Discovery of body brings relief to family But questions remain about death of Ruxton woman

December 08, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk and Kris Antonelli | Suzanne Loudermilk and Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Most members of Susan Hurley Harrison's family never expected to find her alive.

But the recent discovery of her skeletal remains in Frederick County more than two years after the Ruxton woman disappeared brought relief and some closure in what one friend called a "horrible end for a wonderful person."

Since her disappearance, the family sought to keep her pleasant, serene face in the public eye, hoping to learn clues about her whereabouts. Relatives put up a billboard on Timonium Road. They flooded the area with fliers. And they pushed for a segment on NBC-TV's "Unsolved Mysteries," which aired last month.

"It's been a constant concern -- constant," said her brother, Bill Hurley of Hingham, Mass. "We've been wanting every day to find her."

Only her estranged husband, James J. Harrison Jr., a retired chief financial officer of McCormick & Co., thought she might still be alive.

Mr. Harrison, whose marriage to her was stormy, said he cried when police came to his Timonium home Thursday afternoon to tell him she had been found dead. Homicide detectives questioned him for about three hours at his home before he offered to go to Frederick County with them.

"The reason I went to Frederick County was because I wanted them to show me the woman they said was Susan," he said. "I wanted to make sure it is really Susan. I want to bless her and give her a proper funeral."

Although it could be weeks before the medical examiner's office determines the cause of Mrs. Harrison's death, her siblings feel certain she met foul play after disappearing Aug. 5, 1994, on the eve of an eagerly awaited trip to Boston.

Mrs. Harrison, 52, planned the trip with the younger son from her first marriage, Nicholas Owsley, now a college student in Vermont. Her older son, Jonathan Owsley, is a law student in Chicago.

"We were convinced she hadn't run off," said Mrs. Harrison's sister Molly Hurley Moran of Athens, Ga. "But now there is the horror of thinking whoever killed her . . . threw her where deer carcasses are thrown."

The skeletal remains were discovered by hikers the day after Thanksgiving in a wooded area in Wolfsville, a Catoctin Mountain town about 10 miles from Camp David. Local residents say hunters often use the area to dump animal carcasses.

L The remains were identified Thursday through dental records.

"There is relief that we can have her in a physical place and mourn for her in a normal way," Moran said Friday. She said she was wearing a ski sweater that her older sister, a talented artist, had knitted for her when they were teen-agers in a happy, Irish-Catholic family of five children in Massachusetts.

Funeral arrangements are not expected to be complete until Mrs. Harrison's remains are released from the state medical examiner's office, the family said. The family has discussed burying her in the Massachusetts cemetery where her parents are interred with a shamrock-engraved headstone.

But now, more than ever, the family hopes someone will come forward with details about Mrs. Harrison's disappearance. Moran said a $10,000 reward is being offered for information.

"We want this culprit caught. If only someone can remember," she said, wistfully.

On Friday, Mr. Harrison -- from whom Mrs. Harrison filed for divorce in January 1994 -- talked about the past two years as he led visitors through his home, a Cape Cod.

The family room was littered with newspapers, magazines and unopened mail. The kitchen was lined with dozens of vitamin bottles.

Mr. Harrison, wearing the same clothes he had on the night before, sat in a chair in a windowed room he calls the sun porch.

No, he did not kill her, he said. He still loves her very much, he said.

Mrs. Harrison was "manic-depressive," he said, and left their house angry and yelling insults at him at 10 p.m. Aug. 5, 1994.

"I saw her pull out of the driveway from the bedroom window," he said. "Then I went back downstairs and locked the door."

Mr. Harrison often interrupted the tale of her disappearance, saying: "It's so horrible, it's so sad. . . . I still pray to God that she is alive."

He pointed to photos of him and Mrs. Harrison -- on a beach in the Bahamas, as party guests and at their wedding. And he talked of the life they had: the trips to Europe, South America and get-away weekends to Ocean City.

"We were so much in love," he said. Tomorrow would have been the couple's eighth wedding anniversary.

But allegations of violence were there from the start of their marriage. By 1989, Baltimore County police had begun logging complaints of domestic battery involving the couple, recording at least 20 in four years.

Mrs. Harrison petitioned the court for a restraining order twice in 1993 -- prevailing the first time, only to violate the order herself.

Mr. Harrison, 60, insists that, although Mrs. Harrison had moved to a Ruxton cottage in December 1993, she spent almost every night with him.

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