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Bodies found in the ‘killing fields’ haunted Southeast Texas for decades. Will new clues lead to a suspect?

The bodies and bones found in the Calder Road oil field are among dozens of women whose bodies have been dug up in fields all along the I-45 corridor, the 50-mile stretch between Houston and Galveston, Tex. (Paul S. Howell/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Houston skyline shrinks in the rearview mirror just as the industrial smokestacks begin to rise, and then once you’ve traveled far enough down Interstate 45 toward the Gulf Coast, the landscape gives way to intermittent stretches of supersized strip malls and swampy pastures.

One such lot is the old League City oil field — an abandoned 25-acre lot full of overgrown mesquite trees and crisscrossed with dirt roads, tucked a mile behind the interstate traffic and a small Baptist church.

Southeastern Texans know it better as the “Killing Fields.”

The bodies and bones pulled from the old oil field along Calder Road in League City between 1984 and 1991 belonged to four young women, clustered in the same vicinity and buried in shallow graves.

A family dog was the first to find any trace of them, when it carried home a human skull to its owner in a nearby neighborhood in 1984. In the ensuing years, two boys on dirt bikes would find another body, police would find another and two horseback riders would stumble on yet another. And all the while, the killer or killers would never be found.

Leads came and went, and so did suspects. There was the fabulist felon who falsely confessed to the killings from prison in 2001. There was the man who owned the recreational horseback-riding stable in the adjacent lot, who drew suspicion for years. But the investigation was complicated by the fact that authorities could not even identify two of the four women discovered in the fields.

This week, however, after more than 25 years, that has finally changed.

On Tuesday, the League City Police Department said they had learned the women’s identities through genetic genealogy testing, in which forensic analysts extracted the women’s DNA from their bones and then ran it through public genealogy databases. Through their family members, they identified the women: Audrey Lee Cook, a 30-year-old mechanic, and Donna Prudhomme, a 34-year-old mother of two.

“It was no different than telling their loved ones they were just murdered yesterday,” League City Lt. Michael Buffington said during a Monday news conference.

The discovery of the victims’ identities marks the first major development in years, one that police hope may pinpoint a suspect should anyone who remembers the women come forward with tips. Police declined to elaborate on any possible persons of interest, but for decades, authorities have maintained that they believe the deaths were the result of more than one killer — potentially even multiple serial killers, as one FBI agent told The Washington Post in 1999.

The rise of consumer genetic tests has provided law enforcement with new tools that have the potential to break open cold cases. (Video: Daron Taylor, Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

That’s because the bodies and bones found in the Calder Road oil field are among dozens of women whose bodies have been dug up in fields all along the I-45 corridor, the 50-mile stretch between Houston and Galveston, Tex. Starting in 1971, when three Galveston girls disappeared in a matter of months, more than 30 women from the area would go missing by 1999, The Post reported then. Year after year, they would turn up buried in a pond or marsh or pasture along that dreadful stretch of I-45 — to the point that the “killing fields” came to mean not only the oil field behind Calder Road, but every field along the freeway. Only a fraction of the cases have ever been solved.

“The killing fields have become a symbol for all those girls that have gone missing up and down the I-45 corridor,” an investigator told CBS’s “48 Hours” in 2012.

In the case of the four women found in this 25-acre patch, the disturbing saga began on Oct. 10, 1983, when Heide Villareal Fye was reported missing. The 25-year-old cocktail waitress disappeared after she left her parents’ home to hitch a ride to Houston to visit her boyfriend. But she never made it.

Instead, a dog would dig up her bones in the killing field the following April.

Sixteen-year-old Laura Miller would go missing next, on Sept. 24, 1984. She walked a few blocks from home to a nearby convenience store to use the pay phone and never returned. It just so happened that she lived only a few blocks from Fye — and both girls frequented the same convenience store, the Houston Press reported in 2015.

The coincidences would haunt her father, Tim Miller, who immediately asked the League City Police Department if they had searched for Laura in the Calder Road field where Fye had been found, the Press reported.

The police wouldn’t search the field for months.

Not until two boys riding dirt bikes in 1986 found another body in the oil field — that of Cook, a Tennessee native who had moved to Houston for work as a mechanic. She was known only as “Jane Doe” then.

While police recovered Cook’s remains, they found Laura Miller as well.

“What do you do when there are no witnesses and you recover a victim, weeks or months after the crime, and the physical evidence is all gone?” then-Lt. Gary D. Ratliff told The Post in 1999, describing one of the main hurdles in the investigations.“ What do you say to the parents when all you have to go on are bones that critters have been at?”

Tim Miller didn’t want to hear any of it. He was consumed by anger. Anger at his daughter’s killer, of course, but also anger at the police, for what he believed then was an inadequate investigation. He would become obsessed with tracking down leads himself. Before long, he became convinced he had found the man: Robert Abel, a former NASA engineer who later owned a horseback-riding business, and who had been leasing land next to the 25-acre oil field for years.

"I tried to help police solve a terrible crime, and now they think I was too helpful?” Abel said in a 1999 Texas Monthly story, baffled as to why he was a suspect.

Suspicion surrounded Abel in 1991 not long after he opened his recreational horseback-riding business, Stardust Trailrides, in the lot next to the killing fields: One September afternoon, two horseback riders came across a nude body, the fourth to be discovered in the Calder Road oil field. Police wouldn’t know it then, but it was the body of Donna Prudhomme, Ratliffe, now League City’s police chief, said Tuesday.

A native of Port Arthur, Tex., Prudhomme had recently fled an abusive relationship and fallen on hard times in the mid-80s, police said Tuesday. Her two sons had gone to live with their grandparents. Her family, after not hearing from her for a while, contacted the Port Arthur Police Department to report her missing. While a small, fruitless search was conducted, no formal report was ever filed, police said.

Police zeroed in on Abel because of his proximity to the fields and because the FBI believed he fit the psychological profile of a killer, which Abel found preposterous. They stormed his home on Nov. 12, 1993, with a search warrant — only to find nothing. No links to the women, no physical evidence connecting him to the scene. His guns didn’t match the bullets that killed the women, Texas Monthly reported.

Miller would later turn his attention to another man, although police have yet to identify any physical evidence linking this man, either. Now decades later, Miller has turned his obsession into a career: The founder of Texas EquuSearch, he tracks down missing people for a living, having recovered dozens of bodies during the past two decades.

He’s turned the killing fields into a memorial. On the trees that surround the patch of land where the four women’s bodies were found, he has tacked the names of missing people from everywhere. At the spots where his daughter and where the three other women were found dead, he has planted wooden crosses.

He told CBS’s “48 Hours” in 2012 that he goes there more often than he goes to the cemetery where his daughter is buried.

“I would go out there where Laura’s body was found, where I put that cross, and I would say Laura, please don’t hate your daddy, but I cannot come out here anymore,” he said.

It was becoming too painful, he said, but one day as he pulled away in his truck, it was almost like she was talking to him: “Dad, don’t quit,” he heard her say. “Please don’t quit.”

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