A look back at the trial and grisly confessions of a serial killer sentenced to death in Oklahoma

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – A jury sentenced accused serial killer William Lewis Reece to die for the rape and murder of Tiffany Johnston on July 26, 1997, in Bethany after a nearly three-week trial.

“We are so happy he got [the] death penalty,” said Kathy Dobry, Johnston’s mother. “Because this was for Tiff, even though it helped families in Texas. But it was for Tiffany.”

Reece is also accused of and confessed to killing three other young women in Texas around the same time Johnston was murdered.

Early in the trial, Bethany Police Chief John Reid took the stand. He testified back in 1997. Then-sergeant Reid noticed Johnston’s white Dodge Neon was still in a stall at the Sunshine Carwash near Northwest 23rd and Council. The officer said her car was unlocked, keys in the ignition and the car’s mats were still hanging up on the wall. The 19-year-old was nowhere to be found.

Reid said he searched the car to find any more clues. In the glove box, he found a leather note pad with several numbers written on it, including her husband’s pager number.

Tiffany Johnston’s car.

Ryan Johnston, Tiffany’s husband of only two months, testified he went out to search for his wife after noticing she left home without leaving a note. During his frantic search, he received a notification on his pager. It was the Bethany Police Department.

Tiffany’s wedding day.

That’s when the chief and detective knew Johnston was a missing person, according to their testimony.

As they dug deeper, Bethany officers discovered their department could only do so much. The station simply didn’t have the resources to take on a case like this. They had to reach out to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations for help.

The next day, three people in Canadian County testified they were out searching for another missing woman in an unrelated homicide. While nearing the end of their search, they spotted a patch of tall grass along a highway that had been pushed to the ground. When they got closer and realized it was someone different lying face down, they immediately called police.

Attorneys showed the jury graphic photos of Johnston wearing nothing but a floral swimsuit top. Her face was covered in blood and red marks could be seen all over her body.

Dr. Chai Choi performed the autopsy. She testified Johnston’s death was ruled a homicide and sexual in nature. She testified markings along her neck and a fractured hyoid bone proved someone strangled her with their hands and a ligature. Bruises on her hands and arms indicated she had been bound before her death. As standard protocol, the doctor said she swabbed for DNA.

Autopsy results

After Bethany Police and the OSBI chased down every lead with no success, the case went cold until 2012. Maj. Riley Williams with OSBI was asked to re-investigate and test the swabs for DNA.

Attorneys and witnesses pointed out DNA technology was in its infancy in 1997. It wasn’t reliable to point out a suspect. Unfortunately, DNA breaks down over time and critical pieces of the puzzle faded away.

DNA results

The scientist who processed the 13-year-old DNA took the witness stand. She told the jury she could only pull some information from the samples to make a partial profile.

In 2013, OSBI reached out to former Texas Ranger Steven Jeter. At the time, Reece was already on investigators’ radar. The bureau asked Ranger Jeter if he could travel down to a prison in Huntsville, Texas, to obtain a buccal swab from Reece to compare to the partial profile. Reece was serving a 60-year sentence for an aggravated kidnapping and assault conviction.

William Reece

The victim, Sandra Sapaugh, testified Reece offered to help after her tires had been mysteriously slashed near Webster, Texas. She testified Reece pulled a knife on her and forced her to get in the truck. Reece drove them onto the interstate while telling her to undress. She managed to open the door and escape the truck driving at a 70-miles-per-hour speed. Sapaugh spent several days recovering in the hospital.

Sandra Sapaugh

After Reece was arrested, his mug shot ran on several Texas news stations, capturing the attention of two teenagers. The teens claimed Reece also abducted and assaulted them in July of 1997. The girls testified they were able to talk Reece into taking them home and promised him they weren’t angry. The teens even tricked Reece into thinking the three of them could go to the mall the next day.

William Reece

An Anadarko woman, who was 20-years-old at the time, testified she woke in her own bed to Reece on top of her in May of 1997. She testified Reece raped her while her babysitter and daughter were sleeping a few doors down. After she convinced Reece to allow her to use the restroom, she turned on the light, saw his face and made her escape out the window to go find help.

Timeline of Reece’s victims.

The jury listened to the audio tape between Ranger Jeter and Reece at the Huntsville prison. The Texas Ranger could be heard telling Reece investigators already knew he had been in Oklahoma around the time of Johnston’s murder based on calling card data.

Calling card data

Reece eventually recalled being in Oklahoma at the time. He admitted he knew of Tiffany because she was his mother’s best friend’s daughter. Reece also told the Ranger he had a relationship with Johnston’s mother in the past, but never met or saw pictures of Tiffany.

DNA matchups

Back in Oklahoma, OSBI investigators compared Reece’s DNA to the unknown sample in 2015. The investigator testified that known puzzle pieces matched up with Reece’s direct sample. During her testimony, the investigator noted it was not a 100 percent match, but Reece could not be excluded as a possible suspect.

Jim Holland

Texas Ranger Jim Holland took the witness stand while the jury listened to a nearly five-hour tape recording of his conversation with Reece at a Texas prison shortly after his DNA was tested. An Oklahoma investigator said they were considering pursuing the death penalty.

The ranger testified his goal was to use Johnston’s murder as a tool to find out more information about Laura Smither’s death in Friendswood, Texas. Reece was a suspect. Rangers were hoping to solve her death before sending him to Oklahoma. If Reece would help them, they could talk with Oklahoma to see if the state could take capitol punishment off the table.

Throughout the investigation, Holland told Reece he could not promise to convince Oklahoma to drop the death penalty.

Laura Smither

The Ranger testified Reece eventually confessed to hitting the 12-year-old with his white dually pickup on a misty day while she was out jogging. When Reece got out to assess the damage, he allegedly saw Smither on the ground with a broken neck.

White dually pickup

In a different tape, Reece admitted Smither’s death happened differently. Reece said when he got out of the truck, Smither was actually screaming for help in a ditch. He ran to her, grabbed her face and slightly turned her head to get her attention. Reece said he felt a pop in her neck and she went quiet. She was dead.

Reece said he quickly put the girl in his truck, drove to a retention pond, undressed her and dumped her body in the water. He later tossed her clothes in a random area.

Ranger Holland testified Reece told him about the murders of Kelli Cox and Jessica Cain, in an effort to escape the death penalty in Oklahoma. He later agreed to lead them to their bodies.

Holland interviewing Reece.

Defense attorneys argue the ranger fabricated and embellished facts while also using the death penalty to scare Reece into cooperating.

The jury heard another audio recording of Reece confessing to breaking Cox’s neck at a convenience store near Denton, Texas. He said when the two bumped into each other, Cox spilled Coke all over the both of them. Insults were shouted back and forth, enraging Reece. He confessed to shoving her up against his truck and hearing her neck snap, killing her.

Kelli Cox

In a different taped confession, Reece confessed Cox didn’t break her neck. He actually strangled the 20-year-old in the parking lot.

After realizing she was unconscious, he confessed to loading her body in his truck and driving hours to Bazoria County, hoping she would wake up. He spent the night drinking whiskey, deciding what he would do.

Reece decided to use a bulldozer to bury her body in an underground creek near a rice field.

Reece leading an investigator to a victim’s burial location.

It was never explained how Reece discovered or drove the bulldozer to the area without anyone noticing. Prosecutors would later use this in their closing arguments.

Ranger Holland explained the painstaking process of looking for Cox’s remains in a flooded field. While crews searched for her bones, Reece was in custody at a Friendswood jail with access to his favorite cigarettes, coffee, a TV, art supplies and fast food.

After weeks of no results, investigators became skeptical, believing Reece was not telling the entire truth. Ranger Holland testified this made Reece visibly anxious. The accused murderer offered to show investigators where Jessica Cain was buried to convince investigators he was not pulling their leg.

Jessica Cain

The jury listened to another tape of Reece confessing to killing Cain and burying her body.

Reece told Ranger Holland he was eating and drinking at a Bennigan’s near Houston in August. When he went to his car, he got into an argument with Cain over door dings. The argument led to road rage. Reece said both pulled over on the interstate to finish the fight. That’s when Reece strangled Cain between the two cars, first with his hands, then a rope. He later buried her body in a field behind a bar.

Ranger Holland testified some of Cox’s and Cain’s remains were eventually found.

On the final day of testimony on the prosecution’s side, the jury learned what led up to Johnston’s murder through a taped confession.

Tiffany Johnston

In the video, Reece told Ranger Holland he used the Sunshine Carwash in Bethany on July 26, 1997, after a loose oil filter caused his hood to start smoking and sprayed grease all over his truck and horse trailer.

While cleaning his truck and trailer, Reece said 19-year-old Johnston confronted him, accusing him of spraying her with water. Reece said harsh words were thrown back and forth and led to a full-on fight.

During the struggle, Reece confessed to throwing Johnston in the trailer, snapping off her cut-off jean overalls and raping her. He told investigators the act only lasted about two minutes because it was “too hot” inside the trailer.

Up until this part of the trial, Reece denied the rape.

Reece said when he turned to walk away, Johnston grabbed a horseshoe and hit him in the back of the head. This sent Reece over the edge. Reece said he strangled her first with his hands, then a rope used to lead horses.

Reece said he then found a Canadian County field with grass tall enough to hide a body.

After the prosecution rested, the defense did not call any witnesses to the stand.

During closing arguments, prosecutors explained to the jury that confessions alone would not prove Reece committed the crimes. Jurors needed to consider the numerous corroborating evidence presented during the trial backing up Reece’s confessions.

Reece’s defense attorneys told the jury to decide if their client was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. They argued key witness testimonies may have been influenced by pictures on the news or influenced by investigator-curated line-ups. They also pointed to the DNA results not perfectly lining up.

It took the jury less than an hour to come back with a guilty verdict.

During the sentencing trial, the prosecution only called Tiffany’s husband, Ryan Johnston, to the stand. He was robbed of having children and growing old with his bride.

The defense’s first witness, a psychologist, testified for more than five hours. He explained Reece has a lower-than-average IQ, suffers from PTSD and used to hallucinate.

During cross-examinations, the prosecutors pointed out the doctor was paid thousands of dollars to test Reece. They also played a taped confession of Reece telling Texas Rangers he could not receive the death penalty because he had a low IQ and was in Special Education at school.

Prosecutors asked the psychiatrist if PTSD could be caused by committing multiple rapes and murders. The doctor answered yes.

Jurors got a glimpse into Reece’s life and childhood during several family members’ testimonies.

Reece’s stepsister testified his mother could be verbally and physically abusive towards their family, though she treated Reece better than her stepchildren. The convicted killer’s aunt also testified Reece was taken care of by different people and often moved homes.

Defense attorneys called former fellow inmate, Terry Smith, to the stand through a video call. Smith is currently serving time for sexually assaulting a child. He claims he found God while behind bars. Reece came to him with tears in his eyes when he decided to confess to the murders. Smith testified he believed Reece truly wanted to give the families closure.

Three other Oklahoma County Detention Center employees also testified Reece is a model prisoner, only getting into one altercation during his time at the Detention Center, which they said was rare.

Prosecutors cross-examined several of the defense’s witnesses, asking them if they ever saw Reece suffer from hallucinations or show signs of PTSD. They all said no. The state also asked the witnesses if he seemed to be of normal intelligence. They said yes.

On the day of sentencing, the prosecution said the death penalty would be the best version of justice for this case. The defense asked the jury to show him grace and only hand down a sentence of life without parole.

It took the jury one hour and 45 minutes to reach their verdict . William Reece will die for his crimes.

Jurors decided prosecutors proved the 19 year old’s death was violent, cruel and extremely heinous. They also agreed Reece tried to avoid prosecution of the crime by hiding her body. Prosecutors argued Reece is a continuing threat to society and only stopped committing crimes because he was convicted of an aggravated kidnapping between the murders.

Prosecutors claimed we will never know how the four girls truly died because of several holes in Reece’s confessions.

Reece’s formal sentencing is set for Aug. 19, 2021.

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