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The Gruesome Mysteries of the Texas Killing Fields

There are places in the world that are not evil due to any supernatural forces or demonic influences, but rather because of the darkness lying coiled within the human heart. It is these places that are perhaps more terrifying than any paranormal activity, for they stem from something that we know is real and which can be seen all around us; the horrors that lurk within us, and the grotesqueries we as a species are capable of. Lying out over rugged scrubland, nestled out of sight of an interstate among uninhabited oil fields and wasteland, is a place which certainly holds the stain of such human wretchedness. It is here that for decades the dead have appeared, sprawled across the parched earth, their glazed eyes holding the secrets of their last horrifying moments on this planet. It is an isolated patch of nothingness which has nevertheless managed to attract to it body after body, in the process making it a source of one of the largest caches of baffling unsolved murders there is. These are the sinister Texas Killing Fields.

Located about a mile off of Interstate 45, bordering the Calder oil field and League City, between Galveston and Houston, Texas, is a remote, uninhabited patch of land measuring around 40-kilometer (25 mi) long and marked by abandoned oil fields, marshes, and thick, nearly impenetrable tangles of overgrown brush. This forbidding landscape is ominous enough, especially so considering that this particular stretch of the Interstate is often referred to as the “Highway of Hell” due to the inordinate amount of traffic accidents that occur here. Yet, despite its eerie, bleak desolation, and sinister reputation for traffic accidents, at first glance there is little to differentiate this dusty area from the many other such isolated places among the rugged, monotonous scenery of the region. It is an area where one could easily drive past without really giving it a so much as a second thought. However, this remote area has a dark secret that truly makes it stand out as a location to send chills up the spine, for it is here that since the 1970s the bodies of over 30 girls and young women have been found, with most of these murders still unsolved, many of the bodies not even properly identified, and even more who have gone mysteriously missing in the area never to be seen again. It is easy to see why this wasteland has gained its much deserved nickname of “The Killing Fields.”

Area along Interstate 45 near the Killing Fields

Area along Interstate 45 near the Killing Fields

The horrific reputation of this notorious dumping ground of bodies began in June of 1971, when 13-year old Colette Wilson vanished after being dropped off at a bus stop after her school band practice. Although at the time it was treated as a missing persons case, her body would be found 5 months later in what would come to be known as the Killing Fields, near Addicks reservoir, dead from a single gunshot wound to the head. A couple of weeks after Colette’s disappearance, on July 1, 1971, Brenda Jones, 14, disappeared while on her way to visit a sick relative at Galveston General Hospital, which is right off of Interstate 45. Her body would be found floating in Galveston Bay, also killed by a head wound. The killings in the area would continue through 1971 unabated. On October 28, 1971, Gloria Gonzales, 19, was near her home in Houston when she seemed to just vanish off of the face of the earth. Her body would later be found not 35 yards from where Colette Wilson’s corpse had been discovered. Alison Craven, 12, Debbie Ackerman, 15, and her friend Maria Johnson, also 15, would all be found in the ensuing months, all shot in the head and found with their hands and feet bound. The horrific murders would continue beyond throughout the 1970s, until a total of 11 teenage and adolescent girls were dead and unceremoniously dumped here.

At the time, authorities believed that the killings were all the work of a single serial killer, since the victims were all similar in appearance, were found near or in bodies of water, and quite a few of them were found naked from the waist down and with hands and feet bound. These cases would prove to be a nightmare to investigate, as the area only had scattered small towns whose police didn’t share information freely or compare notes, and little evidence had been left behind in the first place. The 11 murders from the 1970s would mostly go unsolved, with only one tenuous conviction in relation to them; a Michael Lloyd Self, who was thought to have killed a girl named Sharon Shaw in 1971, yet whom many have long thought may not have actually done it based on flimsy evidence. Years later, in 1996, a man by the name of Edward Harold Bell, who was at the time serving time for an unrelated murder, would claim in a letter to police that he had murdered 11 girls in Galveston County in the 1970s, including Colette Wilson, yet there would never be enough solid evidence to concretely link him to the crimes. Interestingly, Bell was known for the bizarre claim that he was part of a secret government brainwashing program that had programmed him to kill.

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The 1980s ushered in a new decade of horrors linked to the Killing Fields, starting with the discovery of the brutalized body of 12-year-old Brooks Bracewell and her friend, 14-year-old Georgia Geer, who had both gone missing while visiting a local convenience store. In yet another killing tied to a convenience store, 23-year-old Hiede Villareal-Faye would disappear on October 10, 1983 after using the payphone there, and her body was discovered when a dog dug up the rotting corpse and carried the skull to a nearby house, where it was dropped at the feet of a toddler. More killings and mysterious disappearances would follow throughout the 80s, with the victims either shot, strangled, or brutally beaten to death. One of the most famous Killing Field murders of this era is that of 16-year-old Laura Miller, who vanished on September 10, 1984, also in front of a convenience store after making a call home, eerily the very same convenience store from which Hiede Villareal-Faye had vanished, and whose body would be discovered in a secluded oil field on February 3, 1986. This murder would send Laura’s father, Tim Miller, on a personal mission fueled with vendetta in order to find his daughter’s killer. Frustrated by the lack of progress made by police, with the lack of information sharing between jurisdictions still a major hurdle to solving the cases, as well as the fact that at first law enforcement officials were telling him that it was a simple runaway case, Tim Miller set his sights on a potential suspect in the form of a retired brilliant NASA engineer who had worked on the Saturn rocket named Robert Abel. Abel had been leasing land on the periphery on the area where Laura’s body had been found and had started a small horseback riding business called Stardust Trailrides.

Abel at the time was an unassuming man in his 60s who had a bad back and took medication for high blood pressure. Miller’s suspicion fell on him when conversations with family members and locals suggested that he had a dark, violent side, and that he was prone to abusing women and even beating his own horses with an iron pipe. Miller became convinced that Abel was his daughter’s killer, following him around, harassing him, and more or less stalking him, and he even got law enforcement involved in following up on it. Detectives and FBI were able to profile Abel as a “serial sexual offender,” with many additional traits often present in serial killers, and before long word got out and Abel was being treated like a pariah in the area. People were avoiding him at all costs, crossing the street to get out of his way, and some would drive by him shouting “Killer! You’re the killer!” At one point, hundreds of people, including Tim Miller, even converged upon Abel’s property looking for dead bodies that they thought had been stashed there. They found nothing. Nevertheless, Miller became absolutely convinced that Abel was the killer, yet after the police and FBI were finished with numerous in-depth interrogations with both Abel and eyewitnesses, and meticulous searches of the man’s house looking for any clue whatsoever, not a trace of evidence was ever found to link him to the killing of Laura Miller and he was never charged for any crime. Miller himself would slowly lose his interest in pursuing Abel as a suspect and even apologized to the man at one point for more or less ruining his life. In July of 2005, Abel would drive his golf cart onto a train track as a train approached, ending his life, possibly a suicide. Miller would go on to come to the conclusion that a Clyde Edwin Hedrick, already in prison for manslaughter in another case, was the actual killer although nothing concrete would ever come of this.

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Tim Miller would start the tradition of setting up crosses to mark the places where victims of the mysterious killer were found, including that of Heide Villareal Fye, who disappeared while hitchhiking to see her boyfriend in Houston before turing up dead in the fields, and two of the crosses mark the final resting places of two victims who were never even identified, reading simply “Jane Doe” and “Janet Doe.” He even went so far as to start his own missing persons search operation called Texas Equusearch, which uses searchers on horseback, in vehicles, and even in helicopters to try and hunt down people who have vanished.

And the Killing Fields certainly has its share of vanishings, with many people going missing and never found, presumably murdered. One of the most well-known of these cases centers around the mysterious disappearance of 17-year-old Jessica Cain on Aug 17, 1997. Jessica’s abandoned pickup truck was found by the side of I-45 but the girl herself was never located, despite a massive investigation. To this day, her ultimate fate remains unknown, another unsolved mystery of the Killing Fields, although it is strongly believed that she was murdered due to other similar cases around the same time. In fact, just two weeks before Jessica’s disappearance, 12-year-old Laura Smither had also vanished as she was out taking a jog. Her decomposing, mostly nude, decapitated body would be found 17 days later beside a pond near Friendswood, south of Houston, by a father and son walking their dogs. The previous year, in March of 1996, there has also been a high profile case when 13-year old Krystal Baker disappeared from the town of Texas City. Krystal, whose great aunt was none other than the famous actress Marilyn Monroe, had had a fight with her grandmother and had run off in a fury. Later she made a call from a convenience store telling her mother about what had happened, and this would be the last time she was ever seen alive. At first, Krystal was treated as a runaway case, but her body would turn up under an interstate bridge later that evening, and she had been severely beaten, raped, and strangled to death. Unbelievably, it would take two weeks before the brutalized body would be identified as Krystal’s. Considering the other killings occurring in the area at the time over such a short period of time, and involving similarly aged girls of similar appearance, it is probable that Jessica Cain was likely murdered as well. A detective who worked on the Jessica Cain case and indeed other such cases at the Killing Fields, investigator Brian Goetschius, once expressed his frustration at the lack of progress made and the difficulties involved in solving these cases, saying:

What do you have? You have a car beside the road. That’s it, that’s your crime scene. Frustrating beyond belief. I mean how do you find out who was out on the road in the middle of the night? You don’t. 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.

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It is a frustration that has long hung over many of the murders and disappearances of the Killing Fields. In many ways, it is the perfect place for someone to dump a body. The area’s remoteness and lack of any visitors means most bodies could remain out there for years before being found, if they are found at all. Additionally, there is no one for victims to call to for help out in this vast wasteland. On top of this, even if the bodies are found, the harsh, hot weather, humidity, scavengers, and insects all quickly go to work on corpses left here, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to glean any usable evidence from them. It is also hard to get a list of suspects because there are so many potential aggressors, including serial killers, transients, migrant workers, truck drivers, and others who are just passing through. Ominously, there is also a large number of paroled sexual predators living in the region, with one police survey turning up a list of 2,100 such released convicts living in the surrounding areas of the Killing Fields. Add to this the fact that Texas in general leads the country in unsolved highway homicides and there is very little investigators can do in whittling down the list of possible suspects. It could be anyone. It cannot even be ascertained if these are the work of a single murderer or many. The victims themselves are often troubled young women who are quickly listed as mere runaway cases at first, further creating a window of missed opportunity when something could have been done. Texas Monthly reporter Skip Hollandsworth once told CBS of the Killing Fields thus:

It’s a kind of environment that’s sultry and sinister. 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. Of all the dumping grounds around this country that there have been, this is about – for a serial killer – as good a place as they come.

The killings and disappearances in the area would continue all the way up to the 2000s, with the vanishings of Tot Harriman, 57, in July 12, 2001, as well as the disappearance of 16-year-old Teressa Vanegas in October 31, 2006, and the murder of 23-year-old Sarah Trusty on July 12, 2002. Although there have been no further murders or disappearances since then, this is little consolation considering almost none of the many murders and vanishings that have taken place here have ever been solved. The only solid conviction that has ever been made in connection to the Killing Fields happened in 2012, concerning the murder case of Krystal Baker, which had occurred a full 16 years prior. The breakthrough in this instance came in 2009, when Chambers County’s evidence officer Sherry Willcox had Krystal’s dress resubmitted as evidence in order to subject it to more modern DNA testing techniques to see what would turn up. It worked. A DNA match was found for a man arrested for an unrelated drug charge named Kevin Edison Smith, who then admitted to the killing under questioning. In 2012, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Krystal Baker, marking the only time DNA evidence has conclusively solved one of the many unsolved Killing Fields cases. Indeed, other than this instance, there has been nothing but tenuous evidence, false leads, false confessions, cold trails, tips that have led to dead ends, and suspects without enough evidence to charge.

Author Kathryn Casey at one of the Killing Fields crosses

Author Kathryn Casey at one of the Killing Fields crosses

Authorities hope that such advanced DNA testing techniques could be put to use to solve some of the other baffling cases, but the available evidence is scant, and the trails have gone very cold over the years. There seems to be a very good chance that most of the Killing Fields murders and disappearances will remain unresolved for quite some time in the absence of some new breakthrough. It is unfortunate, because not only can we not be sure that some predator isn’t still out there stalking the I-45 waiting to strike again, instilling fear in those who wonder if their child is next, but the families of the many victims have been robbed of any closure for decades, often in the case of those who simply disappeared not even knowing what became of their loved ones. Reporter Skip Hollandsworth said of the situation:

It’s become this kind of ghost story for South Texas. For these parents, this mystery is not just a ghost story. It is a horrible reality.

The mystique and horrors of this desolate place perfectly lend themselves to a horror movie, and indeed in 2009 a movie loosely based on these events and the efforts of law enforcement to solve them starring Sam Worthington and  Jeffrey Dean Morgan, entitled The Texas Killing Fields, was released. The cases have also been the focus of an in-depth analysis and investigation by author Kathryn Casey, Deliver Us: Three Decades of Murder and Redemption in the Infamous I-45/Texas Killing Fields, released in 2015. There can be no denying that we have a morbid fascination with these types of unsolved murders, especially when they revolve around such a bleak, remote area in the middle of nowhere. Looking at the long list of unsolved brutal murders and chilling vanishings that have occurred here in these Killing Fields, it seems that it does not take supernatural forces or black ancient magic to curse a land. The insidious evil that mankind is capable of is perhaps more than capable of that. It is with this evil that are created places which, while perhaps not haunted by ghosts, are haunted in a sense nevertheless.