The glut of modern true-crime works is, at heart, a depressing reflection of a world awash in cruelty and injustice. Unsurprisingly, then, Crime Scene: The Texas Killing Fields is a portrait of both a string of baffling homicide cases and the unending misery they caused for victims’ families and loved ones, who never gave up searching for the truth.
The latest in executive producer Joe Berlinger and Imagine’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Netflix series (following last year’s Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer), director Jessica Dimmock’s three-part inquiry is distinguished by its heartbreaking portrayal of those left to pick up the pieces in the wake of tragedy, all of which occurred along a stretch of highway heading south from Houston.
“If you want to commit a crime, do it here, because they sure can't solve it,” laments Tim Miller about League City, Texas, and the I-45 corridor that runs through it. Eleven girls went missing and/or were killed there between 1971 and 1977. Sadly, those unsolved stories are merely the context for Tim’s own ordeal, which began on Sept. 10, 1984, when his 16-year-old daughter Laura never returned from making a call at a public payphone.
Despite Tim’s desperate attempts to find her, and to compel cops to do something, his efforts went for naught. Police dismissed Laura as merely a runaway and told Tim to wait for her to get in touch. Tim—who was new to the neighborhood—did nothing of the sort, and he soon learned about a similar missing girl who’d vanished around the same payphone: 25-year-old Heidi Fye, whose remains were found in April of 1984 by a dog that emerged from the woods with a human skull in its mouth.
It would be 17 long months before Laura was discovered—shockingly, in the same Calder Road area where Heidi had been dumped, and where Tim had unsuccessfully tried to get law enforcement to more thoroughly comb. Even worse, she was lying beside a third victim, who had a .22 caliber bullet lodged in her spine and whom police failed to identify, marking her as a Jane Doe.
Given the heat and wetness of this region, which came to be known as the Texas Killing Fields, none of the bodies produced much concrete evidence. As a result, the investigations cast a wide net and yet collected little. Still, that didn’t mean Tim and others didn’t have their eyes set on certain individuals, beginning with Clyde Hendrick, a “Casanova conman” and roofer who’d arrived in Houston as part of the migration brought about by the city’s ’70s-’80s construction boom.
Clyde shacked up with the mother of a woman who here identifies herself as Marla, and who tells a disturbing tale about Clyde’s creepy and predatory behavior toward her, involving peepholes in her bedroom wall, indecent exposures, and drugged molestation. That, it turns out, was only the half of it. Marla’s father obtained Clyde’s lengthy criminal record, which revealed that he had been convicted of “abuse of a corpse”—namely, that of Ellen Beason, who went missing in July 1984 after visiting the same bar, the Texas Moon, where Heidi worked.
Clyde had dumped and hidden Ellen’s body in a middle-of-nowhere trash pile, and claimed he had done so out of panic after she had inexplicably drowned during a nighttime swim. Though his guilt seemed pretty obvious, with no proof, he only wound up serving one year behind bars and paying a $2,000 fine.
Clyde was a great suspect in the Texas Killing Fields slayings, and that didn’t change when a fourth victim was found in the exact same patch of land on Sept. 8, 1991. The League City Police Department naturally wound up under increasing pressure to nab a culprit, and they came to believe they’d found one, courtesy of an FBI profile that matched a local: Robert William Abel, a former NASA scientist who owned the Killing Fields, part of which he’d turned into horse stables.
Abel’s desire to interject himself into the inquiry only made him appear shadier, and Tim decided that he was the fiend they’d all been looking for—and, in response, embarked on a full-steam-ahead campaign to prove it. That endeavor, alas, turned out to be misbegotten, much to Tim’s lasting shame, and it only exacerbated the grief and anguish that gripped his soul, propelling him to create Texas EquuSearch (a nonprofit missing-persons outfit) and to continue seeking answers regarding Laura’s demise.
Tim’s furious sorrow—over his loss, his powerlessness, and the mistakes he believes he made in the aftermath of Laura’s death—is palpable in his on-camera interviews, and it’s complemented by the testimony of Gay Smither, whose 12-year-old daughter Laura went missing in nearby Friendswood on April 3, 1997.
Because she was a young girl from a well-to-do family in one of the safest places in America, Laura’s disappearance motivated police and citizens to act, and her body was eventually found. However, two more young women—Kelli Ann Cox and Jessica Cain—also vanished without a trace. As Gay admits, “Laura’s murder is our life sentence too,” underscoring the inconsolable pain and suffering wrought from losing a child in such a heinous manner, and then receiving little in the way of a satisfactory resolution.
Crime Scene: The Texas Killing Fields thus becomes a wide-ranging study of female victimization, parental woe, and systemic apathy and inefficiency—the last of which is highlighted by examples of the police failing to preserve evidence, effectively follow up on leads, or show a requisite amount of interest and compassion. Director Dimmock recounts this horror story in a circuitous fashion that mirrors the plights of Tim, Gay, and others who provide wrenching commentary about the depths of their sadness and anger, as well as their frustration with law enforcement departments that repeatedly let them down.
In the end, Crime Scene: The Texas Killing Fields reveals that many of these forlorn individuals did attain at least some measure of justice—thanks to revelations about who murdered their girls—but the lingering feeling it elicits is far closer to despair than hope.