The real-life mystery of Texas' killing fields

Can a Hollywood movie help solve the most notorious killing spree in Texas?

One by one, young women were kidnapped and murdered. But it took the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl in 1997, to wake up the community.

When Bob and Gay Smither talk about their daughter, Laura, they sound like every other proud parent.

"She just lived to dance, she went to dance six days a week," said Gay Smither, looking at photos of her daughter.

"You're not supposed to be friends with your kids, but believe me, I was," said Bob. "And it's just a hole that can never be filled."

"...we miss her," a teary-eyed Gay added.

Their photos end just as Laura was about to turn 13.

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In 1997, Erin Moriarty was with the Smithers, covering this story for "48 Hours," just days after their daughter went missing.

"How could I forget it," Moriarty said. "I have a child on my own who was the same age as Laura was when she suddenly vanished."

Moriarty still haunted by Laura Smithers case

Laura had gone out jogging that morning.

"Bob became alarmed first," Gay recalled. "We were serving pancakes and he said within a couple of minutes, 'She should be back, she should be back.'"

"Laura would not be 10 minutes late," said Bob.

"So we called the police immediately," said Gay.

This kind of thing wasn't supposed to happen here. This is the middle class community of Friendswood, south of Houston -- a place that had once been chosen one of the safest places in America.

This time, unlike the Krystal Baker case, the police and the community mobilized quickly.

"Our family really needs your assistance. Somebody, somebody must have seen something that morning," Bob Smither told reporters at a press conference.

"Whoever has her could take another child. We don't want your families to go through this," Gay said.

Knowing that every moment counts, helicopters were called in; Then, even the marines.

Seventeen days after Laura disappeared, Gary Tugwell and his son were walking their dogs near a pond 12 miles north of town.

"And we thought it was like a dead animal in the water," Gary Tugwell explained. "And my son Jason, he says, 'No, he said animals don't have socks.'"

It was Laura Smither's nude, decomposing body. She had been murdered.

"I mean, our lives as a family were totally shattered," Gay told Moriarty.

Bob added, "It took a long time for it to really be internalized. We probably still pretty much in denial when you were in her before."

And coming a year after Krystal Baker's murder, the cops now knew these were not isolated incidents. Finally, police from different jurisdictions all started comparing notes.

"So it's like, 'Wow, this doesn't stop. Everybody let's get a grip on it," Goetschius said. "And we couldn't -- there was no end."

In fact, four months later, another young girl disappeared. This time it was 17-year-old budding actress Jessica Cain.

"She would not go somewhere without calling. She'd call one of us at least, that's why we know something's wrong and we gotta find her!" a friend of Jessica's told reporters.

Jessica's pickup truck was found abandoned beside Interstate 45, just like the ominous opening scene of the movie "Texas Killing Fields."

"What do you have? You have a car beside the road. That's it, that's your crime scene," said Goetschius.

Once again, police had little to go on.

"Frustrating beyond belief," Goetschius said of the case. "I mean how do you find out who was out on the road in the middle of the night? You don't."

Jessica's disappearance was one too many for Mike Land and Brian Goetschius. The cases of abductions going back years had to be stopped. But how was the killer able to lure these young girls and then seemingly disappear into thin air?

"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," Goetschius told Moriarty.

As efforts to find Jessica Cain intensified, even grieving parents Bob and Gay Smither joined the search.

"We knew exactly what the family was going through," Gay explained. "Of course we were gonna go help, just like people came to help us."

So did Tim Miller. "Anytime there is another missing person, it brings it all back," he told Moriarty.

Jessica Cain was never found. For Miller, this was all too close to home. His own daughter, Laura, had gone missing in 1984.

"The particular area where your daughter was found has kind of gained a name over the years, hasn't it?" Moriarty asked.

"Yeah," Miller replied. "Now they call it the Killing Fields."

And over the years, a frightening prime suspect emerged.

"Mothers would see him in the grocery store and immediately back pedal," said Skip Hollandsworth of Texas Monthly magazine and a CBS news consultant. "Or they would take their daughters and hide them in a different aisle. ...you couldn't help but wonder, "Is this the guy?"