CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. -- They found Susan Negersmith behind a restaurant on the Jersey shore. Her bruised and bloodied body lay sprawled on a piece of cardboard. Her T-shirt and bra were pushed up to her neck; her black jeans and panties bunched around her left foot.
The crime scene photographs depicted a classic rape-murder. The county coroner found otherwise. Cause of death: alcohol intoxication and exposure. Manner of death: accidental.
The spunky, hazel-eyed brunette had been drinking heavily in the hours before her death on May 27, 1990. But the autopsy reports also identified 26 areas of trauma to the 20-year-old. Something was wrong, Susan's father told himself.
Something had to be done, he said. So it began for Kent Negersmith.
Today, 5 1/2 years after the father buried his daughter under a pink granite heart in her hometown of Carmel, N.Y., Mr. Negersmith's fight to set the record straight is over. A new coroner has concluded that Susan was a victim of a homicide. Someone strangled her.
"I don't feel I'm at all different than any other father who would be in the same position," says Mr. Negersmith, whose once-dark hair has silvered over the years.
In the beginning, Mr. Negersmith believed reason would prevail -- that a mistake had been made and the Cape May County coroner and New Jersey state medical examiner would correct it. In the end, a lawsuit led to the review of the case, a re-examination of Susan's preserved larynx and a finding consistent with what her father had believed all along.
"Mr. Negersmith has to be credited with tremendous tenacity," says Stephen D. Moore, the Cape May County prosecutor who pushed for a new investigation.
"He's been through horrible pain and every parent's worst nightmare. And to have it compounded by having to pursue this through his own initiative."
Since the day he got the call about his daughter's death, Kent Negersmith has been a man consumed. His daughter was violated in life and then again in death: The criminal justice system saw her not as a victim but as an unwitting accomplice, he says.
"I know she was not that kind of girl. I know she fought to her death. I know that," says Mr. Negersmith, with a voice made hoarse by too many Marlboros.
The autopsy reports he suspects? Mr. Negersmith, 53, has never read them in their entirety.
The two dozen crime scene photographs? He doesn't look through them. He wants to remember her in life.
Susan was Kent Negersmith's third child from his first marriage. A former cheerleader, she was outgoing and affable. Susan skied competitively, hiked, loved the beach. She had just finished her second year at a New York state college.
"She had so much going for her," the father says.
If the Negersmith family bore their anguish alone for years, they ,, were not alone in believing that Susan's death was not accidental.
Sympathetic lawyers intervened. Three forensic pathologists -- Maryland's medical examiner among them -- provided expert opinions free. The New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center took up the cause. Community activists who knew neither father nor daughter lobbied county officials.
"Why did it take 5 1/2 years for anybody to acknowledge that what was done in this case was wrong?" asks Terry Downey, a resident of Sea Isle City, N.J., who protested the coroner's findings in the case. "It was so clear what had happened to her."
Susan's last day
It was Memorial Day weekend, 1990. Susan Negersmith drove to the Jersey shore with six friends. They checked into a Wildwood hotel and spent the evening smoking marijuana and drinking. Susan left the motel about 10 p.m. From midnight to about 2:30 a.m., she stopped at a local gym, accompanied a man she met there to a party and then was seen on the porch of a nearby house, according to police reports.
Witnesses told police various things about Susan that night. She was drunk and slurring words. She rebuffed advances by a man. She threw up. She fell against a railing. She refused a ride home.
At one point, officers in a Wildwood police car saw Susan staggering on the street in the presence of several men. But the officers, after talking to one of the men, left the area.
A witness who offered to walk Susan home told police he left her leaning against Shellenger Restaurant around 2:30 a.m. because she was too drunk to tell him the location of her hotel. Two restaurant employees found Susan's partially clothed body in a garbage disposal area about 10:30 a.m.
The dreaded phone call
Kent Negersmith had just arrived at his cabin in the Adirondacks when the call came. His son-in-law told him to get home. Just get home. He returned to Westchester County, then drove the 180 miles to Cape May Court House, to the hospital there.
"When I first saw her, I started screaming, 'Who did this to her?' " recalls the father. "There was no question in our minds that she was murdered. That is not what we wanted to hear. It's never ever what you'd want to hear."