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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.  Read More 
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The William Lewis Reece I Know

Those of you who read “Deliver Us” may be watching the drama unfolding in Texas, where one of the suspected serial killers I interviewed, William Lewis Reece, is now taking authorities to burial sites where they’re digging up the remains of young women. This has been an amazing development, one I honestly didn’t see coming. When I interviewed Reece for “Deliver Us” in 2013, he denied having murdered any of the girls. When I point blank asked if he was a serial killer, he looked at me in kind of a sideways glance, smiled and said in his slow Oklahoma drawl, “I didn’t kill no girls.”

I didn’t believe him. Yet I never thought I’d know for sure, that he would ever admit the killings.

Why now? Authorities aren’t yet saying how this all unfolded, why Reece has suddenly agreed to lead them to these girls’ remains, but from what I’ve been able to uncover, there are two forces at play here. The first is that after my book came out, Reece was charged with a murder in Oklahoma, based on newly discovered DNA. The second: Reece has a heart condition. I’d heard a couple of years ago that he had surgery, and a stent inserted. His attorney, Anthony Osso, recently said that Reece has heart disease, and that he's refusing further surgeries.

All of this happening just a year after “Deliver Us” came out is, of course, interesting. I do truly believe that the book helped put these events into motion. Over the three years I worked on "Deliver Us," I talked to folks in agencies with jurisdictions over the killings and repeatedly asked them to reopen the cases, to look for the evidence and find out if they had anything available to test for DNA. I told many about my impression of Reece, my experiences interacting with him, and my belief that he murdered Laura Smither and Tiffany Johnston, and perhaps Jessica Cain.

However, I can’t take any credit for actually solving these crimes. That goes to the many folks in law enforcement who worked hard on the cases, those who investigated Reece and convinced him to come forward. We also can't forget the wonderful volunteers with Texas Equusearch, who donated their time and hard work to recovering the bodies.

One other set of those involved - folks I can't say enough good things about - are the families of the victims, many of whom have never stopped pushing authorities to investigate the cases and never given up hope of one day knowing who killed their loved one. In the Johnston case, Tiffany's mom, Kathy Dobry, never let her daughter's case drop. In contact with investigators, she continually urged them to look for evidence.

I’d like to think that Reece is telling law enforcement where the girls' remains are buried out of whatever tiny sliver of remorse he has in his heart. But I don’t believe that. The Bill Reece I spent time with was cocky and arrogant. We corresponded, writing back and forth for a year, and even in his letters he was controlling and manipulative. My guess is that what’s really happening here is that Bill Reece has something he wants, and coming forward now is aimed at getting it for him. Will it rid him of the Texas cases, plea bargaining them down to life and erasing the potential death penalties? Will cooperating with Texas authorities delay his trip to Oklahoma where he already faces the death penalty? Or is there something else Reece wants? We won’t know until this drama plays out and authorities reveal what negotiations have gone on behind the scenes.

Understandably, as the only journalist to have interviewed Reece in nearly two decades, my phone has been ringing for weeks as this drama unfolds. The main question I’m being asked: Who is William Lewis Reece? That’s a fair question. Rather than answer it over and over again, I’ve decided to write this blog and tell the world some of what I know about the shadowy figure in this dark drama.

Let’s start where he did, in Oklahoma. Bill Reece, Billy to his friends, grew up in the small town of Anadarko, an hour southwest of Oklahoma City. His parents divorced when he was a year old, and Reece’s mom remarried, and the household was reportedly chaotic. Reece has said that he didn’t get along well with his stepdad, and from adolescence to the age of fifteen, Bill Reece lived in a children’s home, one on acreage that functioned as a working ranch. While there, Reece learned to shoe horses, and from his teenage years on worked partly as a farrier. After he left school, Reece served in the Oklahoma National Guard.

What turned Bill Reece into the monster he is today? Someone who is allegedly connected to the murders of at least four young women? I don’t know about Reece in particular, but doing the research for the book, I learned that most serial killers have early experiences that mix violence and sex. In fact, two of the self-described serial killers in “Deliver Us” told me about just such experiences during interviews, saying they were sexually active as children. One said he was beaten as a consequence, the other that he began acting out violently during sex play as young as seven.

Many of these men, and they are nearly all men, have histories of animal abuse. In Reece's case, there have been allegations over the years that he's abused the horses he's been hired to shoe, and one person who hired him to work with her horses has said that Reece even had a tool he modified to torture the horses.

After his National Guard stint, Reece worked at odd jobs and briefly as a pipefitter, then drove a truck. By his early twenties, women were reporting that Reece was acting out violently toward them, one alleging that he sexually assaulted her. He was also, from a young age, described as a smooth talker, one who used his personality to assuage those who questioned his actions. He married twice, once in the seventies, he divorced in the early eighties, then married again. He has four children.

In 1986, when he was 27-years-old, Reece was convicted on two cases of sexual assault, both described in detail in "Deliver Us." An indication of how compulsive his behavior was, how out of control he was even then, is that Reece assaulted the second woman while under indictment for the first attack, an abduction and sexual assault. He was sentenced to serve 25 years.

As a result, for ten years Reece was confined to an Oklahoma prison. One of the interesting things is that during that time, despite being behind bars, his behavior didn’t change. A source I interviewed who knew him during those years told me that the female guards and the women who worked in the prison were uncomfortable around Reece, that he made untoward comments to them, addressed them in odd ways, stared at them and watched. Some of the women workers even described it as feeling as if Reece stalked them.

In 1996, due to a technicality in the way the charges against him were written, his convictions were upheld but his sentence was overturned. At that juncture, authorities in Oklahoma could have retried the sentencing phase, but instead released Reece for time served.

After getting out, Reece first stayed in Oklahoma, near the prison. Some of the women who’d complained about his conduct behind bars called authorities when he showed up at their homes.

From Oklahoma, in early 1997, Reece relocated to Houston, where his second ex-wife and members of his family lived, and he moved into an apartment near Hobby airport. At that point, Reece traveled back and forth between Texas and Oklahoma, leaving a bloody trail.

While I haven’t yet updated “Deliver Us” to include the most recent events because I am waiting for all of this to shake out, the book includes detailed accounts of many of the cases now making headlines, as well as a chapter on my one-on-one prison interview with Reece. And for those of you who wondered about the early life of the alleged serial killer behind the headlines, I hope this answered some of your questions. I know a bunch more, but I'm saving it for the update. Much of it is truly shocking!  Read More 
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Why I wrote DELIVER US

I often have readers email to ask how certain books came about. It's an understandable question. I mean, just peruse your daily newspaper. I write about crime cases, real ones, usually murders. Sadly, newspapers across the U.S., actually, I suspect, around the world, are filled with possible subjects. Some, like the Jodi Arias or Casey Anthony cases, make news for months, even years. Others come and go, generating little more than a paragraph or two in the city section. No matter how much attention each attracts, they all have stories behind them, people involved, events that led to the killings, investigations that may or may not have led to killers.

So why write a book on the I-45/Texas Killing Fields? Why now?

For those of you who aren't familiar with the cases, the truth is that they've haunted me since soon after I landed in Houston, back in the eighties. Over the years, I've seen the articles in the Houston Chronicle, teenage girls abducted and missing on or near I-45. In the nineties, the Chronicle and the Galveston County Daily News both started running charts, showing the girls' photos.

From that point on, I knew one day I would have to write about the cases. I couldn't forget the girls. They lived in the back of my mind. As I wrote book after book, I always knew eventually I'd have to do my best to find out who the girls were, how they'd disappeared, and why their murders remained unsolved. I confess that it became something of a compulsion.

"But why now?" you ask. Some of these cases are more than forty years old. Why do they deserve attention at this point in time?

Why not now?

Ironically, I began my research at a time when some of the cases first started to come together. One actually led to a trial. While I worked on DELIVER US, I discovered that although they'd never entered a courtroom charged with any of the girls' murderers, there were suspects. So I did what I always do in my books; I gave the folks believed to have committed the murders the opportunity to talk. I went inside Texas prisons and sat down with men who described themselves as vicious serial killers. And I listened as they told me how and why they murdered their victims.

It was terrifying.

DELIVER US took me three solid years to research and write. I investigated eighteen murder cases. Attended two trials. Interviewed three inmates behind prison walls.

The result, I admit, is a troubling book. It's an unflinching look inside a tragedy, the continuing murders of teenage girls just outside America's fourth largest city. This isn't happening in isolation, but along one of the nation's busiest highways.

I looked at this phenomenon from all sides: survivors, victims' families, investigators, and the alleged killers. And in the end, this book changed me in ways I couldn't have predicted.

I hope you'll read the prologue to DELIVER US, now available by clicking the link under excerpts in the left-hand column of this Website. And if you like the sample, that you'll read the book.

Why? These are important cases, exposing evil at its core. And the girls deserve to be remembered.  Read More 
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