Portrait of an Alleged Serial Killer: William Lewis Reece
The prisoner walked the pasture, disturbing the earth with each shackled step. Reflecting on memory, he focuses on an undergrowth of tall yellow grass. It had changed since he had been there last—this time, he was surrounded by police he had once avoided.
In 2016, William Lewis Reece claimed responsibility for the murders of two young women missing since 1997. He agreed to lead police to their bodies, buried in fields outside of Houston, Texas.
For years, families had wondered what happened to their daughters, responsible young girls from good homes who vanished under the most normal of circumstances.
One driving home from a theater cast party. Another on a morning run.
For years, it baffled the police. Then Reece emerged. A 56-year-old Texas inmate with convictions for kidnapping and rape—suddenly began confessing to crimes of high profile missing young women.
Police have tied Reece to the attacks of at least seven women, including four who were murdered. Often posing as a “Good Samaritan,” he preyed upon women of a specific type—pretty, brunette, young—and alone.
William Lewis Reece was born on July 1, 1959. The auburn-haired Reece grew up on a farm in the rolling hills outside of Yukon, Oklahoma, with 12 brothers and sisters. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade to get a job shoeing horses.
According to those familiar with Reece, because of his bad behavior as a child, he had bounced around in foster care but maintained a remarkably close relationship with his mother.
Described as a mama’s boy, he lived with his mother in a mobile home in Anadarko, Oklahoma, a small town about an hour outside of Oklahoma City. Reece joined the Oklahoma National Guard at age 18.
In 1979, at age 19, Reece married a quiet girl named Judy Fleming whom he met in Anadarko. Their relationship was doomed from the start.
“We were riding around town. We were young, said Fleming. “We pulled into a parking lot and he said, ‘If you don’t go out with me, I’ll put a gun to my head.’ He was kidding—at least I thought he was then.”
Fleming married Reece in a small church wedding in Gracemont, but her marriage was not a happy time in her life.
“I was pregnant,” said Fleming. “My dad didn’t want me to marry him.”
Fleming was married and divorced from Reece twice. In total, they were not married for over than three years. They had two children together, a boy and a girl.
Fleming says Reece was cheating on him with her best friend, so she divorced him in 1982. After they divorced, the violence and death threats began.
“He broke into my house and beat me up. Put a knife to my throat. Threw me down and put a shotgun to my head,” Fleming told the Dallas News.
Another time of terror, Reece visited Fleming and the children—who were both younger than two—and drove them to the local store to buy diapers. During the ride, they got into an argument.
“He said if you don’t do such-and-such, I’m gonna kills us all in the car,” Fleming said.
Fleming then described being terrified as Reece drove down the country roads speeding as fast as he could go, with his one-year-old and 2-month-old babies in the back seat. He finally stopped on his own, but Fleming knew he was capable of hurting them.
Fleming described a time when Reece beat her face so bad it turned black, but she never thought he was capable of murder. “I never thought he wouldn’t hurt anyone else but me,” Fleming said.
Reece spent ten years in prison for rape, sodomy, and kidnapping. Well-known true-crime novelist Kathryn Casey had a unique relationship with Reece and visited him in jail in 2013.
“I went into the prison and sat down to talk to Bill Reece, which was a fairly disturbing experience,” Casey told KHOU 11 News. “He’s a very cold, very calculating—a very manipulative man. At the same time—at other times, he was laughing, and he was charming, and he was very much the psychopath.”
In 1986, Reece kidnapped his first victim on an Oklahoma highway. On a rainy spring day in 1986, the daughter of a deputy sheriff had just finished classes at the University of Oklahoma and was driving to her job as an aerobics instructor. While driving down Interstate 35, her Mustang stalled, and she pulled to the side.
She panicked and wanted to call her father for help, but a tall fence separated her from a hotel and a mall where she could make a call. Just as she contemplated jumping the fence, a semi-truck pulled up. She would later tell a jury.
Driving the truck was a young Reece, offering to help her. Thankful, she got into his truck and they began driving.
Instead of taking her to a phone, Reece parked outside an Albertson’s supermarket and grabbed the 115-pound freshman, pinning her to a mattress inside the sleeper cab of his truck.
“He had her perform sexual acts, then he duct-taped her and zipped her up in a sleeping bag.
Knowing he would likely kill her, the young woman tried everything she could do to escape.
"She very wisely talked her way out of it,” Casey said. “The odd thing was that once he had done this to her, he talked to her about wanting to marry her.”
That victim was able to escape, and they charged Reece for the kidnapping, but his sexual crimes did not stop there.
“While under indictment on that case, he crawled into a window at another woman’s home after seeing her at a bar and sexually assaulted her,” Casey said.
They sentenced Reece to 25 years in prison, but because of a technicality he only served 10 years of his sentence and released in 1996.
A few months later, young women and girls began to disappear.
On April 3, 1997, Laura Smither, 12, vanished while out jogging near her home in Friendswood, Texas.
After her disappearance, over 600 volunteers searched over 500 square miles of boggy swamps and woods surrounding her home and town.
Surrounded by horse farms, Friendswood seemed to be a safe place to raise a child, but it also was in an area where oil refineries and construction sites were close and where transient seasonal workers were employed. It is also located right off Interstate 45, a well-traveled north and south thoroughfare.
Laura was from a good family. Her parents Bob and Gay Smither had homeschooled the bright young girl with delicate features and a smile that lit up a room. She was scuba-certified and a promising young ballerina who had just been accepted into a ballet company in Houston. To prepare for her new training, Laura had read that she needed to build up her strength by running.
Rarely out of her mother’s sight, on a gray misty morning, she took a jog just up the road in front of her home. When Laura did not return for breakfast, her parents panicked and called the police.
Fourteen days later, Laura’s body was discovered in a regional water retention pond ten miles from her home in Pasadena, her body clad only in socks.
The investigation quickly pointed to Reece as a suspect. Police had placed him in the area working at a construction site the same day Laura disappeared. However, the case lacked evidence and they let Reece go.
In the summer of 1997, six months after the murder of Laura Smither, Sandra Sapaugh, 19, would be kidnapped.
Sandra was at a payphone at a gas station on Nasa Parkway in Webster, Texas. She saw a man staring at her as she got into her vehicle, which made her feel uncomfortable. She left the parking lot and drove across the street to the Waffle House. Someone had slashed one of her tires.
Seconds later, a guy in a Dually truck pulls up behind her, almost blocking her in. The man asked, ‘You have a flat tire?’ She said, ‘Yes,’ and he offered her help.
Little did Sandra know she was speaking to a potential serial killer. Soon after, Reece kidnapped Sandra and headed down Interstate 45, but Sandra freed herself from his grips.
Sandra intuitively knew she had to escape and jumped out of the truck onto the freeway, suffering suffered severe injuries from the jump. While recovering, her memory was hazy, but after she was hypnotized, she was able to remember more details of the abduction.
“She described the inside of his truck. The color. She described him. What he looked like. She said he had pockmarks. He wore a black cowboy hat,” said former Police Chief of Tiki Island.
The case went to trial in 1998.
“I was scared. I was in shock. I was shaking,” said Sandra in her testimony.
Sgt. James Lovel of the Webster Police Department remembers looking at Reece in the courtroom.
“He just sat there and snickered,” said Lovell.
Reece is serving a 60-year sentence for Sandra’s kidnapping, but before the police apprehended him, there would be more victims.
For nearly 20 years, family and friends of missing University of North Texas student Kelli Cox, 20, could only speculate about what happened to her after she vanished midday in Denton, Texas.
Kelli had been a psychology major and had just toured the Denton jail with her criminology class on July 15, 1997. She left the jail and called her boyfriend from a nearby payphone to tell him she was locked out of her car, which was parked near the jail. When her boyfriend arrived about an hour later, there was no sign of Kelli.
Long-awaited answers finally arrived in March 2016 when Reece began talking and told police where they could find the body of Kelli and another young woman who vanished years before. Remains found in a Brazoria County pasture were positively identified as Kelli.
Eleven days after the abduction of Kelli Cox, Tiffany Johnston, 18, was abducted from the Sunshine Car Wash in Bethany, Oklahoma, On July 26, 1997, her white Dodge Neon was found at the car wash with the keys still in the ignition.
Tiffany's partially clothed body was found the following day in a tall patch of grass near Gregory Road and Interstate 40 in Yukon, close to where Reece had grown up. The state medical examiner reported she had been strangled to death.
DNA evidence collected from Tiffany’s body was tested multiple times, but it was recent forensic advancements that provided investigators with new information leading to Reece.
During interviews with police, Reece told them that he knew Tiffany’s family. In addition, the owner of the car wash said Reece was a regular there, but there would be no admission.
Reece told investigators he wasn’t in Oklahoma when Tiffany was abducted but investigators were able to find a call Reece had made with his AT&T calling card from a payphone at Interstate 40 and Mustang Road in Yukon the day of Tiffany’s abduction.
Reece was charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping of Tiffany Johnston in Oklahoma on September 21, 2015. However, because Reece is awaiting trial in Texas, he has not been returned to Oklahoma to face the death penalty charge.
Jessica Cain, 17, a promising young actress, left the Bay Area Harbour Playhouse in Dickinson where she had taken part in a play on August 17, 1997. She then went to eat with her high school friends at Bennigan’s in Clear Lake. She left the restaurant in her dad’s pickup truck and headed down Gulf Freeway toward her home to Tiki Island, approximately 30 minutes south.
Hours later, close to Tiffany's home, her father found his pickup truck parked on the southbound shoulder of the freeway, her wallet still inside.
Jessica remained missing for 20 years until Reece began talking to authorities and led them to her body in a field on East Orem Drive in southeast Houston. Wearing handcuffs and shackles, Reece accompanied searchers to the dig site close to Hobby Airport.
Investigators spent weeks at the site, including tearing down a barn on the private property. In March 2016, human remains were located at the dig site.
On May 20, 2016, using DNA testing, the Harris County Medical Examiner positively identified the bones as Jessica. An autopsy concluded there was not enough evidence to determine how Jessica died.
In December 2017, a grand jury in Galveston indicted Reece for Jessica’s murder.
Why Talk Now?
Reece’s attorney says he admitted responsibility for the death of Laura Smither, Kelli Cox, and Jessica Cain, although he has denied he had anything to do with the murder of Tiffany Johnston in Oklahoma.
Many question why Reece would suddenly begin talking and cooperating with Texas authorities, twenty years after the women’s brutal slayings.
“My understanding is he does not want to go to Oklahoma where the case is a death penalty case and that he is cooperating now with Texas officials, maybe to forestall that,” said Casey.
Casey doesn’t believe Reece’s sudden loose lips has anything to do with remorse.
“He is a cold-blooded, calculated psychopath and whatever he’s doing he’s doing for Bill Reece, Casey said.
Reece is currently in the Galveston County Jail awaiting trial for the murders of Kelli Cox, Laura Smither, and Jessica Cain.
Questions & Answers
© 2020 Kym L Pasqualini