TAMPA — A woman disappears. The door to her empty apartment is unlocked.
The home is neat with no sign of struggle. Her black purse sits on the dining room table. Her cell phone was left behind.
No one could know then that the 57-year-old mother and grandmother had vanished of her own accord, that it would take more than a month, 570 deputy hours, 300 interviews and $20,000 in taxpayer expense to find out she was okay.
"There's no law that says if a person wants to pick up and disappear that they can't do that," Hillsborough County sheriff's Maj. Harold Winsett said. "It's not against the law."
And if it happened again, sheriff's deputies would search again. They have no choice. "We have to assume the worst," Winsett said.
Susan Jordan took a break from her life May 7, boarding a Greyhound bus bound for Tallahassee wearing a wig and using the alias of "Debbie Kelly." After her son discovered her gone, he told deputies she had been sad recently, but not depressed.
On Saturday, Jordan, a divorcee and native of South Dakota, called her family from a Savannah, Ga., hospital. Sheriff's deputies made contact with her at the same hospital three days later.
Even with her found, there's no public explanation for the trip.
Though they say she's safe, the Sheriff's Office won't talk about her condition, citing health care privacy laws.
Jordan returned to Tampa on Thursday night the same way she left — on a bus. Deputies planned to speak with her Friday afternoon, Winsett said.
When her son reported her missing May 8, Sheriff's Office investigators responded in every way they knew how.
Detectives pulled cell phone and bank records. Crime scene technicians took dozens of photographs of her apartment, collected fingerprints from her freezer door and collected cigarette butts from an ashtray on her screened porch.
Divers searched the pond at her apartment complex and a marine unit scoured part of Old Tampa Bay near her home. A helicopter pilot flew overhead more than once, searching for signs of the missing woman.
A Sheriff's Office bloodhound sniffed Jordan's pillowcase, then followed the same scent from Jordan's front door out of Bridgeview Apartments to Kelly Road before loosing the track somewhere near Memorial Highway.
A detective traveled to Tallahassee to search for Jordan after they discovered she had taken a Greyhound bus trip from Tampa to Orlando to Jacksonville to Tallahassee.
All that — and she wanted to be gone.
"With this type of investigation, as costly and frustrating as it is to find out this person just wanted to leave, we are, by the same token glad about the outcome," Winsett said.
There's no way of getting around the public expense of such a search — unless, of course, criminal charges are filed.
In 2005, Jennifer Wilbanks, the infamous "Runaway Bride" from Georgia, was ordered to pay $2,550 restitution to the Gwinett County Sheriff's Office and $13,250 to the city of Duluth after she staged her own disappearance before her 600-person wedding.
In that case, Wilbanks was charged with making false statements after telling police she'd been abducted and sexually assaulted — and soon after recanted.
Winsett said it's unlikely there will be charges in Susan Jordan's case. He declined to comment further, again citing medical privacy laws.
As rare as it is for someone to intentionally vanish without telling any family members, Winsett said, the role of law enforcement stays the same.
"We can't just turn a blind eye to it," he said. "Because if we didn't and the results were worst-case, you'd be pounding me about what we didn't do. Furthermore, it's the right thing to do. If someone disappears, you look for them."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3383.