The girls kept vanishing, the bodies kept surfacing, and the families who knew better kept getting told their loved ones were runaways.
Just wait, police said. They’ll come back.
It’s been decades since young women began turning up dead off stretches of I-45 between Houston and Galveston, a marshy, desolate region near the Gulf of Mexico. At least 30 bodies have been discovered there since the 1970s, most of them female, with very few cases solved; more women have gone missing from the area on top of that.
The 80s and 90s tragically saw new waves of bodies, and some of these cases form the focus of a new Netflix series investigating what has become known as the Texas Killing Fields. The three-part documentary centres not only on the murdered girls and women but also on the destroyed lives of devastated families - and even ruled-out suspects - left behind.
“There are a lot of victims here,” author Kathryn Casey, whose book Deliver US chronicles the unsolved murders, says in Crime Scene: The Texas Killing Fields, which premiered on Netflix on 29 November.
Tim Miller has been looking for answers since his daughter disappeared in 1986, even founding an equine search group that has assisted in hundreds of cases in the interim. The father of victim Heide Villareal-Fye, whose body was found just months after her 1983 disappearance, devoted himself to his own detective work, recording hours and hours of interviews and notes that were turned over to the FBI after his heartbroken death. The mother of 12-year-old Laura Smither, who was murdered in 1997, took to the streets after her daughter’s disappearance, handing out flyers as she cried in the rain and begged for help in solving her child’s case.
One long-time suspect, Robert Abel, was fatally hit by a train in what may have been a suicide, despite being cleared by police and despite apologies from Mr Miller, for example, who’d thought him guilty for years.
Ongoing tragedy and horror weave unrelenting paths through the docuseries and the lives of its characters. The Killing Fields themselves, however, constitute another character - and a very foreboding one - and that was deliberate, according to the programme’s creators.
The Crime Scene franchise debuted last year with The Times Square Killer and The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, both directed by Oscar-nominated Joe Berlinger and produced by Ron Howard. The two serve as executive producers on The Texas Killing Fields, directed by Emmy-winner Jessica Dimmock.
Crime Scene works to “turn the true crime genre on its head and not just focus on a story but focus on geography,” Mr Berlinger tells The Independent. “What is it about a particular place that lends itself to crime - not just physical geography, but socio-economic factors, you know, physical conditions, social policy, police policy, how do all of these coalesce into a crime?
“And that’s kind of the idea for the series, and Texas Killing Fields really fits well into that, because you have this wide area, with multiple murders over a long period of time unsolved, potentially two serial killers ... There are certain factors that made this crime possible that may not be present elsewhere.”
The possibility of more than one killer has long been considered and, given recent developments, appears to be the reality. Eleven girls vanished in the 1970s, and the majority of those cases remain unsolved. Ms Miller, Ms Fye and two other women - unidentified until 2019, when forensic genealogy named them as Audrey Lee Cook and Donna Prudhomme - were killed in the 1980s and found in the Calder Road area of The Killing Fields. Then 12-year-old Laura Smither was found murdered in 1997, the same year Kelli Ann Cox, 20, and Jessica Cain, 17, went missing.
“I think there’s possibly more bodies,” director Jessica Dimmock tells The Independent. “I think it’s three serial killers operating in very similar territories ... One kind of gets away with it, and it becomes more possible because it’s kind of shown that the police are not going to chase it down.”
She explains: “Each decade has its own [serial killer] - you know, it’s not like three different [killers] operating over 30 years. It’s like one in the Seventies, there’s one in the Eighties, there’s one in the Nineties ... there’s pretty good indications that that’s the case. And yes, of course, there might be other victims.”
Returning to the region and sense of place itself, it’s not entirely surprising that The Killing Fields became a dumping ground.
“It’s wet, it’s damp, it’s ... swampy,” Ms Dimmock says. “And that is really one of the factors. It’s not the only factor, but that’s really one of the factors that kind of leads to these circumstances. Water destroys evidence. Also, criminals and murderers know that water destroys evidence. So ... not only does it actually happen, it also plays into how these killers think about where to dispose of bodies.”
Both she and Mr Berlinger, however, remain aghast at how long it took for the serial killings to be truly taken seriously by law enforcement.
“The level of indifference and ineptitude and the dismissal was actually particularly surprising, given the era,” Mr Berlinger says. “You’ve got to remember that, from ‘69 to ‘92-ish ... it was kind of the ‘golden age of serial killers,’” he says, employing a phrase he hates to use but a phrase that, without glorifying the killings, encapsulates the terrifying spate of high-profile serial murders.
“This was from Manson until Dahmer all throughout this period, Gacy in the Seventies. You know, police departments were aware, and the media was aware, that disappearances in this era ... [were] often nefarious activity,” he tells The Independent. “Because this was the height of all of these unsolved serial killings, you know, throughout the country, and you know, eventually ... Gacy gets caught, Bundy gets caught, Dahmer gets caught - but, like, wake up and smell the coffee here. You know, you have these disappearances and a really surprisingly inept attitude by police departments.”
He concedes that forensics were primitive and interdepartmental communication was not yet common - but adds: “The dismissal of these victims as just runaways was pretty shocking.”
Some families have gotten answers; some none; some ... sort of.
A major break came in 1997, one month after 12-year-old Laura Smither went for a jog before breakfast and never came home. A 19-year-old Texas woman, Sandra Sapaugh, was abducted by a man posing as a good Samaritan when she got a flat tire; he forced her into his truck at knifepoint and floored it down I-45.
Incredibly, Ms Sapaugh threw herself from the moving vehicle onto the highway, where passersby picked up the injured young mother. Her evidence put William Reece behind bars for kidnapping for 60 years; DNA evidence later connected him to the 1997 murder of Oklahoma woman Tiffany Johnston, 19, which landed him on death row in that state.
He later confessed to the murders of Laura Smither, Kelli Cox and Jessica Cain, leading authorities to the latter two girls’ bodies. Reece pleaded guilty to all three murders in June in Texas and was sentenced to life in prison - a move that got him off Oklahoma’s death row.
Reece, however, had been in prison during the Eighties when Heide Villareal-Fye, Laura Miller, and then-unidentified Audrey Lee Cook and Donna Prudhomme were discovered. Suspicion instead centred on another man, Clyde Hedrick, who was convicted of the 1984 killing of a 30-year-old woman named Ellen Beason - whose body he dumped under a trash pile on a dirt road in Galveston County.
Hedrick lived on the same street as the Millers and was known to frequent the bar where Heide Fye worked. In Crime Scene: The Texas Killing Fields, his ex-wife’s daughter outlines Hedrick’s predatory behaviour when she was younger, tearfully recounting how she’d gone to police years ago.
“I did my part,” she cries in the docuseries, claiming Hedrick could have been arrested long before he was, perhaps saving victims from their Killing Fields fate.
Hedrick served only eight years of a 20-year sentence for Ms Beason’s death; he was paroled last year at age 67. Tim Miller fully believes the convicted killer is responsible for his daughter’s murder and won a wrongful death suit against him in 2014. But Hedrick has never faced charges in connection with any Killing Fields deaths.
Mr Miller, then, and so many other families still have no full explanations - and some none at all - regarding their loved ones’ murders and disappearances. The FBI is still appealing for information, decades later, and the team behind Crime Scene hopes their docuseries may lead to more answers.
“Until it’s an official acount of what happened, it’s a lingering question mark for all of them - and it’s brutal,” Ms Dimmock says of the families.
“There’s lots of irresponsible true crime that’s made, just like there’s lots of irresponsible storytelling in all categories of storytelling,” Mr Berlinger tells The Independent. “But the responsible true crime has a purpose and has a mission ... there are good reasons to tell these stories as cautionary tales to young people. These are messages I want my daughter to know: Just don’t get into anybody’s car, don’t trust people blindly, you know. So that’s an important reason to retell some of these stories for a younger audience.
“And also, these shows sometimes produce results.” (The director/producer has a pretty good track record; after his 1993 documentary Paradise Lost questioned the convictions of three Arkansas teenagers, the trio was released from prison. He also mentions that the second Crime Scene series led to more victim identifications.)
”I got kind of spoiled early on with Paradise Lost actually getting people out of prison,” he says. “That’s obviously an amazing result of telling a crime story. But, you know, we think very deeply about victims, about helping ... tell these stories in a way that is socially responsible and produces results.”
Richard Rennison, supervisory special agent for the FBI in Texas City, has been looking at the cases since he began his career in law enforcement; he seems haunted by the unsolved deaths in the docuseries, particularly of Ms Fye, Ms Miller, Ms Cook and Ms Prudhomme. The 2019 identifications of the latter two victims - who spent decades as Jane and Janet Doe - offered hope of new revelations; nothing so far has provided a vital piece to the puzzle, however.
“We’re still getting information on the Calder Road Killings,” Agent Rennison says in the Netflix programme. “If you have any information about any of these four victims, please reach out to the FBI. You can remain entirely anonymous.
“I retire in about a year and a half from now - so I’ve got some work to do.”