Missing Ruxton woman's marriage was troubled

August 22, 1994|By Michael Ollove and Dan Thanh Dang | Michael Ollove and Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Staff Writers

Susan Hurley Harrison disappeared two weeks ago from what was, in many ways, an enviable life.

She had affluence. She had the adoration of two accomplished sons. She had the satisfaction of starting a business. She had the weekly tennis game with her girlfriends.

She also had an acrimonious marriage.

For years, she complained to police officers and to judges that her husband, James J. Harrison Jr., was beating her. Mr. Harrison, 57, once the chief financial officer of McCormick & Co., countered that his wife, suffering from mental illness, was the abusive one.

Whoever was right, the relationship was wrong.

"They are," said Mary D. Harrison, Mr. Harrison's first wife, "the worst things that ever happened to each other."

Now Susan Hurley Harrison is missing, and Mr. Harrison is the last person known to have seen her. He acknowledges that they had a troubled marriage and that they fought that last day. "I hope that she's gone somewhere," he said. "I'm really worried."

The rest of Mrs. Harrison's family and her friends look at the fragmentary evidence surrounding her disappearance and cannot ward off ominous interpretations.

"Everyone that knows her -- and this includes her attorney, her psychiatrist, her children, her ex-husband, all of her siblings and every friend that we've contacted is very concerned for her safety and thinks something bad has happened to her," her older brother, William Hurley, said from Boston last week. "It is completely unlike her to do anything like this."

When she disappeared Aug. 5, Mrs. Harrison, 52, of Ruxton was only hours away from a flight to Boston with her 19-year-old son, Nicholas Owsley, to see her three brothers.

"The idea of spending four days with my brother was as close to a perfect scenario as she could imagine," said John Owsley, her older son, who was to begin classes at Cornell University's School of Law this month.

At the time his mother vanished, John, 23, was one week away from his return home after a summer trip through Europe. Mrs. Harrison couldn't contain her excitement about the coming reunion.

No one can imagine her missing either the Boston trip or the reunion with John.

"Those sons are first in her life," said Janet Baldwin, a long-time friend.

Now those sons are driving around searching for their mother's green Saab convertible and flashing her picture at convenience stores. Last week, the two sons and Mrs. Harrison's four siblings offered a $5,000 reward "for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any individuals responsible for her disappearance." Baltimore County Police said last night that they had no information on her whereabouts.

"I am facing the real possibility of never finding out what happened to my mother," John Owsley said.

Susan Hurley grew up in comfort in Taunton, Mass., the second of five children born to a Roman Catholic family. Her father was vice president of a silverware manufacturer, and her mother was a homemaker. After college and jobs with a Boston art museum and a publishing house, she married Tom Owsley, a college buddy of one of her brothers.

The couple lived for a time in Connecticut and Virginia before settling in Garrison about 12 years ago. Mr. Owsley is a vice president with Crown Central Petroleum Corp.

Supportive wife and mother

She threw herself into the role of supportive wife to a corporate husband and then, when the two boys came along, of a fully involved mother. She was a docent at the Baltimore Museum of Art, volunteered at the Gilman School and satisfied her artistic yearnings through sewing, knitting and the creation of hand-painted lamp shades.

It was an idyllic life, but, apparently, not a fully satisfying one. After 20 years, the Owsley marriage foundered in the early 1980s. Lack of communication, she told friends. She also had a new romance.

James J. Harrison Jr. then was completing a 20-year climb to the top ranks of McCormick & Co. A graduate of Gilman, Cornell University and the University of Baltimore Law School, he was married and the father of six.

She had met him through her husband's professional associations. "They used to go out as couples," said Mary Jo Gordon, a close friend and former neighbor. "He [James] flirted with her, pursued her while she was married for two years."

The Owsleys separated in 1984 and divorced three years later. On Dec. 2, 1988, she married Mr. Harrison.

She married him, friends say, even though she was complaining of him hitting her.

"I wouldn't come to the wedding because of that," said Terry MacMillan, who has been one of Mrs. Harrison's closest friends from their years at Dana Hall Preparatory School.

Ms. MacMillan, who lives in California, said that after an altercation between the couple at a San Francisco hotel in the mid-1980s, Susan spent the night with her. Although Susan called police, she refused to prosecute Mr. Harrison, said Ms. MacMillan. It was a pattern she repeated.

Reports of battery

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