REPORTERS NOTEBOOK: COULD KEVIN EDISON SMITH BE A SERIAL KILLER IN HOUSTON’S ‘KILLING FIELDS’?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A jury in Chambers County, Texas took less than 30 minutes to convict Kevin Edison Smith of capital murder in the 1996 sexual assault and strangulation of a 13-year-old Texas City girl. While that is significant, authorities think there is a possibility Smith is a serial killer. Prosecutors said they didn’t seek the death penalty because investigators want to question Smith about other unsolved murders in an area of I-45 between Houston and Galveston that became known as “The Killing Fields.” Dozens of girls and young women, including Baker,vanished from that area, beginning in the 70s. Most of the cases remain unsolved.

Krystal Jean Baker was last seen at a convenience store in Texas City on March 5, 1996. In a taped confession, Kevin Edison Smith admitted he gave her a ride, then choked her with a leather strap when she “started freaking out on me.” Smith received an automatic life sentence for killing Baker and dumping her body underneath the Trinity River Bridge on I-10 in Chambers County. Smith’s jury began deliberating at about 10 a.m. Thursday and reached a decision by 10:30. Smith didn’t testify in the trial, which began Monday, but they did hear his videotaped interview.

During closing arguments, prosecutors told the jury the evidence against Smith was overwhelming. “It comes right out of his mouth,” said prosecutors. “You heard it on tape. ‘She wouldn’t be quiet. She struggled. So what do I do? I picked up a strap.’” Baker’s family, Smith, and others in the crowded courtroom began crying at the end of closing arguments, according to KFDM reporter Lindsey Kovacevich. “I didn’t do that. I didn’t do that,” Smith cried out. “Collect yourself, Mr. Smith, or I’ll have you removed from the courtroom,” the judge told him. Smith was linked to Baker’s deaththrough a national DNA database after he was arrested in Louisiana on a drug charge in 2010.

After the arrest, Krystal’s mother, Jeanie Escamilla, said she had given up hopeher daughter’s killer would be found. “I wish I could wake up out of this terrible nightmare and hold my little girl in my arms again,” Escamilla told the Galveston County Daily News in 2010. “None of this is going to bring her back.” Smith, 47, graduated from Galveston’s Ball High School and lived near Baker at the time of her disappearance. Since the 1970s, over 30 young women and girls have disappeared or been found murdered in the 50-mile desolate area between Houston and Galveston – a stretch of land that some call a highway of hell.

“This bridge up ahead had a sign on it when you came out in this direction…it said, ‘You are now entering the cruel world,'” federal agent Don Ferrarone pointed out as he drove along Interstate 45 with “48 Hours Mystery” correspondent Erin Moriarty. “And it’s just, you know, it’s just a perfect place [for] killing somebody and getting away with it.” “If you can just imagine having one of these little girls out here…one of these young girls out here…and there’s no chance for them to be rescued, to be helped. And they’re on they’re own,” said Ferrarone.

One by one, young women were kidnapped and murdered. But it took the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl in 1997, to wake up the community. When Bob and Gay Smither talk about their daughter, Laura, they sound like every other proud parent. “She just lived to dance, she went to dance six days a week,” said Gay Smither, looking at photos of her daughter. “You’re not supposed to be friends with your kids, but believe me, I was,” said Bob. “And it’s just a hole that can never be filled.” “…we miss her,” a teary-eyed Gay added. Their photos end just as Laura was about to turn 13.

In 1997, Erin Moriarty was with the Smithers, covering this story for “48 Hours,” just days after their daughter went missing. “How could I forget it,” Moriarty said. “I have a child on my own who was the same age as Laura was when she suddenly vanished 14-and-a-half years ago.” Laura had gone out jogging that morning. “Bob became alarmed first,” Gay recalled. “We were serving pancakes and he said within a couple of minutes, ‘She should be back, she should be back.'” “Laura would not be 10 minutes late,” said Bob. “So we called the police immediately,” said Gay.

This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen here. This is the middle class community of Friendswood, south of Houston — a place that had once been chosen one of the safest places in America. This time, unlike the Krystal Baker case, the police and the community mobilized quickly. “Our family really needs your assistance. Somebody, somebody must have seen something that morning,” Bob Smither told reporters at a press conference. “Whoever has her could take another child. We don’t want your families to go through this,” Gay said.

Knowing that every moment counts, helicopters were called in; Then, even the marines. Seventeen days after Laura disappeared, Gary Tugwell and his son were walking their dogs near a pond 12 miles north of town. “And we thought it was like a dead animal in the water,” Gary Tugwell explained. “And my son Jason, he says, ‘No, he said animals don’t have socks.'” It was Laura Smither’s nude, decomposing body. She had been murdered. “I mean, our lives as a family were totally shattered,” Gay told Moriarty. Bob added, “It took a long time for it to really be internalized. We probably still pretty much in denial when you were in her before.” And coming a year after Krystal Baker’s murder, the cops now knew these were not isolated incidents. Finally, police from different jurisdictions all started comparing notes. “So it’s like, ‘Wow, this doesn’t stop. Everybody let’s get a grip on it,” Goetschius said. “And we couldn’t — there was no end.”

In fact, four months later, another young girl disappeared. This time it was 17-year-old budding actress Jessica Cain. “She would not go somewhere without calling. She’d call one of us at least, that’s why we know something’s wrong and we gotta find her!” a friend of Jessica’s told reporters. Jessica’s pickup truck was found abandoned beside Interstate 45, just like the ominous opening scene of the movie “Texas Killing Fields.” “What do you have? You have a car beside the road. That’s it, that’s your crime scene,” said Goetschius.

Once again, police had little to go on. “Frustrating beyond belief,” Goetschius said of the case. “I mean how do you find out who was out on the road in the middle of the night? You don’t.” Jessica’s disappearance was one too many for Mike Land and Brian Goetschius. The cases of abductions going back years had to be stopped. But how was the killer able to lure these young girls and then seemingly disappear into thin air? “You had Jessica Cain, with just the vehicle beside the road. Was it a policeman? I mean, was it one of us? …Was it a wannabe policeman, you know a volunteer fireman? I mean somebody we’re close with, somebody we drink coffee with? And, you just didn’t know,” Goetschius told Moriarty.

As efforts to find Jessica Cain intensified, even grieving parents Bob and Gay Smither joined the search. “We knew exactly what the family was going through,” Gay explained. “Of course we were gonna go help, just like people came to help us.” So did Tim Miller. “Anytime there is another missing person, it brings it all back,” he told Moriarty. Jessica Cain was never found. For Miller, this was all too close to home. His own daughter, Laura, had gone missing in 1984. “The particular area where your daughter was found has kind of gained a name over the years, hasn’t it?” Moriarty asked. “Yeah,” Miller replied. “Now they call it the Killing Fields.” And over the years, a frightening prime suspect emerged.

“Mothers would see him in the grocery store and immediately back pedal,” said Skip Hollandsworth of Texas Monthlymagazine and a CBS news consultant. “Or they would take their daughters and hide them in a different aisle. …you couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this the guy?” Wherever there’s a search for a missing child, you will most likely find Tim Miller. His own daughter, Laura, was kidnapped and murdered when she was 16. “One thing worse than having a murdered child, and I know this for a fact — it’s knowing that they’re out there dead somewhere and never being able to say goodbye. Never having that little bit of closure,” he told Erin Moriarty.

Motivated by his loss, Miller started the rescue group Texas Equasearch. Miller went to Aruba to search for Natalee Holloway and Florida for Caylee Anthony. Equusearch has helped look for missing people and located scores of bodies. “Tim found his calling,” according to Skip Hollandsworth of Texas Monthly magazine, who has followed Tim Miller’s story for years.. “…a psychologist might think that Tim is still searching for his daughter.” “Laura was just so into music, and she had so many friends, and she was gigglin’ and laughin and jokin’ all the time,” Miller recalled fondly. It was September 1984. Laura Miller disappeared after making a phone call from a League City, Texas, convenience store. “And then,” Miller explained,” next morning, went to the police department and reported her missin’, and — they said, ‘Laura’s a runaway.'”.

Seventeen long months would pass until the Millers finally learned what had happened to their daughter: Laura had been murdered, her body dumped in an old, secluded oil field. Tim Miller put a cross in the field that still stands today. “I come here more than I go to the cemetery,” he told Moriarty. “I don’t know. It’s Laura’s little special place…Right here,” he pointed out “this small little indentation is — right here’s where her little body was found. And I couldn’t believe it… This place lives up to its name… ‘the killing fields.'” “It’s about a mile from I-45 and the wind cuts through the mesquite trees and rattles the little leaves,” explained Hollandsworth.

It was the remote, 25-acre patch that first earned the name “the killing fields.” Laura was one of four young women murdered and then dumped here; two of the women have never been identified. A perfect place for a serial killer. “It’s a kind of environment that’s sultry and sinister,” Hollandsworth continued. “Easy to get to. You jump off of I-45. You drive down one of the — dirt rutted roads. You dump the body. And you’re gone for good.” That’s what made investigating the murders so difficult. “There’s lots of little towns through this area,” Hollandsworth continued. In the mid 1980s, police in those towns weren’t known for sharing information. “So a body found in one town, the news doesn’t get out to the other town. There’s no major coordinated effort to figure out how to stop this,” he said.

The Millers felt like they were on their own. “There was never even a tiny article in a newspaper, there was no media, there was no search, and nobody gave a damn, except me.” By Tim Miller’s account, there were problems with the investigation. “This shirt was actually found on her body?” Moriarty asked Miller holding a picture of a shirt. “Right beside her,” he replied. “Was it ever tested for DNA? …Ever sent to a lab?” “No.” “Just lost?” “Just lost.” Eager to find his daughter’s killer himself, Miller scoured the killing fields looking for clues. But his search was in vain. Then finally, in 1993, nine years after Laura’s disappearance, an unlikely suspect emerged: Robert Abel, a retired NASA engineer. “Robert Abel helped figure out how to get the Saturn rocket to the moon,” Texas Monthly reporter Skip Hollandsworth explained. “He was this brilliant scientist.”

At the time of the murders, Abel also leased a horse stable adjacent to the killing fields. Two of his former wives told investigators that he had a dark side. “His second wife says that one night sex and he went into a near-violent rage and says, ‘If you don’t have sex with me, I’m going to kill you,'” Hollandsworth said. “His third wife arrives at the League City Police Department, and says, ‘Abel should be one of your suspects. He beats his horses with a pipe.'” Hollandsworth interviewed and wrote about Abel. “And he seemed so humble and so diminutive in stature that I was distracted and thought, ‘There’s no way.'” But the more he talked to Abel, Hollandsworth says, the more he began to wonder. “We sat down for a cup of coffee and he looks at me and says, ‘I had this bad rotator cuff injury, so there’s no way I could have shot one of these girls, put her in my car, driven her to my — land, and then carried her body out.’ And it just seemed like it was one detail too much.” “Everything pointed to Robert Abel,” said Miller.

As word spread about a potential serial killer, Abel became an outcast. “Once his name came out, he was this pariah in south Texas,” Hollandsworth said. “Teenage boys would drive past his stables…and shout out, ‘Killer. You’re the killer.'” Brian Goetschius says that’s when police started looking into any connection between Abel and the other murders along I-45. “Was there any thought that the same person who may have killed Laura Miller and these other three girls might be responsible for Krystal Baker?” Moriarty asked. “Oh, at that time, yes,” Goetschius replied. “But sure, the person that did that could have done Krystal, Jessica, and Laura.” Tim Miller began following Abel’s every move. “I made Robert’s life miserable,” he said. “…I’d stalk him.” And as police began to close in on Abel, Miller said, “I was out of control. I was obsessed.”

Would Tim Miller take the law into his own hands? “There are a lotta people that thought Tim would definitely kill him,” said Hollandsworth. “A smart serial killer, one who knows how to cover his tracks, can baffle any police department…” explained Texas Monthly reporter Skip Hollandsworth, “and this one at the killing fields was taking years between his killings. He was patiently waiting before bringing another body under the tree and laying her out…How could such a monster exist?” But Tim Miller was convinced that the monster was very real and his name was Robert Abel. “I certainly wondered,” he told Moriarty. “In fact, I more than wondered. I knew.”

There was just one problem: Police had nothing to connect Abel to the killings. He just fit an FBI profile. “There has never, to this day, been a shred of physical evidence linking Robert Abel to the four killing field murders or to any of the murders,” Hollandsworth said. “There has never been any eyewitness that has said he saw Abel with one of the girls. There has never been any kind of evidence found in massive searches of his property, of his home, his self…there’s been nothing.” Robert Abel was never charged. “Well, even though they didn’t find anything, my sick mind told me that it was him anyway,” Miller explained. “It’s all the pain. You know…it just eats at you and eats at you.” Years would pass before Miller finally gave up on Abel as a suspect. He says he even apologized. “I said, ‘Robert, I am so very sorry,” Miller said. “And I hugged him and we both cried.” But the damage had already been done.

“So for six years he lived this lonely grief stricken life,” Hollandsworth said. “And in July of 2005, he drove an old golf cart onto a railroad track just as a train was approaching.” At first, rumors suggested it had been a suicide; But it was ultimately ruled an accident. Writer Skip Hollandsworth believes Abel was himself a victim of the fear and paranoia that consumed the community.”I think Abel is a tragic character,” he said. “I know we helped destroy his life,” said Miller. “Do you feel some responsibility?” Moriarty asked. “I do. I do. It’s not a good feeling.” Tim Miller’s anguish was about to get a whole lot worse. Five months after Robert Abel died, Miller received a chilling letter, put together like something straight out of a mystery novel.

“I got goose bumps right now thinkin’ about it when I first opened it …” he said. It starts out, ‘Tim Miller, Boo! It’s me you’re lookin’ for. You have not seen me but I was the last man to see your Laura. And I am too smart and I tampered with evidence.’ …And it’s like he’s takin’ responsibility for many of the murders on Interstate 45.” Asked if he thinks the letter was for real, Miller said, “I mean, it’s extremely, extremely strange and disturbing. But we’ll never know.” “What was that letter about? …It didn’t give away any real information that led to the killings. But it adds to this haunted story. It’s just one more turn and you keep wondering, when’s the next one coming?” said Hollandsworth.

The writer has never been identified, but if the letter was a message from the killer, it wouldn’t be the first time. Over the years, investigators like Brian Goetschius and Mike Land were taunted with confession letters and phone calls. One call was so harrowing it inspired a scene in the film. “The movie was as real as any of the different tapes that we’ve heard,” Goetschius said. “And if you can’t see the devil, you can certainly picture him from the — the emotions and — and feel the violence and the — and the rage over that phone.” “How frustrating is that for you as an officer?” Moriarty asked. “Oh, I think it was — it was horrendous to — to know that you’re hearing it, but there’s nothing you can do. Nothing,” Goetschius replied.

The outcome of the phone call Goetschius received would be one of the few bright spots in this investigation. The attacker was caught and his victim saved. “And– and she was luckily alive — she was allowed to live,” he said. The attacker was convicted, but never linked to any of the cases of the dozens of young girls murdered in the Interstate 45 corridor. Most remain unsolved — a fact that weighs heavily on the heart of Brian Goetschius, a father of seven children himself. “In this movie, your character becomes obsessed with these cases. Did you? Is that pretty accurate?” Moriarty asked. “We just lived, ate and drank to…let’s clear one of these cases, let’s see what we can do, what’s out there, what’s next,” said Goetschius. “Brian wants to solve every case,” Tim Miller told Moriarty.” Brian cannot wait for the day to come when he’s working these cases that he can go knock on that family’s door and say, ‘Listen we made an arrest.'”

But one arrest won’t be enough. Based on the number of victims and the decades that the crimes have spanned, investigators are now convinced that evil wears many faces. “I think it’s clear to everybody now that various men did various things to various girls,” Hollandsworth said. “So there’s not going to be one killer that emerges that wipes all of these unsolved cases off the books.” And there’s no shortage of possible suspects — from transient workers to the many paroled sexual predators released from nearby prisons. “One time a police department did a survey of how many sex offenders live in that coastal area, and they came up with 2,100 names,” Hollandsworth explained. “So it’s a place where something can happen.”

And when something does, the fields conspire to keep the killers’ secrets. “The environment down here is just horrendous,” said Goetschius. “It’s harsh,” land added. “The weather…the areas where these bodies have been dumped are, you know, remote… If you don’t find it pretty quick, your ability to — to get usable evidence is diminished.” Asked if there was ever a time when he said ‘I just can’t do this anymore? It’s just too tough,’ Goetschius replied, “I haven’t come across it yet. I still want to do it. …These could still be solved…there’s still hope.” And Goetschius’ optimism is about to pay off. After almost 15 years of frustration and dead ends, one of his most haunting cases may be solved. There’s the Hollywood version, where the good guys win, the girl is saved, and one case is neatly wrapped up at the end.

And then there’s the real world… where so many cases of dead and missing girls remain unsolved. The actors in “Texas Killing Fields’ are hoping somehow, the film might make a difference. “People we never know might see the movie and go, ‘I remember that something went down in the fields and I remember this certain car and I remember this person seemed a bit dodgy,’ …and maybe a family then can know what happened to their daughters,” said actor Sam Worthington. Just months after the movie wrapped up, that’s just the kind of big break that came in the Krystal Baker case.

In late 2009, on a hunch, a savvy police officer in Texas submitted DNA from the dress Krystal was wearing when she disappeared. Around the same time in Louisiana, a man named Kevin Edison Smith was arrested on a drug charge. His DNA was taken as part of a routine procedure under Louisiana law and entered into a nationwide computer data bank. Last September, in an exceptional bit of police work, investigators were able to connect the two distant dots on the map – the DNA was a match. According to police, Smith admitted killing Krystal, but says it was an accident. Local police departments are checking to see if he can be linked to any other cases. The Smithers don’t have DNA evidence, but they think they know who killed their daughter Laura. Soon after Laura disappeared, a man named William Reece abducted another young woman just a few miles from Laura’s house. He was convicted for that crime. He’s a prime suspect in Laura’s case, but has never been charged. The case is still officially unresolved. Asked why, Goetschius told Moriarty, “We just don’t have the physical evidence at this time.” What some grieving families have done is try to save others from their fate.

The Smithers started what they call the Laura Recovery Center, a mobile office that goes on site around the country whenever there is a search for a missing child. Jeanie Baker is pushing for a law in Texas similar to the one in Louisiana that helped capture Krystal’s alleged killer — a law that would require DNA testing of all arrested suspects. “Like, whenever they stop somebody — or they put anybody in jail for any reason,” she explained. “Whether felony or not,” Moriarty added. “It doesn’t matter.” “Take their DNA sample. Put it on the system.” “Exactly,” said Baker. As for Tim Miller, there still has been no arrest in his daughter Laura’s murder 27 years ago. The loss has kept him focused on helping others. “Amazingly, out of that experience…he’s found in his agony, this — desire to live again,” Hollandsworth said. “And he is now one of the most world-renown searchers for missing bodies.”

But he can’t stay away from the killing fields where Laura’s body was found. “I would go out there where Laura’s little body was found, where I put that cross, and I would say, ‘Laura, please don’t hate your daddy, but I cannot come out here anymore. “And I would literally be walking to my truck — and I turned to the left and I’d hear this little voice, ‘Dad, don’t quit, please don’t quit.’ And I’d say, ‘Damn you, Laura, just damn you. Just damn you.” Despite the frustrations, police continue to chip away at all the unsolved abductions, case by case. “It’s become this kind of ghost story for South Texas,” Skip Hollandsworth explained. “For these parents, this mystery is not just a ghost story. It is a horrible reality.”

But at least the killings seem to have stopped–no young girls have been murdered in the past few years. “Does that mean it’s over, or do you still fear–” Moriarty asked Land. “Hope so. Always that fear,” he said. “But you hope that it’s over, and again — that’s another point of this movie. …you know if people see this…if young women will see this and go ‘that could happen to me, you know I’m gonna pay better attention to what I’m doing or where I’m going’ — it would be worth it.” But it’s an ongoing battle between that hope… and fear. “That monster’s still there,” Goetschius said. “He just hasn’t struck. It’s… it’s gonna happen.”

CBS Houston, CBS News and the Galveston County Daily News contributed to this report.

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