HOUSTON—Fifteen years ago, along a busy stretch of the Gulf Freeway, something terrible happened.
A young woman named Jessica Cain, just days away from her high school graduation, had spent the evening performing in a musical gala. A few of her drama club friends celebrated their performance at a Bennigan’s restaurant in the Clear Lake area. Then, she drove away in her pickup truck and simply vanished.
“You wake up one morning after spending a lovely evening with your friend and you’re told she’s not there,” recalls David Stallings, one of her high school friends. “And you look for her.”
Her father found her truck parked on the shoulder of the Gulf Freeway, but she was nowhere in sight. Her wallet was inside. Authorities dusted her truck for fingerprints, but found nothing that indicated what might have happened.
Her disappearance triggered a massive and frantic search, with deputies slogging through marshes on horseback, and dogs searching through thick brush. Hundreds of volunteers joined the effort, faxing the missing girl’s description to every hotel, motel and truck stop within a day’s drive.
For a time during those sweltering summer days in the swampy fields around LaMarque, it seemed an entire community wept and prayed for the return of a teenage girl whose photographs dominated newspapers and television newscasts for weeks. But Jessica Cain, who would’ve been a 32 year-old woman today, has never been found.
“It was so hard,” says Alicia O’Neill, a high school friend. “I think it’s almost unimaginable to think that you would be walking through a field looking for your best friend, unable to find her and just thinking that she’s out there somewhere.”
Cain was one of dozens of girls and young women who either vanished or were murdered in an area around the Gulf Freeway in Galveston County that came to be known as “the killing fields.” Since the 1970s, more than 30 females have apparently died or disappeared, and there is little doubt some of the killings were connected. Four bodies were discovered buried in the same remote patch of land. One victim’s father reported receiving a disturbing letter purportedly written by a serial killer who claimed to have murdered a number of others.
People familiar with Cain’s disappearance aren’t sure whether it’s related to the other cases. In fact, they really don’t know very much at all about what happened, despite years of searching and investigation, but they’re not about to give up.
“Families don’t stop,” said Bob Walcutt, the executive director of the Laura Recovery Center for Missing Children, which was founded by the parents of Laura Smither, a murder victim killed in the area. “Other people can go on with their lives. For the parents, that one moment in time, they’re locked in that moment in time. They will continue searching.”
Cain’s disappearance is no exception. Some of her friends organized a candlelight vigil to dedicate a memorial in Highland Bayou Park near where her father found her pickup truck. Her parents plan to attend a vigil scheduled for Saturday evening, August 18.
And the friend responsible for the memorial decided to pursue a career in criminal justice. O’Neill became a prosecutor for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, analyzing DNA to help exonerate wrongly convicted prison inmates.
“You know all the time that she’s out there somewhere, and that the right person coming forward, the right person being brave even after all this time, and just giving us the information we need,” O’Neill said. “All we want to do is just know where she is.”