolerated in Friendswood; not right now.

"But if we continue to jeopardize the investigation like this," says the councilman, "not only will we lose the opportunity for a resolution of this case; when we legitimately find the guilty party, will that person go free because of our inability to get along in the city of Friendswood?

"The original push to find Laura showed what a real community we can be," says Austin. "What's happened since then shows that we may be some other kind of community."

William Reece remains jailed on a $500,000 bond; his trial for the kidnapping of Sandra Sapaugh is scheduled for April 21. Even if he is acquitted, Reece will not be a free man any time soon; he also faces charges in at least a couple of counties in connection with the theft of several bulldozers.

Meanwhile, Friendswood police and the parents of Laura Smither await the results of the additional tests run on Reece's property. Those test results are supposed to be ready by April 1, two days before the first anniversary of Laura's disappearance. While they wait, Bob and Gay Smither continue to back the efforts of Stout -- the man who has been by their side since the tragedy first unfolded. A $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Laura's killer is still posted, but the Smithers remain convinced that it is Reece who is responsible for their misery.

"He did it," says Gay Smither in a tone that leaves no room for second-guessing.

Gay Smither also says she and her husband refuse to let the death of their daughter destroy them. They are currently working to establish the Laura Recovery Center Foundation and have produced a manual, available over the Internet, to help communities respond quickly to a child's disappearance. In conjunction with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Smithers also recently unveiled a national "know the rules" billboard campaign aimed at helping parents protect their children.

The campaign, of course, comes too late to save Laura. "Things can never be normal again," says Bob in a low monotone. "Life was normal when Laura was here. But we have no choice but to put our lives back together again.


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