100: My Obsession with a Cold Case

100: My Obsession with a Cold Case

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

My Obsession with a Cold Case

The difference between the difficult and the impossible is that the impossible takes a little longer time.

~Lady Aberdeen

Last year on Holy Saturday, I was visiting my grandparents’ grave. 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.

He headed toward the office, and being nosy, I wandered to look at the grave he was visiting.

She was a young girl, aged fourteen. 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. 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 babysitting 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 eighteen years.

When Suzanne’s 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 she had fallen asleep with her nieces while putting them 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. There were no signs of a forced struggle or entry. They called the police.

On June 27, her report card arrived in the mail. She had received straight A’s and made 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 at me. Yet what was I going to do — find her killer? I wasn’t an investigative reporter. I wrote about Muppets and not finding the right purse. How was I going to track down the story? But the story started to find me.

After the holidays, a woman named Leesa wrote to me. She had been friends with Suzanne (known to family and friends as Suzie) and thanked me for writing about her. In 1979, they had bonded at thirteen — two recent transplants to Antioch, talking about boys and families. Leesa told me there was next to nothing about Suzie online.

I decided to find someone to write the story. 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. I went to the Pleasant Hill Library’s microfilm machines and found articles in the Contra Costa Times and The San Francisco Chronicle.

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 stalled. I wanted to write about Suzie. I kept on being pulled by the story. Part of it was sheer fascination; when I was sixteen, four girls were kidnapped in the space of six months near where I lived. One was found dead. The other girls — Amber Swartz-Garcia, Michaela Garecht and Ilene Misheloff — were still missing.

I remember that 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 I wasn’t vigilant. But what if being vigilant wasn’t enough?

The other part was that I needed to be a hero, to succeed at something during this low period in my career. 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 Suzie, 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 thirty-four year old crime? All you know about detective work you learned from Nancy Drew, soap operas and Law & Order reruns.

I was contacted for an interview by a webcast that specialized in aliens. I declined.

Meanwhile, fear crept 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 wasn’t 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.

I considered my options. I knew a little karate. I could fight my way to safety. Did Suzie 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.

Fear had always been part of the world, but something about working on Suzie’s tale made it feel more intimate, closer. 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 new website, along with the Defrosting Cold Cases link. One night I got an e-mail from a man named Gregory Glod, who wanted to talk to me about Suzie. 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 twenty-six 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 Suzie disappeared. He still remembered the day they found the body. He rushed to the area where police divers had pulled a girl out of the water. 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.

A month later, I met Greg and retired police detective Ron Rackley for lunch in Antioch. Greg, Ron and I talked about Suzie. It was clear they were still haunted by the story. I made copies of the microfilm articles for them. They studied something I found randomly in the Antioch Herald: the list of students who made the honor roll for spring 1980, including Suzie. 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. The case had been in limbo way too long. My other goal was that Suzie wouldn’t be forgotten.

I wanted people to know that for fourteen 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.

The new interest I created in this cold case ended up solving it. On December 11, 2017, Mitchell Lynn Bacom was arrested at his home in Antioch, California for the rape and murder of Suzanne Arlene Bombardier. A DNA sample taken from Suzanne was a perfect match with Bacom, thanks to updated DNA testing. As of February 2018, he had pled not guilty and was awaiting trial.

Someday when I go back to the cemetery where my grandparents and Suzie 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.”

~Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons

This article first appeared in Salon.com, at http://www.Salon.com. An online version remains in the Salon archives. Reprinted with permission.

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