9:01 PM 6/19/1997
Parents to open grave to see if it is daughter
Questions exist about remains of slain girl
By RUTH RENDON
Copyright 1997 Houston Chronicle
DICKINSON -- The grave of a teen-age murder victim is to be opened today so her parents can determine whether the remains they buried eight years ago are those of their daughter.
Tim Miller said Thursday he is paying for the exhumation at the Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery so a private pathologist from Austin can examine the remains presumed to be those of Laura Miller.
The 16-year-old girl was reported missing in September 1984. The family had just moved to League City and her mother, Janet, had dropped her off at a convenience store because they did not yet have a telephone.
The girl's body was found in February 1986 in a field off Calder Road in League City. The cause of death has not been determined, although it is considered a murder.
As police investigated, they found another body now listed as Jane Doe. In September 1991, horseback riders found the skeletal remains of another woman now listed as Janet Doe.
Those bodies were found near where another murder victim had been found in April 1984. Heidi Fye, a 25-year-old waitress, was last seen alive in October 1983.
Miller, 50, who now lives in Houston and is divorced from Laura's mother, said the abduction and murder of Laura Kate Smither in neighboring Friendswood in April rekindled his and his ex-wife's desire to solve their daughter's murder.
A month ago, he said, he discovered discrepancies in the handling of his daughter's remains.
Miller said a representative of a local funeral home signed a receipt for the remains in November 1989 and they were buried. He was told two bones would be kept by the Galveston County Medical Examiner's Office for further tests.
The medical examiner, Dr. William Korndorffer, said he has no doubt that the remains buried by the Miller family are those of Laura.
But records indicate that in 1992, the medical examiner's office turned over a number of bones to League City police. Miller believes some of his daughter's remains may be among them, noting that a bag of hair submitted to police in 1986 listed Jane Doe's name but had Laura's medical identification number.
Assistant Police Chief Pat Bittner said the bones received by his department in 1992 were of Jane Doe and Janet Doe and were sent to a North Texas specialist, then returned to the medical examiner's office.
"Basically, all we want to know is, where is our daughter?" Miller said. "We thought we buried her." http://www.chron.com/content/chronicle/pag...urders.3-0.html
11:51 PM 9/20/1997
Recent searches for missing girls serve as reminder that many cases still unsolved
By CINDY HORSWELL
Copyright 1997 Houston Chronicle
Since the mid-1980s, a scrubby pasture crisscrossed with horse trails in Galveston County has been called the "killing fields."
Four bodies were found there from 1984 to 1991. Today, the person using the "killing fields" as his personal graveyard remains unidentified.
In the 1970s, a $10,000 reward was offered for the killer of a 13-year-old girl in Brazoria County. Today, unclaimed, it is being used to fund scholarships in her name.
Meanwhile, her murder is listed among at least eight unsolved cases believed to be linked.
More recently, in Harris County, an anonymous man telephoned a TV tip line in 1995 to report a "serial killer on the loose." Implying he was that killer, he gave directions to the body of a 16-year-old girl who had been strangled. He never called again. He is considered a suspect not only in her death but also in several others.
Memories of these and similar cases -- all involving young women and girls and all unsolved, some for decades -- resurfaced recently as news stories focused on massive searches for two girls who disappeared in Galveston County.
Various authorities have indicated at least three serial killers are responsible for some of the deaths.
The cases of Laura Smither, a 12-year-old who was snatched in April from a jogging trail in Friendswood, and Jessica Cain, a 17-year-old Tiki Island girl who disappeared from her pickup in La Marque last month, have been added to a long list of unsolved crimes.
The exact count is unknown. While the Texas Department of Public Safety tallies the number of murders that occur each year and figures a clearance rate, it does not keep a running list of unsolved cases.
Also making an accurate count difficult is the fact that some bodies are so decomposed that identities and causes of death cannot be determined.
The Harris County morgue has recorded 75 unidentified female bodies since 1962, and the cause of death is listed as "unknown" for a majority of them. Only 28 have been ruled as definite homicides.
The count grows more difficult when considering the many young girls and women who are officially listed as missing but believed to be victims of foul play.
Rene Richerson is one of those. Clyde and Kathy Richerson of Corpus Christi have never given up the search for their daughter, who vanished from a beachfront condominium-hotel in Galveston on Oct. 7, 1988.
The Texas A&M-Galveston student, then 22, was working there as a night clerk to put herself through school.
She left behind her purse, school books, car -- but not a clue to her whereabouts.
Willie Payne of La Porte, a private investigator hired by the family, has been working the case for nearly nine years.
He is planning another search of a remote portion of Brazoria County, hoping to find the spot where she might be buried.
Past searches of that area -- pinpointed by an anonymous tipster -- have been fruitless, but Payne thinks he knows where to look this time. But he wouldn't elaborate.
The tipster said he had driven the car used by two companions to abduct, rape and murder the college student.
Similarly, no sign has been found of Sandra Ramber, whose disappearance from her Santa Fe home in 1983 is considered foul play.
Sandra, 14, left behind not only her purse, but also a new coat that her father bought her.
Her father, Alton Ramber, 56, who now lives in Hitchcock, said not having even a body to mourn has made the loss especially hard.
A disabled carpenter, he describes her as a "daddy's girl," with striking good looks. She had just completed modeling school and dreamed of one day becoming a model.
"I last saw her before I went to work. I remember teasing her for picking at some food on my plate at breakfast. She was happy," he said. "But when I got home, the door was open, biscuits were cooking and she was gone. It's only now that I can even talk about it. I've had to try to put it behind me or else I would have gone crazy."
Empathy for such parents drove hundreds of volunteers who recently gave their hearts and time to search for Laura Smither and Jessica Cain.
Laura, an aspiring dancer, was abducted April 3 while jogging in her quiet Friendswood neighborhood. Her body, nude except for a pair of socks, was discovered more than two weeks later in a retention pond in Pasadena.
Then on Aug. 18, some of the same people who had helped look for Laura began another prayerful vigil and search for Jessica, a recent graduate of Galveston's O'Connell High School. She disappeared on her way home from a cast party after performing in a musical.
Her parents, who had attended the production, grew worried when she hadn't arrived by 2 a.m. Her father went to look for her and found the family's 1992 pickup abandoned on the shoulder of Interstate 45. Her wallet was inside, but the keys were gone.
Laura's father, Bob Smither, joined in the search for Jessica, as did Tim Miller -- whose 16-year-old daughter, also named Laura, was found dead in the "killing fields" in League City on Feb. 3, 1986.
"The main thing we have to do is make people aware of the danger," said Bob Smither, an electrical engineering consultant. "It's a hell of a note that we should have to bring kids up to be almost paranoid, but I don't know any other alternative."
No concrete evidence has been found so far to link the Jessica Cain case to that of either Laura Smither or Laura Miller.
"But I do know that these girls weren't stupid," Bob Smither said. "Not just any stranger could beckon them into a car."
The grieving families come from different backgrounds, but they share their loss. Miller, 50, a construction contractor from Houston, said: "What we do have in common is losing our daughters. Nobody else can relate to it.
"I used to go out to that field at 3 a.m. where my baby's body was found and scream at the top of my lungs, `You chicken (expletive), I'm out here ... come and get me.' That first Christmas I put a cross on the property and planted a fir tree to decorate. You just can't forget something like that."
He became so distraught after the discovery of the body of Laura Smither that he had his daughter's body exhumed in June in hopes a new autopsy, still pending, may shed light on the case. He also thinks some of her remains were misplaced and mishandled by authorities.
"She deserved better than that," he said.
His daughter had been robbed of some of the joy of childhood before she vanished, he added. She had begun suffering seizures at age 12, believed to have been triggered by a high fever and measles when she was an infant.
Depressed after seizures forced her into special education classes, he said, she attempted suicide several times.
"She had gone from being a straight `A' student, who loved music and had lots of friends, to thinking that she was retarded and losing all her friends," her father recalled.
The family had hoped to make a fresh start when they moved to League City in September 1984.
Instead, just after moving into their new home, Laura Miller disappeared from a neighborhood convenience store. She had gone there with her mother to use the telephone because theirs was not yet connected.
Laura Miller, a Clear Creek High School sophomore, had insisted that she was old enough to walk home alone when she was done, her father said, but she never arrived.
Her skeletal remains were not discovered in the "killing fields" on Calder Road until two years later. The cause of her death could not be determined, but she and the three other victims found there were all nude, leading investigators to suspect sexual assaults.
A dog discovered the first victim, Heidi Villareal Fye, 23, a cocktail waitress, carrying her skull to a nearby house April 4, 1984. She had vanished six months earlier after walking from her parents' home to use the telephone at the same convenience store where Laura Miller was last seen.
The medical examiner noted she had broken ribs and might have been beaten to death.
Two years later, on Feb. 3, 1986, children riding dirt bikes in the vicinity of the field smelled an odor and found the body of an unidentified female, who was given the name Jane Doe. She had been shot in the back. Laura Miller's nearby body was found the same day.
On Sept. 8, 1991, the latest skeletal remains were retrieved from the field. Robert Abel, a retired aerospace engineer who had been leasing the property and eventually bought a portion for a horse stable, said his stepdaughter stumbled upon the corpse while riding.
The still-unidentified female victim is called Janet Doe. She appeared to have been beaten and possibly strangled.
"I'm a father. So I identify with those losing a child," Abel said. "I'd like to see these cases solved not just to clear my own name, but so the families can have some closure."
He said investigators have wrongly targeted him as a suspect because of his connection to the property: "But who would be dumb enough to put a body on their own land?" Abel asked.
He tried to sue police, alleging harassment, but the case was rejected because the court said a city has immunity to conduct investigations.
Although a search of Abel's property turned up no evidence, League City Assistant Police Chief Pat Bittner said the engineer remains among a small group of suspects.
In the search warrant, Bittner noted Abel's home lies within three miles of where the victims were found and that he later built his Star Dust Trail Rides on that property.
Abel, the search warrant said, continued to inject himself into the investigation, action which an FBI profile said could be expected from the killer. The search warrant also included statements from two ex-wives, accusing Abel of viciously beating horses into submission and refusing to bury dead animals.
Abel called the allegations preposterous and said investigators even went so far as to conduct a fruitless search of his family's large ranch in Austin County.
"There was a body found somewhere around there, too. But I think that's been cleared," he added.
The body actually was found a few miles away in Waller County. Sheriff Randy Smith confirmed that an unidentified female, in her 20s or early 30s, was found on March 10 of this year.
Wrapped in a mattress cover and estimated to have been dumped there two or three years ago, it was discovered by a property owner clearing brush. Smith said he has no leads in the case, however, and it remains open.
In the early 1970s, a rash of unsolved murders of young females plagued area law enforcement officers.
Alice Wilson Killough, 33, an airline reservationist from Alvin, remembers that she was in the second grade on June 17, 1971, when she accompanied her mother, Claire Wilson, to a bus stop to pick up her oldest sister, Colette.
One of 10 children of an Alvin dentist, Colette, 13, had attended a band practice and had been dropped there by the band director.
"We thought maybe she had gotten a ride with someone else. So we called all her friends that lived nearby," Killough recalled.
Unable to find any sign of Colette, the family knew something must be terribly wrong. Still, authorities initially labeled her a runaway.
That didn't stop the Wilson family from taking a map of Alvin and organizing volunteers who searched the area for the next three weeks.
Killough said he remembers the agony. "The best thing we did was kneel around Colette's bed and pray every day. It held us together during the five long months before we knew what happened," she said.
Colette Wilson's nude body, with a gunshot wound to the skull, was found near the Addicks Reservoir in west Houston.
The body was only 35 yards from where a man looking for buried treasure a few days earlier had stumbled upon the body of 19-year-old Gloria Ann Gonzales, a bookkeeper who lived on Jacquelyn Street in Houston.
Last seen alive near her home, she had been reported missing on Oct. 28, 1971, about three weeks before her body was found. Her death was caused by a blow to her head.
Investigators had returned to the scene to search further because a human molar found there did not belong to the bookkeeper's skeleton.
It turned out to be Colette's tooth. Her father, Thomas Wilson, was able to identify it along with others from a jawbone found there because he had performed her dental work.
"I sometimes wonder what would it be like if Colette had not died. She'd have her own children now," said Killough. "What are we missing out on? Our lives would be very different."
Her mother, Claire Wilson, 65, continues to reside in the area. But Colette's father, Thomas, lived only four years after her death.
Killough said he had become obsessed with solving the case. He died of a heart attack at age 42.
"We always said it was because of a broken heart," Killough said.
Matt Wingo, now an investigator with the Brazoria County district attorney's office, helped look into the possible links between Colette Wilson's death and more than a dozen others after the skeletal remains of two Dickinson girls were recovered from a remote swampland near Alvin on April 3, 1981.
The two, Brooks Bracewell, 12, and Georgia Geer, 14, had last been seen alive at a convenience store in Dickinson after they skipped school. That was Sept. 6, 1974.
"They all looked somewhat alike with the same hairstyle, were close to the same age, were mobile on foot and their bodies were found near water. A lot of them were shot with a .22," Wingo recalled.
"Most who worked on those cases are now dead. There was a lot of ideas in a lot of officers' minds that they thought they knew who did it, but could never prove it."
Brazoria County Sheriff Joe King has not given up hope.
"Many hours have been spent investigating these cases by many agencies, but nothing has ever been developed that gave us anybody that we could charge. I still believe there was a link," he said.
Cases thought to be possibly connected to each other include:
· Maria Johnson and Debbie Ackerman, both 15-year-old Galveston residents, disappeared from a shopping mall Nov. 15, 1971, and were found two days later floating in Turner's Bayou in Texas City. Both were partially clad and had been bound hand and foot and shot in the head.
· Kimberly Ray Pitchford, 16, who lived on Wynlea Street near Hobby Airport, was abducted after attending a driver's education class at Pasadena's Dobie High School on Jan. 3, 1973. Her father, E.L. Pitchford, a longshoreman, said she was supposed to call home when she finished the class. Instead, she vanished. Two days later, her body was found in a ditch near Angleton. She had been strangled. An uncle, Ray Pitchford, a Huffman lawyer, said recent information about a possible serial killer known to have attended the school about the same time is causing the family to seek further information.
· Brenda Jones, 14, of Galveston was reported missing July 1, 1971, after she left home to walk to a hospital to visit an aunt. Her body was found the next day floating in Galveston Bay near Pelican Island with a slip stuffed in her mouth. She died of a wound to the head.
· Alison Craven, 12, who vanished from her apartment in the Almeda Mall area of Harris County on Nov. 9, 1971. Her mother told authorities that she had left her daughter alone while she ran errands. Returning about an hour later, she found the girl had put up groceries and done her homework.
Other youngsters said she had been seen near the pool but said she was returning to her home because she was cold. Instead, she vanished. Three months later a field nearby yielded bones from an arm and two hands, along with some teeth. Then, on Feb. 25, 1972, her skeleton, missing the same bones, was found in a Pearland field.
More recently, law enforcement officers have been investigating whether a serial killer might be taking victims in north Houston.
On July 14, 1995, a man, who made no attempt to disguise his voice, telephoned KPRC television's tip line and talked about a "serial killer being on the loose." The anonymous caller implied that he was the killer and said the body of a girl could be found in a remote field near Interstate 45 and Richey. He said the victim's name was Ruby and gave her birthdate as May 11.
When investigators followed his clue that evening, they found the nude body of a 16-year-old girl who had died of ligature, or tourniquet-style, strangulation. The caller had provided the victim's correct birthday but had given the name of her best friend.
Police identified the victim as Dana Sanchez, who vanished eight days earlier after calling her boyfriend from a pay telephone in the 600 block of Cavalcade and telling him she was going to hitchhike to his house on Greenyard.
Investigators checking for similarities in cases targeted at least two others that might be linked to Dana's homicide:
· Diana Rebollar, 9, who was abducted about 11:30 a.m. on Aug. 7, 1994, on her way home after running an errand for her mother at a convenience store at 6600 N. Main. Her nude body was found that afternoon behind a vacant office building on the North Loop. Sexually assaulted, she died by ligature strangulation.
· Maria del Carmen Estrada, 21, abducted while walking from her apartment at 7200 Shadyvilla on the morning of April 16, 1992, to catch a bus to her janitorial job. Her body was found a few hours later about one block north of her apartment in a Dairy Queen drive-through area on Westview. She was partially clad and died of ligature strangulation.
Harris County sheriff's Detective Bert Diaz noted the three victims were young Hispanics who had small statures and were missing clothing. Also, each had been abducted on the county's north side on a public street in daylight and died of ligature strangulation.
"Whoever could do something like this is like a junkie who wants dope. They get started and can't stop," Diaz said. "They like killing girls. These girls are victims of opportunity, who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Another 14-year-old Hispanic girl was discovered strangled on June 7 of this year -- but on the southwest side of the county. The slightly built girl was identified as Erica Ann Garcia, who lived in the 7300 block of Bissonnet. Erica had been at a teen nightclub on Beechnut.
Her partially clad body was found by a security guard on the floor of the vacant Alief General Hospital behind the club.
Investigators declined to say if her strangulation was done tourniquet-style like the others.
"We're following up numerous leads," said Houston police Lt. Greg Neely. "There's nothing to prove it was definitely linked to the other cases, but we're not ruling it out."
Police said another strangulation of a teen-ager in Houston is not believed to be connected to the others because the victim was black rather than Hispanic and was not strangled with a cord.
Trellis Sykes, 16, a straight-"A" student athlete, was killed after apparently taking a shortcut across a field off Redbud in southeast Houston to catch a bus to school on May 13, 1994.
"We also have a suspect in this case -- but not enough evidence to charge him -- who has already been arrested in connection with kidnapping another young female who was sexually assaulted," Neely said.
The victim lived on Elberta with her grandmother, Mae Sykes, and aunt, Pamela Sykes, who began searching for Trellis immediately when she was late coming home after school that day. Her body was found that evening in the field which she had been cutting across.
"She is very sweet, quiet and to herself -- a churchgoing girl who sang in the choir," her aunt said. "My question is: What did she ever do to someone to make him take her innocent life?
"We have continued to put up posters. Until justice is done, we will never have any peace."
During the last few years, the slayings of several other young teen-agers in the Houston area have left law enforcement officers stumped. They include:
· Hillory Farias, 17, of La Porte, who was ruled as possibly the first in the nation to die from an overdose of a "date-rape drug." Gamma y-hydroxybutyrate or "GHB," apparently was slipped into her soft drink at a local nightclub on Aug. 4, 1996. She went to bed with a severe headache that night and never regained consciousness.
· Lynette Bibbs, 14, and Tamara Fisher, 15, both of La Porte, were found shot to death on Feb. 3, 1996, near Cleveland in Liberty County. The two best friends had left two days earlier for a night on the town. They went to a Houston nightclub and then a motel.
Their bodies were found off a dirt road. Bibbs was partially clad and shot twice in the head and once in the thigh, while Fisher, fully clothed, was shot once in the back of the head.
· Krystal Jean Baker, 13, disappeared March 5, 1996. Last seen alive using a telephone at a Texas City convenience store, she was reportedly walking to a friend's home in Bayou Vista but stopped at the store in hopes of finding a ride.
Two fishermen found her body, which had been strangled, beaten and sexually assaulted, a few hours later under the Interstate 10 bridge over the Trinity River in Chambers County. Her purse and identification were missing, and she was not identified for almost two weeks until authorities connected her to a missing-person report.
As days, weeks and even years pass without arrests in such cases, victims' families remain haunted with unanswered questions.
"Someone is doing this when we least expect it and enjoying getting away with it right under our noses," said Krystal Baker's mother, Monetta, 37, a Texas City hairdresser.
Her last contact with her daughter was a message left on her answering machine that Krystal made from a pay telephone at a Texas City convenience store. She was looking for a ride to go to her friend's house.
"This could happen to anybody's child. I keep seeing kids use that same pay phone with no parents around. I want to scream that there's a crazy man out there and he has no heart and doesn't care," the mother said.
She describes her daughter as a loving child who liked to swim and talk on the phone. Krystal, she said, resembled a young Marilyn Monroe -- who happened to be her great-aunt.
"I can't understand why anyone would deliberately hurt my baby," the mother said.
Investigators don't understand either, and relentlessly work to find the killers.
Modern technology is helping solve some cases more quickly. For example, Montgomery County authorities hope DNA testing soon will lead to charges against suspects in the June 8 deaths of two young north Harris County women, whose charred bodies were found in a burned car north of Conroe.
Unlike the other cases, deputies have named suspects in the slayings of the two -- Sarah Cleary, 17, and Misty Morgan, 19.
Friendswood Police Chief Jared Stout, who spent hundreds of hours on the Smither case in Friendswood, compared the murder investigation to "solving a 3,000-piece jigsaw which is 3-D with ill-defined boundaries and all shades of color but no shapes."
For instance, he still is sifting through a list of 2,120 sex offenders registered in portions of Brazoria, Harris and Galveston counties near where the crime occurred. Each one is a potential suspect, he said, but there seems to be an endless number of other possibilities.
Yet he, like most investigators in unsolved cases, remains optimistic that a killer will eventually be caught.
Investigators say they periodically take out the files of cases that are decades old, flip through them and hope to stumble upon a new lead. None admits to burying these cases, closing the books or giving up.
"The world isn't big enough for us not to find such a killer," Stout said. "But at the same time," he said, in reference to the popular Star Trek television and movie series, "it sometimes seems as if Scotty found that crystal and whoever did it was beamed up to the Enterprise."