reported by "48 Hours'" correspondent Erin Moriarty, airs Saturday, January 21 at 10/9c on CBS and streaming on Paramount +.
For years, Kathy Dobry waited to see if her daughterwould ever be solved. And for many of those years, when Dobry visited Johnston's grave, she would sometimes find what she describes as trinkets on her daughter's tombstone. Dobry says the trinkets were little things like plastic jewelry and flowers and they showed up occasionally, sometimes on Johnston's birthday, or the anniversary of her death.
Johnston's murder remained unsolved for close to two decades and finding the trinkets on her grave upset Dobry. She could not figure out who was leaving them. Then, in 2005, Dobry says the items stopped appearing. It would be another 10 years before there was an arrest in Johnston's case, and that's when Dobry thought back and had an idea about who might have been leaving those trinkets at the cemetery all along.
Tiffany Johnston was 19 and newly married when on July 26,1997 she disappeared from a car wash in Bethany, Oklahoma, just outside Oklahoma City and about an hour from Anadarko, Oklahoma, where she grew up. Johnston's car was found abandoned at the Sunshine Car Wash with the keys in the ignition, her money inside the car, and her floor mats hanging in the car wash bay.
There was no sign of Johnston that evening, and no one who reported seeing anything out of the ordinary at the car wash that afternoon. Dobry was distraught and remembers walking up and down the streets near the car wash that evening looking for any sign of Johnston — with no success and her despair mounting.
The next day searchers found Johnston's body in tall grass next to a dirt road just off the interstate in a rural area near Yukon, Oklahoma, about 15 miles west of the car wash. Johnston had been strangled and sexually assaulted and was left wearing just a bikini top. Police found DNA on Johnston's body from her attacker but were unable to develop a profile at the time.
After the murder, Dobry held a funeral for Johnston back in Anadarko and says she asked a woman she knew from town named Patsy Miely, who had worked for her before doing laundry, to iron the clothes Johnston wore in the casket.
Before Johnston's murder, Dobry had also come to know Miely's son,. Reece had returned to Anadarko in the fall of 1996 after a stint in prison and Dobry came to know him in the months after he moved back. Dobry remembers giving Reece a ride up to Oklahoma City to get his driver's license, which had expired while he was in prison.
Reece had served time for two rapes he was convicted of in 1986, but 10 years later, when he came back to Anadarko, Dobry says she didn't know what Reece had been convicted of.
Dobry says Reece was always polite, and back in 1996 she never would have suspected he'd been convicted of violent crimes against women. Indeed, in the days after Johnston was found murdered, Dobry remembers Reece calling her to offer his condolences and says he sounded sincere.
By October 1997, three months after Johnston's murder, Reece was arrested and charged with kidnapping a woman just outside of Houston, Texas. At the time, Reece had been traveling back and forth between the suburbs of Houston, where he was working, and Anadarko, where his mother lived.
After his 1997 arrest in Texas, Reece's name came up as a suspect in Johnston's case. The car wash owner recognized Reece as a frequent customer and call records showed Reece had made a phone call in Yukon on the day she went missing, near the site where Johnston's body was found, and within an hour of when she was last seen alive.
When investigators asked Dobry about Reece back in 1997, she said she didn't think there was any way he'd been involved in Johnston's murder. Dobry says now she couldn't imagine anyone she knew would have hurt her daughter, since everyone who knew her knew how much her Johnston meant to her. At the time, there wasn't enough evidence to charge Reece or anyone else in Johnston's murder, and the case would remain unsolved for years to come.
Determined to get justice for her daughter, Dobry would call law enforcement often to check on the case, but there were no more solid leads and no breaks in the case. During those long years of waiting for news, Dobry would visit Johnston's grave and promise her daughter that she would not give up until justice was served.
It was during those visits when Dobry says she started to notice something curious — someone was leaving small trinkets and flowers on Johnston's grave.
In a 2022 interview with "48 Hours," Dobry told correspondent Erin Moriarty that the trinkets were tiny plastic baubles, like what you might get out of a gumball machine. She says she started finding them the year after Johnston died and when she saw them, she called everybody she knew, asking if they'd left anything there. "You know, and everyone was, 'No, we haven't been to the cemetery,'" Dobry said.
Dobry says the trinkets stopped in 2005.
"Who did you think it was for years?" Moriarty asked and Dobry replied, "We didn't know."
"Did it occur to you that whoever was leaving these trinkets and flowers at your daughter's grave might know something?" Moriarty asked.
"Yes. We were always wondering. Who was it? What did they know?" Dobry replied.
In 2014 investigators retested the DNA from Johnston's body and developed a partial male profile. They went through Johnston's case file and eliminated all possible suspects—except for William Reece—who could not be excluded as a suspect. In 2015, Reece, who was serving time in Texas after being convicted for the 1997 kidnapping, was charged with Johnston's murder.
That break in Johnston's case soon became a break for law enforcement in Texas, who had long been eyeing Reece as the lead suspect in the April 1997 murder of 12-year-old Laura Smither from Friendswood, Texas. Smither lived just down the road from a place Reece was working at the time.
In 2016, investigators, including the Texas Rangers, asked Reece if he might be willing to talk to them about Smither's case and two other missing persons cases from 1997: Kelli Cox, 20, of Denton, Texas, and Jessica Cain, 17, from Tiki Island, Texas.
Reece agreed to talk, and in 2016 he led police to the remains of Cox and Cain who had both been missing for nearly 19 years. Reece eventually confessed to having murdered Smither, Cox, Cain, and Johnston too.
After Dobry learned about the evidence connecting Reece to her daughter's murder, she told Moriarty she wondered if Reece's mother Patsy Miely had suspected her son was Johnston's killer all along, especially since Dobry says she stopped finding those items on Johnston's grave after Miely died in 2005.
"It makes me think that she was the one that put them out here because she knew that he had killed Tiffany," Dobry said.
Moriarty asked if she really thought that was the reason and Dobry said, "Yeah, I really do. I really believe that. That's why she put them out here because she knew … Maybe it was her way of saying she was sorry … because after she died, they quit."
Of course, it's also very possible that if the person leaving objects on Johnston's grave was Patsy Miely, she may have just been mourning Johnston's death as a friend, a neighbor, and as someone who played a role in helping put Johnston to rest.
Despite his taped confession, William Reece pleaded not guilty to murdering Johnston and his case went to trial in 2021. His defense fought unsuccessfully to keep his confession out of the trial, and Reece was convicted of murdering Tiffany Johnston and sentenced to death.
In June of 2022, Reece pleaded guilty to the murders of Smither, Cox and Cain in Texas and received three life sentences for those crimes.
Dobry says she still has a lot of anger for Reece, and says for what he did, "He should die … He should suffer."
for more features.