Netflix docuseries tells gruesome story behind the ‘Texas Killing Fields’

Over the course of several decades, the bodies of dozens of murdered women and girls were recovered from a patch of land outside Houston. Some of their loved ones are still seeking justice.

By Raul AlonzoDecember 16, 2022 1:32 pm, ,

Over the course of a few decades, a patch of land near Interstate 45 in League City outside of Houston was the site of a series of grisly discoveries.

The bodies of dozens of murdered women and girls were recovered from the area – dubbed “the Texas Killing Fields” – dating back to the early ’70s. And while several suspects have been put forward over the years, many of the murders remain unsolved.

Now, the latest installment of the Netflix docuseries “Crime Scene” turns a spotlight on four of the murder victims, and their families’ pursuit to find justice for them.

Jessica Dimmock, a documentary photojournalist and director of “Crime Scene: The Texas Killing Fields,” joined the Texas Standard to discuss the series and the gruesome story that it focuses on. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Set the stage for us, if you will. What can you tell us about the main figures here, the four victims that make up the focus and their family members? 

Courtesy of Netflix

Jessica Dimmock: The four victims that are kind of at the heart of the story that we’re telling are all women that go missing in the ’90s. Their abductions and murders go unsolved for many, many years and continues to this day. But really, there’s also like a very important backdrop in which the story takes place in that, you know, in a very similar area going all the way back to the ’70s, there were 13 young women who had all mysteriously vanished from Galveston Island. Eleven out of those 13, I believe, were in one year. And so you’ve got this kind of backdrop where a lot of crimes against women have happened. And also those had remained unsolved, and there was a lot of police inactivity and lack of communication between police departments. So when this happens in the ’80s, there’s this kind of feeling of like, “oh my God, maybe this is starting again. It’s the same person.” Or also, “are we about to see even more?”

And so that’s kind of like what’s at the heart of our series, as there are a lot of twists and turns that are really hard to sum up in like the one-minute version of it. And really what drew me to it was that I was a big fan of Joe Berlinger, who directed the first two seasons of the series “Crime Scene,” and also his past work. I mean, he’s someone that I really kind of credit with getting me into documentary to begin with. And I knew that kind of reputation of Radical and Imagine, and I felt that it was a really well-researched, well-supported kind of venture that we were going on. And so I felt like there was a lot of layers that we could deal with.

As you were covering this story – and I dare say probably a lot of Texans don’t know about this story, so this will be their introduction as well – was there anything that you picked up on from how this case was handled or something common in the families’ experience that you wanted to sort of highlight or draw out?

Yeah. I mean, I think that the thing that is the most common that happens to the 13 in the ’70s – that definitely happens to the four in the ’80s, and then there’s another four in the ’90s that follow a very similar pattern – which is that in all of these cases, the parents or the families or the loved ones know that something is wrong. And they go to the police and say, “my daughter, my wife or my girlfriend hasn’t come home.” And in almost all of the cases, the police say that they’re probably runaways. And I think if I were to kind of drill down on to like, what’s the one thing that kind of kicks everything off into the wrong direction for all of these cases, I think it’s that first contact with police.

Sort of a dismissive attitude.

Yeah. Dismissive sometimes when they’re younger. It’s more of a like, “oh, they’re probably off with friends or maybe they’re just starting to get into the wrong crowds.” But I mean, we’re talking about kids that are really … in the ’70s you had 12-year-olds. And in the case of Laura Smither, she was 12; that happened in the ’90s. That was the one case where you really saw a huge community turnout. But, you know, when they start to be older victims in their late teens and early 20s, then, you know, then there was also a little bit of judgment of like, “oh, you know, she was a cocktail waitress, so it was this kind of lifestyle” or, “oh, she was trying to get away from the burdens of family,” you know, for her daughter. And so, you know, in all of these cases, the family are the ones that are really the experts. I mean, I think it’s really made me think about the role of an expert in these things. Police may follow certain patterns, but when it comes to experts, the families are the experts. They know what the patterns are for their loved one.

At the same time, that’s got to sort of turn up the volume when it comes to how these families are treated in a documentary series like this. Have you had a chance to touch base with victims’ families after the editing process? What’s their reaction been?

They have been really, really positive. I think, A: because they say – and I hope that this is true, and I feel like I have a good track record with this, but it’s like the most important thing to me – I think that they feel that they were represented well and correctly. But also that they feel like, you know, it has generated a lot of talk, maybe even some leads, but some kind of renewed energy and a lot of renewed pressure to kind of get these things solved. And so that, I think, is really great and important.

Are you hoping that, perhaps, this will lead to a reopening of these cold cases or that something will come out and that will provide answers? 

Yes, the cases are officially cold. The FBI is still kind of working, and I think the FBI has done a really great job of kind of reopening these and investigating. I do think that there’s a really good chance that there will be some kind of indictment or some kind of progress. I think, you know, what’s really hard is that these are old cases. In the series, we really point to who we think the suspect is and who we think the the perpetrator is, but without something very tangible – DNA, a really, really strong witness statement or something like that – these are very hard to bring to trial. And I don’t want to be naive about that reality.

This must have been challenging from the standpoint of a creator or director. I mean, it’s such a heavy story. And I would imagine it would take an emotional toll on anyone who was involved here.

Yeah. I mean, I think maybe I’m like supposed to kind of put on a brave face or say, like, that these things don’t affect me, but I kind of feel that that would be dishonest. And the reality is that they really do. I think that the stories of what has happened to these victims and to these families is really horrific. And it’s hard to come into someone’s life and ask them about these things without really genuinely asking. Like, I’m not asking for the interview question. I’m asking because I’m really trying to get to some of the depths of the emotion, and it does stay with you. I mean, I had nightmares about some of the victims. I had nightmares about one of the perpetrators. I mean, it really kind of seeps into my subconscious.

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How do you deal with mental health? I mean, this is a real issue when you’re trying to cover a story like this. 

You know, I just try to be honest about that feeling. I mean, there was one interview where I was holding it together, but like I was definitely very upset. And the woman who I was interviewing, Gay Smither, talked about how telling the story of her daughter Laura … She’s been told by people that it made them be better mothers and better wives and just like hold their people closer. And I was really honest with her. I had been away from my 4-year-old at the time for about two weeks. And I got like a slightly earlier flight. And I remember just hugging her and being like, “I’m going to have to leave a touch earlier than the rest of the crew. But like, I am so desperate to go home and hug my daughter.” And I was crying, and she was crying, and she was like, “go home and hug your daughter. I want that to be part of Laura’s legacy.”

And so I try to be honest about it. I’m not a mess. Like I also have a job to do, and it’s my job to be always professional and always kind of have some boundaries about it. But I also want to be honest that I’m not cold to these things. I find them, you know, very upsetting.

What are you hoping to accomplish with the the the series overall? What do you hope audiences walk away with, or what sort of change are you hoping to inspire?

Well, I think the real goal of the series in general, “Crime Scene,” is to really look at the way that a place plays into a murder scene and the way a place – its geography, its socioeconomic factors, its cultural factors, its unique factors – sometimes the way that that factors in. And so one of the things that we’re trying to do here is really look at what were some of the contributing factors. Some of them are changeable. Some of them are not changeable. They just need to be considered. Like in New York City, when I think of Texas, I have one picture that comes to mind and it’s like a dusty field with a cowboy hat and it’s kind of arid and dry and, of course, that’s one picture of Texas. But like where we were, Houston to Galveston, you know, it’s a wet, verdant place that has a lot of weather. It has flooding, it has hurricanes – water destroys evidence. And also criminals know that water destroys evidence.

So being in a place that has access to water makes a criminal work differently. They know that they can dispose of a body in water and it will shift. You also had all of these little towns that were popping up along the I-45 corridor, which all had their own kind of regional police precincts. And so you had all of these kind of smaller stations that weren’t necessarily communicating because they were kind of keeping everything siloed. You also had this kind of stereotyping about what a certain young woman may or may not have been into and how that might have affected her crime and if she was high risk or low risk.

So I think what we’re really trying to do is make people look at any of these cases – whether it’s in our show or anything that they come across with a deeper lens – to think about what are the hidden factors here that maybe are adding to this crime not being solved. And how can we shift those, the ones that we can?

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