Three Decades of Murder and Redemption in the Infamous I-45/Texas Killing Fields
It’s only natural to want to believe we are in control, that when we wake each morning, we decide what we do, that our lives don’t rest in the hands of others or, even worse, of that unseen yet eternal influence commonly referred to as destiny. We humans crave the ability to plan. We set goals, bargaining off today in exchange for where we want to be tomorrow, even what we hope to be doing a decade in the future. Much of the time, that’s a wise decision, one that brings prosperity and happiness. Yet doing so is a risk, for fate is always a factor, and fate can be capricious.
In 2006, a few months after my mother died, I was preoccupied and missed my freeway exit. Instead, I took another. A mile down the road at a traffic light, a young man texting behind the wheel plowed into the rear end of my small SUV. The result: a back problem that’s plagued me ever since that day. How many times when I push myself out of bed in the morning have I lamented missing that exit, wondered if the pain I endure could have been avoided by simply paying more attention and getting off the interstate sooner. A fleeting moment, I was distracted, and chance claimed control.
Yet, I’ve been lucky. I have few complaints.
Thirty years writing true crime, first for magazines, then books, and I understand what can happen when chaos truly takes over. Others may debate if evil exists in this world; I’ve looked it in the eye. In courtrooms, in prison interviews, killers describe how lives were taken. Sometimes there’s sadness, the belated realization that wrong has been done, yet more often, years later, there’s no empathy for the victim. Instead, even when a murder is admitted, I’ve witnessed an indignant righteousness, an entitled anger, a scowl as a killer describes a victim, one that implies the dead bear the blame. The victim was flawed, she caused the events that led to her death, or she was simply too accessible, not careful enough, and that led to her murder.
Since 1985, I’ve often written about sensational Texas murders. But my journey didn’t begin on the Gulf Coast. In the fifties and sixties, I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My father was a factory foreman, my mother a school secretary who loved to read. I have three brothers, and we lived in a small house on an abbreviated street where maples and elms shaded the homes in summers, and in winters we shoveled snow into banks that we recycled into stiff, twig-limbed snowmen with clichéd carrot noses and button eyes.
My parents cautioned me when I was very young that there were dangers hidden in the shadows. I heard tales about the ubiquitous boogeymen, the frightening Rumpelstiltskin-like figures that waited for imprudent children, especially little girls who strayed from the safety of their homes. The outcome was always described in obscure manners, perhaps nothing more than the raising of eyebrows or tight-lipped frowns that implied unlucky children suffered tragic ends. Yet the message was clear: There were forces to be wary of, people to fear.
Sometime in the sixties, a segment aired on the local news reporting that a girl had disappeared from a nearby park. Then a teenager, I’d walked a dirt path that led from my home to the community swimming pool for years, a trail that bordered the verdant banks of the meandering Menomonee River. I’d grown up playing on the riverbank, among the trees. It was where I smoked my first and last cigarette while reclining on a sturdy yet graceful branch of a massive oak.
When my parents handed me a newspaper account of the kidnapping to read, I was ordered to stay out of the park. From that day forward, I was to walk not on the trail but across the street, on a sidewalk that ran in front of the homes facing the parkway. I argued against it, but they were steadfast. A young girl had mysteriously vanished, a warning that wasn’t to be ignored. All girls were in danger. But it was the sixties, a time when the hubris of youth made news across the country, a stormy era when danger seemed in the very air as neighborhood boys headed off to war. Vietnam dominated the evening news. Flags burned and life felt electric. With so much to consider, the disappearance of one girl carried little impact. I was coming of age, and the world was opening up for me. I felt strong and invulnerable.
So I ignored my parents’ entreaties and continued walking the footpath until the day the lost girl was found. I honestly can’t recall where her body was or how long she’d been missing. Yet I’ll never forget the fear in my mother’s eyes as she repeated her warning to be vigilant because there were wicked people in the world. I can’t say that I never entered the park again or walked leisurely yet defiantly along the peaceful pathway, where I tore off the tips of evergreen branches. I rubbed the weblike needles between my fingers, releasing a near-intoxicating fragrance of pine. But there were times, when a car slowed or I sensed movement in the dense shadows of the trees, that I darted across the street to the perceived safety of the sidewalk, within shouting distance of front doors. Was I safer there? I don’t know.
In truth, Milwaukee even then was a fairly big city, home to many young girls, the vast majority of whom grew up playing safely in their front yards, skipping to their friends’ homes, walking to and from school. The movement in the bushes? Undoubtedly a soft breeze. For the most part, we were safe. Yet a girl had been murdered.
It was disquieting.
Then something happened in July 1966, an event that made an even bigger impression. Again the news came in headlines, this time describing a scene of horrific carnage. In a Chicago flat a little more than an hour from my home, Richard Speck had raped, tortured, and murdered eight student nurses. How was such evil possible?
It would be another decade, the late seventies, before I first heard the term serial killer. It was in conjunction with the unfathomable darkness that was Ted Bundy. Like many across the globe, I read and watched legions of news accounts on the handsome, charismatic young man with the piercing eyes, mesmerized by the former law student who’d left a trail of blood extending from Washington State to a sorority house in Florida.
Just before his execution, Bundy admitted committing thirty murders, but authorities speculated that he’d killed many more. His name became synonymous with wanton slaughter, and he forever changed the image of the dangerous stranger. No longer could we tell ourselves that we would recognize the face of evil. Now it could be lurking behind the eager smile of a neighborhood boy or the pleading face of a handsome stranger asking for help in a parking lot. For the first time, America wondered what lingered in the hearts of the solitary figures jogging our streets, the drivers of the big rigs that passed us on the interstates, the good Samaritans who stopped to help us change flat tires along the sides of deserted roads. Good deeds were not to be taken at face value. Bundy tricked his victims, and they paid with their lives.
* * *
In 1981, my husband and I settled in Houston. I can’t remember the first time I encountered an article in the Houston Chronicle that detailed a strange phenomenon along Interstate 45, beginning south of the city and extending onto Galveston Island. It was most likely around the time fourteen-year-old Sondra Ramber ambled out her front door in Santa Fe, a small, mostly rural community not far from the interstate corridor. In October 1983, Sondra was last seen walking to a store. When her father returned home that evening, the house was unlocked and empty. He reported her missing the following morning. Who took her? Why? Did she simply walk away? If so, she left with biscuits baking in the oven and without her coat and purse.
Frightening? Yes. It would have been more so had I known that over the previous decade nearly a dozen other girls had disappeared in and around that same slice of the metropolitan area. Some bodies were eventually found. Others were never recovered.
The first reference I read to the plot of land dubbed The Texas Killing Field was around September 1991. A body had been discovered in an oil field off Calder Drive, not far from I-45. Janet Doe was the fourth victim found in that same location over a period of seven years. It was then that the Houston Chronicle ran a full-page article documenting the history of unsolved murders of young women along the southern I-45 corridor, two decades of murder: sixteen young women, sixteen grieving families.
It seemed that there was no end to the horror. Five years later, in March 1996, thirteen-year-old Krystal Jean Baker, by family legend a great-niece of screen-icon Marilyn Monroe, walked a few blocks from her grandmother’s house and called her mother from a tire-store phone. Moments later, fuming over not getting her way, Krystal huffed off toward a friend’s house. Her bloodied, bruised, strangled body was discovered in a neighboring county under a freeway overpass.
The next murder sent waves of anger throughout all of Houston, when in April 1997, Laura Kate Smither, a bubbly twelve-year-old ballerina with curly brown hair and playful eyes, went for a jog on the rural roads surrounding her home. Laura was only supposed to be gone for twenty minutes, but seventeen days later her corpse was recovered from a retention pond. Thousands of volunteers had scoured the fields surrounding her home, and law enforcement, including the FBI, searched for clues, all to no avail.
That hot Texas summer, the tally grew when, four months later, Jessica Cain, a young actress and soon-to-be college freshman, disappeared within a few miles of her home. Her pickup was found on I-45’s shoulder, heading south. Did someone force her off the road? Jessica left her purse inside the truck, as if only planning to step away for a moment, but she never returned.
Houston-area newspapers published the first illustrations of the terror, charts depicting the abductions and murders, in the late nineties under headlines that read variously mysteries along I-45, and unsolved. With her disappearance, Jessica Cain joined so many others whose faces stared out from grainy newspaper photos, a black-and-white gallery of smiling girls and young women, school pictures, snapshots, family photos, the last images of the dead. Below each ran a name, dates, and brief descriptions of their disappearances. At times, the heartbreaking list changed when crimes were solved. Serial killer Anthony Allen Shore, for instance, was arrested in 2004 and the photos of three of his alleged victims, Dana Sanchez, sixteen, Maria Carmen del Estrada, twenty- one, and Diana Rebollar, nine, were deleted from the list.
Sadly, more often than the deletions came additions, new photos appearing as more girls and young women died along I-45 at the hands of unknown killers. Through it all, grief spread from family to family. Unimaginable pain. Unforgettable horror. No closure. Rarely justice.
I don’t know when I first realized that I would write about these tragedies just down the highway from my Houston home. Perhaps I always knew. As I went from reporting on sensational murders in magazines to books, I cut out and kept articles on the I- 45 murders. The young girls in the newspaper pictures troubled me, seemed to ask for help, wanting their stories to be told. Whenever I saw their faces, I considered how quickly and unexpectedly life turns. I knew it could have been my photo or that of someone I loved, and I wondered how so many cases remained unresolved. I had to do something because the victims were real, they mattered, and they deserved not to be forgotten.
As I began writing this book, my goal was simple: to tell not all but some of the victims’ stories along with those of the people who toiled to bring their killers to justice. I hoped to share the trials of the families, those who never overcame their grief and others who used it to build a better world. For even in the deepest despair, there were those who found inspiration and redemption.
At the same time, I wanted to give a voice to those suspected of the crimes, for they, too, had important stories to tell.
In many ways, recounting these murders transported me on a journey through my own life, back to the seventies, when I was young, through the eighties and nineties. The world changed drastically throughout those years. Wars began and ended. Science made great strides. Presidents came and went. Our cities and our towns were redesigned, along with our styles and our habits.
What remained the same was that despite our best intentions, despite all we wish for our world, for our families, in 2014 we have little better grasp of the true nature of evil than we had when the first victim discussed in this book died in 1971. We were no more adept at recognizing its face. And we still didn’t know how to stop it.
This book is divided into three sections organized by decades: the seventies, eighties, and nineties. For the most part, the first two, the seventies and eighties, are organized chronologically. In contrast, the nineties unfold in two distinct parts. The first set of chapters explores the 1996 murder of Krystal Jean Baker, the investigation into her death, and the trial of her killer. The final chapters examine one of the Gulf Coast’s most infamous cases, the 1997 abduction and killing of little Laura Kate Smither.
What binds these cases? They all center on a fifty-mile section of Interstate 45, running south of Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, onto Galveston Island.
The dead as well share a common bond— all were young women, the majority teenagers, and victims of chance. If they’d taken another road, refused to accept an offer of a ride, or called in sick to work on the days they died, they would likely still be alive. Most if not all would have gone on with their lives, unaware that one choice could have brought them face-to-face with stark terror. By now, they could be mothers with children, some even with grandchildren. Instead, their faces and their stories haunt the Texas Gulf Coast.
Deliver Us is an account of the slaughter, the brutal murders of young women around the corridor that runs south of Houston into Galveston, an area loosely dubbed by the press as the I-45/Texas Killing Fields. Three decades of loss and redemption along a busy highway, in our midst, where more than a hundred thousand commuters drive each workday.
“Deliver us from evil,” believers plead in an ancient prayer. Deliver us from the evil among us, the hunters, the killers concealed in the shadows. For they exist.
A Serial Killer on the Island
Galveston, Texas 1971
Man is drawn to water. It is part of us. It comprises more than half of our bodies, and we require a supply each day to live. Scientists say the sea is where our species began. Perhaps that’s true, for certainly it calls to us. Rarely do we feel as invigorated, as cleansed as when we stand on a beach, the sun warming our skin, watching light dance on waves, as we breathe salted breezes and absorb the rhythm of the surf. The tides come and go, the water climbs and recedes, and we stare entranced, engaged in a primitive ritual. Even if we never venture into the white-foam waves, for most of us simply being near a vast expanse of water has the power to clear our minds and relax our bodies. At the end of the day, as the sun sets, we leave refreshed.
In hindsight, water would play a part in many of the I-45 cases, if not in the girls’ lives, in the aftermaths of their murders. Nearly all the bodies were found in or near water. Yet it was obviously not for its healing qualities. Why?
“Water washes away evidence. It makes it harder to solve the crimes,” an aging investigator told me. “They know that.”
“They?” I asked.
“The killers.” After a long pause, he concluded, “They know.”
Despite its name, Interstate 45 is an intrastate highway, linking the Lone Star State’s two largest, and two of the nation’s biggest cities. From I-45’s northern point...