Decades have passed since a Bend teen’s remains were found in a wooded area south of the city, but there are many who remember Susan Wickersham occasionally, and some who think about her life and why she died all the time.
“She’s really never far from my thoughts,” said Wickersham’s older sister, Rhonda McMurran. “Probably because we never had closure.”
For 42 years, a murderer has held a secret deputies could never crack: shooting 17-year-old Susan in the head.
“I couldn’t even imagine then that it would take this long to solve,” McMurran said.
The mystery started on July 11th 1973, when Susan went missing. Reports from the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office show that Susan was last seen in downtown Bend. She had dropped off the family’s car to her mother, who worked at the Sage Room Restaurant and was expecting friends to pick her up and take her home. Susan never got there.
Childhood friend Denice Blake said she’ll never forget the day, although she couldn’t have known that when she woke up that Wednesday.
“It was just a sunny ordinary day,” Blake said. “This was Bend, Oregon in 1973 — stuff like that didn’t happen here.”
Blake also didn’t know she would be one of the last people to see Susan alive.
“I worked at the Sage Room Restaurant with (Susan’s) mom. She came in that day and we said ‘hi’ and exchanged greetings. A couple minutes later, I was waiting on a table and I saw her standing across the street in front of what was then the Owl Pharmacy — and the next time I happened to look out the window, she was gone.”
McMurran said their parents, now deceased, traveled the region looking for Susan, handing out posters and talking to anyone who would listen.
“The police tried to tell them she had run away,” McMurran said. “I just don’t think they took it real seriously at the time. We knew better.”
Deep down, the whole family had a bad feeling.
“I just knew she was gone, but you still have to hold hope,” McMurran said.
Close to 2 1/2 years passed — and then came the news no family or friend wants to hear.
“My parents called and said (police) found Susie’s remains, and there’s a bullet hole in her head,” Blake said.
It was near a cinder pit off Scale House Loop south of town, near where the High Desert Museum was later built, that the partial skeleton was found by a woodcutter on January 20th, 1976. Dental records soon proved it was Susan.
“There was no doubt that she was dead, there’s no question she met death by a homicidal act, so it became a whodunit,” said former Deschutes County District Attorney Mike Dugan, who served from 1987 to 2010.
It was the question on the minds of so many, including a young detective just learning the ropes.
“It was one of the first things I wanted to do., was pick this file up as a young detective, the youngest detective at the time,” said former Deschutes County sheriff’s Captain Marc Mills, now chief of police in Sunriver. “This is one of the cases I really, truly wanted to have closure.”
For Mills, the case of Susan Wickersham is personal.
“Susan was happy, free-spirited,” Mills said. “We would occasionally be at the same lunch table.”
Mills said it was sad when Susan went missing, and a shock when the town learned how she died.
“It was disturbing for our Class of 1974,” Mills said. “It’s disheartening. Of course, a lot of my classmates had hope, had hope in me,” Mills said.
Decades later, that hope is still high as ever. Although Susan’s murder is technically a cold case, some say the trail has been hot for years.
“They’ve made significant progress from where they’ve started,” said sheriff’s Lt. Tim Leak.
Leak said he cannot comment on whether the office has ever been close to an arrest. But Dugan said there was little mystery left by the time he left office five years ago.
“They absolutely believed they knew who did it,” Dugan said. “The cold case (unit) came and tried to get us to do a prosecution. My chief deputy district attorney and I reviewed what they had and said, ‘We still don’t have enough.”‘
McMurran said she also believes she knows who killed her sister.
“I think I have a pretty good idea, but of course you have to be able to prove it,” McMurran said.
It’s a tough pill to swallow.
“I’ll tell you what’s frustrating. I’m going to know who did this, if it’s ever known,” Mills said. “It’s probably going to surprise many of us, and it’s probably going to surprise how close in proximity they were to a number of us in Bend community.”
The former detective said investigators are only a clue or two away from cracking the case, but the clock is ticking.
Mills has a message for those who know exactly what happened.
“You’re 42 years older. You’re probably near the end of your life,” Mills said. “Put some things in motion — at least in the event of your death, so investigators at the sheriff’s office can put this case to rest, and give what family is left closure.”
Closure, but not revenge — Susan’s older sister only wants the peace her parents never got.
“Someday, I’d like to look the guy in the eye and say, ‘Why’d you do this?'” McMurran said.
“She was just a nice person.. You think of all those things that could have been, and all the people who loved her.”
Those who love her and still remember hope the next headline will be an arrest.
“It’s just open and incomplete,” Blake said. “There’s a little hole there.”
If you know who killed Susan Wickersham or have information that could lead to an arrest, call the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office at 541-693-6911.