Last year on Good Friday, I was visiting my grandparents' grave. It was very quiet. It was always quiet, which I appreciated. Lilies were everywhere, along with stuffed bunny rabbits at the children's graves. In the distance an owl was hooting. I sat in silence for a while, then began to walk on the grass barefoot when a man approached me. He looked a little younger than me, with black curly hair.
"Do you have a pen?" he asked.
I was a little startled. First because he disrupted my quiet, second because the request was so odd. "No, sorry,” I said.
"Would the office have a pen?"
"I think so,” I said.
Why you would need a pen here? I wanted to ask. Instead, he headed toward the office, and being nosy, I wandered to look at the grave he was visiting.
She was a young girl, aged 14. From the picture on her gravestone, I could see that she had long blond hair, blue eyes. She was a stunner. When I saw the man coming back, I walked away. I didn’t want to intrude. But I was haunted by our strange intersection. What was the story there? Was he a family member? An old boyfriend?
On the Day of the Dead, I visited my grandparents' grave again. This time, I looked closer at the grave where the man had been standing, and I took note of the girl’s name: Suzanne Arlene Bombardier. Born on March 14, 1966. Died on June 22, 1980. She died exactly a month before my grandmother died. Etched on her grave were the words: you’re in my heart. I googled her name on my cell. As I read her story, my eyes filled with tears.
Suzanne Bombardier was baby-sitting her nieces while her sister Stephanie was at work. It was the first day of summer in 1980. They lived in Antioch, California. These days, it’s known as the city where Phillip Garrido held Jaycee Dugard hostage for 18 years.
When her sister Stephanie got home that night, the house looked fine. There were no signs of a struggle or forced entry. Suzanne wasn’t on the couch, but her sister figured Suzanne had fallen asleep with the girls while putting them down. Her sister headed to bed. It wasn’t until the next day when their mother called, looking for Suzanne, that they both began to worry. The only trace of her was her suitcase still near the couch.
They called the police. There were no signs of a forced struggle or entry. They had to wait 24 hours until they could start searching (customary back in 1980) . On June 27, her report card arrived in the mail. She received straight A’s, ending up on the honor roll. The same day a body was spotted by a fisherman in the San Joaquin River near Antioch. Suzanne’s stepfather identified the body. She had been stabbed through the heart. Her killer was never found.
Standing near her grave, I covered my mouth. I put down my phone. "Oh, I am so sorry!" I said. I wasn’t even sure why I was apologizing -- the fact that she endured such a horrible crime, or the fact that her killer was still out there. I didn’t know what to do.
I placed a flower on her grave, and then I went home. I did what I often do when I am trying to make sense of an experience. I wrote about it in a blog, which I called “The Lost Girl.” The story was tugging and tugging at me. Yet what was I going to do — find her killer? I wasn’t an investigative reporter like Sarah Koenig or Amy Goodman. I wrote about Muppets and not finding the right purse. I didn’t know how to pay homage to this mystery. How was I going to track down the story? But the story started to find me.
After the holidays, a woman wrote to me named Leesa. She had been friends with Suzanne (known to family and friends as Susie) and thanked me for writing about her. In 1979, they had bonded at 13 -- two recent transplants to Antioch, talking about boys and families. Leesa told me there was next to nothing about Susie online.
I decided to find someone to write the story. Not me. I didn’t have the background, the credentials. No, a “real journalist” had to write this story. I wrote several people at local newspapers. One was interested; however, there was no new evidence so there was nothing new to report. I asked other writers, no luck. I pitched the story to "This American Life." No response. Was it possible that I could write this story? Was that crazy?
The one good thing about working part-time was I had time to do research. It was a small luxury. I went to the Pleasant Hill Library‘s microfilm machines. I looked up June 1980’s Contra Costa Times, the local newspaper where they reported her disappearance back on page three, alongside plenty of advertisements for Liberty House and Mervyn’s. The San Francisco Chronicle did a story on her on page five, but there was a whole article devoted to Ron Reagan Junior and his ballet career. This angered me. I knew it was before Adam Walsh and Amber Alerts, yet how could this girl’s death be considered unremarkable?
I kept on looking and finding information. The inscription on Susie’s grave came from her favorite song “You’re in My Heart” by Rod Stewart. At her funeral, they played songs she loved. One was particularly haunting: “Everything I Own” by Bread. One night I listened to the song on YouTube and am haunted by the lyrics: Is there someone you know/Your loving them so/ But taking them all for granted? You may lose them one day/Someone takes them away/And they don't hear the words you long to say/I would give anything I own/I'd give up my life, my heart, my home/ I would give everything I own/ Just to have you back again.
When I told people the new story I was working on, they looked surprised. What about your Jonestown novel? Or a collection of pop culture essays? I had been working on both projects, but they had both stalled. Life got in the way. My legally blind 80-year-old father moved in with me. I was having problems finding a full-time job. I was tired and stressed most of the time. I wanted to write about Susie. I kept on being pulled by the story.
Part of it was sheer fascination; when I was 16, four girls were kidnapped in the space of six months. One was found dead. The other girls -- Amber Swartz-Garcia, Michaela Garecht and Illene Misheloff -- are still missing. I always had to be careful. Don’t talk to strangers. Always make sure you’re around people. Walk home as fast as you can, then lock the door behind you. I always had this fear that something bad could happen if you’re not vigilant. But what if being vigilant wasn’t enough?
The other part was that I wanted to be the hero. I wanted to find closure in a story that had no closure. It seemed like the world forgot about this girl. Maybe if I found a happy ending for Susie, I could find one for myself.
I pitched the story to a site called Defrosting Cold Cases. Alice, the site’s owner, wanted the story but wanted it fast. I wrote it quickly. It was accepted the next morning and was June’s Case of the Month -- fitting because June was the 34th anniversary of Susie’s death.
I made the usual rounds sharing the story on social media. Friends of mine shared the story as well. Susie was profiled on sfgate.com, San Francisco Chronicle’s online outlet. A writer friend interviewed me. I wanted so much to get results, but I was realizing how naïve I had been. I guess I was thinking the police would magically find evidence that said so-and-so did it. Case closed. Awful thoughts invaded my head: You can be working on something better. You honestly think you can solve a 34-year old crime? All you know about detective work you learned from Nancy Drew, soap operas and Law & Order reruns. However, I was contacted by a webcast that specialized in aliens for an interview. I declined.
Meanwhile, fear creeped back into my life. One night after my story went live, I missed my local commuter train after work. I was in nearby Walnut Creek, which was safe. Yet I felt so nervous. It was the same old fear; something bad could happen if I’m not careful. I have to be careful. I saw a man staring at me. He looked normal. Then I remembered how normal Ted Bundy looked, even handsome. I quickly walked to another bench near the station agent’s phone. My cell phone hadn’t been charged, so it was dead. The only pay phone around wasn’t working. As dread took over, I considered my options. I knew a little karate. I could fight my way to safety. Did Susie fight? Yes, I knew she put up a hell of a fight. When the train finally came, I sought shelter near a group of women. The man was nowhere to be found.
Fear had always been in the world, but something about working on Susie’s tale made it feel more intimate, just beyond the front door. When I told my father I was working on this story, he became alarmed. “What are you thinking? This guy is still out there. What if he comes after you?”
“If you’re that concerned, buy me a stun gun,” I responded. I didn’t want to live my life in fear. I was always careful when I left the house. But I also knew terrible things could happen, even to careful people.
Meanwhile, I was starting to grow discouraged. I reposted the “lost girl” blog again on my website, along with the Defrosting Cold Cases link. I received lots of spam for Ugg boots, Victoria’s Secret. It was all so disappointing. One night, I was deleting spam when I saw a comment that was different than the others. It was from a man named Gregory Glod, who wanted to talk to me about Susie. He had been the junior detective assigned to the case, then left the police force to work in the Secret Service agency, where he’d been for more then 26 years. Now he was deputy director of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency. We set up a time to talk.
He was a junior detective when Susie disappeared. He still remembered the day they got word of a body. Friday, June 27. He rushed to the area where police divers had pulled a girl out of the water. He knew it was Susie. He decided right then and there he was going to find out who killed her and bring the person to justice. They’d gotten a few leads, but each one fizzled out. It was the first big case he ever worked on. It was a case he couldn’t forget.
He told me about his current goal: to establish a cold case unit in Contra Costa County. "In Maryland and other states, there's cold case units made up of retired police officers. They look at old cases, and then try to solve them. One opened up in Washington state. Another in New Jersey helped crack a two-year-old cold case by tracking the suspect down in Florida.” They have a cold case unit in the DA's office, but nothing countywide.
A month later, I met Greg and retired police detective Ron Rackley for lunch in Antioch. Greg was in town for an Antioch legends reunion. Since I don’t have a driver’s license (I have a learning disability that affects my peripheral vision), my mother was kind enough to drive me. However, she made Greg show her his badge. She then apologized, saying, “You have to understand, I know Jennifer is a grown woman. But this Susie story has made me overprotective.”
“You’re not being overprotective. You’re being a good mother,” Greg said, giving her a big hug. I was touched and a bit mortified at the same time. I wondered if Christiane Amanpour’s mother ever tagged along with her in Bosnia and asked soldiers not to shoot at her daughter.
Greg, Ron and I talked about Susie. It was clear they were still haunted by the story. I made copies of the microfilm articles and showed it to them. They studied something I found randomly in the Antioch Herald: a list of students who made the honor roll for spring 1980. One of them was Susie. They were still determined to find out the truth, but they wanted to honor Susie somehow. Greg decided to set up a scholarship in her name at the local high school, and then showed me possible areas where he wanted to build a memorial to her in Antioch.
When I started working on this story, my goal was to find out who killed Suzanne Bombardier. That is still my primary goal. The case has been in limbo way too long. Some kind of resolution must be found. My other goal is that Susie won’t be forgotten. If the lingering mystery of her death can help create a cold case unit for my county, I hope it can be created. Then other cases can be solved, including the other missing children kidnapped when I was growing up.
I want people to know that for 14 years, Suzanne Arlene Bombardier was here on this earth. She loved Gilda Radner, Rod Stewart's "You're in My Heart" and her family. She was smart and beautiful. Her death was terrible and unnecessary, but maybe it could be the catalyst to solve other mysteries that still linger, whose open end create lasting pain for family members. Someday when I go back to the cemetery where my grandparents and Susie are buried, I hope to see that man at the grave again. I want to be brave enough to approach him. I want to tell him: Thank you. You helped light the spark.