A Convicted Kidnapper and Rapist Could Hold the Key to a Farmers Branch Family's Anguish

UPDATE: After more than two decades of searching, law enforcement officials have found Kelli Cox's remains buried on a strip of land near Rosharon, a town about 30 miles south of Houston. They discovered the remains last week and identified Cox through dental records at UNT's Center for Human Identification and Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology and the Galveston County medical examiner's office.

Law enforcement officials still need to complete DNA testing, which will be performed at the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth. It will take two weeks or longer to conduct the test. 

Last month, the Observer interviewed Cox's mother and stepfather as they awaited word on whether their daughter's alleged killer, William Reece, would lead authorities to her body. 

Jan Bynum sits at her dining-room table, wondering if today will be the day that her daughter Kelli Cox is found. It’s something she’s been wondering every day since her daughter went missing in the middle of an afternoon in July 1997 somewhere between the Denton Police Department and the gas station down the road where she used the payphone to call her boyfriend.

Most people wouldn’t expect someone to be snatched so close to the police station in the middle of town in the middle of the afternoon. The day Cox went missing was a busy one for the downtown area, Bynum recalls. Many people saw her daughter using the payphone around 1 o’clock, but no one saw her kidnapping. “If I believed in martians, I’d think they came down and picked her because it was just like…” Bynum snaps her fingers. “There one minute and gone the next,” she says. “No clue, no nothing.”

Furor followed Cox's disappearance, and Bynum's phone rang off the hook with condolences, tips and requests for interviews. Local TV news crews lined the street of the Bynums’ neighborhood in Farmers Branch where Cox had been living with her mother and stepfather, Nyles, while she attended school at the University of North Texas and raised her 19-month-old daughter Alexis, who’s now her mother’s age and attending the same university in Denton.

“[When Cox disappeared] Alexis would be calling, ‘Mommy,’ and looking under the bed,” Bynum recalls with a distant look in her eyes. “It lasted three or four weeks. We would explain to her that her mom’s lost, and lots of people are looking for her.”

Denton police detectives, the FBI and a purported psychic who had worked with LA police on the O.J. Simpson case, all searched for Cox. But days turned into weeks, months have turned into years, and Cox’s case has become one of the more than 84,000 active cases contained in the National Crime Information Center’s records.
Now, nearly 20 years after Cox’s disappearance, William Reece, a 56-year-old convicted kidnapper and rapist in a South Texas jail, offers hope that the Bynums will finally receive the answer to the question haunting them since July 15, 1997: What happened to Kelli?

“I don’t know if Reece is involved or not,” Bynum says. “He obviously has said enough to the police that it piqued their interest enough.”

The last time she saw her then 20-year-old daughter, Bynum was heading to work in Dallas, and Cox was going to the Denton Police Department to meet her criminal justice class for a tour of the city jail. She’d been attending the University of North Texas for a couple of years, trying to finish her degree in psychology, in hopes of finding a job as a juvenile counselor. The last words Bynum heard her daughter tell her were “I love you” before Cox headed out the door to become part of a growing number of missing persons in the National Crime Information Center’s files.

Cox hid a spare key in one of those hide-a-key magnetic boxes hidden underneath her car, locked the rest of her belongings — including her cell phone — in the car, per her professor’s instructions, and took the tour of the jail but left quickly once it finished at noon. She had a test to take on campus, but her spare key wouldn’t open her car door when she tried to leave, her stepfather, Nyles Bynum, says.

Cox's boyfriend called her mother about 4 p.m., asking if she had heard from her daughter, who called him about noon from a payphone at a gas station a couple of minutes down the road from the Denton Police Department. She told him that her spare key wouldn’t work and asked if he could come to Denton to pick her up. Cox’s car was still in the parking lot when he arrived about 45 minutes later, but she was nowhere to be found.

“I know the key worked because I tried it the night before,” he says. “There is no reason why that key shouldn’t have worked.”

The Bynums received a phone call from the Denton police a couple of weeks ago, alerting them to a change in Cox's case, that leads had been developing in the Houston area. They weren’t told much about the leads, and Jan Bynum says she didn’t want to pry too much and hamper their investigation.

She still wakes each morning hoping her daughter will return home, walk through the front door and back into their lives as if the martians had finally returned her.

“That never goes away when you don’t have answers,” she says.

They appeared on The Maury Povich Show and Dr. Phil (although the episode never aired) and conducted dozens of interviews to remind people that their daughter was still missing, that her case wasn’t solved.

But now answers are closer than they’ve been in the past.

Right after Jan Bynum received a call from police, the news media called and told her about Reece, who had suggested that he buried Cox’s remains, as well as a Galveston teenager’s, in a horse pasture in southeast Houston, according to multiple news reports.

Bynum recognized Reece’s name because he was someone whom the FBI had told her about not long after her daughter vanished in 1997. Reece was an Oklahoma truck driver who, Denton police claim, had been traveling on Interstate 35 when Cox disappeared in July 1997.

In 1998, Reece was convicted of kidnapping a Harris County woman two months before Cox's abduction and sentenced to 60 years in prison. In September 2015, he was linked to an 18-year-old homicide involving a 19-year-old Bethany woman who was abducted just a week after Cox. Her car was found at a car wash with the keys still in the ignition.

Reece was last seen in early March, directing backhoes and bulldozers where to dig to find his victims' remains, the Houston Chronicle reported. Bynum heard he was directing police to where he buried not only Cox but also 19-year-old Sandra Sapaugh, who disappeared while using a payphone, and Jessica Cain, a high school senior who vanished after leaving a restaurant in Clear Lake.

But she hasn’t heard if police have found her daughter.

“My hope has always been that she is still alive,” she says. “But if she’s gone, I want them to find her remains because we can then know, and I don’t have to wonder about her being tortured or out there in some horrible situation.”

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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.