Is Robert Abel Getting Away With Murder?

Lawmen think the retired NASA engineer could be responsible for the deaths or disappearances of several young women who lived in the coastal plain between Houston and Galveston. There’s only one problem: They don’t have enough evidence to arrest him. In fact, they don’t have any.

October 1999By Comments

ON A STIFLINGLY HOT AFTERNOON in late August, at an abandoned oil field twenty miles south of Houston, more than a dozen people hunted for the bodies of dead women.

“Right here,” shouted Tim Miller, a grim, wiry building contractor who was at the controls of a large backhoe. “Let’s start here.” Nearby were a dozen search dogs, including four trained to detect the scent of decomposing human flesh. A few construction workers, employees of Miller’s, were on hand to help, as were friends and even Miller’s ex-wife. One man brought his thirteen-year-old son. “You see those high weeds?” Miller said. “That’s where we need to dig.”

It is known as the “killing fields,” and it is a lonely, spooky patch of land: In the stillness of the day you can hear the yips of small wild animals and the distant rumble of traffic along Interstate 45 about a mile away. Many people who live in the surrounding towns and bedroom communities won’t come near the place. Since 1984, the remains of four young women have been found here—each one nude, on her back, under a tree, with her arms folded. Because they were placed within a thousand feet of each other, a private investigator who has studied the scene many times thinks the killer created a “walking path” for himself to “visually inspect his trophies one by one.” Indeed, many police detectives and FBI agents are convinced that this is the personal graveyard of a vicious serial killer.

And they think they know his identity: Robert Abel. In the sixties Abel was one of NASA’s great young engineers, part of the team that was instrumental in designing the rocket that would put the Apollo astronauts into Earth’s orbit. “If we had any hope of getting man to the moon, we had to get the maximum Saturn payload into orbit,” says Robert Gottlieb, a veteran aerospace engineer who now works at Boeing. “And Robert Abel was part of the little band of very bright men who figured out how do it.” Today, however, a police detective suggests in a sworn affidavit that Abel is a “serial sexual offender” who displays the kind of rage and violent behavior that’s often seen in serial killers. He is the prime suspect in the murders of the four women found in the oil field, which is next to property he owns, and his name quickly surfaces whenever a teenager or a young woman disappears or is found dead in the area.

In League City, where Abel has lived for sixteen years, officers have searched his home and questioned his friends and family. He has been interviewed by detectives from neighboring towns. Investigators have flown over his land in helicopters and brought in cadaver dogs to look for bodies. Mark Young, a highly respected FBI criminal profiler from the agency’s Houston office, has talked with Abel, and a profiler from the behavioral sciences unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, has analyzed his relationships with women.

A slightly built sixty-year-old with thinning brown hair and a mustache, Abel walks stiffly because of a bad back, wears reading glasses, and takes pills for his high blood pressure. He seems almost shy—he tends to put his hands in his front pockets when he speaks—and has the soft Texas drawl of a small-town high school civics teacher. Yet he haunts people. In League City some mothers backpedal when they see him in the grocery store. Others push their daughters out of sight so that he can’t get a look at them. One day a group of teenage boys, hoping to prove their courage when they spotted him cruising through town in his pickup, rolled down their car windows and shouted, “Hey, Killer!” Over the years, he has become such a focus of fear and hostility that in 1997, nearly two hundred people fanned out over his land without his permission, looking for the body of a pretty college student who had disappeared from a Bennigan’s restaurant not far from League City and who to this day has never been found. Tim Miller, whose sixteen-year-old daughter, Laura, was found dead in the killing fields, is so convinced of Abel’s guilt that he has left threatening messages on his answering machine, demanding that he confess. “There are many days when I think about driving over there, putting a gun to his head, and pulling the trigger,” Miller says. “When I’m near him, I feel like I’m in the presence of evil.”

Yet there are problems with the allegations against Abel: Not a shred of physical evidence has ever been found linking him to the four women found dumped in the oil field, no evidence has been uncovered by any police department that can connect him to the murders they have been investigating, and no witness can place him with any of the teenagers or women before they were found dead. What’s more, he has never been arrested for any crime, nor is there any known record of a criminal complaint filed against him. “My life has been destroyed, my reputation ruined,” Abel told me when I first met him earlier this year. “I didn’t kill any of those girls. I wouldn’t know how to kill.”

Is it possible that Robert Abel is a cold, calculating murderer, one who is consumed by a twisted need to prey on young women but also patient enough to wait years between attacks—and smart enough to leave almost no clues behind? Or is he a victim of overzealous police work and outright hysteria? For several weeks I tried to learn the truth about a brilliant but sometimes baffling man who, as one FBI agent told me, “is not your average social encounter.” During that time, I headed down to the killing fields to see if Tim Miller—who had become so frustrated with the police’s inaction that he had launched his own investigation—was going to find more bodies, as he had predicted, or whether he was merely chasing ghosts.

As it turned out, this was indeed a ghost story, but not the kind that I or anyone else really expected—for just as the sun was setting that August afternoon, a few of the dogs went into a frenzy, barking and pawing anxiously at one particular clump of dirt. “Something’s down there,” Miller shouted as people came running with their flashlights. “Something’s down there!”

YOU CAN SPEND A WEEK driving through the towns south of Houston, visiting the parents of murdered daughters. They greet you at the door, lead you inside, and pull out scrapbooks filled with photos: their girl posing in a soccer uniform, pushing dolls in a stroller, laughing at Showbiz Pizza. They often take you into their daughter’s bedroom, many of which still look exactly as they did when the girls were alive.

“Just 20 days to my birthday,” reads the note written by Laura Smither, an aspiring ballerina from the quiet town of Friendswood. Laura was only twelve years old when she jotted those words on a message board on the morning of April 3, 1997, a couple of hours before she went jogging through her neighborhood and disappeared. Seventeen days later her nude body was found at the edge of a retention pond in Pasadena. “Mom, I love you,” reads a note on the nightstand in Krystal Jean Baker’s bedroom in Texas City. Her body was found under a bridge by the Trinity River near the Louisiana border. Some young women have never been found: More than ten years after René Richerson, an achingly pretty college student, vanished from a condominium complex in Galveston, her parents are still paying a private detective to search for her. “All we know is that there was a terrible scream the night she disappeared,” says her mother, Kathy Richerson. “The police tell us that she is probably dead, murdered like the others. But that doesn’t mean we will stop looking for her. We just want the chance to tell our daughter good-bye.”

It is impossible for an outsider to understand the shattered psyches of parents whose daughters will never grow older. “Sometimes, at night, the wind would begin to blow, and the house would start to shift, and the bed in Laura’s room would start to squeak,” says Laura Smither’s mother, Gaye, a gentle woman who sometimes swallows when she talks, trying to keep her voice in control. “Even after all that time, I’d find myself running in there, calling her name, believing that she was back home with us.”

The number of mothers and fathers left to grieve is staggering. Depending on who’s counting, at least fifteen and perhaps as many as thirty young females—all of whom resided in the fifty-mile stretch of coastal plain between Houston and Galveston—have vanished or been brutally murdered since the early seventies. “There’s no place in the country that has had to deal with something this heinous,” says Don Clark, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Houston office. “All of the victims were young, all of them were attractive, and we think all of them were sexually assaulted before they died.”

Law enforcement officials insist that many of the killings—sometimes referred to as the “I-45 killings” because most of them have taken place within a few miles of Interstate 45—could have been committed by any number of men, from transients to sex offenders paroled from one of the area’s prisons. In 1997 one police department ran a computer search of registered sex offenders living between Houston and Galveston, and more than 2,100 names popped up. Yet despite a variety of sometimes desperate measures—one department followed leads provided by psychics, and another had police officers hide in trees at a cemetery to see if a suspect might visit the freshly dug grave of a murdered teenager—no arrests have been made. With the passing of the years, it’s harder to deny the probability that a serial killer has been at work since as far back as 1971, when seven young women were murdered over a four-county region in twelve months’ time.

 According to the detective’s affidavit, which was filed in a state district court, there is little doubt that a single person was responsible for the four bodies found in the old oil field located just off a rut-filled dirt road on the outskirts of League City. The first was discovered in April 1984, after a dog owned by a couple living several hundred yards away carried home a human skull and dropped it at the feet of their three-year-old daughter. After a long search, police officers discovered the rest of the body and identified the remains as those of Heide Villareal Fye, a 23-year-old cocktail waitress who had been reported missing six months earlier. At the time of her disappearance—she had last been seen walking from her parents’ home to use the telephone at a convenience store—the League City police had conducted a cursory investigation, and they came across no clues as to where she might have gone or who might have wanted to abduct her. Heide’s father, who had worked as an automobile tire salesman, hunted for her himself, walking the fields around League City almost every day. He grieved until the day he succumbed to cancer. “Even when he was on his deathbed,” says Heide’s sister, Josie Poarch, “he brought the family together and made us promise that we would never give up the search for her killer.”

Nearly two years later, in February 1986, four boys riding their dirt bikes past the oil field smelled a putrid odor and came across another decomposed body about fifty yards from the spot where Heide Fye was found. The victim was never identified and became known as Jane Doe. The medical examiner said she was between 22 and 30 years old and perhaps had been shot to death by a .22-caliber weapon. (Part of a bullet turned up with her remains at the medical examiner’s office.) As the police looked around the field for more clues, they came across the skeleton of Laura Miller—Tim Miller’s daughter—a mere twenty yards away. Laura had been a straight-A student in elementary school in League City, but after she began to have seizures at age twelve, she grew depressed, made a couple of halfhearted suicide attempts, and started hanging out with a crowd of teenagers who used drugs. When she went missing, the police suggested to her father that she had run away from home. At the time, no one made the connection that she was last seen alive at the same convenience store where Heide Fye had last been seen.

“We had to search for suspects,” says Pat Bittner, the League City detective who, at the tender age of 30, was put in charge of the murder investigation. Every day Bittner would sit behind his battleship-gray desk, flip through his case files, repeat to himself all the relevant details, and then stare at the autopsy photos, hoping that the dead women could tell tales. He went so far as to consider the possibility that the killer was Henry Lee Lucas, who was said to have wandered through this part of Texas.

Bittner came up with nothing, however, and he wouldn’t for nearly five years, until a new set of decomposing remains were found in the field about one hundred yards from where the other bodies had been discovered. Like Jane Doe, this woman was never identified. The medical examiner thought she had been beaten to death with a club. Once again, without eyewitnesses and only scant physical evidence, the police were stuck.

But at least there was someone new for them to question—a retired NASA engineer who had been leasing land on one side of the 25-acre oil field for nearly a decade and who, in 1990, had bought eleven acres adjacent to the field to open Stardust Trailrides, a small horseback-riding business. His name was Robert Abel, and he was so eager to assist the police the day the fourth body was found that he helped them clear brush in the area and let them use fourteen of his horses and his backhoe free of charge. “He was on me like a duck on a June bug,” said an FBI agent who was there. “He even made suggestions about what we should be doing in our investigation.”

I TRIED TO HELP THE POLICE SOLVE A terrible crime, and now they think I was too helpful?” Abel asked me, seemingly bewildered.

“You might have been trying to deceive them, to provide false leads,” I said.

“They think I wanted to mislead them?”

“A couple of detectives think you’re talking to me because you want to draw attention to yourself,” I told him. “It’s your way of thumbing your nose at the police, telling them that they won’t ever catch you.”

Sitting across the table from me at a coffee shop, Abel bowed his head. “All I want to do is prove my innocence,” he said. “That’s all I want to do.”

Abel is aware that the police and the FBI have studied every inch of his life. Descended from a family that came to Texas seventeen years before the Civil War, Abel was raised on a ranch in Bellville, a tiny town between Houston and Austin. After graduating from Bellville High in 1957, he married his sweetheart, Jane Ross—they later had a daughter and a son—and headed off to the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a degree in aerospace engineering. In February 1962 he took a job at NASA, and in the evenings he attended graduate school—first at the University of Houston, then at UT-Austin, where he wrote papers with titles like “Analytic Solutions to Interplanetary Transfers.”

NASA put Abel to work sizing the Saturn rocket: He determined how much weight should be in each of its three stages and then performed a trajectory analysis to determine the most efficient way to get the third stage and the payload into orbit. He also worked on lunar visibility studies (for which he received top-secret clearance) and regularly flew to Cape Canaveral to brief Pete Conrad, Jim Lovell, and other Apollo astronauts on lunar landing and visibility. “When you met him, he came across as this country boy, a rancher’s son with a thick accent,” says Boeing’s Robert Gottlieb. “But the fact was that he was one of the brightest people down there.”

In 1978, after 21 years of marriage, the Abels divorced. (Jane told me that the split was amicable, “really just caused by us growing in different directions over the years.”) Abel started spending his evenings meeting women at the little bars and restaurants around the Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake; sometimes he’d stop by Elan, Houston’s hottest nightclub. Although he bought a Mercedes 380 SL convertible to go along with his pickup, he was hardly the portrait of the suave Houston bachelor: His front teeth were chipped, his sideburns were too long, and—despite his vast intelligence—he sometimes came across as more hayseed than scientist. Yet according to Gottlieb, Abel was successful with women. “In his own way he was very charismatic,” says an ex-girlfriend. “He was romantic. At Christmas we’d go back to his old family ranch outside of Bellville, and he’d put together a scene from a Hallmark card—we’d go out and cut down a Christmas tree.”

In June 1983 Abel moved from Houston into a pleasant middle-class neighborhood in League City. (Heide Fye and Laura Miller lived less than half a mile away, but Abel told me he never knew them.) What drew him there, he explains, was Galveston County’s lower tax rate, but he also appreciated the availability of nearby pastureland: He leased about a thousand acres at the edge of town roughly three miles from his house. “Coming here was my chance to keep working at NASA and be able to work some cattle on the weekends,” he says.

Neighbors liked Abel, though they were aware that he did not have much luck with relationships. In June 1989 he married Cindy Jacobs, a secretary for an accounting firm whom he had met earlier that year at the Hilton hotel bar. But she left him 41 days into the marriage—Abel never told anyone why—and the two quickly divorced. In 1990 he retired from NASA and married Paula Kay Myers, a pretty NASA secretary whom he had first met and dated three years earlier. Soon after, he purchased the eleven-acre property for sale next to the oil field and made preparations to open Stardust Trailrides. “I wanted kids and families to have the chance to be around horses like I did when I was a kid,” he says. He offered discount trail rides to youth groups and charities, provided catered barbecue dinners, hired country music singers to perform cowboy songs, and often threw in free hayrides for toddlers.

By all accounts, Stardust Trailrides was an immediate success, drawing people from all over the Houston area, including a few couples who came to have their wedding conducted on horseback. Abel led many of the trail rides himself over the property and through his leased land. Sales hit $250,000 in 1991, he says. “And there’s no doubt they would have kept going up”—he pauses, shaking his head like a man under siege—“if it wasn’t for that so-called detective.”

THAT SO-CALLED DETECTIVE WAS BITTNER, who soon after the discovery of the fourth body asked Abel to come to the League City police station for a routine interview. Among the questions he posed was whether any bodies had turned up near the six-hundred-acre Abel family ranch near Bellville the way they had near his land in League City. They hadn’t. “I had no reason to ask except out of curiosity,” Bittner says. “But Abel became furious and very defensive. He wouldn’t answer any more questions, left the building, and later went to the mayor and complained about me. I began to think, ‘Why would he get upset over such a standard question?’”

“He was cocky, and I was offended by his tone,” Abel told me, revealing for the first time a flash of what I had been told by some officers was a hostile temper. “Have you met this man? He seems like someone who should be washing windows instead of being a police detective.”

In fact, Bittner is a bright young man who grew up in Ohio, received a degree in criminal justice from Michigan State University, and moved to Texas to be a police officer—hardly the stereotype of the tobacco-chewing small-town lawman. He has received specialized training in homicide investigations and is familiar with the research conducted by the FBI’s behavioral sciences unit in Quantico, which has been attempting to compile an accurate composite profile of the type of man who turns out to be a serial killer of women. By conducting lengthy interviews with many such killers already behind bars, the agents have come up with a list of common denominators seen in the killers’ childhood, in their behavior as adults, and in the way they carry out their crimes. The League City killings appear to be the work of what the FBI literature calls an “organized” killer, someone who carefully plans his brutal acts. According to one FBI report, an organized killer is in the “bright-superior intelligence range and, therefore, potentially a skilled imposter”—in other words, he’s able to fit into everyday society without drawing any suspicion. Moreover, an organized killer prefers working in what the FBI calls a “comfort zone,” an area very familiar to him where he receives little or no interference from outsiders.

Based on that information, Abel fit the bill, though nonspecific FBI profiling was all Bittner had to go on. Then, in the summer of 1993, he got a break: He received a phone call from Abel’s wife, Paula, who told him they had separated the previous year. And she was ready to talk.

When they met, Paula told Bittner she was afraid of what she described as her husband’s “fits of rage.” Sometimes, she said, he would get so angry during their arguments that he’d leave the house and not return for as long as a week. Although he never hit her, she said she had watched him beat horses with pipes and chains until they submitted to his commands. Whenever livestock died on his pastureland, she added, he left them out in the open so their rotting corpses could be ravaged by coyotes and other scavengers. Paula also said that she had seen several photos of nude women in his desk drawer at the house, and that Abel not only owned handguns but also carried one with him during the later months of 1991. Before leaving, Paula told Bittner he needed to talk to Cindy Jacobs, the woman Abel had been married to for 41 days in 1989.

In her interview with Bittner, Cindy said that she decided to leave Abel during their honeymoon in Germany after they had a fight over sex. According to Cindy, Abel said to her, “If you ever deny me sex again, I’ll kill you.” Cindy also confirmed Paula’s stories about a stash of nude photos and Abel’s anger with horses. She said that before their marriage, when he had gotten angry with her, he went out and beat a horse named Lancelot.

Subsequently, Bittner contacted the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in Quantico and provided details of the League City killings to David Gomez, an agent who specializes in serial sexual homicides. Gomez told Bittner that the murderer probably lived close to the comfort zone and could very well have insinuated himself into the investigation, either to establish an alibi or to provide false leads. Gomez added that the murderer was in all likelihood preoccupied with the media accounts of the crimes and perhaps had kept newspaper articles about them; he also could possess jewelry or clothing from the dead women to serve as his “trophies.” Gomez gave Bittner a list of other characteristics about the killer, including “superior attitude,” “multiple sex partners,” “a history of cruelty to animals,” “usually described as a troublemaker,” and “will act out his anger.” Bittner was intrigued: Gomez could have been describing Abel.

Earlier Bittner had learned at a homicide seminar that a police department could get a court-ordered search warrant based solely on the FBI’s psychological profile of the potential killer. If a local law enforcement agency could identify a suspect that fit the parameters of that profile, a judge could rule that there was sufficient reason to search for more evidence. So in November, Bittner presented an affidavit before a state district court judge outlining Gomez’s profile and reporting the statements made by two of Abel’s ex-wives. He suggested that Abel left the women’s bodies on the pastureland because he knew they’d be ravaged by animals. Although he had no actual evidence, Bittner suggested that Abel was a “serial sexual offender.” “We spent three weeks polishing that affidavit,” Bittner told me. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a masterpiece.”

ON NOVEMBER 12, 1993, WITH A search warrant in hand, Bittner and five other League City police officers showed up unannounced at Abel’s home and conducted a twelve-hour search. They vacuumed the carpet, looking for hairs of the victims; confiscated three .22-caliber weapons to see if any of them matched the bullet found next to one of the bodies; hauled away more than 6,200 slides and photographs; took a gold tooth found on a dresser to see if it came from the mouth of one of the women; and clipped a cord off a curtain to see if it matched a strangulation mark.

Bittner and his team came up with nothing. There was no hair evidence. None of the dead women’s clothing or jewelry was found. The gold tooth turned out to be from Abel’s own mouth. Because of too much deterioration in the bullet the guns could not be matched—in fact, no gun could. And although two photos were of a semi-nude woman, she later told the police that she had willingly posed for Abel when they were dating. (The rest of the photos were of family, friends, and various people he’d shot as an amateur photographer.)

The only thing that Bittner found justifying the search warrant was a collection of newspaper articles found about the investigation into the League City murders and one long Houston Chronicle story detailing the life of a serial killer. Abel told the police he had started keeping those articles because he was interested in their investigation. “Why wouldn’t I be?” he asked me. “These were bodies found on land next to mine.” As for the Chronicle story, he said, “I didn’t know anything about serial killers. I wondered if the police knew about this person I had read about, and I was going to send the article to them.”

Such comments might have sounded incredible to Bittner and his fellow officers. I know I had my doubts. During one of our meetings, Abel loaned me a box of legal documents about the case and about himself. At the bottom of the box I saw a small photo album with the words “Robert Abel” printed on the cover. Inside were a series of photos of the places where each body had been found. My throat suddenly went dry: Was I looking at a serial killer’s scrapbook? And there were other occasions when I felt as if Abel talked a little too much about the allegations against him. One afternoon on the phone, he said to me, “I don’t know if you know this, but I had torn rotator cuffs at the time some of those girls turned up dead. I couldn’t have picked a girl up. I couldn’t have overpowered her and gotten her into my car. And if I did kill her, I couldn’t have carried her out of my house.” It was as if he was giving me a scenario of how one of the murders had happened.

Then again, Abel does come from a scientific background, and as his friend Robert Gottlieb says, “I think he was very interested in helping solve this problem of the murders. That’s what he’s good at—solving problems. And remember, he had a new trail-rides business going. Of course he’d want the murders solved.” When I later asked Abel directly about the photo album, he acted surprised that I was suspicious. He said the photographs had been taken by a private investigator hired by his attorney. “In case charges were ever brought against me, I wanted to know exactly what I was being accused of,” he said.

But what of the accusations by his ex-wives? It’s hard to gauge who’s telling the truth. In our conversations Abel always denied every allegation they had made against him. (Paula and Cindy would not be interviewed, but they have not retracted the sworn statements they gave Bittner.) He told me he never mistreated animals—“It’s ridiculous to think that you can run a horseback-riding business with horses that are scared of human beings”—and that he didn’t carry a gun. It was Paula, he said, who had the fits of rage—“I was scared to death of her at one point, to be honest with you, and I told the police that”—and he said Cindy Jacobs was angry with him after the honeymoon only because he wouldn’t put her name on his checking account and didn’t let her see his will. And, indeed, one former girlfriend did tell me that Paula had contacted her, asking that she, too, go to the police and talk about Abel’s behavior when she had dated him. “I’m not saying Robert was the perfect man,” the woman said. “We had our rounds, our arguments and fights. But not once did I ever think there was anything to fear about him.” When I asked her if he abused horses, she replied that she saw him hit one once, when the horse was raring and had her young daughter cornered—“but he didn’t beat the horse.”

Still, the damage had been done. Because the affidavit about Abel had been filed in open court, it was available for the public to peruse. Detectives from other agencies, frustrated with their own unsolved murders, began calling the police in League City to ask about Abel. After Tim Miller read the affidavit, he started parking outside Abel’s League City home at night. “I wanted him to know that I would never forget what he had done,” says Miller, who several times a week had been driving out to the site where Laura’s body had been found, standing before a wooden cross he had erected there in her memory. “Every day since 1986—every single day—I had been waking up thinking about the last moments of Laura’s life. I wondered if she was on her knees, begging for her life. I wondered if she had the time to call out for me or her mother.”

After Laura’s death, Miller began drinking heavily; six months later, he and Laura’s mother, Jan Miller, divorced. One afternoon in 1994, unable to contain his grief any longer, Miller called Abel and said that he planned to kidnap him, take him to Las Vegas, and bury him alive in a sand dune outside of the city. A few days later Miller claims he showed up at Abel’s house, dragged him out in the yard, and held a gun to his head. (Abel denies this ever happened.) “I was about to pull the trigger when I realized that it wouldn’t have mattered,” Miller told me. “There was nothing on his face—no fear, no emotion, nothing. He had no conscience.”

On the advice of another father whose daughter had been murdered in another town, Miller checked himself into the psychiatric unit of a hospital for ten days, promising when he left not to hurt Abel but vowing that he would keep pressuring him to confess. Abel, however, remained wary: He told me he still worried that Miller would drink too much one night and try to kill him. He was also worried about other private citizens who, he said, might be tempted to tell lies about him to get the reward money (now at $50,000) that the League City Police Department was offering for information leading to the arrest of the killer. One of Abel’s friends, a man who sang cowboy songs at Stardust Trailrides, was approached by a private detective who asked several questions about him and then said he was working for one of his ex-wives. “Why would she still be paying money to a private investigator unless she wanted the reward?” Abel asked.

Although he refused to take a police-administered polygraph test about the killing fields murders—he said he didn’t trust the League City Police Department as long as Bittner was on the payroll—he did take two lie detector tests conducted by private examiners, who say he passed. Still, perhaps because no other legitimate suspect ever emerged in the case, Abel never could erase the suspicions about him. Some law enforcement officials said the beta-blockers he took for his high blood pressure could have affected the results of those tests.

Bittner, meanwhile, insists that a pathological serial killer with no remorse could easily pass any lie detector test. He remains unapologetic about his investigation and the statements he made about Abel in the search warrant, despite his admission during a deposition that the bulk of his knowledge came “secondhand from [Abel’s] wives.” In 1994 Abel filed a lawsuit against him for slander, but it was quickly dismissed by a judge who said that he had only been identified as a suspect. “Look, there are still many questions that need to be asked,” Bittner told me. “But Mr. Abel doesn’t want to come down here any more to answer them. Just because no hard evidence was found during the search of his home doesn’t mean he’s exonerated.”

Not everyone working on the case is convinced that Abel is guilty. Willie Payne, a respected private investigator hired by some of the parents to help locate their missing daughters, says he can’t imagine that Abel “would have been dumb enough to leave three of the girls lying within yards of his property line.” But Bittner has an answer for that too. “Suppose you’re such a confident killer that you think you’re smarter than the police,” he says. “You wouldn’t be intimidated by leaving those bodies in your own back yard.”

Since Bittner’s promotion to assistant police chief in April 1997, the new League City detective on the case, Marty Grant, has raised the money to put up a billboard along I-45 asking for help solving the murders, and he has had a small retention pond on the old oil field drained because of a single comment Abel made last year when Grant paid him a courtesy call to tell him he was now running the investigation. Abel told Grant that if he had been in charge in 1991 when the fourth body was found, he would have searched a nearby pond because the killer might have thrown something in there. Grant sensed he was being given a hint and conducted a search. But nothing turned up, which Abel says should have been no surprise, “because what the hell did they think they were going to find after all those years? Besides, they didn’t even use a big enough backhoe, one that could get down to the bottom of the pond. So who knows what’s still down there?”

I had to wonder: Was Abel slyly providing another subtle suggestion about that pond? Or was he just trying to be helpful? Was I the one being paranoid? “Once you hear certain allegations about someone you’ve known for a long, long time, how do you get them out of your mind?” Gottlieb asks. “Even I’ve sat up at nights, wondering if he could have done it.”

UNTIL THIS YEAR, DESPITE HIS PARIAH status, Abel remained in League City. But earlier this spring, he closed Stardust Trailrides (“Nobody was coming out any more to ride because they were scared of me”), gave up his lease on the thousand acres, sold his cattle, and moved most of his horses back to the family ranch near Bellville, and started spending most of his time there. “It’s time to try to live out the rest of my life in peace,” he says. “As long as Pat Bittner and these other police departments have that FBI profile, they’re going to do anything they can to make me fit it.”

But there would be no peace. What Abel did not know was that a new investigation was about to begin at the killing fields—one conducted by Tim Miller. He had tracked down the owner of the 25-acre oil field and persuaded him to lease it for $10 a year. The cross he had put up for Laura had been knocked down, and he believed Abel had done it just to spite him. “If I have to, I’ll dig up every inch of this property to find some new evidence,” Miller told me.

Without informing the League City police department—“They think I’m a little crazy”—Miller borrowed a tractor and a backhoe and persuaded the Greater Houston Search Dogs team to join him in his first dig. As Miller drove his tractor past the cross that marked Laura’s body, the dogs began to fan out. Whenever any of them stopped in a certain place and “alerted” (that is, barked to signify that they smelled something), Miller would head over there and dig. The whole thing seemed fruitless but understandable—a way for a father to deal with his grief. I sat on the tailgate of a pickup truck with Miller’s construction buddies watching the late-afternoon sun turn red and then a sullen orange before it began to sink beneath the horizon. “I don’t think people here realize that ol’ Tim will want to keep digging all night,” one said with a grin as he popped open a beer.

A few minutes later two dogs began barking at the same spot by a tree. Then a beautiful black-and-white border collie named Jessi—the best dog of the bunch—rushed over and went into a kind of crazed conniption, whining and lying down.

Miller, his eyes wild with excitement, put the backhoe into gear and started scooping up earth over a ten-square-foot area. “Hold it!” one of the workers yelled, reaching down and pulling up the remnants of a purse. Then someone else saw a pair of women’s pants with a drawstring waist, which was discolored and nearly shredded from decomposition. Out came a discolored shirt and then some socks. “Why would a whole set of women’s clothes be buried way out here?” Miller said, turning off his machine.

For a moment, the only sound was the wind lightly rustling the trees and the low growl of diesel trucks changing gears out on I-45. For weeks I had felt almost as if I had been part of some parlor game. Was Abel innocent, or wasn’t he? But right then, as I stood over this remote patch of earth, I felt a chill. I suddenly understood why these coastal communities were linked by fear. I also understood why the parents of public school students in Friendswood had been given special kits to take their children’s fingerprints and keep locks of their hair in the horrifying event that their remains were one day found and needed to be identified.

And I understood why everyone was so desperate to hunt down the bogeyman: so they could tell themselves they were safe again.

A FEW DAYS LATER I RETURNED TO League City. Abel was at the now-padlocked Stardust Trailrides waiting for me. He had wanted to check on the horses he still kept there, all of which came up and nuzzled him. “Not exactly the response I’d get if I’d been beating them,” he said. I told him about the clothes that Miller had dug up and that after a subsequent search no evidence of a body had been found. “It’s doubtful the police can learn anything from the clothes,” I said. “As it turns out, Tim Miller might have found an old garbage dump.”

Abel shrugged, appearing neither anxious nor relieved. “Well, who knows what happened out here?” he said.

I added that Miller planned to keep digging with the assistance of the search dogs, which could easily smell decomposed bodies buried as far back as fifteen years ago. Again, Abel just shrugged. “Is that right?” he said.

We visited the exact locations where each body had been found. Perhaps we were following the very walking path that the killer had once used to inspect his trophies. For several seconds Abel was silent before each site, as if he were visiting a church graveyard. At that moment, with his back aching and his eyes squinting, he seemed like a kindly old man.

“I feel for these girls. I really do,” he told me. “I wish there was something I could do.”

He gave me another one of his long, lingering looks. Just before he shook my hand good-bye, he said, “Do I really look like a killer? Do I really look like someone who would want to kill pretty young girls?”

Then he turned, got into his pickup, and headed down the dirt road, away from the killing fields, disappearing behind the dust like a ghost.

Related Content