The journalist who took on a strip club ring and disappeared
THE acclaim that journalist Susan Walsh was getting for her latest Village Voice piece was beginning to make her feel unsettled.
The article was an exposé into a strip joint ring, and alleged that members of the Russian mob were exploiting young female immigrants, forcing them into sex work.
Walsh, 36, had worked as an exotic dancer on and off since she was in college, and was privy to the inner workings of the industry. Most recently, she had worked in a number of clubs in New Jersey, which was where she got most of her intel for the article.
Not surprisingly, such a piece didn't sit well with some, and Walsh started to fear she was being followed. She told her father she was worried about someone having her killed, believing there were two separate contracts out on her life, and had started drinking again, after 11 years of sobriety.
Around the time her article was published, Walsh was also working as primary researcher on a book named Red Light: Inside The Sex Industry, which further exposed the corrupt and criminal ways of the industry. She also gave an interview for a 1996 film Stripped about exotic dancers, in which she explained how disenchanted she had become with the industry. Walsh was making enemies.
During her interview, her beeper went off and she laughed and said it "must be my stalker".
Turning serious, she added: "No, I do have a stalker."
Walsh went missing two days later.
THE DAY SHE DISAPPEARED
About noon on July 17, 1996, Walsh told her husband Mark that she was leaving the house to run errands, and to make a call at a nearby payphone. She estimated she'd be gone for half an hour. Walsh left her beeper, wallet and bipolar medication behind, suggesting she intended to return soon.
She and Mark were estranged at the time of her disappearance, but lived in adjoining apartments and co-raised their 11-year-old son. Due to their living situation, Mark didn't actually see her leave the house that day and nobody saw her use the payphone, half a block from her apartment.
Walsh was never seen alive again.
There were mixed reports in the media about whether or not Mark allowed forensic testing of Walsh's apartment, but when police searched her place, they did note one interesting detail: the July page from her calendar had been torn out and was never located.
"To me, that's significant," Detective Lieutenant Steven Rogers of the Nutley Police Department told CNN in 2009. "Did she have something planned that someone didn't want us to see?"
It was certainly suspicious. Despite this, Walsh's husband was quickly ruled out as a suspect.
Although the Russian mob angle was tantalising, the police weren't buying it.
"I don't believe, at this point, there's any connection," Rogers said.
If Walsh truly did fear for her life, then it is possible she disappeared on purpose, which was a working theory police held at the time.
Her father, Floyd Merchant, disputes this, however, calling her a "devoted mother" who would not leave her son behind. The last time he saw her alive, she repeated her fears that someone wanted her dead, describing her as "coming apart at the seams". He also believes her profession coloured the investigation, as police too-readily dismissed any connection with the Village Voice story. "This (story) opened up a threat to her," her father said.
There were also signs that Walsh might have wanted to take her own life.
James Ridgeway - co-author of the book that Walsh worked on as a researcher, and Walsh's mentor at The Village Voice - recalled that she turned up to the book's launch party, a month before she disappeared, with what looked like self-inflicted wounds. Ridgeway questioned her on her lapsed sobriety, and she assured him she was fine, and would seek professional help if not.
Jill Morley, who directed Stripped, claimed that Walsh was also taking Xanax recreationally around the time of her disappearance.
The most far-out theory surrounding Walsh's disappearance involves another article she wrote for The Village Voice, this time on the underground vampire subculture in Manhattan. Walsh embedded herself in the culture and quickly became fascinated by it, even dating a man who believed himself to be a vampire. Rumours flew at the time that members of this underground club were drinking human blood, which was stolen from a hospital in New York City. In fact, Walsh was led to the world of vampires when researching a tip from Ridgeway that blood was going missing from NYC hospitals.
Walsh published one article about this subculture in The Village Voice, but as she became entrenched in the world, her writing on the subject lost its objectivity, and the paper declined to publish a follow-up piece she was commissioned to write. "She got totally absorbed with the vampire thing, the theories, the energy flows", Ridgeway explained. "The article she wrote wasn't very astute."
While her connection between this world and Walsh's disappearance is a tenuous one, it is not a theory without its believers. Piercing the Darkness: Undercover with Vampires in America Today is an entire book on Walsh's disappearance and her links to this vampire world, one that the book explains "has its own rituals, rules, boundaries and penalties".
It's been 22 years since Walsh disappeared and the chance of finding out what happened to her grows slimmer by the day. Whether it was a result of her dalliances with vampires, her crossing of dangerous mobster, a desperate flee from danger, or that she took her own life after a relapse - the result is the same: Walsh hasn't been seen alive for over two decades.
The answer may lie on a single missing calendar page. Who was Walsh going to see that day, and why? And who doesn't want this information to ever be discovered?
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- Nathan Jolly is a Sydney-based writer who specialises in pop culture, music history, true crime and true romance. Follow him on Twitter @nathanjolly