LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The young woman looks out from the billboard along Interstate 40 west of here.
"Do you know who murdered me?" reads the headline on the billboard, one of two in the area.
So far nobody has answered, but the family of Kristin Laurite keeps hoping.
"We won't rest until the killer is found," said Renee Freitag, the slain woman's aunt. "We make fliers to put up in Arkansas. We are in contact with local officials down there. We stay on top of the case, and now we are following the case in California," where authorities say Ms. Laurite's slayer killed another woman.
It's been more than two years since the body of the 25-year-old Scotch Plains, N.J., woman was found on a pond bank near an I-40 rest stop in Arkansas.
She had been traveling with her two dogs in her 1971 Volkswagen van cross-country from her home on the East Coast to California, where she was to teach at a preschool. Officers said she stopped at the rest stop near Morrilton on Aug. 25, 2000, to walk her dogs when she was apparently attacked, raped and stabbed to death. The dogs were running free near the pond when her body was found the next day.
The biggest development in the case came earlier this year when DNA evidence in the case matched evidence in the slaying of a woman in Merced, Calif., in December 2000, just a few months after Ms. Laurite's death.
Authorities would not say how that woman – Jackie Travis, 49 – died, except that she suffered a "violent physical assault."
"Right now we are not saying it's a serial killer," said Arkansas State Police Special Agent Karl Byrd. "But in California, there are some other homicides that could possibly have been committed by the same person."
In Arkansas, Conway County Sheriff Mark Flowers said he is continuing to review unsolved homicide cases in the county for a possible connection, including a 1994 case in which a woman was found stabbed to death near railroad tracks east of Morrilton.
The body of Ms. Travis was found in her apartment in Merced nearly four months after Ms. Laurite's body was discovered.
Ms. Travis, a grandmother of five whose maiden name was Puckett, was born in Newport, in northeastern Arkansas, but she had moved to Merced in 1983, and officials say they don't know of any connection between her slaying and her being from Arkansas.
Ms. Freitag said Ms. Laurite's parents, who are divorced, still find it difficult to deal with their daughter's death and haven't dealt with the media much.
Mrs. Freitag says her niece was about to start a new life in California with her boyfriend. Ms. Laurite was "a very independent, determined woman." She was uneasy about the cross-country trip but had to be in California to sign a lease on a house, and her boyfriend couldn't leave his job yet.
"She had a bad feeling," said Mrs. Freitag. "But she also had this new world on the horizon for her, and the fact that she was killed is all the more tragic. It was like Kristen was finally coming into her own, growing up."
Ms. Freitag said a nonprofit organization started by the family pays the expenses – for fliers, phone calls, travel to talk with police – that add up when trying to catch a killer. That organization has raised $10,000 for a reward for anyone who supplies information leading to the conviction of Ms. Laurite's killer, she said.
America's Most Wanted has run Ms. Laurite's story twice and is updating it with the California connection, Ms. Freitag said.
Lamar Advertising and Viacom Outdoor have donated the billboard rental space to Ms. Laurite's family for the last two years, said Mrs. Freitag. She said the companies plan to move the signs – one on each side of the interstate – in a few weeks to a more visible location.
"So many people have been helpful in trying to find Kristen's killer," she said. "Someone, we know, has to know something. Things can't be kept a secret forever."
Suzi Parker is a free-lance writer based in Little Rock.