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Timeline: Confessed serial killer William Reece and the four girls he murdered

Reece has already admitted to 3 Texas cold cases -- 12-year-old Laura Smither and 17-year-old Jessica Cain from the Houston area, and Kelli Cox from Denton.

OKLAHOMA CITY — HOUSTON — A confessed serial killer who preyed on young Houston girls -- and killed at least two of them -- was formally sentenced to death Thursday by a judge in Oklahoma City. 

William Reece, 61, was tried for the 1997 kidnapping and murder of Tiffany Johnston, a 19-year-old newlywed in Bethany, Oklahoma. 

The Galveston County DA confirmed Reece will eventually be brought back here to be tried for the murders of 12-year-old Laura Smither and 17-year-old Jessica Cain. He confessed to both cold cases in 2016, more than two decades after they were killed.

Law enforcement says all of Reece's known victims were murdered during a 1997 killing spree in Texas and Oklahoma. Girls started disappearing a few months after the violent predator was released from prison in 1996 after serving time for kidnapping and raping a University of Oklahoma student.

RELATED: More coverage of William Reece

Tiffany Johnston

Reece's first known murder victim was Tiffany, who was kidnapped from a car wash.

Testimony showed Reece sexually assaulted her in a horse trailer and then strangled her. Her partially nude body was found the next day.

More than two decades later, DNA evidence linked Reece to the crime.

In May, a jury in Oklahoma City convicted Reece of and sentenced him to death. A  judge made it official Thursday with a formal sentencing.

"This was for Tiff," Kathy Dobry, the victim's mother, told KWTV in June. "Even though it helped families in Texas, but it was for Tiffany after 24 years and 10 months."

Credit: Family Photo
Tiffany Johnston

Tiffany's husband read a letter in court blaming Reece because they'd never have kids, grow old or enjoy a long life together.

RELATED: Who is William Reece? Insight into a suspected serial killer

But Tiffany wasn’t his first victim, according to detectives.

They say Reece, an Oklahoma native, moved to Houston and started hunting. He liked pretty girls with long, brown hair. In his confession, he said his first victim was a 12-year-old in Friendswood girl.

Laura Smither

Laura Smither, 12, went for a jog in her neighborhood in April of 1997 and never made it home.

Laura's frantic parents and dozens of others joined the search for Laura. Her disappearance was the lead story on the news that night – and for many nights to come.

Laura’s body was eventually found in Pasadena.

“In 1997, when Laura went missing, we prayed so hard for her to be brought back to our dinner table. That didn’t happen the way we wanted,” Gay Smither said after Reece confessed in 2016. “Our prayers were not answered the way we wanted. But our prayers were answered; Laura was found."

Credit: Family Photo

Jessica Cain

The family of Jessica Cain would wait 19 years for their answers

Jessica was a 17-year-old La Marque high school student who vanished on a steamy night in August of 1997.

Jessica was headed home after attending a theater cast party with friends. She almost made it. Her car was later found abandoned on the side of I-45, not far from Tiki Island. There was no sign of Jessica.

"It wasn't a car wreck, it wasn't an accident. This was something they did to her, something horrific, evil thing that happened," said Danni Previte, a childhood friend.

Credit: Family photo
Jessica Cain

Kelli Cox

Like Tiffany, Kelli Cox was killed in July of 1997 as Reece bounced back and forth between Oklahoma and Texas.

RELATED: William Reece charged in 1997 disappearance of UNT student

RELATED: Brazoria Co. remains identified as Kelli Cox

The 20-year-old University of North Texas student disappeared after touring a Denton jail with some classmates. She was last seen at a gas station across the street.

Kelli had a toddler at home so her mother always knew something bad must have happened. She said her daughter would never leave her child.

Credit: WFAA
Kelli Cox with her daughter

Confessions of a killer

No one knew what happened to Laura, Jessica or Kelli – no one except William Reece.

He eventually went back to prison in Texas for kidnapping a 19-year-old.

Years later, DNA linked Reece to Tiffany’s death and he was charged with capital murder. That's when Reece started talking. 

The serial killer calmly confessed that he’d also killed three girls in Texas and only he knew where to find their bodies.

In exchange for the information, he wanted a guarantee that he wouldn’t get the death penalty in Texas.

These are the victims linked to suspected serial killer William Reece.

Victims finally found

Jessica’s body was found first buried in a field on East Orem in Houston.

“But while this news brings confirmation, it also brings new sorrow to Jessica’s family, friends and those in law enforcement who have mourned her loss," Galveston County DA Jack Roady said.

The body of Kelli Cox was found in Brazoria County three weeks later. It had been nearly two decades since she vanished. The toddler Kelli left behind was now nearly the same age she was when she disappeared.

“When Jessica Cain and Kelli Cox were found, there’s no words to describe what that meant to Bob and I, because we realized early on that as bad as our outcome was, those families walked a much, much harder road than we were walking,” Gay Smither said.

Credit: AP
Authorities continue to search for human remains in a field near Houston, Friday, March 4, 2016. A convicted kidnapper who may be linked to other violent crimes has been temporarily released from prison to help authorities who are digging for the body of a teenager who disappeared two decades ago. William Reece's attorney says his client is helping authorities locate the body of 17-year-old Jessica Cain, one of multiple people Reece may have victimized in 1997. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

“Without the work by everyone involved, what happened to Laura Smither, Kelli Cox and Jessica Cain would have forever remained a mystery. Now we have answers,” Roady said.

Reece has already spent more than half his life in prison for kidnapping and sexual assault. Now, he’ll die behind bars.

Gay Smither said she forgives him for what he’s done, and she hopes to meet with him in person one day to tell him that and discuss her faith.

She may not get the chance. While Reece made deals to avoid the death chamber in Texas, the death penalty is still on the table in Oklahoma. 

Credit: AP
A card and note hang on a fence surrounding the area where authorities continue to search for human remains near Houston, Friday, March 4, 2016. A convicted kidnapper who may be linked to other violent crimes has been temporarily released from prison to help authorities who are digging for the body of a teenager who disappeared two decades ago. William Reece's attorney says his client is helping authorities locate the body of 17-year-old Jessica Cain, one of multiple people Reece may have victimized in 1997. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)