It took more than two decades to bring William Reece to justice for the murders of Laura Smither, Kelli Cox, Tiffany Johnston and Jessica Cain.
October 18, 1996: William Reece is released from prison
After serving nearly 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting two women in his native Oklahoma, William Reece was released from prison in the fall of 1996. After his release, Reece briefly stayed with his mother in Anadarko, Okla., before moving to Harris County, Texas where he found work as a farrier (putting shoes on horses) and construction worker. Reece made frequent trips between his new home in Texas and his mother’s home in Oklahoma in 1997.
April 3, 1997: Laura Smither disappears in Friendswood, Texas
Laura Smither, a 12-year-old aspiring ballerina, went for a morning jog near her home in Friendswood, Texas, but never returned. As days passed, Gay and Bob Smither searched for their daughter with the help of their community, thousands of volunteers and even the US Marines, but no one was able to find a trace of the missing girl.
April 20, 1997: Laura Smither is found
After 17 days of searching, Laura Smither’s decomposed body was found 12 miles from her home in a Pasadena, Texas, retention pond by a father and son out walking their dogs. After weeks in the water, her cause of death was unclear. Despite this devastating news, a suspect quickly emerged. It was William Reece, who worked at a construction site just down the road from the Smither’s Friendswood home. While Reece was on their radar and his truck was search in connection to Laura’s case, police did not have enough evidence to make an arrest at the time, so he remained a free man.
May 16, 1997: Sandra Sapaugh is kidnapped in Webster, Texas
Sandra Sapaugh, 19, stopped at a convenience store near I-45. Sapaugh says she noticed a man staring at her in the parking lot and when she saw him again at the waffle house across the street, he offered to help her with a newly discovered flat tire. Sapaugh was confused by this and says before she knew what was happening, the stranger forced her into his white pickup truck and sexually assaulted her. He sped away with her in his truck and got on the interstate. Fearing what might happen to her if she stayed, Sandra jumped from the fast-moving truck into the middle of the highway. Sapaugh was badly hurt from the jump, but survived.
July 15, 1997: Kelli Cox goes missing in Denton, Texas
Kelli Cox, a 20-year-old mother and student at the University of Northern Texas, was taking a tour of the Denton police department as a part of her criminal justice class but left early to take an exam. Shortly after leaving, Cox discovered that she was locked out of her car and used a pay phone at a nearby gas station to call her boyfriend for help. But when he showed up, Cox was nowhere to be found. Later that day, when Kelli failed to pick her toddler up from daycare, Cox’s mother Jan Bynum, says she knew something was terribly wrong.
Jan Bynum’s Fight to Find Kelli
Kelli Cox was a dedicated student, taking summer classes and hoped to graduate early with a degree in social work. Although Kelli was a young mother to her daughter Alexis, she embraced it fully. Alexis was Cox’s whole world and Kelli’s mother Jan Bynum knew that Kelli would never leave Alexis behind.
Still, the days of searching turned into weeks and despite her best efforts, Bynum couldn’t figure out exactly what happened to her daughter. With no body and no strong leads, the case began to grow cold.
July 26, 1997: Tiffany Johnston vanished in Bethany, Oklahoma
Tiffany Johnston was 19 years old and newly married when she vanished in broad daylight, from a carwash in Bethany, Oklahoma. Her floor mats were still hanging on the drying racks and keys were still in the ignition, but there was no sign of Tiffany and no one at the carwash reported seeing anything out of the ordinary that day. Tiffany’s mother Kathy Dobry was left mystified and wondered what happened to her youngest daughter.
July 27, 1997: Tiffany Johnston’s body is discovered
Just a day after her disappearance, Tiffany Johnson’s partially clothed body was found in tall grass, next to an unpaved rural road close to the interstate. It was just 15 miles from the car wash where Johnson was last seen alive. She had been strangled and sexually assaulted. Investigators were able to recover the killer’s DNA from Johnson’s body, but they could not develop a suspect profile from it at the time.
August 17, 1997: Jessica Cain’s truck is found in La Marque, Texas
Just three weeks after Tiffany Johnston’s murder, 17-year-old Jessica Cain was last seen leaving a restaurant in Clear Lake, Texas, where she was out with friends. When Jessica missed curfew, her father C.H. Cain went out looking for her. After searching for hours, C.H. Cain found his daughter’s truck abandoned on the shoulder of I-45 just a couple of miles from their home. There was no trace of Jessica and no clues as to where she was.
Searching for Jessica Cain
Search parties and friends looked for any sign of Jessica, but they had no luck. Gay and Bob Smither, who were still processing the loss of their own daughter Laura, just four months earlier, joined the search immediately, saying they felt called by God to help. After weeks of searching for answers, once again, investigators were left without leads and Jessica’s case grew cold.
October 1997: A survivor comes forward
Five months after Sandra Sapaugh’s abduction, during a meeting with Friendswood police, Webster investigators realized that Sapaugh’s description of her kidnapper’s vehicle sounded similar to the truck Friendswood police had searched in Laura Smither’s case — belonging to Wiliam Reece. On Oct.16, 1997, Reece was pulled in for a lineup and Sapaugh identified him as her attacker.
Reece was arrested and charged with kidnapping. He pleaded not guilty.
April 29, 1998: The trial for Sandra Sapaugh’s kidnapping begins
When William Reece was put on trial for the kidnapping of Sandra Sapaugh, his past came back to haunt him. The jury heard Sandra Sapaugh’s powerful testimony and his victims from the eighties also took the stand and shared how they were both brutally attacked by Reece in Oklahoma. The jury deliberated for less than three hours before they found Reece guilty. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
A second look at Tiffany Johnston’s case
In 2012, retired police chief, Lynn Williams had started working for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations (OSBI) and was assigned to Tiffany Johnston’s case. Williams went through the case file methodically, and came to think the crime scene DNA was their best bet at identifying Johnston’s killer.
The DNA from Johnston’s body had already been tested twice, with no results, but with advancements in DNA testing, OSBI supervising criminologist Wendy Duke and her team were able to develop a partial male profile. The team compared this partial profile to the profiles from known suspects, and eliminated all other suspects, until they got to William Reece.
A DNA breakthrough
In December of 2013, a buccal swab was collected from William Reece and sent to the OSBI for comparison. With his DNA in hand, Wendy Duke was finally able to connect Reece to the DNA recovered from Tiffany’s body, and Reece could not be eliminated as the contributor. On Sept. 22, 2015, an arrest warrant was issued for William Reece by the state of Oklahoma for the murder and kidnapping of Tiffany Johnston.
Here is a look at the DNA comparison that was run by the OSBI.
February 2016: William Reece agrees to talk
Oklahoma law enforcement shared their new DNA discovery with Texas investigators who wondered if they could get Reece to talk about a potential connection to the cases of Laura Smither, Kelli Cox and Jessica Cain.
Investigators from Texas went to visit Reece in prison, but before he agreed to speak further, he wanted the death penalty taken off the table. The Smithers agreed and Jan Bynum agreed; they all hoped to learn what happened to their daughters.
Cold cases heat up
Despite only having an agreement to waive the death penalty for Kelli Cox and Laura Smither’s cases, William Reece ended up confessing to all four murders.
March 18, 2016: Jessica Cain’s remains are discovered
With the help of some information from William Reece, after 25 days of digging, Jessica Cain’s remains were discovered in a field on East Orem Drive, near Hobby Airport. Jessica Cain’s parents asked for privacy while they buried their daughter.
April 1, 2016: Kelli Cox’s remains are discovered
Two weeks after Jessica’s remains were unearthed, Kelli Cox’s were found in nearby Brazoria County. After so many years of wondering what happened to her daughter and Alexis’ mother, Jan Bynum now had answers. Kelli’s bracelet was found with her remains, and Jan had it made into a locket.
May 18, 2021: Tiffany Johnston’s murder trial begins
After William Reece led investigators to Kelli Cox and Jessica Cain’s remains, Oklahoma prosecutors wanted Reece transported to Oklahoma, so he could face charges for the murder and kidnapping of Tiffany Johnston. Even though prosecutors had DNA linking him to TJohnson and his confession, Reece entered a plea of not guilty.
After nine days, the jury deliberated and took less than two hours to find Reece guilty of murdering Tiffany Johnston. He was sentenced to death.
March 8, 2022: William Reece returns to Texas
After being found guilty of the murder of Tiffany Johnston, Reece returned to Texas to face justice in the murders of Laura Smither, Kelli Cox and Jessica Cain.
June 29, 2022: Justice for Laura, Kelli, and Jessica
Twenty-five years after the murders of Laura Smither, Kelli Cox and Jessica Cain, their families finally got their day in court. William Reece pleaded guilty in Galveston and Brazoria Counties and was given three life sentences: one for each murder.