UNSOLVED: 'Killing Fields' victim identified 33 years later

LEAGUE CITY, Texas (KTRK) -- In 1986, Audrey Lee Cook was 30 years old and living in Houston with her roommate and a new kitten named Caesar. She had moved to Texas from California nine years earlier, ready for adventure.

Audrey's family lived in Memphis, Tennessee. The distance was hard, but she stayed close to her mother, writing letters every couple weeks.

A letter from 1985 reads: "Dear Mom and Dad, how are you? We're fine. It's been hot here since the rain stopped. One day last week, it was 100 degrees."

Audrey's letters spelled out her very ordinary life. Her stories filled page after page, discussing the weather, complaining about a boss, telling her mother how much she missed home.

"She was a teenager and had a motorcycle. She liked to go camping with the family. She was just very happy," said Audrey's aunt, Shirley Love.

Around Christmas 1985, those letters stopped. Audrey Lee seemed to have vanished.

"She was enjoying life. Then, someone took that joy from her," Love said. "They took her from us."

At first, Audrey's mother and aunt thought their free-spirited Audrey Lee just wanted to do her own thing. But, she would never abandon the family, Love said.

"I began to search after about a year thinking this is not like her. I began to search. When the internet came along. I could search better."

Love tracked down Audrey's past landlords in Channelview and in Houston. She found Audrey's former boss at a balloon party store and the roommate Audrey moved to Texas with in the '70s. People remembered Audrey, but no one seemed to know what happened to her.

"My personality is not one to give up," said Love.

What Love didn't know then is that Audrey Lee had been found dead, murdered two months after sending her last letter. Audrey's family never got the call because police didn't know it was Audrey.

On Feb. 2, 1986, two children playing in the woods near a dirt bike trail found the body of a 16-year-old girl, not far from Calder Road, south of League City. That teen was identified as Laura Miller, who had been missing for 17 months. The story had been big news in League City.

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That same day, laying a few feet from Laura Miller, detectives found Audrey Lee's decomposed body. Police called her Jane Doe. She had no identification. She had been shot in the back. A few of her ribs were broken.

Police collected business cards, keys, shoes, hair around Audrey's body. It was difficult to tell what was evidence and what was trash.

For 33 years, investigators tried to identify Audrey Lee. More than 500 miles from League City, Audrey's family wondered: where was she?

"In the 33 years that I looked for her, there was probably never a six-month period of time that I was not doing something," Love said.

Three years ago, Det. Gina Vogel with the League City Police Department started working on the case.

"I think she kind of got pushed aside. That's not right. That's not fair," Vogel said.

Before Vogel could find out who killed their Jane Doe, she had to find out who Jane Doe was.

In 2016, Vogel and a team of detectives contacted a company called Parabon Snapshot. Parabon extracted DNA from the bones more than three decades old produced a picture of what Jane Doe looked like when she was alive.

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Detectives finally had a face for their victim: a girl with a gap-toothed smile.

Last April, that picture circulated on the news in Houston. It also made news in Memphis. By then, Vogel had discovered Jane Doe's ties to Tennessee through good old fashioned police work: knocking on doors and talking to people.

Vogel also entered the newly extracted Jane Doe genetic information into online genealogy databases. The FBI started helping with the case.

Then, Vogel got a call she had waited on for three years.

A federal agent found a first cousin through a genealogy website with the same last name. The DNA matched.

"It still gives me goosebumps. It was years and years of work. I mean, just years of work," Vogel said. "I put a lot into those family trees. It was following those family trees to finally figuring out just who she was and to be given her name...it was huge."

As Vogel worked the internet, tracking down Cooks that could be related to Audrey Lee, Shirley Love in Memphis saw a cold case story about an unidentified girl with a gap-tooth smile killed in Texas. She picked up the phone and called League City police.

"I just knew. I just knew that was her," Love said. "The more I read, it was like chills just went from the top of my head to my toes."

Jane Doe was Audrey Lee Cook.

"It was bittersweet. I don't know how else to describe it. For us on our end, it's exciting. But they (the Cook family) are reliving all that information and all of that tragedy again, and they never knew what happened to her. They were holding on hope that she was still out there living her life and doing her own thing," said Vogel.

After Vogel gave Love some of the closure she had longed for, Love gave Vogel Audrey's letters. The words and stories she had treasured and held onto for 33 years.

"I wish I could hear her (Audrey's) voice, you know? I have an idea of what she sounds like in my head," Vogel said, turning the pages of Audrey's letters inside her office.

The detective has read them over and over, piecing together names and details of Audrey's life in the weeks before she was murdered. The letters are vague and happy.

Towards the end, Audrey had gotten into drugs and started mixing with a bad crowd.

"Still, nobody deserves to be left in a field. Nobody deserves to be killed. Nobody deserves to be mangled like that," Vogel said. "I have daughters and I can't imagine what her parents went through not knowing. I think that's probably the worst thing. Not knowing."

Audrey's mother died before finding out what happened to her daughter. But Audrey Lee did come home. Vogel flew to Memphis last year and gave Audrey's remains to Love.

"When she handed me her remains in the parking lot at the funeral home, all I could do was just hold them and think that she was finally home," Love said. "To put her to rest beside her mother, it wasn't what I wanted, but it was part of the closure."

"I had thought once, if we could just get her identified, I'd be satisfied," said Vogel. "Now that she's identified, I'm still not satisfied."

Over the past year, Vogel and other detectives have interviewed more than a dozen new people who knew Audrey Lee, from Texas to Tennessee. They have another trip out of state planned next week. There are new leads to follow. That's why League City police have released these never before seen crime scene photos to Eyewitness News.

"We would love for somebody to look at these photos or look at the crime scene footage and recognize the area...and give us information," Vogel said. "Everyone talks about 'The Killing Fields' and how it stretches along the I-45 corridor. Well, these are our four girls and they're important to League City. They're important to us, so I want to do everything I can to solve this case."

If you know anything about this case or would like to submit a tip, contact the Cold Case Unit at the League City Police Department by calling 281-338-8220.

You can watch our other ABC13 Unsolved stories on YouTube by clicking here.

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