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, "Urgentcall 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-laws 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 wasnt anything to do with Susan. Besides, she had been scheduled to travel from Baltimore, where she lived, to Boston a few days earlier with Nicholasher younger son from her first marriagefor a visit with my brothers, and therefore she wasnt 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 caretakers 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 Susans disappearance, five days earlier. My brothers hadnt contacted me right away because they didnt 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 Jims 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 theyd gotten into an argument that night, hed left her yelling at him in the living room and had gone upstairs to bed, and a few minutes later hed heard her leave in her car. Listening to my brother Bills account, I thought that surely this was just another crazy episode in Susan and Jims sick relationship. She had probably sought refuge at a friends house and was reluctant to call the family because she knew wed be disappointed that shed been seeing Jim again. So why were my brothers so alarmed?
Despite my skepticism, I couldnt 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 Susans checked with who turned out to know nothing, another credit card search that showed no transactions after August 5, another womens 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; andmost importantlyit 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 nephewsNick and his older brother, Jonathan, who had been on vacation in Greece but had flown home as soon as he was informed of the situationhungry for the facts about Susans disappearance and about the incipient police investigation. By weeks 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 Owsleys house in Baltimore and the rented cottage in Ruxton where Susan had been living since moving out of Jims. However, she wasnt 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 Susans dog to the kennel, using her car so as to avoid getting white dog hairs in his brothers car, which hed driven over in from his dads 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 wouldnt 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 shed rest for a couple of hours while he went back to his fathers 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 hed be back in a few hours, he had no idea that he would never see her again.
Nick returned around 8:30 p.m. Susans 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 hed be home for the rest of the evening if she wanted to call him back. Susan had phoned Johnwe would later learnat his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home around 5:15 that afternoon, sounding depressed and anxious, but hed been on his way out the door to play in a softball game and so had to cut the call short; hed felt bad about putting her off, but figured theyd 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 dayto discuss the divorce she was pursuing, Nick assumedNick 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 hed said to her, and on impulse had jumped up, grabbed her wallet and car keythe only things shed need for the short trip from Ruxton over to Lutherville, where Jim lived, and backand dashed out the door. Nicks heart sank, but he was used to his mother and stepfathers 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 Jims house or to phone there.
Nick waited and waited. By 11:30 he was very worried and phoned his dad to ask if hed heard from Susan. Tom hadnt. He instructed Nick to call the police, to see if thered 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 Jims. Tom said no, for he knew how upset Nick was and didnt 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 hadnt 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 Susans house constantly all morning and called Jims house around 9:30 a.m. My brother Bill also called both Susans and Jims homes a few times. There was no answer at either place. Nick drove back to Susans in the morning; there was no sign that shed returned. He drove past Jims house; Jims car was there, so either he had gone out without his car or he was home but wasnt 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 Susans house, to report her missing; the officers there also notified the Cockeysville precinct, the one closest to Jims house, and asked Tom to bring them a photo of Susan. Tom went home to get one, driving by Jims house on the way and noting that Jims 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, divisiona 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 Jims 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 shed gone to Boston. When they informed him that she wasnt in Boston and that shed been reported missing, he seemed surprised and said he didnt know where she was. Later that evening, Nicholas phoned Jims house again; this time Jim picked up. Nick asked him if he knew where Susan was; Jim again expressed surprise, as though he hadnt been informed that she was missing. Then Nick asked him where hed been all day, and Jim replied that hed been home. Nick pointed out that people had been phoning his house all day but he hadnt 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 hed 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 Susans 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 Jims answering machine saying that the family was very concerned about Susans disappearance and asking Jim to call him. Jims 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 Jims conversation seemed inconsistent with his first comment: he proceeded to say that Susans 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 Jims 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 Jims 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 couldnt 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 couldnt 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 Jims 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 Jims 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 Jims 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 Jims house heard the sound of a car door being slammed loudly. His first thought, he later told police, was, "Gee, somebodys 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 couldnt 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 Susans car. When Nicholas learned of the utility workers testimony about the loud sound of a car door being slammed, he was convinced the car was Susans because he knew that the door on the drivers 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 Susans car, intending to dispose of her body somewhere.
* * *