Looking for Laura

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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.

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Steve McVicker