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."

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Steve McVicker