Looking for Laura

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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.

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Steve McVicker