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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.

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.

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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.

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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

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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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But Bowerman is assigned to property crimes now, and Baltimore County police have no comment on the case, as it's no longer theirs. The discovery of the body in Frederick County created jurisdictional problems, and the criminal investigation ended up with the state Attorney General's office. That office made the call last week to suspend the active investigation in the case.

Waiting for closure

The case is not closed. Unsolved homicides are never truly closed. But it waits, inactive, for some outside force to stir it up again. A new piece of evidence, a witness's epiphany, a killer's remorse.

It should be noted that even solved homicides don't necessarily bring closure. Wherever a victim's relatives are on the spectrum of justice, closure is illusory. Two other Baltimore County cases have taught us that much.

Consider Patricia Stevenson of Dundalk, whose daughter, Bernadette Caruso, disappeared 13 years ago. She was 23 at the time, a young mother whose marriage was dissolving. No trace of her has ever been found -- not her body, not her car, not her purse.

Asked this week what kind of resolution she yearned for, Stevenson said immediately: "That we could bury her. I would like to see whoever is responsible see justice, but that's in God's hands one way or another. ... If they would find the body, we would be able to bury her. That would give us peace, I believe."

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Last fall, a 1982 Baltimore County homicide was solved when long-silent witnesses finally came forward, no longer so fearful of the man who had confided in them that he had strangled a 10-year-old boy, Adam Faulkner. Roger Stump, 17 at the time of the racially motivated attack on the biracial boy, was sentenced to 30 years for second-degree murder.

But Adam's mother, Chessa LeAnne Barnett, made it clear in interviews with The Sun that justice goes only so far in healing one's wounds. "We made our own world," she said of her family, describing her obsession with keeping her other children safe.

Given the opportunity to speak at Stump's sentencing, she told the judge: "There is an empty hole in my heart that no amount of time will erase."

There are no perfect crimes, and there is no perfect justice.

"I pray a lot, and I try to forgive," says Stevenson, who, like members of Susan Hurley Harrison's family, believes the person responsible for her daughter's death was not a stranger.

"As you get older, you realize if you don't forgive, maybe God won't, either."

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Pub Date: 5/15/99



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