"Laura had a lot of struggles in her life," he says. "When she was six months old, she got very sick and we almost lost her. She was in a coma for a day and a half, but then she came out of that and her fever went down. She seemed all right, but years later she had a seizure, because the fever had left scar tissue in her brain. So for about seven years we struggled with her seizure problem. Then eventually she grew out of it and became an A and B student. She loved music and sang all the time. She was popular in school and had a lot of friends. It looked like she would be all right."
But she wasn't. When Laura was eleven, she came down with the flu, which gave her yet another high fever, with the return of the seizures. "Her whole life was kind of stripped away from her," Miller muses. The family felt disheartened by this set-back. But the worst was yet to come.
The Millers moved to a new house, and Tim and his wife worked different shifts. One day he went to work, while Laura's mother took Laura to the payphone at the local convenience store so she could talk with her boyfriend, Vernon. When her mother asked her to hurry up because she'd be late for work, Laura wanted to continue talking. "It's only half a mile," she said. "I'll walk."
That seemed all right. It was the middle of the day and Laura knew her way back. But she didn't come back. When her parents returned home from work, she wasn't there.
"We didn't think a lot about it," says Miller. "We just figured Laura got home early, and her and Vernon took a walk. But then Vernon showed up without her and we asked where Laura was. He said he had talked to her on the phone, but he hadn't heard from her since. That's when we started getting concerned. We looked all over that night, and then we drove all over the neighborhood."
The next morning they went to the police department to file a missing person's report, but the officers dismissed Laura as a probable runaway. Miller said that was out of character for her and also noted that she had a serious seizure disorder and needed her medication. The officers had a response: girls her age were smart and could find what they needed on the street. That made little sense to Miller, but he did not know how to get them to do something.
As he looked frantically for possible avenues, he learned about a girl whom the police had found six months earlier, murdered and dumped somewhere off Calder Drive. He returned to the police station, and the officer with whom he spoke assured him that the murdered girl, Heidi, had worked in a bar, implying that whatever she got she was asking for. To them, it had been an isolated incident.
"Well, then about three days later," Miller says, "I found out that Heidi had lived only four blocks away from us." So he went back to the police and asked if they could at least tell him where Heidi had been found so he could go there and search the area himself. They refused to provide information, saying it was private property.
After five days without hearing from Laura, Miller knew in his heart that she was dead. "I didn't have a clue what to do. I think I tried to drink myself to death. I couldn't work. I lost my job. Laura's mother and I didn't have the best relationship and it certainly got worse. Every time our phone would ring, or someone would drive by the house slowly or knock on our door, I got heart palpitations. I didn't know if they were bringing me good news, that they'd found Laura and were bringing her home, or if they were bringing bad news that she was dead."
But for more than a year and a half, no one brought any news.
Four Dead Girls
A year and a half dragged by with no information, and Miller was so depressed he contemplated suicide.
Finally, he checked himself into a hospital for six days. That's where he was when he finally received some information:
In the newspaper was an article that reported the discovery in a local field of the remains of two females. Some kids riding dirt bikes had smelled a foul odor in the area of Calder Road. The corpse they found had been dead four or five weeks, so it was fairly decomposed. When the police went to investigate, about six feet from that body was a set of skeletal remains. That meant that within two years, three dead girls had been left there. Apparently a serial killer had used the area as a dumping ground.
Laura's mother went down to the police station and said, "One of those girls could be my daughter." They requested some of Laura's clothes for a hair sample and her dental X-rays.
After an analysis, one set of remains proved to be Laura's.
"I blamed the cops," Miller remembers. "I didn't think they were doing their jobs. If they would have gone out there the first day I asked them to, Laura would still have been dead, but there might have been evidence."
Miller went into another tailspin. He felt angry and guilty all at once. "I was the father," he recalls about his state of mind, "I was supposed to protect her and take care of her, and I had failed. I failed by not doing the right job, by not searching. I failed by not going to Heidi's family's house to find out where they'd found her. If I would have done that, maybe I would have found Laura tied up; maybe she would have been alive and I could have saved her. Or maybe I would have found her and it wouldn't have been months after the animals got to her. I beat myself up because I didn't do enough while Laura was missing."
At the same time, he felt a sense of relief. "Now at least I knew. I didn't have to worry about the heart palpitations every time the phone rang."
Still, the discovery and identification were only the start. Next came the investigation. "We had to answer questions about who Laura's friends were and who she hung out with." Worse, the police withheld information. "Even at the time she was found, they would not tell us where. The newspapers said it was the same field where Heidi had been found, but they wouldn't show us where it was. So Laura's mother and I went out and we found it on our own. We walked the fields and finally saw the little flags marking the crime scene. I learned then that her body had been scattered over a twenty foot radius. I was speechless at that time, just numb. I just couldn't believe it."
Miller and his wife wanted Laura's remains for a burial, but the coroner asked to keep them a while longer, and Miller agreed.
He wanted to learn how Laura had died, but to his chagrin, the police kept the remains for another three years. But that still wasn't the end of it.
The Millers were finally allowed to bury Laura, but when they received the autopsy report, they were concerned enough about what it said to exhume the remains.
They discovered that they had received only 28 bones, and then realized that some of Laura's remains had been sent to a medical facility for research.
Although the officials said the remains had been sent in error, it was clear that they had profited, so Miller hired an attorney and sued them for $16 million.
He won, but they appealed. Miller just wanted all of Laura's remains for burial, so he agreed to drop the suit if they returned the bones. "Finally we got to bury her and really say goodbye." But it had been an emotionally draining ordeal, and yet one more episode of police misconduct in the case.
Miller also learned that Laura and Heidi had both disappeared from the same convenience store pay phone, which meant that, had the police paid attention to him when he'd first filed the missing person's report, Laura might have been found alive. This realization made the ordeal much more painful. The police response clearly had been unconscionable.
Then there was more turmoil. As often happens when a child dies, Miller and his wife separated and divorced. He entered Alcoholics Anonymous and received counseling. "It was very painful but each day got better, unless there was new information or there were new leads." Then he'd remember and feel the pain all over again.
By 1991, he had stabilized, but then another set of female remains was found in the same area off Calder Road. The police developed a suspect, who worked for NASA, but in the end, the case went nowhere.
Miller did not get the resolution for which he hoped. But his ordeal did evolve into an unforeseen benefit to himself and many others.
After Laura was found," Miller recalls, "there was a rash of murders of young girls in the area and I would go to the spots where they had been found to see if there was any similarity in the area where Laura was found. Then I started meeting with several of the families. It was pretty painful."
The disappearance of Laura Smithers in 1997 in the next town gave Miller the idea for an organization that would assist the families over and above what the police were able to do. For a few days, he assisted in the Smithers search, but it was more than two weeks before a man walking his dog found her remains. Her family grieved and then founded the Laura Recovery Center, so Miller volunteered there. While working one day, he got into a discussion with the center's director, who suggested to Miller, a horseman, that he start a mounted search-and-rescue operation. Something like that would be quite helpful in a state like Texas.
Miller put out the word in August 2000 and within a few months, he had 45 members coming to meetings once a month. Most had horses. But as word about their activities spread, the organization shifted. "People started coming who had boats and who were certified rescue divers offering up their resources and wanting to join," says Miller. "People even came with planes, or a helicopter. Many people came with four wheelers, and then we got our own infrared and night-vision equipment. We grew past just the horses and ended up with more resources than most places have."
Tim With Horses
As more people learned about them, they received calls from all over the state and then from out of state. "Even after Laura's death I didn't realize just how many people were really missing," says Miller. "I remember the seventh or eighth search we got called into was for Julie Sanders, about 250 miles away. We were still fairly new and we had no money, but I went up there and put the search together. At the end of the first day we found Julie's body."
Texas EquuSearch (TES) is now among the few specialized volunteer teams that offer law enforcement assistance in undertaking searches for missing persons presumed to be dead.
Another such team, based in Colorado, is NecroSearch, a group of engineers and scientists who also tackle cases in difficult terrain. However, TES is set apart from any other in that they utilize the skills and abilities of horseback riders, they can quickly marshal a large force of volunteers, and they're flexible enough to accept assistance from a variety of disciplines. Funded solely by donations, they sometimes operate at a deficit, but they keep going, because Tim Miller can't imagine telling a family in need that he does not have the resources to assist.
On the Web site, www.TexasequuSearch.org, the organization offers the following statement:
"You will find our organization to be compassionate, dedicated and professional. We believe that we can better ourselves by working together to help the community and people in need. Many of our members are trained in various rescue and life saving skills such as CPR, advanced lifesaving skills and field craft. Our members come from all walks of life.
We have business owners, medics, firefighters, housewives, electricians and students on our team. Our resources range from horse and rider teams to foot searchers, water (divers, boats) air (planes, helicopters), dog teams (air scent, cadaver and tracking) and 4x4's.
We have also utilized infrared cameras in some of our searches."
Sadly, they receive plenty of requests.
Donations can be sent to:
Mounted SAR Team
P. O. Box 395
Dickinson, Texas 77539