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Mom gives up 24-year search for daughter

Published Sep. 12, 2005

It took 24 years for Susan Billig to accept that her daughter is dead.

Sunday, she invited friends to a memorial service for her 17-year-old, Amy, who was raped and killed by members of a motorcycle gang the night she disappeared March 5, 1974.

"This is like a funeral for me," she said.

Wearing a black dress, Mrs. Billig, 72, smiled as each guest arrived at her home in Miami's Coconut Grove neighborhood.

"Having my friends around me is a tremendous sense of peace. We have to laugh and be merry because Amy would have wanted us to."

Mrs. Billig has not known much peace since the night Amy failed to come home for dinner.

The widow crisscrossed the country for years, following tips that her daughter was abducted and brainwashed.

She held on to the belief that Amy was alive.

Friends supported her and admired her determination, even though the hope of finding Amy grew dimmer.

"If it was your child, would you give up hope?" asked Wendy Jaffe, a family friend who attended the gathering.

Mrs. Billig ended her search after a deathbed confession from a former Pagans motorcycle gang member.

Paul Branch told his wife just before he died in December that he knew how and where Amy died.

The convicted murderer said Amy was grabbed and taken to a "party" in the Everglades.

She died after being drugged and raped. Her body was dumped in the massive swamp.

During her years of searching, Mrs. Billig endured taunting telephone calls from a man claiming to know where Amy was, claiming she had been trained as a sex slave.

In 1996, U.S. Customs Agent Henry Blair was sentenced to two years in prison for aggravated stalking in connection with the calls.

"The worst part of the whole thing is what Susan went through over the years," friend Peggy Burris said. "It's the saddest story I've ever heard."

Friends attending the memorial service said it served to bring peace to Mrs. Billig.

"She's been through more than any other mother I've ever met in all those years of covering missing children and homicides," said Edna Buchanan, a former Miami Herald reporter who covered the Billig case.

"It's the most enduring South Florida missing children's case, and it's touched the hearts of everyone."

The gathering appeared to have an immediate effect on Mrs. Billig.

"She looks happier and more relieved than I've seen her look in the last 24 years," Buchanan said.

Bryn Ingram was about 5 when Amy, her babysitter, disappeared. But Amy changed her life, she said.

Whenever Ingram challenged her curfew as a teenager, her father would remind her of what happened to Amy Billig. She would give up the argument.

"It changed the life of everyone in Coconut Grove," Ingram said. "It changed the way I thought walking home at night."

Though Mrs. Billig and her supporters no longer wonder what happened to Amy, there is one unresolved matter _ finding Amy's killers.

Miami police Detective Jack Calvar is following up information from Branch's confession and hopes to solve the mystery.

"If Jack Calvar has anything to say about it, they (Amy's killers) will be taken into account," Mrs. Billig said. "They're all in jail, that's the problem."

If the killers are found, the peace Mrs. Billig felt Sunday would likely be pushed aside.

"I don't know what I'd do," she said. "I guess what happened happened, but I don't think I could control myself at this point."

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