The day that death came calling at Friendswood

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The Independent Online
ABOUT 20 miles south of Houston, the dormitory town of Friendswood was once named the safest community in America - a place where people routinely left their doors unlocked. Even today, its police headquarters, with noticeboards advertising lost pets, has an almost cosy air. Chief Jarred Stout sits in a windowless office with a microwave and coffee maker crowding his desk. But appearances deceive.

Everything changed here two years ago when a local 12-year-old girl named Laura Smither went jogging close to her parent's home and did not return. Three weeks later, on 3 April 1997, a game hunter and his dog found her decomposed body in a drainage pond in a south Houston suburb. Laura, who weeks earlier had been accepted into ballet academy, had been abducted and savagely murdered.

Friendswood went into shock. But more than that, the publicity from the case brought to light a macabre pattern of abductions and murders in this southwestern patch of Texas that nobody had noticed before.

In a corridor along the 50 miles of Interstate 45 between Houston and the port city of Galveston, 32 young women have either vanished or been slain since 1971. And not one of their cases is solved."We came out of our total focus on the Smither case and began to look along this corridor and everybody suddenly went, `My God, look at the number of open and unsolveds we have here' ",said Chief Stout in his office last week.

Now he and his small force of detectives find themselves at Ground Zero in all-out effort to solve the riddle of the I-45 killings. It has drawn in the FBI and is spawning headlines nationwide. So far, there still has not been one break, though that may change soon in the Smither murder.

Acting as overall co-ordinator is the head of the Houston FBI field office, Special Agent Don Clark. His concern is an obvious one: that there may be not one but several serial killers on the loose in the area, all sharing the same pursuit: kidnapping, raping and murdering girls and young women. In most of the cases, moreover, the bodies were dumped in open country. Four turned up between 1984 and 1991 in an area of scrub and trees outside League City, just a few miles from Friendswood, now dubbed the "Killing Fields".

Agent Clark's co-ordination campaign, which involves all the law enforcement agencies in the area, is called Halt - Homicide and Abduction Liaison Team. He compares the perpetrators to Ted Bundy, America's most infamous serial killer from the late 1970s. There are differences though. Bundy's victims were spread across the country, not confined to such a small geographical area. And these perpetrators may be even more depraved. The first priority, therefore, is to prevent any more tragedies.

Within week's of Laura Smither's slaying a 17-year-old from the Galveston area, named Jessica Lee Cain, vanished from her pick-up truck on I-45 itself. Still there has been no trace of her. In the weeks around Christmas, meanwhile, two young women, Wanda May Pitts and Melissa Trotter, disappeared from locations close to the highway, though just to the north of Houston.

"Clearly, we have somebody out there and the speculation is that we have more than one somebody, just as dangerous as Bundy was," Agent Clark confirmed "But here we are talking about someone killing babies, like Laura, and discarding human bodies in ponds or wooded areas where animals could prey on them. This is every bit as bad as anything Bundy did."

The "Killing Fields" are located in a scrubby area of farm and forest land about a mile from I-45. It is dotted with oaks and the nodding donkeys of oil wells that characterise so much of the Texas landscape. Lieutenant Gary Ratliff of the League City police returned to them briefly last week, but he harbours little hope of fresh progress in the cases of the four bodies found there.

Not that he has not been trying. Last summer, artist impressions of the faces of two of the women - who were never identified - were posted on billboards across the Houston area with appeals for information. They were also printed on fliers distributed to every Wal-mart superstore across America. They did not produce a single useful lead.

"We've done just about everything we can do at this point," Lt Ratliff suggested. "But maybe some day, we will find something we can pursue, perhaps if someone comes forward. Somebody has to know something".

Back in Friendswood, Chief Stout is more cheerful. He has publicly acknowledged that he has a suspect in the Smither killing - a former bulldozer operator, William Reece, who was arrested and incarcerated in October 1997 after botching a different abduction attempt. The chief hopes that results due into his office any day now from new forensic tests will allow him to file charges against Reece.

Bob Smither, Laura's father, who still lives with his wife in Friendswood, must still deal with the pain, meanwhile. He acknowledges that her killing brought the wider mysteries of the I-45 to light and that because of it not one but several serial killers might one day be brought to justice. But that barely helps.

"I would trade any of the good that might come out of this for the chance to spend just one more minute with Laura," he explained, his voice breaking with emotion. "Just one minute. If you are a parent you will understand."