Looking for Laura

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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."

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Steve McVicker