Nineteen years ago, a young graduate student studying criminology at the University of North Texas disappeared just after her class toured the Denton Police Department. The student, Kelli Cox, had locked her keys in her car and called her boyfriend to come pick her up. When he arrived, she was gone.
Yesterday, the investigation finally came to a close when forensic experts identified remains found in a field along Highway 288, about 30 miles south of Houston, as belonging to Cox. Cox's suspected killer, William Reece, had led authorities to the dig site, telling them that this was where he had buried Cox and, nearby, also 17-year-old Jessica Cain in 1997.
Shane Kizer, a spokesman with the Denton Police Department, told the Houston Press that, after the remains were found earlier this month, they were shipped to UNT's Center for Human Identification and Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology, where experts used Cox's past dental records to match them with the dental remains, something the Kizer says yields swift results. In less than a week, the forensic experts had a positive identification.
“There's sorrow that comes with this ending, but I think there's an emotional release of closure—we finally have some answers,” said Kizer, adding that Denton investigators had exhausted dozens of leads over the years to no avail. “And hopefully the continuance of this investigation will provide some more answers as to how and why.”
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Forensic crews found a different set of remains on March 18 in a nearby horse pasture, another area where Reece had led investigators. At the time, a Houston Police Department investigator said the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office would have to conduct DNA testing on the remains to see if they belonged to Cain, the results of which are still pending.
Cain disappeared when she was 17 following a dinner with the cast from a high school play, in which she had just performed. Police would soon find her truck abandoned on Interstate 45 near Texas City. Interest in her case was renewed last year after DNA tests linked Reece to other cold-case kidnappings from the same time period.
In September, Reece was convicted in the murder of a 19-year-old Oklahoma girl, whose case had dragged on for 18 years unsolved. Reece is also the primary suspect in the death of 12-year-old Laura Smithers, who disappeared after going for a jog in Friendswood; her body later turned up in Pasadena. He is already doing a 60-year sentence in Texas for the aggravated kidnapping of another young Texas woman and has been behind bars since 1998. He had previously served a ten-year prison sentence in Oklahoma for kidnapping and raping two other young women. He was released in 1996. According to the Houston Chronicle, he has been suspected, charged or convicted in at least seven incidents, five of which were in 1997 alone, including Cain's and Cox's disappearances. The Chronicle also reported that, in the two years that Reece was free between 1996 and 1998, he was convicted of stealing two bulldozers, which investigators now believe he used to bury Cox and Cain.
Last week, just after Cox's remains were found, Cox's mother, Jan Bynum, told KHOU, "I've said all along if she's gone I want to know. If this is Kelli and she's gone, I want this whole journey to bring some sort of good to someone."