For weeks, law-enforcement agencies from Galveston County to central Oklahoma have been re-examining cold cases of missing and murdered women and girls, spurred by convicted kidnapper William Reece’s return to the area.
When Reece was here nearly 20 years ago, he was working as a heavy-equipment operator. When seen Feb. 24 at the field in southern Houston where officials have since been searching for the remains of Jessica Cain, he was wearing prison gray and handcuffs.
On Feb. 16, a Galveston County bench warrant brought Reece back to the area. He’d spent the previous 18 years in a Huntsville prison, since his 1998 conviction in the aggravated kidnapping of a woman who told Webster police in 1997 that Reece forced her at knifepoint into his truck after first feigning to help her with a flat tire. Sandra Sapaugh escaped by jumping out of the truck as it went along Interstate 45. Reece was arrested in that case in September 1997.
The multiagency team led by the Texas Rangers has been silent for weeks about why its members are searching the field in the 6100 block of Orem Drive in Houston. However, Houston attorney Anthony Osso said Reece was here to help authorities find the remains of Cain, who vanished a few weeks before Reece’s Webster arrest. Osso represented Reece in the Webster case.
Officials are hopeful the search will be more fruitful than the recent search of a field in Brazoria County. Investigators with the same Texas Rangers team that has led the Orem Drive pasture search were also involved in the search of a field in Iowa Colony, a village of about 1,200 people that sits along state Highway 288, just south of state Highway 6.
Investigators there were looking for the remains of Kelli Ann Cox, a 20-year-old University of North Texas student who vanished July 15, 1997, after calling her boyfriend because she had locked herself out of her car.
Officials had yet to turn up any trace of Cox as of last week.
Jessica Cain’s disappearance has been an open case in La Marque since August 1997, when the 17-year-old’s father found her abandoned pickup truck on the southbound feeder of Interstate 45 near the Omega Bay subdivision. Hours earlier, the O’Connell High School student has last been seen at a Bennigan’s restaurant near Baybrook Mall, having dinner with friends.
Long considered a “person of interest” in the Cain case, Reece has never been officially charged. Similarly, Friendswood police had never charged him in the April 1997 abduction and killing of Laura Kate Smither, 12. Smither had last been seen leaving her Friendswood home to go jogging. Her body was found weeks later in a Pasadena retention pond.
As with the Cain case, Reece — working near Smither’s home as a heavy-equipment operator around the time of her abduction — has been a long-uncharged “person of interest” in Smither’s death. Even after his 1998 kidnapping conviction, Reece had resisted police efforts even to ask him about Smither. In 1999, while serving the 60-year prison term a Harris County jury assigned him in the Sapaugh abduction, Reece obtained a court order barring investigators from asking him questions about the girl.
Even though the case in which he reportedly had been “assisting” was the La Marque probe of Cain’s disappearance, Reece has been spending his nights in the city jail of Friendswood, where Smither’s case remains open.
However, officials in Oklahoma warmed up a cold case there in September, when they reported that advances in DNA testing technology had given them enough evidence to charge Reece with murder and kidnapping in the death of 19-year-old Tiffany Johnston, whose body was found July 27, 1997, in Canadian County, Okla., the day after her car had been found abandoned at a carwash in nearby Bethany, Okla.
Even though Oklahoma County charged Reece in September with first-degree murder, the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office told The Daily News on Friday that prosecutors there had not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty against Reece in the Johnston case. Officials there said that decision would not occur until Reece is in custody in Oklahoma.
Webster-based attorney Mohammed Ibrahim, who served as Galveston County’s first assistant district attorney in the early 2000s, has no official connection to Reece’s case. However, as someone who participated in prosecutorial meetings about whether to seek the death penalty, he said a defendant’s physical presence was “a complete non-factor” in deciding that issue.
“His physical presence doesn’t make one bit of difference as to whether they feel like they’ve got evidence strong enough to seek the death penalty, and it’s not like he’s in some country that has moral objections to the death penalty, where extradition would be an issue,” he said.
Ibrahim said that it was be premature to assume that Reece’s new apparent willingness to cooperate with investigators might be connected to the Oklahoma case and whether he could leverage help against a possible death-penalty case there.
“I wouldn’t want to speculate as to what their reason is, because it might be a perfectly good reason, but I’d have a hard time believing that decision’s being held off because he’s not right there.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.