The Imperfect Crime

Unsolved murders, like that of Susan Hurley Harrison five years ago, offer painful evidencethat there is no such thing as a perfect rime -- or perfect justice.

May 15, 1999

The conceit of the perfect crime is just that -- a conceit. Unsolved crimes are generally borne of imperfections, not concocted by criminal masterminds.

There is the imperfection of the crime scene, assuming one exists. The imperfection, or complete lack, of physical evidence. The imperfection of witnesses, who may not even know the clues they hold.

And, finally, the imperfection of the killer's soul, which resists any impulse toward confession.

The death of Susan Hurley Harrison, the 52-year-old Ruxton woman who disappeared in August 1994, has long tantalized Baltimore with its tabloid-ready details. One could imagine such a story in the best work of Ross MacDonald, given his interest in broken families and broken people. It was all there -- a beautiful, fragile woman, a tempestuous relationship, even a dark and stormy night.

The broad outline is this: On the eve of a Boston trip with her youngest son from her first marriage, Nicholas Owsley, Susan decided to visit her estranged second husband, James J. Harrison Jr., a retired chief financial officer of McCormick & Co.

The two had met in 1979, while both were married to others, but that hadn't kept Harrison from pursuing Susan. They married on Dec. 2, 1988, although Susan was already complaining to family and friends that he was abusing her.

Over the next five years, her sons became reluctant eyewitnesses to the violence in their mother's second marriage. Jonathan, older than Nicholas by five years, recalled taking a knife from Harrison's hand on one occasion, documenting his mother's bruises on another. (Harrison has always denied these accounts.) Finally, on a frigid night late in 1993, Susan had bolted the house they shared on Timonium Road, so scared that she didn't even stop to put on shoes or a coat.

Yet Susan, supposedly free of Harrison's spell, went back to that house on the night of Aug. 5, 1994. Against the backdrop of a horrible thunderstorm, according to Harrison, they quarreled and reconciled, quarreled again. He says she drove off into the night, never to be seen again.

Three weeks later, Susan's dark green Saab was found in a lot at what is now known as Ronald Reagan National Airport. It had been there since the weekend Susan had disappeared. Everyone -- her sons, her siblings, her first husband, her friends -- believed she was dead, and that her killer had gone to the airport because the Washington Metro allowed one to flee without a trace.

Only Harrison maintained that she was a runaway wife, who was still alive somewhere.

He continued to express this increasingly dubious hope until Nov. 29, 1996, the day two hikers stumbled on the remains of a woman's body in a shallow grave in Frederick County.

Two certainties

That was suppose to be the big break in the Harrison case. From the weekend of Susan's disappearance, there had been two articles of faith. One, she must be dead, because she could never bear to live without regular contact with her then college-age sons. Two, her body would provide proof that she was a homicide victim, and start the process toward justice. Through justice, her family and friends thought, they might begin to find some kind of peace.

Or so they believed four years ago, when they spoke to The Sun at great length, hoping that their increasingly frank confidences would spark something in the unwitting gas station attendant or parking lot attendant who might hold a clue to the night of Susan's disappearance and not realize it.

Her brother, John Hurley, even wrote what he called an "open letter" to Susan's killer: "Somewhere, quite probably within the circulation range of this newspaper, lives the person responsible for my sister Susan's murder. Perhaps it's you. Perhaps right now you're sitting comfortably at home reading this. ... Our lives are on hold. You've denied us the opportunity to mourn."

Today, the family remains silent, restricted in part by the sons' civil action -- a $17 million wrongful death lawsuit against Harrison, the same kind of legal gambit used by the family of Ron Goldman after O.J. Simpson was acquitted of Goldman's murder. The case is scheduled for September.

And Harrison is silent, too, virtually unreachable. His disembodied voice can be heard on the answering machine for the phone that rings at the Timonium Road house, but no one returns messages, and no one answers the door. The house, which had become seedy and unkempt since Susan's absence, looks even more forlorn today, its willow-green wood trim showing signs of dry rot, the doorbell ripped from the front door.

In the end, Susan's remains told officials only what they had long suspected: She was a homicide victim, killed by a blow to the head. The body's placement in a remote area was consistent with the long-held theory that Susan's killer was known to her. A stranger, then-Homicide Lt. Sam Bowerman once said, has no reason to take pains to distance himself from a victim.

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