A decade later, sweet memories held hostage by the horror of murder
Three packs of Three Breathmints – one peppermint, one spearmint, one wintergreen. A miniature pair of “Hollyweird” glasses. A miniature basketball the size of a golf ball. Some chocolate candies the size of half dollars, wrapped in gold foil. Some Hershey’s chocolate kisses. Some cough drops; a small, plastic racing car that says “Beamer” on the top; some toothpicks carefully bundled together with purple yarn; some tiny plastic barbells; a tiny Mickey Mouse hat that could actually fit on a mouse; and a bottle of juice. Orange juice. Small enough to slide into your eardrum.
All of it stuffed into a plastic tube – the size of a paper-towel roll – with a red cap on it.
This is what you sent me a dozen years ago for my 32nd birthday, Susi, just a couple of weeks after I had packed up everything and moved back to Eugene, leaving you on the south beaches of Los Angeles.
I still have the tube. And it’s still crammed with all those things that remind you of me.
It sits in a tattered U-Haul moving box, along with everything else I still have that reminds me of you – pack after pack of photographs, the letters addressed to “Markus!” and sealed with lipstick smudges, the plastic Donald Duck doll holding a “Gang Green” football from Oregon’s Rose Bowl season, the big stuffed moose with the forest-green holiday scarf from the Manhattan Beach Nordstrom, the microcassette from my answering machine with your voice on it and the tiny, shiny metallic hearts sprinkled everywhere, all over everything, because that’s just the way you were.
Full of heart.
And everything in that box still smells like you, Susi, a sweet tangy smell. It’s the most uncanny thing. How can that be, more than a decade later?
Buried on her wedding day
The telephone rings at 1 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. It’s Aug. 27, 1996, in New York City. It’s still Aug. 26 in Oregon.
It’s you on the other end of the line. We haven’t spoken in months.
You’re calling from your apartment in Tualatin, just south of Portland, and you want to know if I’ll be coming to your wedding in 19 days. Mostly, though, you just want to talk. To reminisce.
After all, I’m your most recent boyfriend since you met your fiance, Keith Hippely, and you and I had talked about getting married ourselves. “I always thought you’d make a good dad,” you say to me that night.
It’s a sentimental conversation, a healing conversation. And even though I tell you I’m not planning to be there that day, at your father and stepmother’s place on the McKenzie River, I have no idea that I’ll never speak with you again.
Within 24 hours of that phone call exactly a decade ago, you are dead at 34. And Keith and I and every guy you ever dated will soon be murder suspects.
Instead of your wedding on Sept. 14, 1996, everyone comes for your funeral, including me.
You were born on Dec. 28, 1961, in Mountain View, Calif., just south of San Francisco. You died on Aug. 27, 1996, in a Tigard apartment at the hands of two cold-blooded killers. Two guys with names right out of a John Grisham novel: Billy Lee Oatney Jr. and Willford Johnston III. Two guys who were cell mates in federal prison. Oatney, who had not been out of prison long after serving 12 years for attempted murder, was making earrings for your wedding. But you didn’t like them, chose not to buy them for $200.
Murder takes more than a life. It takes, in the case of you, Susi, countless lives. Takes them and turns them upside down, creating an exponential sea of sadness and anger that will never entirely subside.
Not for me. Not for Keith. Not for your family. Not for anyone who ever knew you and was touched by your sweet face and childlike grin, your exuberance for life, your giddy laugh that sometimes ended with a cute, little snort and your ridiculous talent for drawing and painting and everything creative.
But we can still remember you. Your killers could not take away the memories, warm ones that no one will ever have for them.
A hollow heart
Now 44, the same age as you would be, Billy Lee Oatney Jr. resides today where he was put eight years and four months ago – on Death Row at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.
He insists he had nothing to do with killing you, even though he had no one to corroborate his alibi. He left Johnston alone in his apartment, he said during his trial, and went to shoot pool and drink beer that Tuesday at a bar until 1 a.m.
But when Washington County District Attorney Scott Upham found the employee who closed the bar at 10 p.m. and put her on the stand, Oatney had no comeback. The jury unanimously found him guilty and sentenced him to death.
Johnston had turned state’s evidence and told the whole story in court – how they raped and tortured you in a drunken haze before strangling you with a plastic garbage bag. In exchange for this confession, Johnston got a life sentence instead of the death penalty.
I testified at Oatney’s trial, Susi. I was the only one who could find a photograph of you wearing the tiny hollow gold heart your sister Mindy gave you in 1979, when you were the maid of honor at her first wedding. The police found that heart among other possessions of yours in a storage facility at Oatney’s apartment.
You had put the heart on the gold chain I gave you for your 32nd birthday. I found a picture of you wearing it while I was still in New York, enlarged it and sent it to a detective with the Oregon State Police.
Two years later, that same detective found me in Molalla, 40 miles southeast of Portland, where I worked briefly as sports editor of the weekly newspaper there. He came to the office, pulled the heart out and placed it in my hand and asked me if it was the one you wore. I said it was. He handed me a subpoena.
I waited until he was gone before I cried.
I still feel guilty sometimes about what happened to you. I know that giving up the well-paying job you’d had for years at Mattel, where you were a graphic designer, where you made clothes and accessories for Barbie, and your moving back to Oregon in the spring of 1995 had something to do with me. You said so yourself.
And I know that if I had given you what you wanted, had asked you to marry me, instead of breaking up with you, then you never would have moved to Portland, never would have had the temporary roommate who introduced you to Oatney, that you would most likely still be here today.
But then you never would have been set to marry Keith, who you met while still working at Mattel and continued seeing after you moved to Portland. And I know you loved him, too.
Keith and I became friends during the trial, you know. I stayed at his house in Manhattan Beach eight years ago this month during my move to Alabama, to take a newspaper job. There were pictures of you everywhere, still, two years after your death. Keith, like me, is still single. He works at Mattel again after freelancing for a while. He’s still a toy designer, back in the Hot Wheels division, still lives in the same Manhattan Beach house.
He turns 50 next year. Your family suspects he’ll never marry, not now.
“I’m not sure if I really understand how it’s affected me,” Hippely, who lost his father to leukemia two years ago, says by phone last week. “The slightest little thing can bring it all back, as if it were yesterday. A smell, a look. Every time I see a butterfly.”
You had a butterfly tattoo on your ankle, Susi. It helped the police identify you after they found your badly decomposed body in Champoeg State Park, about 25 miles south of Portland off Interstate 5, two weeks after you disappeared.
“I’m still very bitter”
As you can imagine, your father, Ted Larsen of Eugene, who used to own and operate Eugene’s Poole-Larsen Funeral Home, was outraged and overcome with grief at your fate. The judge almost called a mistrial because he kept threatening to jump over the courtroom banister and strangle Oatney. I think he would have done it, too, if he hadn’t been restrained. I don’t fault him. I felt the same way.
Your father plans to visit your grave today at Rest-Haven Memorial Park in Eugene, where you were buried next to Jeffrey, the brother you never knew who died at 6 months in 1958. And he is still filled with that same rage today. I know, he told me so just a couple of weeks ago.
“I’m still very bitter,” says Ted, who turns 71 on Tuesday, as his eyes begin to well with tears. “I fantasize about being able to get ahold of that son of a bitch and kill him. I think about it all the time. I’m so angry, and I don’t suspect I’ll ever change.”
Your father is not the only one who has a difficult time talking about what happened to you, even 10 years later. Your oldest sibling, Ted Jr. of Salem: “He won’t talk at all about it,” your father says.
Your sudden and shocking death was, of course, hard on your stepmother, Val. She was dealt another blow 11 months after you were killed when her son, your stepbrother Cameron Serbu, committed suicide in Portland’s Washington Park when he was just 35. He was the same age as you, remember? A promising neurosurgeon like his father, the late John Serbu of Eugene, he graduated from Marist High School the same year, 1980, that you and I graduated from South Eugene High.
Your family has known so much death, so much tragedy, in such a short time, Susi. Your sister Mindy’s first husband, Mike Traudt, the father of the three nephews – Tyler, Tim and Thomas – who adored you, died 16 months after you at 41. He never came out of a coma after being struck by a subway train in New York City in 1995.
I’ve always wondered how your family battles on. They seem to have your spunk, your spirit.
“You just have to remember to put one foot in front of the other, to eat, to sleep and that’s all you can do for a while,” Val Larsen says, sitting in the home she shares today with your father on Eugene’s Lariat Drive, not far from the Wesley United Methodist Church where your funeral was held five days after they found you.
“Your mind is taken up with thoughts of that child. And you can’t concentrate on anything else. It affects your memory and your concentration.”
In the beginning, when a child is lost tragically, you think about it every 30 seconds, Val says. After some time passes, maybe you think about them every two minutes. Then every five minutes. And then, Ted Larsen says, maybe, if you’re lucky, you get to a place 10 years later where you only think of them seven or eight times a day.
“It’s hard to heal completely,” Val says. “You don’t. You just cope; you just adjust.”
Sudden death is difficult for most of us to grasp under any circumstances, says Jane Vogel, a Eugene psychologist who specializes in trauma.
“But with murder, there’s a sense of senselessness about it that makes it harder to understand,” she says. “Our mind tends to perseverate, to get stuck on that which we don’t understand, making it more difficult to focus on a celebration of a person’s life. Even 10 years later.”
Your mother, Shannon Inch of Eugene, has come a long way, Susi, since that awful time a decade ago, since she appeared on the March 13, 1998, front page of The Oregonian newspaper with Val and your only sister, Mindy Bush of Portland, all three sobbing in Hillsboro’s Washington County Courthouse after Oatney was found guilty. Her Christian faith has gotten her through, she says.
“As more time goes on, I think about the good things and not the bad things,” your mother says. She remembers when you were 6 or 7 and the family cat, Daisy, was pregnant and her bed was in your room so you could be right there the minute the kittens were born. When the moment finally came, this is what you mother says you did: “She grabs the whole litter in her hands, comes running up to our bed and said, ‘Look Mom and Dad! Look at the kitties!’
Your mother also remembers the pizzas and hot fudge sundaes you made as a little girl, how you always wanted to wait on everyone. “She was a very happy child,” your mother says. “She was just herself.”
That’s how your brother Scott Larsen, who was two years behind us at South Eugene, remembers you, as just yourself. “I’m constantly reminded of her and thinking of Susi,” says Scott, now superintendent of the Emerald Valley Golf Club in Creswell. “And it always makes me happy inside. I always think about her spunky and wild personality. She was as creative and artistic as anybody I ever met.”
Spirited, whirling, twirling – a 5-foot-1 tornado of energy. “The only time she was really still was when she was drawing,” your mother says.
You were not perfect, Susi. You could be exasperating. You suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression and insomnia, just like me, just like a lot of us. You could be obsessive and ornery and sometimes just a pill.
As Mindy says: “There was no one I could get more (ticked) off at.” Not that she, too, didn’t love you more than life itself.
“She got robbed of her life, and I got robbed of my sister,” Bush says. “I don’t have my sister anymore.”
She still has her sense of humor though, Susi. Same as you did. In fact, she and her husband, Craig, named their golden retriever puppy after you seven years ago. Yep. The dog’s name is Susi.
“Some people think it’s morbid,” Bush says. But she knows you would laugh, that you are laughing, somewhere.
“I just wonder where she is,” she says. “I just kind of wonder what her space is now.”
Oatney maintains his innocence
EDITOR’S NOTE: Register-Guard reporter Mark Baker requested a Death Row interview this summer with Billy Lee Oatney, convicted in 1998 of killing Susi Larsen 10 years ago today. Oatney, whose conviction and death sentence was confirmed upon appeal by the Oregon Supreme Court in 2003 (his appeal for post-conviction relief continues in Marion County Circuit Court), denied the request, sending this letter instead. It’s printed here, exactly as it was neatly written in pencil on lined notebook paper.
Dear Mr. Baker: Thank you for your letter. I am sorry that it has taken me so long to respond to it.
I do in fact remember you from my trial. Both you and the Larsen family put in a great deal of time and effort manipulating the news media to turn public opinion against me, and deny me even the pretext of a fair trial.
For this reason, I will not be giving you a personal interview.
I will however extend you the courtesy of answering a couple of your questions.
To begin with, Yes! I still maintain my innocences. That is because I did not kill Susan Larsen.
Had any of you been interested in real justice at the time, as opposed to the blind vengence you all kept screaming for, you would have looked at the evidence impartially and seen the truth of the matter.
As for what I think happened, I told my side of the story at trial.
Mr. Johnston killed Susy to pay back the money he stole from his girlfriend, so she wouldn’t call the police on him. Then to avoid the death penalty, (and get revenge on me for going to the police.) he used me as a scapegoat.
If you knew anything about Mr. Johnston’s real criminal history, you would know that that is what he does. Every time he is arrested he blames someone else for his crimes and then takes a plea bargain without fail.
Susan Larsen’s death was a vile atrocity against an awesome human being. And to add to it, Mr. Johnston was praised as a hero for the lies he told under oath. Both by the district attorney and Susy’s own family.
Mr. Johnston is now doing life without the possibility of parole, as if that were somehow punishment for a man like him. A man who lives and breaths the prison life. He walks the yard defiantly untouchable. Gambling, drugs or even his little sandwich and burrito hustles to fall back on.
Hell, he may even have himself a new prison guard girlfriend, to make up for the one he’s lost by now.
No, justice was not served with my conviction. Certainly not the justice that Susan Larsen deserved. A death sentence for Wilford Johnston, the man who actually ended her promising life.
Hopefully one day I will be able to prove the things that I have said. And maybe on that day Susan Larsen can finally get the justice her spirit has long been denied.
That is all I have to say on this matter. Good luck with your article Mr. Baker, and please do Susy’s story justice.
Sincerely, Bill L. Oatney, #12093943
SUSI LARSEN MEMORIAL SCHOLARSHIP FUND
It was established at Eugene’s Maude Kerns Art Center upon her death but has stagnated since. It allows students from kindergarten through high school to take classes at the art center, as Susi did as a child. Fall classes begin soon. If you’d like to contribute, send a check to: The Susi Larsen Memorial Scholarship Fund, Maude Kerns Art Center, 1910 E. 15th Ave., Eugene, OR 97403.
First place award for best feature story in the 2007 Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association “Better Newspaper Contest.”