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.