By Alex Tresniowski
Updated May 13, 2002 12:00 PM

Twelve-year-old Laura Smither was only a little late for breakfast, but she wasn’t the type of girl to be late at all, much less for pancakes, her favorite meal. Everybody always remarked how Laura was so mature for her age, and if she said she was going to take a quick run and be back in time for pancakes, well, then, something had to be wrong. “We were out in the fields screaming her name,” says her mother, Gay, now 42, of that awful April morning five years ago. “We thought maybe she had been run over and couldn’t get up.”

Seventeen days later Gay and her husband, Bob, 57, finally learned what had happened. Their daughter’s decomposed body was found floating in a pond 12 miles from their wood-frame home in Friendswood, Texas, a rural town of 30,000 a half hour south of Houston. Laura had been strangled and possibly sexually assaulted; five years later, no one has been charged with the crime.

Laura’s disappearance might have wound up as just one of the 2,000 missing-children cases reported in the U.S. every day—tragic, but pointless. Instead, inspired by the way the men and women of Friendswood banded together to search for Laura—thousands of them, every day, for more than two weeks—Gay and Bob Smither founded the Laura Recovery Center Foundation, which has turned the hunt for missing children into something of a science. Operating with only one full-time staffer and an annual budget of $70,000, the Center has organized 31 large-scale searches nationwide and located six bodies, most recently that of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam near San Diego earlier this year. Since its inception a year after Laura disappeared, the group has provided assistance to families in 446 missing-persons cases and played a part in locating three kidnapped children. The Laura Recovery Center manual, a 100-page guide to mobilizing large groups of volunteers and combing hundreds of square miles, has become a bible for families and communities in distress. “This has kept us sane,” says Bob Smither, adding that the Center also benefited his son David, now 14, easing his fears after Laura’s murder. “This helps every kid realize they are important and that they will be searched for.”

Last year the Center’s involvement in the hunt for Leah Henry, now 12, in Houston ended happily when a cop, alerted by the Center’s efforts, rescued her from her kidnapper. “They were quick, they were concise, they knew what they were doing,” says Leah’s grateful father, Tim Henry, 51. “And then they stuck with us through the entire thing.” This March, just weeks after a Center-trained team of 2,000 volunteers found Danielle van Dam’s body along a desert road on Feb. 27, sheriffs in Mesa County, Colo., came calling. They needed to jump-start their search for Jennifer Blagg, 34, and her daughter Abby, 6, who vanished from their home just outside Grand Junction, Colo., on Nov. 13, leaving behind a pool of Jennifer’s blood but few other clues. It marked the first time that law-enforcement officials rather than desperate relatives had asked the Center to step in. “Their ability to focus a lot of people on a search is something we couldn’t do on our own,” says Det. Steve King.

Once the Center agreed to help in Mesa County, Gay Smither traveled there to assist hundreds of volunteers who would ultimately search 2,400 square miles of rough canyonlands and desert terrain. While there, she also lent support to the relatives of Jennifer Blagg. “I think we have to realize that my Jennifer is gone,” says Blagg’s mother, Marilyn Conway, 61, through her tears. “But I haven’t been able to turn Abby loose. I can’t say she is dead.” The hell of not knowing what happened, says Gay Smither, “is every parent’s worst nightmare and far beyond. Until you’re walking that road, you have no idea of the darkness.” Unfortunately, the intensive Mesa County search was halted as scheduled after 11 days without yielding a breakthrough. Still, says Jennifer’s brother David Loman, 38, “I am absolutely floored and humbled by the efforts I’ve seen.”

It was a different tragedy that first brought the Smithers together. In 1985, Bob, an electrical engineer and head of his own consulting firm, lost his wife, Carol, to breast cancer. Later that year he hired Gay Orsmond, a Zimbabwe-born former English teacher, as a nanny for his toddler daughter Laura. The pair fell in love and married in 1986. Even before their son David was born in 1988, Gay had legally adopted Laura. “Anybody who met her fell in love with her,” says Gay. “She was beautiful and smart, smart, smart.” Nicknamed Jabberjaws, Laura was a gifted student and dancer who in 1996 earned one of two spots in a class for aspiring ballerinas at the prestigious Houston Ballet.

On April 3,1997, Laura asked her mother if she could go jogging on the back roads near their house before breakfast. “I was the one who gave her permission,” says Gay, “and that’s part of my life sentence.” When Laura didn’t return after 20 minutes, Bob drove around looking for her and immediately called police. The next day Mike Barker, 51, a heavy-machinery consultant and friend of the Smithers’, recalls watching the local news and seeing an image of Gay frantically knocking on car windows in the pouring rain to hand out flyers. “It made a strong impression,” he says. “Everyone wanted to help this woman.”

Barker quickly organized volunteers and eventually marshalled thousands of people. Many of them continued to put in long hours even after they suspected that Laura would not be found alive. But after 17 days the search was officially halted. “You had 6,000 people who put their lives on hold,” says Bob. “You can’t do that indefinitely.”

On the same day the search was halted, a man and his son training their hunting dog came across Laura’s body. Police, though, have not been able to gather enough solid evidence to charge the man they suspect of killing her: William Lewis Reece, 42, a construction worker now serving a 60-year sentence for a different kidnapping.

Even before Laura’s body was found, says Bob, “we realized that what the volunteers were doing was not common and that the lessons they learned should be written down.” So in the months after Laura’s death, the Smithers took solace in helping to create the manual and making it available online. Later that year they received a visit from some residents of nearby Tiki Island, Texas, where 17-year-old Jessica Cain had just gone missing. “We were the most broken people in town, and these people were asking for our help,” says Gay. “What does that say about what sort of help is out there?” Jessica has yet to be found, but the Laura Recovery Center was officially in business.

This April 3, the Smithers quietly marked the fifth anniversary of Laura’s disappearance. Determined not to “allow this monster to take our marriage from us,” says Gay, they have vowed to allow each other plenty of room to grieve. “We have made some progress, but it’s slow,” says Bob. “For the first time in five years, the door to her room is open all the time now.”

The undisturbed remnants of Laura’s once-promising girlhood—science books, ballet slippers—stand in contrast to the devastation caused by her death. “Our lives,” says Gay with a deep sigh, “were torn apart.” Still, she and Bob put in 20 hours a week with the Center, trying to help other parents who, like them, became lost in that unspeakable darkness. “Bob and Gay are still trying to save Laura,” says Barker. “Every one of these searches is personal.”

Alex Tresniowski
Vickie Bane in Grand Junction