Vanishing Act

 

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

people who

 

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

said.

 

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

minutes.

 

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

the edge.

 

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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