Longform

Looking for Laura

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In late May, a second search warrant proved equally fruitless. In applying for the warrant, police explained that they had been contacted by a 43-year-old man, Samuel William Cocke, then jailed in Harris County on theft charges. The inmate told investigators he had been present when Laura Smither was murdered. According to Cocke, he and a 35-year-old male friend had kidnapped Laura, grabbing her by the side of the road as she jogged.

Cocke claimed that he and his friend took her to the other man's trailer home. Cocke said he was snorting cocaine and watching television in the living room as his friend forced Laura, screaming, into the bedroom. Later, in the bloody bedroom, Cocke said he noticed that the girl's head had been severed from her body.

That gruesome detail seemed to be more than a lucky guess: The beheading had been withheld from the media. Again, however, a search produced no evidence. Cocke was subsequently charged with perjury.

Police were still keeping the decapitation detail close to their vests in August. In their third warrant affidavit, police said that their latest suspect was in the Harris County jail, having violated his parole for a child sex-abuse conviction. At the time of his arrest, authorities said a photograph of a young girl resembling Laura Smither was found in the suspect's wallet, along with newspaper clippings about the abduction of young girls in New York City by someone known as the Candyman. Additionally, according to relatives of the suspect, the 29-year-old man also claimed to know the Smither family, as well as the fact that Laura had been beheaded.

Once again, the warrant did little good. Blood and hair samples taken from the suspect did not match evidence found on Laura's body.

The near-misses and false alarms were taking a toll on Stout and his officers. "It was as tough a situation as a lot of us had ever been through," says Stout. The closest he had ever before come to a case of this complexity, he says, was an investigation of a long, drawn-out probe of misappropriated union funds in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Before coming to Friendswood, Stout had spent much of his life in the Washington, D.C., area, first as a journalist and, later, in and around law enforcement. According to his resume, from 1967 to 1971, he reported from Washington for United Press International, the Washington Post, the Newhouse National News Service and the Chicago Daily News Syndicate. Most of his assignments dealt with law enforcement.

"I got to the point where I was no longer comfortable just writing about it," says Stout. "I felt I had to do it."

In 1971, Stout landed a job as assistant director of the Police Foundation in D.C., where he was involved in generating grant money for municipal police departments. Three years later, after going through a police academy in Virginia, he landed the commander's job in nearby Fairfax County, where he spent five years before being named police chief of Rockville, Maryland. In 1989, after a one-year stint as a management consultant, Stout hired on as Friendswood's chief of police. He also fills in occasionally as city manager.

Friendswood, 30 minutes south of Houston, has been relatively untouched by violent crime. From 1993 through 1997, the city recorded only seven homicides. When he applied for the job, Stout, now 62, wrote a letter to the Friendswood city manager stating why he was interested in relocating. In addition to having family in the area, Stout wrote that he would "like to combine professional challenge with the life that Friendswood living would provide." Eight years after getting the job, Stout found himself faced with the professional challenge of his life.

On May 16, 1997, 19-year-old Sandra Sapaugh was changing a flat tire on NASA Road 1 in Webster, just across Interstate 45 from Friendswood. A man stopped and offered to help. Sapaugh says that after she walked with him toward his truck, the man pulled a knife and forced her into his vehicle. As they drove north on I-45, he pointed the knife at her and ordered her to undress. Instead, Sapaugh opened the passenger-side door and jumped out of the truck, which was traveling approximately 65 to 70 miles per hour. She sustained serious injuries, but was rescued by another motorist.

It was several weeks before Sapaugh spoke with Webster police. And not until undergoing what Stout describes as "forensic hypnosis" was she able to identify her abductor.

The hypnosis was conducted by Sue Dietrich, an officer with the Alvin Police Department who would become the police chief of tiny Tiki Island near Galveston Island a few weeks later. Chief Dietrich was also involved in the investigation into the disappearance of Tiki Island resident Cain, who had vanished from the same general area where Sapaugh was abducted and Laura Smither's body was found.

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Steve McVicker