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Sins of the Mother by Maria Eftimiades
On October 25, 1994, a hysterical Susan Smith told police a tale that would strike terror in the hearts of mothers everywhere: An unidentified gunman had sped off with her two little boys, leaving her screaming on the side of the road.
For more than a week, the people in the tiny town of Union, South Carolina, rallied around the young mother. They combed the woods and neighborhood parks for the missing children and prayed for their safe return, while FBI teams launched a massive manhunt.
No one ever suspected that the pretty 23-year-old who tearfully pleaded for her children in front of millions of TV viewers could be capable of such a heartless act...until she led police to the watery graves of her young sons. Now, as a shaken community confronts its outrage and sorrow, a stunned nation asks how is could have happened.
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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Maria Eftimiades is the author of Sins of the Mother.
Maria Eftimiades is a journalist and the author of several books, including Lethal Lolita, My Name Is Katherine, Sins of the Mother and Garden of Graves.
Read an Excerpt
Sins of the Mother
By Maria Eftimiades
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1995 Maria Eftimiades
All rights reserved.
The headlights on the burgundy Mazda Protege cast an eerie glow on the dark waters of John D. Long Lake. Just before nine P.M. the lake was deserted. Those who fished catfish from the basin's murky depths had left hours earlier, piloting their johnboats to the shore as darkness fell. Now, the only noise was the hum of the Mazda as it paused atop a seventy-five-foot-long boat ramp. Moments later, the gravel beneath the Mazda's wheels would crunch as the car slowly began its descent.
It was October 25, 1994, a mild night in Union, South Carolina. In the summer months, the lake was a popular gathering place for the townspeople. Just after daybreak and right before dusk, its banks were dotted with fitness walkers marching along the side of the woods near the lake, nodding and calling out greetings to each other.
During the afternoons, teenagers and couples, and most of all, families with young children covered its shores. But as temperatures dropped and the bland fall breezes turned chilly, the crowds began to thin. Even when the sun shone brightly, there was school and homework, so many more commitments as winter approached.
And so the steady tide of cars continued along Highway 49, connecting Union and Lockhart, with fewer and fewer making the turn and passing the green sign that welcomed guests to John D. Long Lake. Most evenings, once darkness enveloped the lake there would be no visitors at all, no sounds again until daybreak.
Yet that night in Union, South Carolina, at John D. Long Lake, a visitor named Susan Smith fractured the quiet.
It was about 8:45 P.M. and Susan sat motionless in the Mazda, her hands clutching the steering wheel. She could hear the rhythmic breathing of her two children asleep in the back seat, their energy finally drained. Michael's third birthday had been just two weeks earlier, and Alex, fourteen months, had recently taken his first steps alone. How they laughed and tumbled through each day, learning and exploring together.
But now, there was only sleep, the deep, tranquil kind a parent expects in a warm, moving car at night. Indeed, it had taken only a few minutes after Susan buckled them into their car seats, before they had both settled down and drifted off.
Susan Smith, twenty-three, shifted the Mazda into neutral and the car slowly began to roll down the ramp. She stepped on the brake. Then, she pulled the emergency brake up with a swift tug. She stepped outside and stood on the banks of the John D. Long Lake.
She had a decision to make.
It didn't matter how long she stood there — the children were asleep and no one was waiting at home for Susan. She and her husband, David, were amid divorce proceedings. Married at nineteen, they had thought their marriage would last a lifetime but it hadn't worked out that way. In August, David moved out of their small redbrick ranch.
Susan's boyfriend, Tom Findlay, wasn't waiting either. After a brief courtship he had decided that Susan was a little too needy for him, and that he was not ready for a commitment, especially not to a woman with two young children. He'd ended their relationship one week earlier.
On the way to the lake that night, Susan had driven by the Winn-Dixie, the local supermarket, where David worked as an assistant manager. She passed the road that led to Judy and Carol Cathcart's day-care center, where Michael and Alexander played on swing sets and gazed out at the cows grazing in the nearby field. She went by Veterans Park, where she occasionally took her sons to feed breadcrumbs to the ducks in the pond. She drove by Conso, the decorative trimmings factory where she worked as a secretary. She wasn't far from the homes of her mother and stepfather, Linda and Bev, and her brother, Scotty and his wife, Wendy.
They were places and people she once cared about, but now there was nothing, only emptiness and pain. The losses in her life had finally numbered too many; she'd felt the sting of rejection from too many men. The responsibilities of motherhood overwhelmed her.
She wondered if death would relieve the ache inside her.
Susan Smith looked out at the blackness of the lake and it was a blackness that consumed her. She wanted relief, a respite from the misery, the loneliness.
She would take them with her, those sweet little ones in the back seat. They would suffer less with her, she believed, than left on their own in a compassionless world without her.
But something inside her prevented Susan from surrendering herself to the blackness. Standing at the lake that night she discovered she didn't want to die: all she wanted was to break from the heavy burden she felt so overwhelmed her. For a moment, nothing else mattered — not even the love Susan had for her children.
In that instant, Susan Leigh Vaughan Smith, whom everyone would later recall as a pretty, intelligent, popular, churchgoing young lady, made the decision that would catapult her into a worldwide spotlight, an odious decision that she would relive again and again.
All the innocence of childhood ended in a moment. Susan reached inside the car and somehow resisted the soft, guileless faces of her little boys.
She alone knows if she said good-bye.
What she did next is what will never be forgotten, or understood. Susan Smith pressed the head of the Mazda's emergency brake and gently lowered the handle down. As the car began to roll, Susan gave the door a push. It slammed shut, sealing the Protege and the fate of Michael and Alexander Smith with a hollow thud.
If Susan Smith stood at the shore of the lake and watched, she likely saw the car drift into John D. Long Lake. Because it entered the dark waters slowly, it didn't submerge immediately. For a few minutes it seemed as if it would just remain there, bobbing endlessly, peacefully. But of course it could not. And as the burgundy Mazda gradually filled with the water from John D. Long Lake, the trust of a mother's heart drowned.
But now, it was too late for regrets. Standing on the banks of the lake Susan Smith made her next tortured choice: self-preservation. She turned her back on the sinking car and began to run up the road, screaming. The lights of a small house flickered in front of her.
The story she was about to tell would kindle the sympathy of a nation. It would raise doubts in some and bruise a community that prided itself on racial harmony. And it would introduce to the world the faces of two little boys and mobilize a vigorous search to bring them safely home.
When the truth was at last revealed, the world would imagine what happened the night Susan Smith took the lives of her children, replaying the scene at the lake in Union, South Carolina in their minds again and again. Worst of all, both those who knew Michael and Alexander Smith and those who had never met them would hear the sounds inside the Mazda Protege resounding in their hearts for a long time to come.
The question that remained echoed in every small town and every big city: How could she do it? And nowhere was that question pondered more vigorously than in Union, South Carolina, a city that loved Susan Smith, and the two little boys she bore.
She did, the people said, the unthinkable. In one instant, Susan Leigh Vaughan Smith crushed humanity's most sacred trust, the love of a mother for her children.
It was the sin that would test Union's faith that theirs was a forgiving God.CHAPTER 2
Shirley McCloud turned the page of the Union Daily Times and adjusted the pillow at her head. She had been lying on the living room couch in her thermal nightgown for the past hour, half-listening to the television as she flipped through a stack of newspapers at her feet. It felt good to relax. Shirley left her small, two bedroom house in Union County each morning at 7:00 A.M., driving about thirty miles to her job as a secretary in Spartanburg. She liked her work, but at times, the commute was grueling.
Shirley glanced at the domed brass clock that sat atop the dark wood stand. It was a few minutes past nine. Her husband, Rick, lay on an adjoining sofa, engrossed in a sitcom. Their only child, Rick Jr., twenty-three, was in his bedroom, also watching television.
Well, if I'm going to watch a movie, I need to see what's on, Shirley thought. She was just about to commandeer the remote control from Rick when she heard a loud disturbance on the porch. She sat up abruptly.
It was a moaning, almost a wailing sound. Shirley wasn't sure what it was. She caught her husband's eye. The banging on the front door took them both by surprise. In the four years they'd lived there the McClouds always used the side entrance.
The Union Daily Times dropped to the floor as Shirley McCloud rushed to the door, her husband right behind her. She quickly unfastened the lock, made sure the chain was securely in place, and opened the door a crack.
In the haze of the porch light stood Susan Smith, hysterically sobbing. Shirley immediately unfastened the chain and pulled open the door, the screen door still locked.
"Please help me! Please help me!" Susan wailed.
Shirley peered past Susan to the far end of the porch, her mind racing. Could this be a ruse? Was this woman a decoy for a robber?
"Please help me!" Susan sobbed. "He's got my kids and he's got my car!"
The terror in Susan's voice left no room for doubt. Shirley McCloud hastily unlocked the screen door and reached toward Susan. She wrapped her arms around the young girl's shoulders and pulled her into the house, practically carrying her across the living room. Susan's shrill cries echoed through the little house as she fell back on to the sofa.
"Please tell me again what you said," Shirley said, trying to stay calm.
Susan Smith could barely speak. She gasped, "A black man has got my kids and my car."
Rick McCloud stared at the young woman sobbing hysterically on the couch. He turned and yelled toward the back bedroom, "Rick Junior, call 911!"
The younger McCloud reached for the cordless phone in his room and quickly punched in the numbers.
"Union County Communication" the dispatcher said.
A flustered Rick Jr. tried to explain. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "There's a lady that come up to our door, and she — some guy jumped into — a red light with her car and two kids in it. And he took off, and she got out of the car here at our house."
"And he's got the kids?"
"Yes, ma'am, and her car. I don't — she's real hysterical, and I just decided I need to call the law and get them down here."
The dispatcher called Union County deputy sheriffs to respond, logging in the call at 9:12 P.M.As Rick Jr. emerged from the bedroom and returned the phone to its cradle, his father grabbed the keys to the family's 1993 Pontiac Bonneville. "Let's go see if we can find them," he said.
As father and son headed out the side door, Shirley McCloud continued to try to calm her visitor. She knelt in front of Susan and took her face in her hands. Susan's skin was wet and clammy, her breaths coming in shallow gasps.
"Now tell me what happened," Shirley said gently.
In a fresh rush of tears, Susan began to tell her story. "A black man stopped me at a red light," she said. "I was stopped at the red light at Monarch and a black man jumped in and told me to drive. I asked him why was he doing this and he said shut up and drive."
Susan's sobs grew louder. "He made me stop right past the sign. I remember I had just passed that sign."
Shirley held Susan's face and tilted it toward her. "What sign?" she asked.
"The John Long sign," said Susan.
The sign, Shirley McCloud knew, was just a few hundred yards outside their front door, directly opposite the turnoff for the lake. On both sides, Highway 49 was lined with thick trees.
"He told me to get out," Susan went on. "He made me stop in the middle of the road. Nobody was coming, not a single car."
Shirley McCloud listened intently. Her mind was racing. What a dangerous spot to stop a car, in the middle of the road, she thought. And no cars around at all? God, if there had been a car somebody would have helped her.
Susan continued her story. "I asked him, 'Why can't I take my kids?' But he said, 'I don't have time.' He kept pushing me out of the car, pointing a gun at my side."
Shirley tried to envision the scene. "Did he get out and go around the car?" she asked.
"No, he kept pushing me out the door," Susan said quickly. "When he finally got me out he said, 'Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt your kids.' I dropped to the ground. I don't know how long I sat there. Then I got up and started running and I saw your house."
Shirley held Susan's head in her hands. At the top of her head was a large white bow, her light brown hair scooped back in a high pony tail. Such a pretty young girl, Shirley thought. So frail.
"Do you feel faint?" she asked.
"No," Susan said. "But I need to go to the bathroom."
Shirley helped Susan stand. Holding her shoulders tightly, she led her to the light gray bathroom in between the two bedrooms. As she waited outside the door, Shirley wondered how soon the police would arrive.
Susan emerged a few seconds later. "I've got to call my Momma," she announced.
Shirley reached for the cordless phone. "I'll dial it for you," she said. Susan returned to the sofa and in a halting voice, recited her mother's telephone number. Shirley pressed the buttons and listened as it rang. A young man answered. It was Susan's oldest brother, Michael, who lived at home.
"This is Shirley McCloud," she said, her voice quavering. "I live near John D. Long Lake on Route 49. I have Susan Smith in my home. Is Susan's mother there?"
"She just left," he said.
Shirley turned to Susan. "Your mother's not there," she said.
Susan's sobs grew louder. "Tell Michael he's got to find her," she said.
Shirley returned to the phone. "Can you get her?" she asked. "A black man has taken her kids and her car. There's no way you can find her mother?"
On the other end of the phone, Shirley heard a gasp. "I'll try," Michael said.
When Shirley hung up Susan motioned for the phone. "I need to call my stepfather, too," she said.
Susan tried to make the call herself, but her hands were shaking too much. "I'll do it," Shirley told her, taking the phone.
When Susan told her the name of her stepfather, Shirley was surprised. She knew of Bev Russell. Everyone in town did. For many years, Bev had run a profitable business, Bev's TV and Appliance store, in downtown Union. He had closed it just a few months previously, and began working as an investment-and-tax advisor. Bev was active in local politics and the Christian community.
Bev Russell answered right away and Shirley quickly explained who she was. "I have Susan Smith here who says a black man has taken her kids and her car."
She heard him exhale sharply. "What?" Bev practically shouted. "What did you say and who are you and where do you live?"
Shirley repeated the story. She handed the phone to Susan, who tearfully told her stepfather the story of the black man, the gun, the kidnapping of her children. Bev Russell promised his stepdaughter he would be there as soon as possible.
Susan asked to go to the bathroom a second time. Shirley went to the linen closet and pulled out a white washcloth. She soaked it in cool water.
When Susan emerged again, she was slightly calmer. There was one more phone call to make.
"I need to call my husband, David," she told Shirley McCloud. "He works at Winn-Dixie."
For the third time in less than ten minutes, Shirley McCloud explained who she was and told the story of the black man taking Susan Smith's children and car. As she spoke, David kept saying, "What? What?" Then, "Okay. Okay. Okay. I'm coming. I'm coming. I'm coming."
* * *
About eight miles away, Sheriff Howard Wells had just finished leading a planning meeting for his second-in-command, Captain of the Patrol Division Roger Gregory and Harry Helms, supervisor of the reserve program. The men discussed new possibilities within the department's ten-member reserve unit and the likelihood of buying new equipment. When it was over Wells turned out the lights, locked the door to his office and to the outside. The office of the sheriff's department closes at 5:00 P.M., when his four secretaries go home. From that point on, calls are handled through dispatchers at the Union County Communications Building and by the Union County Police Department.
Excerpted from Sins of the Mother by Maria Eftimiades. Copyright © 1995 Maria Eftimiades. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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