GALVESTON, Texas — A serial killer already on Oklahoma’s death row for murder admitted Wednesday in court that he killed another three girls and young women in Texas over a four-month span in 1997.
William Lewis Reece, 63, pleaded guilty in Galveston County to the murders of Jessica Lee Cain, 17, of Tiki Island, and Laura Kate Smither, 12, of Friendswood. According to KPRC in Houston, he was then taken to Brazoria County, where he pleaded guilty to killing Kelli Ann Cox, 20, of Denton.
Reece was sentenced to life in prison for each of the murders. Houston’s Fox 26 reported that Galveston officials have said Reece confessed to the murders committed there but did not give enough detail for prosecutors to seek a death sentence.
Reece was convicted last year and sentenced to death in Oklahoma for the murder of a newlywed who vanished July 26, 1997, from a Bethany, Oklahoma car wash. The body of Tiffany Dobry Johnston, 19, was found the day after she disappeared.
The convicted killer was serving time in Texas for the 1998 kidnapping of Sandra Sapaugh when DNA linked him in 2015 to Johnston’s rape and murder. In 2016, he decided to come clean about other violent crimes he had committed.
He ultimately led authorities to the bodies of Cox and Cain, who at the time remained missing.
Smither’s nude and decapitated body had been found several weeks after her April 1997 disappearance.
The Texas victims’ families told the court Wednesday about the pain Reece caused by taking the lives of their loved ones.
“Twenty-five years is an awfully long time to be waiting for justice, and there were a number of years in there where we truly didn’t think we’d ever see this day,” Gay Smither said, according to KPRC.
Cox’s mother, Jan Bynum, said she is relieved that the court record will finally show what happened to her daughter and who was responsible, the news station reported. Cox’s daughter, who was just 19 months old when her mother was slain, spoke alongside the grandmother who raised her.
“At the end of the day, we’re able to shut the chapter on this part of it and not have to worry about him hurting anyone else,” Alexis Bynum, now 26, said.
A trail of terror
Reece, an Oklahoma native who lived in Houston in 1997, is accused of killing Johnston, Cox, Cain and Smither over a four-month span in 1997. Reece had recently been released after serving more than a decade in an Oklahoma prison for rape, kidnapping and forcible oral sodomy, Oklahoma Department of Corrections records show.
An in-depth 2016 profile of Reece by the Dallas Morning News indicated that those very first convictions stem from attacks on two women, including the 19-year-old daughter of an Oklahoma sheriff’s deputy. The woman, a student at the University of Oklahoma, was abducted by Reece in April 1986 after he stopped to help with her car, which had stalled in a storm.
“Why are you doing this to me?” the young woman asked.
Reece replied that he was “crazy.”
The victim escaped after she talked Reece into letting her go to the bathroom, the Morning News reported.
A month later, while awaiting trial in that case, Reece, then 26, raped a woman he followed home from a bar, the newspaper said. He ultimately served 10 years of a 25-year sentence in those crimes.
When he was released, Reece found work shoeing horses and working construction, but his criminal behavior soon escalated. Reece has never given a motive for the killings, but prosecutors told jurors he raped the women to satisfy his sexual desires and killed them so they could not send him back to prison, the Oklahoman reported.
His first murder was that of Smither, an aspiring ballerina abducted April 3, 1997, while taking a 20-minute morning jog near her Friendswood home.
The girl’s parents reported her missing after she failed to come home for breakfast. Her remains were found 18 days later in a retention pond in Pasadena, 12 miles from her home.
The Oklahoman reported that in his confessions, Reece alleged that he’d accidentally hit Smither with his truck as he left the Friendswood construction site where he was working at the time. He said he then panicked and snapped her neck before disposing of her body.
“I’m sorry about it. I wish I had done something different,” he said in his confession.
Cox, a criminal justice and psychology student at the University of North Texas, disappeared July 15, 1997, following a field trip to the Denton jail with her criminology class. According to the Morning News, a key Cox had hidden under her car wouldn’t open the door, so she walked to a nearby gas station and called her boyfriend for help.
She was gone by the time her boyfriend arrived, and she was never heard from again.
Reece told authorities he’d come across Cox at a “mom-and-pop” grocery store while on a drive from Oklahoma to Texas. He said he stopped for whiskey and bumped into the college student, with whom he began to argue.
He said he strangled her to death and put her in his truck. After driving around for hours, he said he buried the young mother’s body where it was later found near Rosharon.
Days later, on July 26, 1997, he encountered Johnston at the Sunshine Car Wash in Bethany. Johnston’s mother, Kathy Dobry, had met Reece through his mother, who was a good friend of hers.
Dobry told the Morning News the ex-convict seemed “very polite,” and said she once drove him to get a driver’s license as a favor to her friend.
“And dummy me, I didn’t think to ask what he’d been in jail for because it didn’t concern me and my family,” Dobry said in 2016.
Reece later told police that he accidentally sprayed Johnston, who he did not know, while washing his car. The Oklahoman reported that he said Johnston grew angry and they argued.
He admitted abducting Johnston by throwing her in his horse trailer and driving away. He later raped the newlywed, who had gotten married three months before her murder.
Reece said he strangled Johnston after she hit him in the head with a horseshoe, the newspaper reported. He tossed her body into some tall grass on a roadside, where she was found the next day.
He claimed Johnston was the only murder victim he sexually assaulted, though authorities are skeptical.
Cain vanished Aug. 17, 1997, after a cast party for a musical she’d been in at her Catholic prep school. According to her obituary, Cain had hoped to study drama at Sam Houston State University.
The Houston Chronicle reported that Cain’s father’s truck, which she had borrowed, was found along her route home from the Clear Lake restaurant where the party was held. Her purse was still inside.
A massive search was launched for Cain. Two of the searchers were Bob and Gay Smither, who participated to show their thanks for the community support they received following their own daughter’s disappearance and murder.
Reece told authorities he argued with Cain after she slammed a car door into his Jeep, according to police. He alleged that they drove away but he tailed her on the interstate until she pulled over to confront him.
He beat and strangled Cain and buried her body in a field near southeast Houston. In March 2016, he led authorities to the site.
“He kept saying, ‘I can guarantee you she’s right here,’ and I said, ‘Bill, we’ve already dug right there,’” said Josh Rogers, deputy chief of the Friendswood Police Department. “He kind of cussed and said, ‘You’re wasting everyone’s time out here.”
Investigators realized that the field to which Reece led them had changed over the years. It now included a fence that had been installed since Cain’s disappearance.
When the fence was removed, they found Cain’s remains.
Cox’s remains were found the following month in Brazoria County.
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