Looking for Laura

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And after the initial DNA tests were returned in January -- tests that did not link Reece to the killing -- Dickey was upset to learn about it from the media rather than the chief. In turn, she voiced her displeasure to reporters. Dickey's criticism did not sit well with some Friendswood residents; Gay Smither was among them.

In late January, Smither and several other concerned citizens attended a meeting of the Friendswood City Council to call for Dickey's removal from the honorary position of mayor pro tem.

"It was a sad moment," says Dickey. "I didn't know it was going to happen and it caught me by surprise. I had no idea that my comments would upset them quite that much."

Dickey apologized publicly to the Smithers, saying her words were in no way intended to offend them. But it was too little, too late; Friendswood still rallied around Laura and her family, and Dickey had clearly offended Gay.

Two weeks later, in a 5 to 2 vote, Dickey was stripped of her title of mayor pro tem. Besides Dickey herself, Mel Austin was the only councilmember who dared to support her. Like Dickey, Austin is also displeased by Stout's rush to convict Reece in the media. But, says Austin, hard questions are not tolerated in Friendswood; not right now.

"But if we continue to jeopardize the investigation like this," says the councilman, "not only will we lose the opportunity for a resolution of this case; when we legitimately find the guilty party, will that person go free because of our inability to get along in the city of Friendswood?

"The original push to find Laura showed what a real community we can be," says Austin. "What's happened since then shows that we may be some other kind of community."

William Reece remains jailed on a $500,000 bond; his trial for the kidnapping of Sandra Sapaugh is scheduled for April 21. Even if he is acquitted, Reece will not be a free man any time soon; he also faces charges in at least a couple of counties in connection with the theft of several bulldozers.

Meanwhile, Friendswood police and the parents of Laura Smither await the results of the additional tests run on Reece's property. Those test results are supposed to be ready by April 1, two days before the first anniversary of Laura's disappearance. While they wait, Bob and Gay Smither continue to back the efforts of Stout -- the man who has been by their side since the tragedy first unfolded. A $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Laura's killer is still posted, but the Smithers remain convinced that it is Reece who is responsible for their misery.

"He did it," says Gay Smither in a tone that leaves no room for second-guessing.

Gay Smither also says she and her husband refuse to let the death of their daughter destroy them. They are currently working to establish the Laura Recovery Center Foundation and have produced a manual, available over the Internet, to help communities respond quickly to a child's disappearance. In conjunction with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Smithers also recently unveiled a national "know the rules" billboard campaign aimed at helping parents protect their children.

The campaign, of course, comes too late to save Laura. "Things can never be normal again," says Bob in a low monotone. "Life was normal when Laura was here. But we have no choice but to put our lives back together again.

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Steve McVicker