Longform

Looking for Laura

Page 4 of 8

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.

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Steve McVicker