Chapter One

Susan Disappears
(August 1994)

 
August 10, 1994, dawned promisingly. I awoke early to another cloudless New Mexico day and, as was my habit on vacation, made myself a cup of coffee and prepared to settle into a peaceful hour of reading before my husband and daughter arose. No sooner had I become absorbed in my book, however, than I registered the crunching sound of a jeep making its way up the dirt road that winds through the D.H. Lawrence Ranch. The vehicle came to an abrupt stop outside our cabin; a second later there was a brusque knock at the door. I opened it, and the burly caretaker of the ranch thrust a pink telephone memo slip at me, on which was scrawled, "Urgent—call one of your brothers." Beneath this terse message were listed the phone numbers of my three brothers in Massachusetts. Panicked, I asked the caretaker to drive me to his cabin, which contained the only phone on the ranch, and jumped into his jeep, still wearing my bathrobe and slippers.

   En route, while I made nervous small talk, my mind raced from one worst-case scenario to another: one of my teenage nieces had been critically hurt in a car wreck; my twenty-three-year-old nephew had been killed while vacationing in Europe; my sister-in-law’s cancer had returned. Then another possibility struck me: something had happened to Susan, my older sister. This in a way was the most likely explanation, since the phone message had been from my brothers, with her name conspicuously absent, and since over the past several years the majority of the family crises my brothers had contacted me about had concerned Susan. But then I reminded myself that those crises were a thing of the past: Susan seemed to have her drinking under control and, since January, had been separated from Jim, her second husband, with whom she had had a tempestuous relationship; we had had seven months uninterrupted by the hysterical phone calls from Susan that used to disrupt our lives periodically.

   And so, I reasoned, the occasion for the urgent phone call probably wasn’t anything to do with Susan. Besides, she had been scheduled to travel from Baltimore, where she lived, to Boston a few days earlier with Nicholas—her younger son from her first marriage—for a visit with my brothers, and therefore she wasn’t even anywhere near Jim. No, it had to be something else. Reaching this conclusion, I resumed my frightening speculations concerning other family members, and was in a cold sweat by the time I arrived at the caretaker’s cabin.

   Expecting the news to be a death in the family, I felt a certain amount of relief when I reached my eldest brother and learned that the urgent situation was Susan’s disappearance, five days earlier. My brothers hadn’t contacted me right away because they didn’t want to disrupt my vacation until they were sure the situation was critical. Bill explained that on August 5, the night before Susan and Nick were to have flown to Boston, she had gone over to Jim’s house and never returned. A missing-person report had been filed the next day, and the police had questioned Jim, who claimed to know nothing of her whereabouts. He said that they’d gotten into an argument that night, he’d left her yelling at him in the living room and had gone upstairs to bed, and a few minutes later he’d heard her leave in her car. Listening to my brother Bill’s account, I thought that surely this was just another crazy episode in Susan and Jim’s sick relationship. She had probably sought refuge at a friend’s house and was reluctant to call the family because she knew we’d be disappointed that she’d been seeing Jim again. So why were my brothers so alarmed?

  Despite my skepticism, I couldn’t help but be preoccupied by this development, and therefore my husband and daughter and I decided to cut short our vacation and return home to Georgia. During the three days’ drive, as I became increasingly acquainted with the facts through daily phone calls to my brothers, my sense of urgency began to match theirs. The first thing I would do each night when we stopped at a motel would be to telephone one of them for an update, and with each call I would learn that another hope had been eliminated: another friend of Susan’s checked with who turned out to know nothing, another credit card search that showed no transactions after August 5, another women’s shelter contacted that had no Susan Harrison staying there. Somehow while on the road I managed to keep the panic at bay, but once home, I could no longer deny the grim facts: it had now been a week since my sister had disappeared; there had been no activity in any of her bank accounts; she had had nothing with her but the clothes she was wearing, her wallet, and less than five dollars; her car had contained only a quarter of a tank of gas; she had never before not contacted one of us during a crisis; and—most importantly—it would be totally out of character for Susan to put her two sons, to whom she was devoted, through this kind of frightening ordeal. The evidence seemed to point to only one conclusion: Susan had been murdered.

   This realization first fully struck me the night of our return from vacation, August 13. Attempting to divert my thoughts from the crisis, I was watching a television sit-com with my husband and daughter, a re-run of a Designing Women episode involving the wedding of one of the characters. Suddenly, just as the rest of my family burst into laughter at a humorous scene, I found myself convulsed with uncontrollable sobs. I had looked at the bride walking down the aisle and, instead of focussing on the intended comedy, was unexpectedly overcome by the memory of a young, happy Susan at her wedding to Tom, her first husband, twenty-seven years earlier. And that mental picture had been rapidly followed by an image of her lying dead and discarded somewhere. The contrast hit me like a punch in the stomach.

   That moment marked the beginning of the nightmarish odyssey my life was to be transformed into. I became obsessed with the search for my sister. The following week, I spent most of every day on the phone with my brothers and nephews—Nick and his older brother, Jonathan, who had been on vacation in Greece but had flown home as soon as he was informed of the situation—hungry for the facts about Susan’s disappearance and about the incipient police investigation. By week’s end, I had pieced together the following account.

  Susan had planned to drive to Massachusetts on Friday, August 5, with nineteen-year-old Nick, who was home from Middlebury College for the summer and splitting his time between his dad Tom Owsley’s house in Baltimore and the rented cottage in Ruxton where Susan had been living since moving out of Jim’s. However, she wasn’t feeling well Friday morning, so the two decided not to drive but instead to take an early flight to Boston the next day. Nick spent Friday afternoon packing and running errands. Shortly before 4:00 he took Susan’s dog to the kennel, using her car so as to avoid getting white dog hairs in his brother’s car, which he’d driven over in from his dad’s house that day. He noticed that her car was down to a quarter of a tank of gas, and he made a mental note to remember to fill it that afternoon so they wouldn’t have to stop on their way to the airport the next morning (he forgot). Returning to the cottage around 4:30, he spent about a half an hour talking with Susan. She was feeling depressed and said she thought she’d rest for a couple of hours while he went back to his father’s house to finish packing. Checking her wallet and noting that she had only about $5.00 in it, she gave Nick her ATM card and instructed him to get cash for the trip and to pick up some Chinese take-out for their supper. She told him not to be too long because they needed to get to bed early. When Nick said goodbye to Susan, assuring her he’d be back in a few hours, he had no idea that he would never see her again.

   Nick returned around 8:30 p.m. Susan’s car was gone. The front door of the cottage was ajar, as though Susan had been in such a hurry to leave that she had not taken the time to close it properly. Nick found her purse on the floor near the phone; it was open and the wallet was gone. There was a message on the phone machine from my brother John, which had been left at around 7:00, saying he’d be home for the rest of the evening if she wanted to call him back. Susan had phoned John—we would later learn—at his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home around 5:15 that afternoon, sounding depressed and anxious, but he’d been on his way out the door to play in a softball game and so had to cut the call short; he’d felt bad about putting her off, but figured they’d have plenty of opportunity to talk about what was troubling her when she was up in Boston over the next few days. Aware that Susan had been agitated after visiting Jim earlier that day—to discuss the divorce she was pursuing, Nick assumed—Nick interpreted all these signs to mean she had probably been on the phone with Jim some time before 7:00, had become upset or angered by something he’d said to her, and on impulse had jumped up, grabbed her wallet and car key—the only things she’d need for the short trip from Ruxton over to Lutherville, where Jim lived, and back—and dashed out the door. Nick’s heart sank, but he was used to his mother and stepfather’s rocky relationship. Both he and his brother abhorred Jim and tried to keep their distance from him, so Nick was not inclined to go over to Jim’s house or to phone there.

   Nick waited and waited. By 11:30 he was very worried and phoned his dad to ask if he’d heard from Susan. Tom hadn’t. He instructed Nick to call the police, to see if there’d been any car accidents in the area. The police knew of none, but suggested that Nick call around to hospitals. These inquiries yielding nothing, at 2:00 a.m. Nick phoned Tom again and asked if he should go to Jim’s. Tom said no, for he knew how upset Nick was and didn’t want him to become further upset by an encounter with Jim. Tom told Nick to leave Susan a note and come back to his house to wait to hear from her. Nick did so. By 6:00 a.m. he still hadn’t heard from her, so he called her house. There was no answer. Next he called my brother Bill in Hingham, Massachusetts, to alert him about the situation and have him pass the word on to John before John left for the airport to meet the flight Susan and Nick had been scheduled to arrive on.

   Nick called Susan’s house constantly all morning and called Jim’s house around 9:30 a.m. My brother Bill also called both Susan’s and Jim’s homes a few times. There was no answer at either place. Nick drove back to Susan’s in the morning; there was no sign that she’d returned. He drove past Jim’s house; Jim’s car was there, so either he had gone out without his car or he was home but wasn’t answering his phone. In mid-morning, Tom went out to hit golf balls for about a half hour, to try to relieve some of the stress that was building up inside him. When he finished, he phoned Nick from the club to ask if Nick wanted him to go by the police station on his way home. Nick said yes. Tom went to the Towson precinct, the one closest to Susan’s house, to report her missing; the officers there also notified the Cockeysville precinct, the one closest to Jim’s house, and asked Tom to bring them a photo of Susan. Tom went home to get one, driving by Jim’s house on the way and noting that Jim’s car was still in the driveway. After locating a photo of Susan, Tom returned to the police station, accompanied by Nick.

   By this time Nicholas was convinced Susan was dead. Nonetheless, police department protocol is such that the case had to be assigned to the missing-person, not the homicide, division—a maddening situation, as any family who is convinced their loved one has been murdered and not simply run off will attest, for it means that precious time and evidence are lost, and if a murder is not solved within the first several hours, its chances of ever being solved are greatly diminished. In the early afternoon, a couple of officers from the Cockeysville precinct drove over to Jim’s house; his car was still there, but no one answered their knock. They taped a note to the door requesting that Jim phone the precinct as soon as he returned. At around 7:00 p.m., he phoned them. They asked him if he knew where Susan was, and he replied that she’d gone to Boston. When they informed him that she wasn’t in Boston and that she’d been reported missing, he seemed surprised and said he didn’t know where she was. Later that evening, Nicholas phoned Jim’s house again; this time Jim picked up. Nick asked him if he knew where Susan was; Jim again expressed surprise, as though he hadn’t been informed that she was missing. Then Nick asked him where he’d been all day, and Jim replied that he’d been home. Nick pointed out that people had been phoning his house all day but he hadn’t answered, nor had he appeared to be home when the police stopped by in the afternoon. Jim then changed his story and began a garbled account of where he’d been, starting to say something about going to "the eastern…" and then switching mid-phrase to "downtown." Nick hung up and immediately called the police to report this strange conversation, the first of many in which Jim appeared to be hiding his knowledge of and involvement with Susan’s disappearance.

  Another such conversation occurred the next day, Sunday, when Jim called Bill back in the afternoon in response to a message Bill had left that morning on Jim’s answering machine saying that the family was very concerned about Susan’s disappearance and asking Jim to call him. Jim’s first comment was that he thought Susan was up there in Massachusetts with Bill. Bill reiterated what he had learned from the police, and after that Jim’s conversation seemed inconsistent with his first comment: he proceeded to say that Susan’s disappearance was terrible and that he was trying to contact her friends to see if he could locate her. Bill then asked him at least twice if he had any thoughts at all as to where we should be checking; Jim said no, he was baffled. However, Jim told the police officer who interviewed him only twenty or thirty minutes after his conversation with Bill that Susan had an old boyfriend in Boston named "Dave" (a non-existent character, as far as any of us has ever been able to ascertain) and that she might be visiting him. When the officer phoned Bill after the interview with Jim to ask if Bill had any information about "Dave," Bill told the officer that Jim’s story was nonsense and said he found it curious that Jim would not have mentioned "Dave" to him when Bill asked him at least twice where we should be checking for Susan.

   Inconsistent accounts and unlikely explanations characterized Jim’s responses to police queries during interviews conducted over the next few days. Jim acknowledged that Susan had come to his house at about 7:00 Friday night, a fact that was confirmed by his daughter Wendy, one of six grown children from his first marriage, who was leaving just as Susan arrived. Then in one version of the ensuing events, he said that after a couple of hours of their drinking wine and arguing off and on, he went upstairs to bed, leaving Susan downstairs in the living room yelling at him; in a subsequent version, he said she was asleep on the living room couch when he went upstairs. In both versions, he said that shortly after 10:00 he heard a car door slam and he assumed she was leaving. He claimed that the next morning he awakened around 8:00, spent an hour or so cleaning the house, and around 10:00 decided to go back to bed and rest; he said nothing about hearing the phone ring, and yet Bill and Nick had both rung his house several times. Waking up a second time in the late morning and noting that it was a beautiful day, he decided to go for a jog. This scenario rang false to the police, as well as to our family, for Jim is an out-of-shape heavy drinker who, as far as we knew, was not a jogger. Jim went on to say that after jogging a short distance he felt fatigued, slowed to a walk, and decided to take the Light Rail commuter train into downtown Baltimore. He got off at Pratt Street and spent the afternoon walking around the Harborplace area. Two people he knew saw him and called out, "Hi, Jim," but he couldn’t recollect who they were (making it impossible for the police to verify this story). In one version of this tale he claimed to have eaten lunch at a restaurant, but couldn’t remember which one; in another version he said he made a sandwich before setting off for jogging, put it in his shorts pocket, and ate that for lunch. After his alleged afternoon of wandering around the Harborplace, he took the Light Rail back to Lutherville and walked the rest of the way home, arriving there around 5:00 p.m. and finding the note from the police on the front door.

  My brothers and nephews were skeptical of Jim’s account. A more likely explanation, they thought, was that Jim had murdered Susan and driven her body somewhere in her car, dug a grave for the body, abandoned the car, and then taken various forms of transportation back home. This scenario would account for why his own car was at his house all day Saturday but he was not there and why he claimed to have gone jogging: he probably figured that if any neighbors had noticed him hiking home from the Light Rail stop in grubby athletic clothes he could attribute his appearance to exercise, when in reality it had been incurred from lugging a body and digging a shallow grave.

  My brothers’ and nephews’ suspicions increased when they learned that a utility company worker repairing a power line had seen a car leave Jim’s driveway around 4:00 Saturday morning. There had been a bad storm in the area late Friday afternoon and a tree had gone down near Jim’s house, destroying some electric lines and causing a power outage in the neighborhood for a couple of hours. After a tree company removed the fallen branches and limbs blocking traffic on the road, workers from Baltimore Gas and Electric came out to restore a utility pole that had been knocked over. Then late in the evening, workers from Bell Atlantic arrived to repair damaged cable. They worked on and off throughout the night. At around 4:00 a.m. a crewman situated in an aerial bucket high above and to the east of Jim’s house heard the sound of a car door being slammed loudly. His first thought, he later told police, was, "Gee, somebody’s coming home really late." But then he realized the person was leaving, not arriving: the car pulled out of the driveway and headed west, in the opposite direction from where the aerial bucket was situated. The crewman couldn’t make out what kind of car it was but, in response to the police officers’ questioning, said that yes, it could have been a dark green Saab convertible, the make of Susan’s car. When Nicholas learned of the utility worker’s testimony about the loud sound of a car door being slammed, he was convinced the car was Susan’s because he knew that the door on the driver’s side of the Saab had been sprung for the past couple of weeks and would latch shut only if slammed hard. Nick, as well as Jonathan and my brothers, suspected that what the worker had seen early that Saturday morning was Jim driving off in Susan’s car, intending to dispose of her body somewhere.
 

* * *
 


These are the facts and theories I gathered from marathon phone conversations with family members during the first week following my return from New Mexico. Fortunately I had no other pressing obligations at the time and could devote all my energy to the Susan case, as we soon began calling it. The research and writing activities that as a college English professor I normally did during my summers paled in importance next to the urgent need to find my sister, and I threw myself into this task. Part of me clung to the tiny hope that she was alive, in hiding somewhere from Jim, and so I scoured my memory for the names of friends and acquaintances she had mentioned, besides those I knew the police had already interviewed, tracked down their phone numbers, and called them to ask if they’d seen or heard from her. I called women’s shelters in the Baltimore area, national missing persons organizations, the Polly Klaas Foundation in California, and any other such source that popped into my head. Formerly frugal about making long-distance calls, I now thought nothing of picking up the phone at any time of day to call anywhere in the country if there was a remote chance I might obtain a lead. By week’s end, I’d filled the pages of several legal pads with phone numbers, names, notes, and ideas.

   One of the reasons I hurled myself into this frenetic activity is that it was a way of staving off pain. While focussed on the sleuth work, I would be temporarily distracted from the debilitating sadness that would otherwise overwhelm me. But it was impossible to avoid the pain entirely, for every day brought hundreds of reminders of my sister and of her sudden eerie absence from the world. Getting through each day was like making my way across a field of land mines. I would take detours through my home to avoid walking through the living room, where Susan at various ages stared out at me from family photos on the mantel. These photos made me feel her presence palpably, in a way that they hadn’t done when I knew she was alive, and each time I looked at them I experienced anew a sense of disorientation: That pigtailed eight-year-old playing on the Cape Cod beach in front of our childhood summer home; that suddenly sophisticated teenager, home from boarding school with talk of debutante parties and dances at Exeter; that glowing young mother holding her first baby in his Christening dress—where had she gone? Similarly, thumbing through my recipe box I would come across a card written in Susan’s handwriting and would experience a jolting sensation: the backward-slanting 1950’s prep-school girl penmanship; the characteristic misspellings—raisons for raisins, for example ("Geniuses are often poor spellers," she would retort when I, her jealous little sister, would delight in pointing out a spelling error she’d made—spelling being one of the few skills I could hold over Susan, whose artistic talent I could never hope to emulate); the recipe itself, always something elegant, something difficult, involving ingredients like bouquets garni and fresh herbs—these intensely concrete reminders would conjure her up so powerfully that I would gasp and sometimes have to grab on to a piece of furniture to steady myself.

  At the end of that first, surreal week following our return from New Mexico my husband went out to have our vacation photographs developed—one of the many routine tasks, along with cooking and grocery shopping and car-pooling our thirteen-year-old, that we formerly shared but that he took over while I was preoccupied with the crisis. When he returned with the batch of prints, I began halfheartedly to rifle through them, my mind as always elsewhere, on the case. But then my attention was suddenly caught when I came upon a picture taken on what I now knew to be the same day my sister was probably murdered. Mike and Alison and I had spent the afternoon of August 5 hiking in the beautiful mountain range north of Taos. On our request, a passing hiker had snapped a shot of us—a picture that I had no way of knowing at the time would become an emblem of tragic irony: there stand the three of us, a happy family on a bright summer day, oblivious to the fact that two thousand miles away a tragedy was unfolding that would forever change our life. Two weeks later, on August 19, I stared at that sunny photo superstitiously. I began to scrutinize it for some indication that all was not right in the universe, for some sign of the catastrophe that was happening offstage. How could I have felt so carefree? I yearned to step into the frozen time frame of the photograph and divert the course of the next few hours. I felt guilty that I hadn’t even been thinking of my sister that day.

   In fact, I’d been keeping an emotional distance from Susan all summer because I suspected she might be slipping back into her relationship with Jim, and if that were the case, I didn’t want to know about it. For the ten years that Susan had been involved with Jim, I’d witnessed her crying "wolf" innumerable times—claiming he abused her, working the family up into a state of alarm about her situation, and then retracting her claims—and I’d grown cynical. Although for the first few months after she left Jim I was sure she was going to stick with her decision, I began to have my doubts in the late spring when she stopped talking so persistently about the rightness of the decision in her phone conversations with me. Now I realized I should have pointedly asked her what was going on; I should have challenged her if she said anything that gave me the impression she might be seeing him again. I should have warned her that she was playing with fire. But I didn’t fully realize, until it was too late, that she had been playing with fire. Looking back at Susan and Jim’s relationship from the present vantage point, I deeply regretted not having taken more seriously the signs of trouble, signs that had been there from the beginning.