There is an area known as the “killing fields” in Texas, where 30 girls and young women have turned up dead since the 1970s. This stretch of land runs along I-45 between Houston and Galveston. Here are but a few of the more recent cases…
The last time anyone saw Krystal Baker, she was leaving her grandmother’s house right in a Texas City neighborhood. Fourteen and a half years ago, Krystal was abducted and murdered. The 13-year-old’s body was discovered March 5, 1996, beneath the Trinity River bridge on Interstate 10 in Chambers County. Finally, in 2010, DNA evidence led authorities to arrest 45-year-old Kevin Edison Smith of Louisiana. But it’s only the beginning. Police want to know where Smith has been and who he’s talked to since 1996…
Laura Smither, killed April 3, 1997 during a morning jog alone down her street. The home-schooled girl was concerned with body strength and stamina after having been just accepted by the Houston Ballet and often ran with her father. More than two weeks later — on April 20, 1997 — Laura’s body was found decapitated and nude in a retention pond in Pasadena about 15 miles from her home. She was identified by a ring on one of her fingers and dental records.
Jessica Cain went missing August 17, 1997. She was leaving a Benniganâ€™s restaurant at Bay Area Boulevard and Interstate 45 where she had dinner with a group of friends after a performance at Dickinsonâ€™s Harbour Playhouse. The next morning, her father found the pickup truck she had been driving parked on the shoulder of the southbound lanes of Interstate 45 between exits 7 and 8 in La Marque. There was no trace of her.
Tim Miller, whose sixteen-year-old daughter, Laura, was found dead in the killing fields, is so convinced of former NASA engineer Robert Abelâ€™s guilt that he had left threatening messages on Abel’s answering machine, demanding that he confess. â€œThere are many days when I think about driving over there, putting a gun to his head, and pulling the trigger,â€ Miller says. Oddly, not a shred of physical evidence has ever been found linking Abel to the women found dumped in the fields, no evidence has been uncovered by any police department that can connect him to the murders, and no witness can place him with any of the teenagers or women before they were found dead. Whatâ€™s more, he has never been arrested for any crime, nor is there any known record of a criminal complaint filed against him. â€œMy life has been destroyed, my reputation ruined.â€
A while after the harassment, Robert Abel died in Belleville under mysterious circumstances at his ranch as he was hit by an oncoming train while driving his over-sized golf cart. Was it an accident, or suicide following stress brought on by Tim Miller?
Today, Miller is best known as the founder of Texas EquuSearch, an organization that has volunteers ride on horseback and has helped look for countless missing girls, including Caylee Anthony and Natalee Holloway. Miller is regarded as a hero, not as the psychotic parent he once was (he has channeled that grief into something far more productive and great for gaining unwarranted attention).
I had the distinct honor of speaking with Captain Brian Goetschius (who has been on the force in Texas City for 30 years), and retired detective Mike Land (who now does security consulting for banks and races horses in his free time). While they have investigated some of the murders, they have a level of frustration that comes from necessary legal obstacles — the “killing fields” are not in Texas City jurisdiction. And tracking the killer is even harder, because there is not just one killer: “this is a multitude of people over the years”.
The men are no strangers to murder. Aside from their work as police officers, on Halloween 1987, Mike’s sister-in-law was killed in Huntsville and her child’s throat was slashed. The killing fields investigation has also put them face to face with Timothy Gribble, a serial killer in the mid-1980s. And they have interviewed Henry Lee Lucas, the notorious cross-country killer who may have murdered over 100 people. (His life is fictionalized in the gritty “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”, starring Michael Rooker and Tom Towles.)
Are the killing fields the work of a serial killer? Perhaps multiple serial killers? Brian says, “Each individual case stands on its own until we connect it through a name or a fingerprint… we are aware that there are serial killers. Everybody is reviewing their cases every three four years due to technology improvements, but we have not made a connection between multiple victims.” While a connection would be welcomed, what the men look forward to is closing each case and hoping they do not have to open a new one.
Some of the story is told in the new film, “Texas Killing Fields”, starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Sam Worthington and Chloe Moretz. Mike Land is the protagonist (though he is highly fictionalized and looks nothing like his real world counterpart). Regarding the film, the men tell me “the editing was not what [we] thought it would be” and “the sound quality probably could have been better” but they were overall pleased with what ended up on screen. We “didn’t have an expectation of it following the I-45 killer”, they say. Indeed, that would be far too long and complicated a story (though using David Fincher’s “Zodiac” as a model, perhaps it could have worked?)
I was also told that “the fields as you see them in the movie is not how they are today — they are now built up with subdivisions and are no longer prairie”. Some people may cringe at the thought of urban sprawl, but in this case it may be law enforcement’s best friend — a lack of fields removes any chance at a continuation of the killer’s ideal dumping ground.
Lastly, if anyone was curious, I am informed that “Jeffrey Dean Morgan was a gentleman”.