Remembering Laura: A 20-year search for justice

Laura Kate Smither vanished from her Friendswood neighborhood in 1997

FRIENDSWOOD, Texas – On April 3, 1997, a 12-year-old girl by the name of Laura Kate Smither vanished from her Friendswood neighborhood.

Twenty years later, her accused killer is finally facing trial.

"I remember her dancing here in the living room," Bob Smither said.

Bob and Gay Smither still live in the same home they did when Laura disappeared. Bob Smither said they would never move from a home filled with so many happy memories of their daughter.

"Laura used to stage manage all her productions right here and dance and we have so many joyful memories, just sitting at this table playing board games," Gay Smither said. "She brought love into this world."

Laura went for a jog on the morning of April 3 and was less than a quarter mile from her home when she vanished. Laura's body was found 17 days later near Pasadena.

In their home, meticulously kept scrapbooks tell the story of a massive search where police, friends, neighbors and strangers worked together to find a girl who loved ballet and whose smile and curly locks became etched into our collective memory.

"We would not have made it through April of '97 without the community behind us the way they were," Bob Smither said.

Not long after Laura's death, the name William Lewis Reece emerged as a suspect. However, it would take nearly 20 years for law enforcement officials to charge him with Laura's murder.

"There are ups and downs and times when you feel so frustrated because you, you're not going anywhere," Gay Smither said.

As the years passed, the Smithers remained confident investigators had the right man, even if he wasn't charged with their daughter's murder.

"If we didn't have that, we would have always been wondering, is the other person out there hurting somebody else's child? I don't know if we could have lived with that," Gay Smither said.

Reece did spend the last two decades in prison, but that sentence was for the kidnapping of Sandra Sapaugh in September 1997. Sapaugh escaped Reece and her testimony sealed his fate. Unfortunately for the Smithers, the fog of time left many people with the false impression Reece also went to prison for Laura's murder.

"We've encountered that over and over; 'Oh, he hasn't been charged, there's no justice for Laura, really?'" Gay Smither said.

"So a lot of people thought it was over as far as the criminal side went?" KPRC's Robert Arnold asked.

"Yeah, they did," Gay Smither said.

It wasn't until last year that the Smithers would see Reece back in a courtroom.

"What was it like to finally see this man in a courtroom in relationship to your daughter?" Arnold asked.

"There was a sense of peace that it was happening," Gay Smither said.

Reece had finally started talking, and not just about Laura. He led detectives to the body of Jessica Cain, who disappeared from La Marque the same year as Laura. Reece also helped police find the the body of Kelli Ann Cox, who also disappeared in 1997 from Denton. Just before these revelations, Reece was charged with the murder of a young girl in Oklahoma. Like the others, Tiffany Johnston was also killed in 1997. KPRC's sources said Reece confessed to the murders.

"I think that's an indication of remorse, as much as a sociopath is capable of remorse," Gay Smither said.

Reece was indicted for the murders of Laura and Jessica, but has not yet been charged with Kelli Ann Cox's murder. Shortly before these indictments, Reece was extradited to Oklahoma County to stand trial for Johnston's murder. Since prosecutors in that state were the first to file charges, Texas prosecutors made a deal that allowed Reece to be tried there first. Oklahoma prosecutors have not yet said whether they will seek the death penalty.

"Does it matter if you ever see him in a Galveston County courtroom and hear the word 'guilty'?" Arnold asked.

"Not really," Gay Smither said. "Knowing that he's incarcerated and he can never get out, that is enough for us."

"In my mind, he's already said the word 'guilty,'" Bob Smither said.

The last 20 years haven't solely been a quest for justice. Laura's death led to the creation of the Laura Recovery Center, an organization that helps families and law enforcement agencies on missing-child cases. The center has worked on more than 1,700 missing child cases and participated in more than 100 active searches. The name came from searchers in 1997 nicknaming their makeshift command during the search for Laura.

"We just knew that God had given us a job to do, that we had to pay forward what had been given to us," Gay Smither said. "We wanted no other family to not have that support, and the manual was our way of doing that."

What was given were the lessons learned from that search 20 years ago poured onto paper and eventually forming the center's manual, which is available online for anyone to download. The Smithers said, unbeknownst to them at the time, volunteer searchers gathered to discuss individual aspects of the search, along with what did and did not work.

"That (manual) says, basically, how a community can get its act together and be very effective in looking for a missing child," Bob Smither said.

Part of the center's mission also focuses on training law enforcement officers how to marshal and organize community volunteers to help search for missing children. Gay Smither said during these training sessions she always shows a particular picture from the search in 1997.

It is a picture of a hand-painted, wooden sign that reads, "To the killer of Laura. We will get you! From: A local police officer."

The Smithers said to this day, they do not know who painted the sign.