Mother's death ends quest to find child
For more than 30 years, Susan Billig looked for her daughter, Amy. On Tuesday, the Coconut Grove woman passed away, never having found her.
BY DAVID OVALLE
Susan Billig died without ever finding her daughter.
The Coconut Grove woman -- whose 31-year quest to find her missing teenage daughter took her from drug dens to prisons across the country and even across the Atlantic -- died Tuesday of complications from a heart attack. She was 80.
''I don't think she ever found peace,'' said her son, Josh Billig. ``She took that as a really tough wound right to the grave.''
The story of Billig and her daughter Amy has reverberated in Miami for more than a generation. Some have forgotten the details over the intervening three decades, but not Billig, who remained a stoic figure undaunted by time.
This much we all know: On March 5, 1974, 17-year-old Amy disappeared near the Billig's Coconut Grove home. She was on her way to her dad's art gallery in the Grove, then a Bohemian enclave.
Some said Amy accepted a ride from a biker. Others said she got into a van or pickup truck. Clues were strewn across the state -- her camera along Florida's Turnpike in Central Florida; her hairbrush at a convenience store in Kissimmee.
31 Year Quest: Over the years Susan Billings knocked on doors and passed out fliers like the one above.
And there was Susan Billig, knocking on doors, passing out fliers, calling police, holding news conferences. She painstakingly checked out the stories she was told: Amy was seen buying tea in Seattle; a biker was with her in Tulsa; she was a sex slave in Saudi Arabia.
The years melted away and the twists turned tragic, but never hopeless.
Her husband, Ned Billig, died of lung cancer in 1993. When he died, she was recovering herself -- also of lung cancer.
Ned's dying words to his wife: ``I want to see Amy before I die.''
Over the years, Coconut Grove grew from a Bohemian haunt to a tourist magnet. Tips poured in. Some were crazies playing with her.
Vanished: Amy Billing, shown in 1974 mysteriously disappeared at 17.
Among them, Henry Blair, a former U.S. Customs agent who investigated the case. Blair had prank-called Billig, teasing her with false clues about her daughter's whereabouts. In 1996, Blair was sentenced to two years in jail and ordered to pay the family $5 million -- as his income would allow.
Susan's son, Josh Billig, grew up -- she once said she wished she had spent more time with him. Josh Billig never held it against his mother.
''I tried to assure her that it wasn't a problem for me,'' Josh Billig said.
He has two daughters now.
Last year, on the 30th anniversary of Amy's disappearance, her mother spoke to The Herald: ``Because I didn't know if she was dead, I couldn't forsake her and move on.''
Hers was a familiar story in the news. It was featured on shows such as Unsolved Mysteries and America's Most Wanted.
No one wrote about Billig as tenderly as Edna Buchanan, now a novelist who covered the case for The Herald.
''I always feared that her husband, that Sue and that I would die without ever knowing what happened to Amy,'' Buchanan said Tuesday night.
``I think about it every day, every night of my life because the cases that haunt you are unsolved ones. She never gave up and endured risks that no one would ever take to try and find her daughter.''
Even a last major revelation did not convince Billig that her daughter was dead.
In 1996, a woman in Virginia told the BBC that her husband, a biker named Paul Branch, told her on his deathbed that Amy was kidnapped and gang raped near the Everglades. Amy fought back, the widow said, then was drugged, cut up and left in a canal.
In recent years, the family had come to doubt the credibility of the story, Josh Billig said. Amy's disappearance remained very much unsolved.
Buchanan never bought the theory: If the biker's story were true, too many people would have known. The word would have gotten out.
''The biker chicks grow older. They become mothers themselves. They develop consciences,'' Buchanan said. ``A lone serial killer -- I still adhere to that theory.''
During the final years of Susan Billig's life, her son said, her search became less intense. The leads dwindled.
In the last year, she suffered three heart attacks. The last one weakened her too much and left her in the hospital for more than two weeks.
Billig resigned herself not to the fact that Amy was dead, but that she might not solve the mystery while alive, said Josh Billig, 47.
Last year on a rainy day, Susan Billig went to Peacock Park in Coconut Grove, where her son built a coral rock bench to honor his sister.
''I've kind of almost lost the feeling that she's alive,'' she said at the time. ``But not entirely. I can't stand to be that sad.''
She died at home surrounded by family. Plans have not been finalized for funeral services.
Susan Billig is survived by her sister, Ray Scheckner, 87; her son, Joshua; and, she believed to the end, her daughter, Amy, who would today be 48.
Copyright 2005 Knight Ridder