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Three days later, The Herald & News, Passaic County's official newspaper

and one noted for its particular brand of yellow journalism, barged on

the scene, giving the reporting efforts --not to one of its seasoned

staff, but to a part-time reporter with the made-up name of "Robert

Florida," who also served as an adjunct English teacher at William

Paterson College. Florida, who has since picked up another name to

publish under, was normally assigned to cover flower shows and other

such public events. His over- enthusiasm for the subject matter showed

as he jumped into the story with both heavy feet, and as a result,

notched up the sensational aspect of the story.

 

Florida apparently had the favor of the newspaper's news editor, who had

taken the fledgling reporter under his wing, approving of the slanted

approach he took. Perhaps the news editor didn't see this story as any

more significant than the usual community affairs items Florida turned

in. But the newspaper may have had another reason for sending an

unseasoned reporter to handle what could have amounted to a homicide.

The police beat reporter, which usually handled such cases, might have

seen something askew in the way the facts seemed to pan out his case,

and could have -- with proper investigative skills -- come up with an

angle that might not have been comfortable for the newspaper's political

aims.

 

Florida struck me as a nice enough kid when I talked to him on the

telephone a month later, a Hoboken resident with dreams of advancing

beyond the bottom rung of the news room, where he would do more than

write obituaries and cover women's club meetings. Perhaps deep down, he

understood the frustrated ambitions Sue had felt. But he lacked the

talent to pick up on suspicious clues, and stumbled through the crime

scene like a drunk. Instead of listening to what sources told him, he

picked up the theme started by the Star-ledger, helping further the

cause of sensationalism while telling Sue's neighbors and friends that

he would be more sympathetic. If anything, he hit harder on the sex

angle, and at the same time, managed to betray the trust of several

people who had asked him not to use their names. And while his editor

likely helped him increase the slant, his experience as a puff piece

writer kept him from seeing the deeper implications of the story, of how

Sue's disappearance may have been connected to many more upstanding

citizens in her community. This cannot be said for Florida's editor, who

may indeed, helped shape the story in order to protect important people

in Nutley, whose connection to Sue may have proved extremely

embarrassing.

 

One clue of the story's bias or inaccuracy involved Florida's assertion

that police had begun looking for Sue the day she disappeared. They did

not. While they wrote up the report on July 16, they did not actually

show up at the apartment until six days later, and then -- according one

source -- they began to remove written materials, including Sue's

computer and computer disks. While Martha Young claimed the police were

"interviewing lots and lost of people," they failed to question many of

the people living around Sue. A month later, they refused to answer

questions brought to them by the producers of NBC's Unsolved Mysteries,

and, in fact, the TV show had to go to court to force a response.

 

"The police believe she simply chose to disappear," said Unsolved

Mysteries. One source inside the department told me that the police did

not know the reason, but believe Sue had simply chosen to disappear.

 

Florida's primary source for his first article seems to have been

Melissa, who at the time, sought to have her name withheld. She was a

dancer, too, and like Sue, was struggling to give it up since having her

baby.

 

"I don't want to get too deeply involved in all this," she said. "I

don't want to get too close to those people or I'll wind up back in it

myself."

 

 

Walsh was gregarious, good-natured and kind, Melissa told Florida for

his July 29 story.

 

"She would talk to anyone and find the humanity in everyone, qualities

that made her a quick study as a reporter," Florida wrote.

 

Melissa told me much the same thing, going on to say that Sue was naive

and would go and do things with dangerous people, without knowing any

better.

 

Sue? The woman who had been wandering into danger since she was 13, who

had become the star of Plato's Retreat and other sex clubs throughout

Manhattan? How could this be? How could Florida, or more importantly,

his editor, believe that a woman so deeply involved in the sex trade be

so capable of "finding the humanity in everyone."

 

Melissa told Florida: "Sue was very naive and trusting of people. I grew

up in Newark. She grew up in Wayne. I have street smarts. She didn't.

You could tell her anything and she'd believe it. I used to tell her all

the time that she was putting herself into dangerous situations. She

would think nothing of walking down a dangerous street. She put herself

in dangerous situations. She liked the edge."

 

Others, however, in describing this same Susan said she was angry and

depressed.

 

Melissa said that she believed Sue was alive, then laid on him stories

Sue had told her. Melissa said she believed Sue had been kidnapped by

one of two stalkers. One, Billy Walker, an ex- boyfriend who professed

to still love Sue. The other man was Morty Epstien, a character with "a

shady past" who Melissa said beeped Sue "a million times a day," and

wouldn't leave her alone. He apparently had met Sue at a go-go bar in

Central Jersey, and sough her out in order for her to become a sex slave

to a Perth Amboy motor cycle gang.

 

Both these stories echoed the constant tales I first heard from Sue when

we were in college. Someone was always in love with Sue, unable to

resist her, unable to do anything but stalk her day and night. Sue also

always had "a dangerous man" in her life, someone capable of any kind of

violence. She talked about such men all the time to her girl friends at

the college newspaper, and clearly, Melissa believed every word, and

Florida printed them.

 

Sue apparently told Melissa that she had spoken with the FBI about being

stalked, and that a Russian club owner with gang affiliations had

visited Sue's apartment in December, 1995.

 

 

According to Florida's article, Sue claimed to hate dancing and did it

only to help support her son. This article went on to say that she was

"open and trusting, qualities that attracted stalkers." Ridgeway,

Goldstein and others called her paranoid. Florida's story said Sue

"wanted to be healthy, yet to make it through a night of dancing, she

drain, which ruined her health."

 

In this article, friends told Florida that Sue wanted to stop dancing

and become a writer, but as a writer Sue wrote about only one subject:

sex.

 

Something not exactly true. Sue wrote about anything and everything, but

for the most part, her publishing credits came via Screw Magazine and

the Village Voice. Sue's fiction, poetry and journals tended to be about

other subjects, about loneliness and survival, touched only slightly by

sex.

 

"She was extremely knowledgeable about the sex industry," Ridgeway said.

"The common image of a go-go dancer is of a girl who can barely get it

together to go on stage. She (Sue) was like an executive secretary at

IBM. She was really smart."

 

 

As in the Ledger story, all Florida's sources ruled out suicide as an

explanation as to why Sue vanished. All claimed her love for her son,

David, was just too great.

 

"Her child meant everything to her," Ridgeway said, "and she would

never, never leave her child."

 

But each recounted how ill Sue had become over the previous winter.

Melissa said Sue suffered ulcers. Louis Riccardi, Sue landlord, said she

had grown tired, downcast and frail. He had seen her on the night of

July 15 when Sue had managed to give him a portion of her rent. She was

often a welcomed guest at their swimming pool where she would sit and

edit their children's essays for school.

 

Dorian Devon, the host of a radio talk show on WFMU where Sue had

appeared the previous June, described Sue as "bright but troubled." She

had gone through the usual spiel about the evils of dancing, coming

alive for the taped session, telling Devon how easy it was to get

trapped in that life.

 

"At first, the vibe was harsh and compelling," she said. "You're on the

stage, you get attention. It's like: `Daddy loves me.' But I stayed in

it for far too many years, and boy, what a high price I had to pay.

There's a lure, and its hard to lave, once you get in that swing."

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