Skeleton found in W. Maryland is vanished Ruxton woman Susan Hurley Harrison not seen since visiting estranged spouse in '94

December 06, 1996|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Jay Apperson, Dan Thanh Dang, Laura Lippman and Joe Nawrozki contributed to this article.

The skeletal remains of Susan Hurley Harrison, the Ruxton woman who disappeared more than two years ago under mysterious circumstances, have been found in a shallow grave in a heavily wooded area of Frederick County, authorities said yesterday.

Dr. John E. Smialek, chief medical examiner for Maryland, said the remains found Friday in Wolfsville by two hikers were those of Mrs. Harrison, last seen alive at her estranged husband's Timonium home Aug. 5, 1994.

He said Mrs. Harrison was positively identified through dental records, but the cause of death was not immediately evident.

Authorities questioned her estranged husband, James J. Harrison Jr., for several hours yesterday in Baltimore County and Frederick County.

"They were asking me if I had anything to do with Susan's death," Harrison said last night at his Timonium home. "The answer to that is absolutely not. I prayed to God every day that she was alive and well."

Harrison, who was not charged, added: "To some degree, they (( said they would charge me. But it doesn't make any sense. I'm absolutely innocent."

Asked whether Harrison is a suspect, Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle said: "I can't rule out anybody as a suspect now."

Smialek, meanwhile, called the remains a "pretty clean skeleton that had been exposed to the elements over approximately two years."

Describing his investigation, which he expects to be concluded in about two weeks, he said: "We will start to look for what could be signs of violence left on the bones. If there was a gunshot, a stab wound, blunt force to the head, even a broken arm."

Family members, who had assumed Mrs. Harrison was dead almost from the moment that she was reported missing, struggled last night with a strange mix of feelings -- hope that the discovery would bring them closer to justice in her death and sadness as they faced a closure so long denied.

"You always expected it to happen," her elder son, Jonathan Owsley, said from Chicago. "Or hoped it would, in a strange way."

Owsley, now a law student, had often thought his mother's body might be found by a hunter in a remote area. But he had hoped the discovery would come in the months right after her disappearance, when police might have found more clues about her death.

Mrs. Harrison's sister, Molly Hurley Moran of Athens, Ga., said that she was shocked but relieved that the body had been found. Now, she says, the family can have a funeral and grieve properly.

"If I had heard this two years ago, then I would probably be hysterical," she said. "Every time a body has been found, we go through this. We have had so many false leads."

The finding of her remains also brought relief for Tom Owsley of Homeland, Mrs. Harrison's first husband.

"This is so sad," he said. "But by the same token, we all want some sort of resolution to all of this."

On Monday, he said, he had asked detectives whether the Frederick County remains noted in newspaper reports could be Mrs. Harrison's. But police said no, the remains were of a younger and seemingly smaller woman.

But Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey said that when investigators took a closer look at the remains, they changed their minds. They decided to compare Mrs. Harrison's dental records with the remains.

The body was discovered about 4: 30 p.m. by two men walking through woods near the end of a dirt road outside Wolfsville -- a small Catoctin Mountain town about 10 miles from Camp David and a 20-minute drive from Frederick. Investigators said the body, in a grave partially hidden under brush, was found by hikers looking for animal bones.

The heavily wooded area is often used by hunters as a dumping ground for deer carcasses, said Linda Delauter, whose family owns a nearby store.

One hiker, Richard Dell, was a former Wolfsville resident who, as a youngster, frequently found animal bones in the area, according to the Frederick Post. The newspaper said Dell and a friend went to Delauter's store to phone police and report the discovery.

Mrs. Harrison was last reported seen the night of Aug. 5, 1994, by James Harrison, retired chief financial officer of McCormick & Co. Their marriage, the second for both, had been a troubled one -- and violent, according to her sons.

Mrs. Harrison's disappearance was always considered suspicious because it came on the eve of a trip she had long planned with Nicholas Owsley, her younger son. The two were to leave for Boston on the morning of Aug. 6, but Nicholas never saw her after she went to visit Harrison in the Timonium home they once shared.

"I knew from the moment I woke up that morning [Aug. 6] that she was dead," Nicholas Owsley, now a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, has said.

Her car, a Saab convertible, was identified by police more than three weeks later in a parking lot at National Airport in Washington. The keys had been left in the car, and police determined that it had been there since the weekend of her disappearance.

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