A Texas prison inmate who is serving 60 years for a kidnapping in Harris County, and who is also charged with murder in Oklahoma, has been identified as a person of interest in the 1997 disappearance of Kelli Cox, a University of North Texas honor student, authorities said Thursday.
A Denton investigator accompanied Texas Rangers to the Houston area last month to interview William Reece, 56, a Denton police spokesman said.
Cox’s mother, Jan Bynum, said Thursday that authorities had told her about the new development.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Bynum said. “I don’t want them to find her remains. I want her to walk right in our home, but it is what it is.
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“I just want some peace and to know one way or the other.”
Cox, 20, disappeared on July 15, 1997, after taking a tour of the Denton jail with her UNT criminology class. She called her boyfriend about noon, and when he arrived to meet her, her car was there, but she was gone.
She had a 19-month-old daughter.
Cox has been legally declared presumed dead, her mother has said.
The Houston Chronicle reported last week that excavators were digging in the southeast Houston area. Citing unnamed sources, the newspaper said police were possibly searching for the remains of Jessica Cain, 17, of LaMarque who was reported missing in August 1997, a month after Cox disappeared.
Several people reported seeing Reece, in shackles, handcuffs and leg irons, at the excavation site last week. He had been transferred from the Ellis prison unit to a Galveston County jail on a bench warrant, news outlets reported.
Sgt. William Kennard, a DPS spokesman in the Houston area, said Thursday that authorities were continuing to dig but declined to provide other details.
Denton officer Shane Kizer said in a phone interview, “Initially, [Reece] was a person of interest in the [Cox] investigation. But he was never charged.”
Kizer said Reece is cooperating with Denton police.
In 1998, Reece was sentenced to 60 years in prison for an aggravated kidnapping in Harris County, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice records. While in prison, he also was sentenced to three years for theft in Brazoria County.
In September, Reece was charged with murder and kidnapping in Oklahoma in the case of 19-year-old Tiffany Johnston. She was abducted on July 26, 1997, from a car wash in Bethany, Okla., The Daily Oklahoman reported.
Reece is also a suspect in the 1997 kidnapping and slaying of 12-year-old Laura Smither of Friendswood. She disappeared while jogging, and her body was found a month later in Pasadena, according to multiple news outlets in Houston.
Bynum said she remembered hearing Reece’s name early in the investigation, but said she doesn’t know him.
The news has been the biggest break in her daughter’s case since 1997, she said.