National News

From cold cases to connected: Serial predator linked to 5 attacks

todayMarch 15, 2024


ABC News

(NEW YORK) — When four young women disappeared in 1997, fear ravaged their tight-knit Texas and Oklahoma communities along the corridor of Interstate 45.

Despite the proximity and similarity of the cases, it would take more than 20 years — and the forensic hypnosis of a surviving victim — to capture and convict the man responsible for the string of crimes.

“All four of these girls [were] at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Doug Bacon, a retired detective with the Friendswood Police Department in Texas, said in a new “20/20” interview with ABC News Correspondent John Quiñones. “They were doing ordinary things…and they just happened to cross the path of a serial killer.”

Laura Smither vanished before breakfast
On April 3, 1997, 12-year-old Laura Smither, an aspiring professional ballerina, vanished after going for a morning jog in her quiet Friendswood, Texas, neighborhood.

“Everybody loved Laura,” Gay Smither, Laura’s mother, told Quiñones. “She was just one of those people. I always say she was touched by light.”

Laura’s family grew concerned when she did not return from her jog, and they called the police within an hour.

The police launched a search effort, aided by community members and wider law enforcement, including the FBI. Seventeen days and 75 square miles of searching later, the discovery of Laura Smither’s body left Friendswood shattered.

New mom Kelli Cox abducted after college trip
Three hundred miles north, another young woman would soon suffer a similar fate.

Kelli Cox was a bright 20-year-old student at the University of North Texas and a new mother to her baby girl, Alexis. An aspiring therapist, Cox toured the City of Denton Jail with her criminal justice class on July 15, 1997.

When the class trip was over, Cox returned to her car but the key would not work. She proceeded to call her boyfriend from a pay phone at a nearby gas station.

When he arrived to retrieve her, Cox was nowhere to be found.

“When 5:30 rolled around, I knew without a doubt something was wrong,” Cox’s mother Jan Bynum recounted, “because that’s when she was supposed to pick Alexis up from the babysitter.”

Any suspicion law enforcement had surrounding Cox’s boyfriend ended when he passed a polygraph test. Without any witnesses, the young mother’s case soon grew cold.

Tiffany Johnston taken at car wash
Just 11 days later, authorities would make another surprising discovery across state lines in Bethany, Oklahoma.

On the evening of July 26, 1997, an officer spotted an abandoned white Dodge Neon sedan at the Sunshine Car Wash.

Lynn Williams, a former Division Director of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, said the conditions of the vehicle were suspicious.

“The car was unlocked. The keys were in the ignition. There was money in the console…so it didn’t appear to be a robbery,” Williams said.

Police soon determined that the car was driven by Tiffany Johnston, a newlywed 19-year-old who had plans to celebrate her three-month wedding anniversary that night.

Her partially clothed body was discovered the next day along the interstate. She had been raped and strangled. DNA swabs collected by the medical examiner were inconclusive. Johnston’s case also grew cold.

Jessica Cain vanishes after dinner with friends
A month later in South Texas, another young woman’s disappearance would shatter the lives of Suzy and C.H. Cain.

The Cains’ 17-year-old daughter, Jessica, was a talented stage actor set to begin college.

“She was a parent’s dream. She was as good a child as you could ever want,” C.H. Cain said about their daughter.

Cain’s mother remembered staying up late on August 17, 1997, awaiting her daughter’s arrival home after a performance and cast party.

Suzy Cain began to panic when Jessica was still not home at 2:30 in the morning. She sent her husband to search for their daughter. He soon found the white Ford pickup truck Jessica was driving that night abandoned on the highway shoulder just miles from home.

Police set up a search command center and the volunteer turnout was overwhelming.

For the first time, a tie emerged between the missing women. Upon learning of Jessica’s disappearance, Bob and Gay Smither, who were still reeling from what happened to their daughter Laura, joined the search.

“[The Smithers] gave us their hearts and their love and their support,” C.H. Cain recalled.

“And the knowledge. They’d already been there. They’d already been through it,” Suzy added.

Despite massive search efforts and televised pleas for Jessica’s safe return, months — and then years — dragged on without any leads in the girl’s disappearance.

Sandra Sapaugh escapes roadside kidnapper
A fifth woman’s kidnapping would provide the first link in these cases to a potential perpetrator.

On May 17, 1997, 19-year-old Sandra Sapaugh called a friend from a convenience store pay phone in Webster, Texas, asking them to meet at Waffle House. Sandra would later say she noticed a man staring at her in the parking lot. As she drove her car across the street to the restaurant, she realized her car tire was flat.

The same man who had been at the store drove up, offering to assist with the flat. Sapaugh agreed, but as she tried to retrieve a rag from the front seat of his pickup truck at his request, he came up behind her with a knife and threatened to kill her if she did not comply with his demands.

Sapaugh was forced into his truck, and he began driving north on I-45 while making attempts to sexually assault her, according to authorities. Sapaugh, realizing her life was in danger, leaped from the moving vehicle to escape.

A 911 call made that night included the first description of her kidnapper.

“Y’all need to come to Waffle House. Somebody just came in and said that someone was abducted, and they jumped out of the car and they’re bleeding,” the caller is heard on the recording. “He is a white male in his 30s, blonde hair with a beard,” the caller said, relaying details of the man Sapaugh said abducted her.

Texas police, kidnapping survivor pinpoint a suspect
After Sapaugh spent several days in the hospital recovering from road rash injuries, the Webster Police Department enlisted the help of Detective Sue Dietrich-Nance, who was trained in forensic hypnosis to help victims recall details of traumatic experiences their conscious minds may have forgotten.

Through this unconventional investigative method, Dietrich-Nance elicited a description of a suspect and vehicle from Sapaugh.

Meanwhile, detectives at nearby Friendswood Police Department were zeroing in on a suspect in Laura Smither’s murder.

“Very early on, there was a suspect that was developed,” Bacon said. “His name was William Reece.”

Reece was a divorced truck driver and construction worker who was convicted and sentenced to prison in the 1980s for two rapes and a kidnapping, according to court documents.

Reece had been interviewed by law enforcement and given a polygraph test in the Smither investigation. But the evidence collected at the time, including fibers from his vehicle, was not enough for the district attorney to conclusively link Reece to Smither’s murder and file charges.

When Dietrich-Nance stopped by the Friendswood Police Department several months after Smither’s murder and Sapaugh’s kidnapping, she learned details that had not been publicly released about Reece. She realized Reece matched the description Sapaugh had given of her abductor while under hypnosis.

Reece was brought in for a lineup, and he was immediately identified by Sapaugh and arrested on aggravated kidnapping charges. Reece went to trial in May 1998 and he was found guilty and sentenced to 60 years.

Links to the other cases emerge
Following his conviction for Sapaugh’s kidnapping, the murder cases went cold until investigators at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation reopened Tiffany Johnston’s case in 2012. The case file showed that William Reece had been a potential suspect, but investigators at the time had nothing concrete to link him to the crime.

While OSBI’s review turned up nothing new, there was one piece of evidence remaining from Johnston’s body that could be tested for DNA using current technologies. A partial DNA profile resulted, and when investigators tested this against Reece, it was consistent with him and no one else, linking him to the crime.

Using his looming arrest and potential death penalty case for Johnston’s murder as a point of negotiation, investigators decided to approach Reece in prison to see if he would talk. They had, over the years, created a timeline of Reece’s whereabouts and suspected he was involved not only in Tiffany Johnston’s case, but in the unsolved cases of Laura Smither, Kelli Cox, and Jessica Cain in Texas.

“They were able to find gas receipts, calling cards that put him nearby…these locations where the women went missing,” Kaitlin McCulley, a former Houston-based reporter at ABC station KTRK-TV, told “20/20.”

During an initial prison interrogation, Texas Ranger Jim Holland laid out pictures of all four murder victims in front of Reece.

Friendswood Police Dept. Chief Josh Rogers said that Reece responded with “some indication that he was responsible for the murders of all four” young women.

Reece ultimately agreed to help investigators locate the bodies of Cain and Cox if Texas promised not to pursue the death penalty against him, and the families agreed to this. After weeks of digging, their remains were recovered.

Reece was then extradited to Oklahoma to stand trial for Johnston’s murder, more than two decades after her brutal death.

During the eight days of testimony, surviving victim Sandra Sapaugh took the stand and hours of interrogation tapes were played aloud. The jury returned a guilty verdict within an hour.

On August 20, 2021, Reece was sentenced to death in Oklahoma for the murder of Tiffany Johnston.

On June 29, 2022, Reece pleaded guilty and received three life sentences for killing Laura Smither, Jessica Cain, and Kelli Cox.

Reece remains in prison in Texas and is appealing his Oklahoma death sentence.

Despite Reece’s capture, the grief of the families who lost their daughters will never subside.

Kathy Dobry, Johnston’s mother, told Quiñones that she wishes she could still speak with her daughter, 27 years later, as she thinks about her every day.

“I love her, and I miss her,” Dobry said, “and she should be here with us.”

ABC News’ John Quiñones, Jeca Taudte, Tami Sheheri, Gary Wynn, Maddy Cunningham, and Ayana Bryant contributed to this report.

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