Mind Games

When 19-year-old UNT student Kelli Cox vanished, her desperate parents turned to a Florida "psychic" as their last hope. Hope was all he gave them.

"We're not talking about a young mom who wasn't trying to be pretty responsible," Bynum says. "She was going to school full time, doing great."

Cox didn't have her purse, pictures of her daughter or much of anything else. She had a couple hundred dollars in her bedroom at home, but she didn't take it with her. The $1,000 in her bank account was untouched. Bynum knew her daughter was in trouble.

The search began that afternoon. About 20 investigators were working on the Cox case, and the Denton Police Department devoted all available resources. The Texas Rangers and the FBI were called in to assist.

Jan Bynum and her husband, Nyles, have taken custody of granddaughter Alexis in her mother's absence.
Mark Graham
Jan Bynum and her husband, Nyles, have taken custody of granddaughter Alexis in her mother's absence.
The gas station and convenience store where Kelli Cox used a pay phone. It was the last anyone ever heard from her.
Mark Graham
The gas station and convenience store where Kelli Cox used a pay phone. It was the last anyone ever heard from her.

Classmates, witnesses and the boyfriend told authorities they had last seen Cox on the tour and then on the telephone. Police found Cox's car with the purse and keys locked inside. Investigators talked to dozens of witnesses and potential witnesses, but no one could offer any real clue of Cox's whereabouts.

Perhaps it's only because she was a mother who was desperate for information that police did not deliver, but Bynum is critical of the police work that she saw. Investigators, she says, unreasonably focused on the boyfriend because that's all they seemed to have. His long hair and earring and the fact that he showed up shirtless seemed to be something investigators latched onto, Bynum says. Despite the fact that he was seen in Farmers Branch at an hour that would have given him no time to abduct Cox, police grilled him intensely, Bynum says.

"They took poor Lawrence, and it was like, 'You know where she is. Her body's in the ground with maggots crawling in and out, and you're sitting here in an air-conditioned house.' Just unmerciful," Bynum says. (Harris couldn't be reached for comment.)

Harris, who had dated Cox for about nine months, underwent lengthy interrogations and took four lie detector tests before he was finally ruled out as a suspect. Mike Leverton, lead investigator on the case for the Denton police, agrees Harris couldn't have been responsible, partly because he was "cool as a cucumber" under intense police scrutiny.

Three weeks passed before police finally stopped concentrating on Harris, and, as far as Bynum is concerned, by then much had been lost in the way of possible leads. Police never fingerprinted Cox's car, which Bynum believes might have been where an abductor put his or her hands as if trying to help her get her keys.

"They said that they didn't think it was necessary...They said there were no indications of foul play or problems at her car...They kept hanging on that she was last seen at the convenience store."

Authorities didn't do other things that seemed just to be common sense to Bynum. They did not interview neighbors or verify family members' alibis. Their methods seemed erratic and spontaneous. They didn't even have Cox's own fingerprints until several months into the investigation.

The different agencies involved in the investigation seemed to be guarding their own turf and failing to share information with Bynum or even each other, Bynum says.

"It seems great that you've got the FBI and the Texas Rangers and the police all working on it, but I really think that does more harm than good because the FBI and the police are very territorial," Bynum says. Arguments about Cox's possible motives for disappearing set the tone for daily investigation meetings, she says.

"We had detectives tell us that during the first hour they spent arguing over did she run away or was she abducted? I said, 'Who cares?'" Bynum says. "I said, 'If she walked away, she's not in the right frame of mind, and she needs to be found every bit as much as if somebody took her. So what difference does it make?'"

But police were just not listening to the family, Bynum says, frequently sniffling and wiping tears from her eyes and cheeks as she recalls the story.

"This was not an irresponsible kid. That's why I was saying then if something happened and if she snapped and walked, she's sick. We need to find her. This is not a contest...You all quit arguing."

Leverton says there may have been some disagreement about the nature of Cox's disappearance, but that did not affect the police work.

"Different officers off the top of their heads may say things. I don't know about what was said back then exactly," he says. "Somebody might say, 'Oh, she probably ran away,' that type of thing, and it was probably thought of. They look at things like that...It didn't affect the investigation."

Despite Bynum's critical assessment of the work, police were not treating the Cox disappearance like it was just some adult who walked off, Leverton says. The alarm went out fast, leads were pouring in, and everyone was checked out.

"I thought there was a real effort on everybody's part. Once I was assigned, I was assigned to this totally for, gosh, a year or something, a long time," he says. "We pretty well all worked together. Especially when I got on it, I know I had cooperation from the FBI and the Texas Rangers."

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