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Let's not forget Laura, Jessica, Tiffany and Kelli

A friend of mine mentioned the other day that he's afraid that in all the news attention given to Bill Reece, the alleged serial killer who has been leading law enforcement to buried remains at sites around Houston, he is becoming the focus and his victims are forgotten. I thought about this, and it's true. Please understand, I'm as guilty as anyone. My prior blog post, the one I put out on April 6th, reveals some of what I know about the man in the center of a drama that has mesmerized much of Texas. I posted it because I know folks are interested, that they want to understand who Bill Reece is and perhaps try to figure out what made him into such a monster.

Certainly, a monster he is. At this point, Reece is tied to multiple abductions and sexual assaults, and four cold cases, all murders which occurred in 1997: 12-year-old Laura Smither; 17-year-old Jessica Cain; 19-year-old Tiffany Johnston; and 20-year-old Kelli Ann Cox. My fear is that there are more victims out there, and this list may become longer over the coming months.

On the other hand, I took what my friend said to heart. It's true that in a very real sense it seems as if the victims are being ignored. So in this post, I'd like to remember four bright, thoughtful, and loved young women who should have had decades of life ahead of them. None of them did anything wrong to bring on what happened to them. On the days their paths crossed with Bill Reece, they were doing things we all do every day.

In April 1997, Laura Smither was a brunette bundle of energy, a precocious adolescent with a yellow bedroom filled with stuffed animals, who was counting down the days until she became a teenager. A dedicated ballerina, just weeks earlier she'd won a coveted spot in the Houston Ballet Academy. She hated that her hair curled when left to its own devices, and when shopping she was known to dance down store aisles. Her parents and her younger brother adored her, and that gave her a special confidence. An effervescent talker, Laura's family nicknamed her Jabber Jaws. But more than anything, Laura Smither loved to dance.

On the Thursday morning Laura vanished, she went out for a 20-minute jog near her Friendswood, Texas, home and never returned. Her body was found 17 days later, in a retention pond.

A newlywed, Tiffany Dobry Johnston worked two jobs helping to pay for college, and in the fall planned to attend Oklahoma State. She was funny and cute, with round cheeks and a broad smile, expressive eyes. That fateful afternoon she washed her truck at the Sunshine Car Wash in Bethany, Oklahoma. Tiffany's mom knew Bill Reece; his mother took in laundry and did ironing for the Dobry family. No one noticed that Tiffany's car sat abandoned at the car wash for hours that day before someone came looking for her. Tiffany's body was found the next day, thrown out like garbage along the side of a road.

Ironically Kelli Ann Cox had just left a police station on the day she disappeared.

A single mom with a baby girl, she was working hard to get an education and better her life. At the University of North Texas in Denton, Kelli was taking criminology and counseling, and that day she'd just finished a tour of the jail for one of her classes. Not allowed to bring in personal items, she left her purse and other belongings locked in the car. When she emerged, she couldn't find the key she left in a magnetized holder under the wheel well. So she walked a few minutes down the road to a convenience store and called her boyfriend to bring her a key. Kelli hung up, walked back toward the police station and she simply disappeared. When her boyfriend arrived a short time later, Kelli was gone.

For nearly two decades Kelli Cox's family searched and prayed, without answers, not knowing if she was dead, or alive and being held captive.

The evening before Jessica Cain disappeared, she stood on stage at the Harbor Playhouse in Dickinson, Texas, bowing with the rest of the cast as the audience clapped enthusiastically. Just out of high school, Jessica loved the stage. In the fall at Sam Houston State University, she planned to major in drama and, ironically like Kelli Cox, criminology. Although the Cain family had moved to Tiki Island just four years earlier, Jessica had already collected a large circle of friends. "Bubbly," most of those who knew her would later say about Jessica's personality. "She loved to laugh."

That night after the cast party, Jessica drove south on I-45 on her way home and vanished. Her family, too, would endure nearly two decades of searching and not knowing. Jessica's body along with Kelli Cox's wouldn't be found for 19 years, not until Bill Reece pointed to a field and said, "Dig here."

It seems particularly appropriate to write this blog today for two reasons. The first is that today is Laura Smither's birthday. If she'd lived, Laura would be turning thirty-two. Perhaps she'd still be dancing, or maybe she would have retired after a worldwide career as a ballerina to marry and have a family.

Today is also the day that the process of laying Jessica Cain to rest has begun. This evening her wake was held. Isn't it strange that Jessica's wake took place on Laura Smither's birthday? A coincidence?

Days seem to be dragging lately, as I wait for answers and watch these events unfold. Do I think about Bill Reece? Sure. It's hard not to be curious about him, to wonder about his past. Yet more often than not my thoughts are with Jessica's parents, her family and friends, along with those of Laura Smither, Kelli Cox, and Tiffany Johnston.

As we attempt to diagnose the evil that is Bill Reece, it's important to remember these four young women. They are the important ones in this story. They should never be forgotten.

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