Where do you turn when a child is missing?
The story of the Laura Recovery Center
by Suzanne Boase
It was 9:15 a.m. on a quiet Thursday in April 1997, and Bob and Gay Smither wereworried. Their 12-year-old daughter, Laura, had gone for a run but hadn’t returned. Gay had just finished cooking Laura’s favorite breakfast – pancakes – and the couple knew Laura wouldn’t chance missing out on them.
“Knowing Laura, she would not be 10 minutes late. If she said she would be back, she would be,” says Bob.
The morning run alone was unusual. Laura, an avid ballerina, had just started reading a book on fitness and had decided running would boost her strength and stamina. Bob and Gay had felt very safe in allowing Laura to run alone in their quiet community of Friendswood, but now they were getting scared. Bob went out to search for Laura. After finding no sign of her, the family called the police and began combing the neighborhood.
“We knew. We knew something serious was wrong,” says Gay. Bob and Gay relive the most traumatic time of their lives as they sit together in a recovery center named for their daughter – a center founded to prevent other parents from experiencing the agony they endured that April four years ago.
The Friendswood police had called the news media asking their help in locating Laura, hoping the coverage would bring in some speedy leads. Laura was a straight-A student, shy and very close to her family. Authorities felt it had to be an abduction.
The news spread quickly in Friendswood and throughout Houston, and thousands of people responded, volunteering to help search for Laura as police continued to investigate. A remarkably organized command center, which would come to be known as the Laura Recovery Center, sprang into action, staffed by civilian volunteers, many of whom had never met the Smithers. But after a three-week search, checking neighborhoods, fields and bayous by foot, four-wheeler and even horseback, there came devastating news. Laura’s body had been found in a Pasadena retention pond. No one has ever been charged for her murder.
“I may never know, but I assume that she was literally grabbed,” says Bob, “grabbed off the street.”
“And fought tooth and nail to get away,” adds Gay.
“I assume she was probably dead five minutes after he grabbed her because she would have just gone ballistic. And I imagine that was his answer to somebody screaming,” says Bob.
Many families would have crumbled and disappeared into the landscape to grieve, but not the Smithers. Bob and Gay, along with a small core of committed volunteers and one full-time executive director, run the Laura Recovery Center Foundation, or LRCF. They work countless hours, sometimes all night, in a small office surrounded by books, phones and fliers. The faces of missing children, including Laura, stare down from the walls. The goal: preventing child abductions in the first place, and if the worst happens, helping to recover the missing child.
“Every child is worth that,” says Gay. “Every child deserves to be searched for.”
But the LRCF nearly didn?t happen. Immediately after Laura?s body was found, Bob and Gay retreated into a world of grief, anger and denial, trying simply to help themselves and their son David survive a nightmare. At the same time, the core group of volunteers began gathering to discuss and to try to deal with the tragic events surrounding Laura’s abduction and murder. They started to write a manual, information about how to mobilize a quick response when a child is abducted. It wasn’t long before Bob and Gay joined them. Then in August 1997, someone knocked at their door early on a Sunday with news of another kidnapping, that of 17-year-old Jessica Cain of Tiki Island.
“One of her neighbors was on our doorstep asking for help,” says Gay. “In that moment, in our brokenness, we knew that we’d learned things between April and August – what had been done right, and what had been done wrong. Here was the first call for help.”
Within a few hours, hundreds of volunteers, many of them the same people who had searched for Laura, gathered to search for Jessica. But to this date, she has not been found. Soon after, another missing child. And then another. In early 1998, the LRCF was born.
“Everyone reinvents the wheel every time this happens,” says Bob. “We can do better. The manual is a big step in that direction. We can suggest to people how they can get organized quickly – suggest they do it ahead of time.”
“Just like its really hard to rob a bank now, it’s really easy to abduct a child,” says Gay. “We have to make it where it’s just as hard to abduct a child as it is to rob a bank. That’s where our priorities should be.”
As many as 1.3 million children are reported missing in the United States every year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. That’s one every 40 seconds. Many are runaways, but one in every three cases is a stranger or family abduction. And Gay says the statistics show that girls between 11 and 17 are the most vulnerable. “I thought at almost 13, Laura was at an age that I could let her go down our street without us. And I couldn’t have been more wrong. And I will live to regret that every hour of every day of every week for the rest of my life.”
The LRCF is revolutionizing the way missing child cases are handled. The staff responds to dozens of cases every year, helping organize searches, printing fliers and providing support for the families. It has developed a concept called the triangle of trust to educate law enforcement, families and the community on how to effectively work together to recover missing children. The most critical factor: Time.
“We’ve found that you have three to six hours for a safe recovery if it’s a stranger abduction before it turns into a murder,” says Gay. “There are certain things that need to be done. If they’re not done, you can never make up that time, and you’ll be recovering a body. But if things are done and done well, the chances go up greatly. Not every child will be recovered alive, but some will. And if one child is recovered alive, that effort is worth it.”
Besides conducting searches, LRCF volunteers distribute the organization’s manual to area police departments, governments and anyone else who wants it, describing how to prepare for and respond to child abductions. They also educate families. They’ve conducted hundreds of seminars to thousands of school children, educating them about the “lures” a predator uses to entice kids, and have distributed numerous “Child ID” kits. Parents are taught that an abduction can happen to any family in any community at any time, and they are given information to protect their children. The most important tips: Always know where your children are, and never allow them to roam alone.
The Center also has begun teaching classes at area police academies and recently received TCLEOSE (Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officers Standards and Education) certification for the course.
“What the center is doing is helping train the police from the civilian perspective as to what police need to do and do fast and right the first time,” says Bob Walcutt, LRCF executive director who helped search for Laura and was hired last year as the center’s first full-time employee.
Gay says many smaller police departments rarely deal with child abductions and don’t have procedures in place to respond quickly. “If you don’t have the policies and procedures in your police department, every time it happens, you’re going to be reliving what we lived.”
Bob and Gay hope to make future searches easier with a mobile command center – an RV outfitted with office equipment so they can drive to where a child has disappeared, start printing fliers and searching. Unfortunately, the funding has not yet come through. Adding to the financial challenges, the LRCF has had to leave its rent-free headquarters and move to a new rented location in Friendswood.
“April 1997 was the worst time in our life,” says Bob. “It was unimaginable, but it was also the only time that I’ve seen the face of God right here in this community and what (the people) did for Laura. it’s just amazing.
“There isn’t a moment I don’t think about her,” he says. “Getting over something like this, I don’t see it happening. She’s in my mind all the time.”
Every time the phone rings at the LRCF, Bob and Gay flash back to the frantic search for a daughter who would not be coming home.
“We were trying to rescue Laura. We’re still trying to rescue Laura,” says Gay. “We know now that’s not going to happen, but there are kids out there who can be rescued.”