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'Crime Scene: The Texas Killing Fields' Director Jessica Dimmock Unpacks Taking a Journalistic Approach to Cold Cases

'To intentionally manipulate people, I think, is wrong,' she tells Metacritic.

Danielle Turchiano
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'Crime Scene: The Texas Killing Fields'

Netflix

The Texas Killing Fields is the third installment of executive producer Joe Berlinger's Crime Scene docuseries for Netflix. Although, of course, each season focuses on the unique details of the crime or crimes themselves through archival footage; original interviews with survivors, law enforcement, family members, and more; and presents the evidence it can for who the perpetrator is, the location of the event is the hook. In the case of Crime Scene: The Texas Killing Fields, director Jessica Dimmock dissects how an expansive stretch (about 25 acres) of rural Texas land only approximately a mile from the I-45 kept bodies hidden and caused confusion around how many perpetrators could even be responsible.

"This wasn't just one GPS coordinate on a map; it was more like a pattern. And if you look at that pattern, there's some things that you have in common: There's a highway that runs alongside the victims, and that's really about it there being a lack of accountability, just built into the very structure of the place: you can get on and get off very quickly," Dimmock tells Metacritic. "Especially before GPS tracking, video surveillance, before we all have phones in our pocket, you can see how it's so easy for someone to just know that this is a place with a transient time trend, and 'I can come off do something here. If I get back on the road and take off, I probably am not going to be found.'"

That the stretch of land was so expansive meant that the bodies were not all found under the same jurisdiction either, leading to differences in case handling based on the authorities they fell to and lack of information sharing. But the weather in that area also contributed to the lack of answers. "Not only does water with floods and hurricanes destroy evidence, but people realize that that's the case. Criminals know," Dimmock says.

The three-episode docuseries doesn't delve deeply in to every individual girl who went missing in the area, instead focusing on Calder Road, a part of land on which three four of those missing young women's bodies were found. Dimmock focuses primarily on the cases of Heide Fye, who went missing in October 1983 and whose body was found in April 1984; Laura Miller, who went missing in September 1984 and whose body was a year and a half later, in February 1986; and Laura Smither, one of the youngest victims who was only 12 years old when she disappeared in April 1997. Smither was actually found only one week later and is no longer considered a cold case because William Reece was convicted in June 2022.

These were hardly the first women or the only women to go missing in the area, though. There were 14 other women who disappeared before Fye did, and seven between Miller and Smither's disappearances, and an additional four after Smither. Individually, none of them attained notoriety, but together, tied by Calder Road and with the participation of their family members and author Kathryn Casey (of Deliver Us: Three Decades of Murder and Redemption in the Infamous I-45/Texas Killing Fields), Berlinger and Dimmock saw an opportunity to keep these women and their families' stories from being lost.

"In these crimes, there are a lot of unanswered questions and there's a lot that you don't know. We really wanted to embrace that in the filmmaking style. We do a lot of super slow motion of moments in time that we do know — like last moments that we have something tangible that we can say, 'OK this girl was definitely running here on this road...' I think I really took the not knowing as a form of inspiration and said, 'How can we use this in in our filmmaking approach?'" Dimmock says.

Dimmmock is a mother to a young daughter, so for her, the connection point really came when sitting down with the parents of victims, namely Tim Miller and Gay Smither.

"It hit me on such an emotional level to think about not knowing for any amount of time where my daughter is. Not knowing where she is for half an hour would be absolute torture, and the idea of not knowing, in Gay's case for two weeks and for Tim going on many, many, many years of really not knowing what happened, I think is torture," she says.

Those parents took different approaches to trying to find the truth of what happened to their daughters. Miller, for example, zeroed in on a suspect, Robert Abel, even though he didn't have solid proof of involvement. According to the docuseries, Miller apologized to Abel before Abel's death. Miller also turned his attention to Clyde Hedrick, filing and winning a wrongful death lawsuit against him, though as of press time Hedrick still has not been criminally charged for Laura Miller's murder.

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Tim Miller in 'Crime Scene: The Texas Killing Fields'

Netflix

"I think that a lot of the times he's also going on things that he is being told — either things that have been leaked by the police or statements that they put out prematurely, and so, I think that when it comes down to it, he really just wants answers, and if there's a path that he thinks he can follow, then then he's going to jump on it, even if it's not correct," Dimmock says of Miller, who also founded Texas EquuSearch, which assists local law enforcement on abduction cases. 

"Talking to some of the participants from the FBI...they're the first to say, 'If you're a father and your child is missing, you want to grab on to anything you can,' and they really don't fault him," Dimmock continues.

It is hardly a rare phenomenon for information to leak prematurely in such cases, nor is it uncommon for docuseries to dangle suspects they know a simple Google search will prove were cleared in a quest for keeping an audience member pressing play on the next episode. Dimmock wanted to be sure to capture what these family members went through when their loved ones were missing, but not at the expense of responsible storytelling.

"First and foremost, we have a responsibility to uphold journalistic standards and do what's right by our subjects, by the story, by the ethical standards that we all consciously or unconsciously sign on to. And then within that, if we can make something more entertaining, more easy to follow in the service of people sticking around to hear the whole story, absolutely. But I feel like it needs to go in that order," she explains. "To intentionally manipulate people, I think, is wrong."

Still, although these young women went missing decades ago, new developments in their stories and cases were still occurring as Dimmock was working on the series. For example, tapes and journals that had been disregarded by the police years ago were still in existence and were part of Dimmock's research and storytelling, although she admits a desire to not "potentially hamper an investigation" limited how she included them in the series. ("We really wanted to make sure that we were using those journals in a way that spoke to the effort and not about any specific finger pointing," she explains.) Additionally, as aforementioned, Reece was extradited back to Texas and stood trial for the murders of Smither, Jessica Cain, and Kelli Cox. (He had previously stood trial and was convicted for the murder of a woman named Tiffany Johnston, unconnected to Calder Road, in Oklahoma.)

"Part of the way that they got him back to Texas was that he they took the death penalty off the table. And I think, if you ask the families, maybe they're not thrilled with that, but that is better than not having him return to Texas and be held accountable for what he did in the state of Texas," Dimmock says of Reece.

Not all of the families have such closure, though perhaps they will feel some comes simply with not letting their loved ones' stories fade into the background of history. And with their stories being catalysts for change in how such cases are approached going forward.

"When you look at [these crimes] in today's lens, you say, 'Oh my god over this many years, 13 young teenagers — not only teenagers, but a lot of them on the younger side — happening so quickly, how could people not be totally terrified in the streets, billboards everywhere?'" Dimmock says. "I think that these things are harder in order to get away with all the time. I think so many of the things that we now have and take for granted, whether it's Amber Alerts, really do work. They don't work all the time, but they're effective."

Crime Scene: The Texas Killing Fields is streaming now on Netflix.