The Mystery of Susan Harrison

August 20, 1995|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer Staff writer Dan Thanh Dang contributed to this article.

At first, those who mourned Susan Hurley Harrison could not bring themselves to say the word without wincing. They had few illusions -- virtually everyone believed Susan was dead, and was convinced of this fact within days of her disappearance on Aug. 6, 1994. But the word itself was so stark and inanimate, so cold and flat.

Body. They were looking for a body.

The word was always there, in the back and front of their minds. It was all they thought about -- Susan's siblings, her sons, her first husband. The police agreed with them: Susan was probably dead. Only her second husband, Jim Harrison, clung to the idea she had run away, without a word to anyone and without any apparent financial support.

Weeks passed, with little progress to report. The family began to realize it might be some time before they found Susan's body. Or that they might never find Susan's body. And they began to realize that, without it, justice would remain elusive. In Maryland, prosecutors seldom pursue homicide cases until someone is officially declared dead. That's hard to do without an eyewitness -- or a body.

No body, no death. No death, no homicide. No homicide, no arrest. No arrest, no justice.

In Boston, brother Bill found it difficult to concentrate on his bond business, and brother John felt as if he were trapped in a bell jar -- everything sounded so far away. In Athens, Ga., sister Molly worried, well aware of the absurdity, that Susan was cold, exposed to the elements in nothing but the Bermuda shorts and sleeveless shirt she was wearing when she disappeared. At Cornell University's School of Law, son Jonathan stared blindly at his books, wondering if a hunter might stumble upon his mother in the now wintry landscape.

"Literally and figuratively, you see the time pass," Jonathan says. "Once it starts to freeze and the leaves start to fall, you've lost an opportunity."

Winter gave way to spring. Now it's summer again, the season of Susan's disappearance. And the bitter fact is that, for all their effort -- the private detectives, the endless conferences with Baltimore County police, the pleas to the media, the methodical searches along Baltimore's highways, the psychics who volunteered their services, the $6,000 reward -- the family has no new evidence in the presumed death of Susan Hurley Harrison.

Their grief has stalled along with the case. They need someone -- something -- to bury in the Massachusetts cemetery, alongside their parents and the headstone with five shamrocks, one for each of the Hurley children.

"I was downtown and saw a casket being carried in for a funeral," Molly confides, sitting in her office at the University of Georgia, where she teaches English. "I found myself crying in envy for this family that had a dead body. It was perverted.

"And now the horror is we can't even say 'the body.' We have to say 'the remains.' My sister is something called remains."


In the shorthand beloved by the media, Susan Hurley Harrison became, upon her disappearance, the missing Ruxton woman. "Ruxton" carries a lot of weight in two syllables. Read: "privileged." Read: "wealthy." Read: "Not your typical homicide victim."

Susan Harrison was all of those things, but she was only recently a Ruxton woman, and not by design. She had moved into a small cottage there after literally running from her second marriage in late 1993, shoeless and coatless into the frigid night.

Allegations of violence had been part of the relationship with James J. "Jim" Harrison Jr. almost as soon as it began, a decade earlier. The story has a numbing familiarity, cliche by now, but no less true for its banality. She called police. She recanted. She filed charges, and usually dropped them. The one time Jim Harrison was tried for battery, he was acquitted.

And if Susan had stayed in this rut, running away from him and then running back, her problems might have remained private. Instead, Susan is missing, Jim is the last person to have seen her alive, and their marriage has been laid bare for public scrutiny.

His explanation for her disappearance is the same as his explanation for Susan's bruises and broken bones over the years. Susan was manic-depressive, Jim says, an alcoholic who injured herself, then blamed him. Now she's gone -- again, he says, her illness may be at work here -- and he is being blamed again. Not publicly, of course. Officially, police say only that Susan probably is dead, at the hands of someone who knew her. But Jim knows he is considered a suspect.

As for Susan's family, they find themselves in the grip of two mysteries: her death and her life. They don't deny Susan drank, or that she had emotional problems, but disagree with Jim over the precise diagnosis. They also think the most abusive thing Susan ever did to herself was get involved with Jim.

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