When Susan Merchant Walsh tapped on the door to her estranged husband's
apartment Nutley apartment on July 16, 1996, she had been acting
strangely for weeks, moody and weary and full of despondency that
friends and family members could not explain.
She was at the peak of life, or so they thought, someone poised to make
it as a writer and an advisory to documentaries, a brilliant,
blonde-haired 36-year-old woman who was watching her dreams come true.
But she looked pale and felt weak, and the 110 pounds listed on her
suspended New Jersey driver's license hardly fit her any more. In
describing Sue later, her father Floyd called her "All skin and bone,"
although Sue looked frail from birth. She once described herself as a
"bony bird." Some people said she had started drimore. In describing Sue
later, her father Floyd called her "All skin and bone," although Sue
looked frail from birth. She once described herself as a "bony bird."
Some people said she had started drinking again, something she
"People get strange on Xanax," a friend of mine named John told me.
"More than moody. Crazy. They lose touch."
Despite a sweltering July, Sue's building smelled of mildew and heating
oil, its air made stale by its closed windows and thick brick walls. You
could smell the car fumes seeping in from the nearly constantly running
engines of the New Jersey Transit terminal a half block away or the used
car dealer directly next door. Washington Avenue also served as a major
viaduct for traffic, cars tumbling off Route 21 headed for Belleville --
an route so ancient George Washington had once taken it to cross the
Belleville bridge when the one in Paterson was washed away in 1790.
Although separated from her husband, Mark, for nearly a decade, Sue
hadn't bothered with the formality of a divorce, partly because she
claimed she couldn't amass the $3,000 legal fee to pay for it. Despite
numerous jobs as a go-go dancer and writer and advisor to films, Sue was
almost constantly broke. More importantly, Mark -- who lived in the
basement apartment just beneath Sue's -- was a remarkable convenience, a
nearly 24-hour baby sitter Sue could rely upon whenever some job came up
or opportunity to meet someone important in New York City.
"She always had something in the fire," one old friend said of her, "She
was working on this and that, a perpetual juggling act that had her
running her and there. When I knew her in college, she was always
talking about the projects she was involved in. I don't remember her
ever finishing an of them."
Mark had followed Sue to Nutley for the express purpose of keeping close
to their child, David. He apparently didn't trust Sue enough to leave
her alone with the kid, though others claim he was among the many, many
men who mark Sue's trail of tears since her graduating Passaic Valley
High School in 1978. He and she shared the same building for six years,
he, alone, brooding, she with regular male visitors, some of whom stayed
with her for months at a time.
Neighbors called Sue's relationship with Mark one of "Love and Hate,"
one punctuated with frequent disputes and Sue's frequent threats to
steal her son away so that Mark could not share in his upbringing. Few
took these threats seriously. Most people who knew Sue said she was "too
devoted to her son" to ever do anything to hurt the boy, even depriving
him of his father's company. Others -- old enemies from her college days
-- dispute Sue's loyalty to her son, saying that her constant sales
pitch about her love for David only emphasized how trapped she felt,
saddled with thfrequent threats to steal her son away so that Mark could
not share in his upbringing. Few took these threats seriously. Most
Sue's worst fault was her need to save face, needing people to
constantly focus their love and care on her, and her alone, often using
anybody and any situation to achieve this end. It was this fear her
enemies claim that made her drag the boy from place to place, made her
constantly call home to see if he was all right, and made it impossible
for her to leave her house without depositing him in Mark's safe hands.
"If anything happened to that boy, people would look on her badly," said
one woman from whom Sue once stole a man. "Sue couldn't stand that,
especially if she could use the boy to win sympathy for herself. `Look
how hard I'm struggling,' she'd say. That's the way Sue thought. That
was the kind of woman Sue was."
Perhaps this was why Sue didn't trust David too many people, the way a
miser won't trust a precious commodity to just anyone. Sometimes she
imposed upon her one-time best friend, Melissa Hines, another go-go
dancer Sue had met in 1989 -- during Sue's reported plunge back into the
sex industry. With great reluctance, Sue allowed her mother, Martha to
take care of the boy. But Sue clearly did not trust Martha, having had
bitter battles over the years with the woman, having been raped by one
of Martha's boyfriends at age 3. What kind of care could Martha provide
Sue's son when Martha had been so careless with Sue?
On this warm and hazy Tuesday, Sue was particularly concerned about the
now 11-year-old boy. David had run a high fever over night and still
complained about a sore throat. He seemed to have inherited Sue's
frailty and his father's dark moods. Martha would later deny any attempt
by Sue to be rid of the boy or his problems, claiming that Sue thought
of little else but David. Yet something was amiss that morning, haunting
Sue enough for neighbors to notice her odd behavior, comings and goings
that didn't fit in with the usual pattern of her hectic life.
Sue was also ill. In weeks before her disappearance, Sue made several
visits to area hospitals. On one occasion, enlisting Melissa to drive
her to the emergency room. These visits seemed to mark a change in Sue's
self awareness. Prior to these, Sue mostly failed to take her own
illnesses seriously, often joking about moments other people took
utterly seriously. But then, Sue routinely joked about serious matters.
Sue claimed she suffered stomach ulcers.
She also claimed she was scared all the time, and said she was being
stalked. But life had also become so tedious, so wearisome that she said
she had to drink in order to make it through each night dancing --
something she told friends she wearisome that she said she had to drin
What she did with the money she got from various publishing, no one
knew. She had lived the high life for years, driving around Manhattan as
the concubine of the city's most notorious kind of porno. She also
struggled to get a masters degree from NYU. Throughout high school and
college, Sue dreamed of becoming a writearound Manhattan as the
concubine of the city's most notorious kind of porno. She also struggled
to get a masters degree from NYU. Throughout high school and college,
Sue dreamed of becoming a writer, and indeed, made some progress towards
that goal, working for the school newspaper in college and later for the
Butler based Suburban Trends. For a time, she even worked for the
Paterson News, then went onto a three year gig doing technical writing
for a New York-based magazine. Even now, she ventured into writing when
she could find time and energy, as what editors at the Village Voice so
generously called "a researcher." She, of course, saw herself as more,
but couldn't get a full time gig at that so called prestigious
publication -- a fact that may
In spite of her weakness, Sue managed to collaborate on several pieces
for the Voice, Screw Magazine and some international film documentaries,
researching and highlighting many of the abuses she saw from inside the
New York/New Jersey sex industry. This aspect of her research, she
claimed, attracted the ire of some notoriously fearful characters.
Sometimes she claimed elements of the Russian Mafia pursued her because
she exposed many of their dirty tricks.
Although she was apparently haunted by strange characters in her life,
Sue also often joked about being stalked, telling Melissa and others
that she had "stepped on some toes" as a result of her reporting. Sue
claimed mobsters were angered over her revealing of precious secrets
concerning the local sex industry scene.
"She believed the Russian Mafia was out to get her," Melissa said. "She
hung around with some very strange characters."
Among the tales Sue left behind was one about a visitation from a
Russian Mafia Don. Others claim the visit came from a more traditional
Mafia figure, interested in a signed confession she had in her
possession which implicated the Don. Her stories varied depending upon
who I talked to and when. Sometimes, she claimed these gangsters feared
the details of their lives she documented in her daily diary. Indeed,
Sue's moving to the Nutley/Bloomfield area coincided with a major shift
in the underworld. Go go bars and houses prostitution throughout New
Jersey came under a change of management as the Russian variety of
mobster began to make inroads on territory formally controlled by the
Italian variety. Sue's contribution "Redlight," a book by James Ridgeway
on the local sex industry, may have made her a little too dangerous to
be left walking around the streets
While many believe this book may have helped make her a target for
gangsters who wanted her silenced, Sue relied upon "Redlight" revive her
dying literary career. If the book did well and her part was
acknowledged, maybe she could finally quit dancing a profession she told
friends she hated.
"She wanted to get healthy, pull out of dancing and write," Melissa
On July 16, she told Mark when dropping off her boy that she had to make
a phone call. Even though she had a telephone in her apartment, she
rarely trusted it, and routinely walked down Washington Street to one of
two public phones within two blocks of her apartment. Details as to her
exact words vary. Mark was so used to this routine that he only half
paid attention to her when she said she either had to call someone or
meet someone. But she did leave her purse, her beeper and house keys on
Mark's kitchen table, and she did say she would be back within 20
If she wore makeup, no one remembered it, although a few people
apparently saw her walking down Washington Street in the direction of
Belleville, wearing the same kind of one-piece black tank-top dress she
had worn since 16, the perfect image of the East Village poet, wearing
the same kind of open-toed sandals that she used to wear wandering the
grassy campus of William Paterson University. The men at the pizzeria
said they saw her -- knowing her from the frequent deliveries they made
to her apartment. But they couldn't recall which direction she was
traveling in, to or from the phone.
While Sue once possessed a driver's license -- and had use of a car as
late as 1992 when she would take her son on dates with her into
Manhattan -- she seemed not to have access to a car in 1996, possibly
fearing arrest on outstanding unpaid parking tickets she had
accumulated. She often called for a ride from the public phones.
Sometimes she called for a cab though her lack of finances made her rely
on free rides, often drafting bar patrons for lifts after work, a habit
nearly as dangerous as her reported drug use, but Sue liked living on
Theories abound as to what happened next.
Melissa is convinced someone Sue knew yanked her into a cab and drove
away with her, others say she wandered off in a kind of "mental fugue"
-- the kind of which Sue frequently talked about when in college, while
still others claim she wandered off to drug rehab. People have claimed
to have seen her wandering through the streets of Newark, and in other
places, such as Ohio, Canada, even Miami, Florida. But as with UFOs and
Elvis Presley, the validity of these sightings have been questioned by
authorities -- and though some friends hold out hope, others who knew
Sue believe she is dead.
I do not think she is dead. This book follows thread of Sue's life in an
attempt to explain what did happen to her, as well as provides a study
of the media frenzy that followed her disappearance.
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