My childhood was magical until I experienced the kidnapping of Susie Jaeger. I never had the privilege of meeting her, but I have never forgotten her.
Every summer day was an adventure waiting to unfold for my five siblings and me in the cozy mountain town of Helena, Montana. Under the watchful care of Mount Helena and the Sleeping Giant, we explored from the perch of our Schwinn banana seat bikes, the playing cards clothespinned in our spokes leaving a clickety echo trail. We swam at the Municipal Pool, fished at the Fairgrounds, and enjoyed $.25 movies at the Circus Twin Theatre.
We collected aluminum cans for $.25 a pound to buy candy at Terry’s Convenience store. Biking home down the steep Lamborn Street was perilous because our legs couldn’t keep up with our pedals. With legs extended stiffly sideways and lips pressed together against bugs, we hoped no cars would enter the traffic from the side streets. We also crossed our fingers that our brakes would work at the bottom of the hill.
We slept outside in the backyard in our sleeping bags. Green apples were stolen from Mr. Beaver’s tree, sprinkled with salt, and devoured. Lemonade was sold and cold treats bought from the Snow-Cone Lady.
With over twenty kids in our block, there were usually enough to play baseball in the empty field in the next block over. Nearly every night we’d play and grumble over calls until we could no longer see the ball.
The June 25, 1973 disappearance of Susie Jaeger shattered my 9-year-old world of laughter and innocence. She was camping at the Missouri Headwaters near Three Forks with her family when an intruder cut open the tent and kidnapped her in the middle of the night.
The nightly news became part of my routine, hoping to hear that the adorable gap-toothed 7-year-old would be returned to her parents. We grew suspicious about strangers and our parents rehearsed safety strategies, like cramming in a phone booth if we felt endangered. We walked in worried huddles, fingering coins for the payphone in the pockets of our jean cut-offs.
At times we joked about things, but only to cover the new emotion we didn’t know how to handle, utter fear.
How could THAT happen?
There were several more kidnappings and murders that summer, but they’ve blurred together in an uncertain fear-colored haze. Her disappearance marked a chasm in my timeline, separating the idyllic childhood and the reality of living in a fallen world.
As a child, I deeply identified with Susie, but when I became a parent I relived the experience anew as I identified with her mother, Marietta.
My husband and I moved to Wichita and discovered we were in the territory of the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) Killer. The police sketch stared unblinking in the apartment laundry room and from grocery store bulletin boards. We later discovered good friends grew up playing in the empty field behind his Park City house.
We lived out in the country for the first twelve years of our marriage, but when we moved into town, I wasn’t sure how to handle it. What was safe? How far could they walk? What size of a group made it safe? I daily muffled my fears with reasonable decisions to give my kids their own idyllic childhoods. But, allowing my children out in the world felt like that bike ride down Lamborn Street.
They walked to the skating rink and skated alone. They rode their bikes and roller-bladed. They played baseball in the park and picnicked on the front lawn. I peeked out the windows, checked on them often, and prayed.
I drilled safety precautions. When our girls got jobs they were given mace for their key chain. When one daughter started running I pushed aside my fears, even though the police website showed 25 sex offenders within a mile radius, a few Level III within a few blocks.
She once claimed, “Mom, by the time you let us go around the block by ourselves, it was because we were driving in a car.”
I laughed at her exaggeration, but I knew she had felt my fear. Kids kept disappearing and grief etched their names next to Susie’s on my heart.
- Jacob Wetterling disappeared in Minnesota while riding home from the store with a friend.
- Nancy Shoemaker walked a block and a half to a 7-11 to buy 7-Up for a sick brother and never came home.
- Jeanna North disappeared while roller-skating in Fargo, ND.
- Leanna Warner from Chisholm, MN disappeared walking to a friend’s house two doors away.
Because I knew that even when parents do the right things, as the parents of all these beloved children did, they still couldn’t protect them from evil.
And as I reviewed Susie’s life story through news articles, my life has again been touched because her life left several profound impacts.
During the investigation of her disappearance, FBI Agent Peter Dunbar utilized the new method called “offender profiling” that was developed by Howard Teten and Patrick Mullany. This is now a standard crime-solving procedure and has helped solve many similar hideous crimes.
Susie’s mother preaches a much-needed message in this world. After agonizing through her horrific loss, Marietta made a conscious decision to forgive and daily sought to walk in that peace instead of allowing fear and anger to destroy her. The killer called on the first anniversary of the kidnapping to taunt and torment her. Faced with her calmness and her offer of forgiveness, along with an FBI tape-recorder, killer David Merihofer exposed enough details to be caught. He later confessed to several other murders before committing suicide. Marietta’s forgiveness brought not only peace to her life, but safety to others.
(Photo taken by Jim Harrison for Find a Grave)
I realized while looking at my notes it’s taken me over six years to write and publish this blog post. And even now as I write about that summer 43 years ago, the tears still flow.
I’ve read about the new Free Range Parents that mock mothers like me, ones who see evil lurking around every corner. I hesitate to admit how I fear for my children’s safety because I hear their scorn and see their fingers pointing.
They don’t understand, because they don’t remember Susie Jaeger.
But, I do.
Serial Killer: David Gail Merihofer
FBI: The Untold Stories – The Susie Jaeger Kidnapping 1
Transcript of Confession Portrays a “Mindless Monster”
Old Wounds – How Manhattan, MT Survived a Murder
Encouragement from the life and testimony of Marietta Jaeger, and her ministry of forgiveness.
MARIETTA JAEGER LANE, Mother of Susie Jaeger
Marietta Jaeger Lane’s Story: Mother Shares Loss of Daughter to Teach Forgiveness
Barbara Harp says
My name is Barbara Harp (Barbie McArthur) I was 5 years older then Susie Jaeger and was part of the neighborhood kids. Heidi is Susie’s older sister and we were very good friends. What I stands out in my mind are several things, Mr. & Mrs Jaeger were very kind and loving ppl to all of us kids ( 20-25!). They always had big goofy dogs in their backyard A few evenings before the Jaeger left for their Dream vacation, they invited all the kids to spend the night in giant new tents ( girls in one tent and boys in the other tent) that they pitch in the backyard. Each tent got a goofy dog. Such fun for us all.
While all the kids bid farewell to the Jaeger family , wishing that we could go with them, sweet 7 year old Susie was begging Mrs. Jaeger to PLEASE, PLEASE bring the dogs.
Well of course they couldn’t because it was a cross country trip with 5 kids, 2 parents, camping gear, clothing and what not.
To this day, 47 years later I KNOW that those 2 big goofy dogs would have attacked anyone whom came near those children with intent.
And lastly, after the Jaeger’s returned home minus one child, the TV reporters were relentless. 24/7 they were on Hemlock in front or Susie’s home. Absolutely no respect for the family. Remember that we were all between 6-13 years old, but our tender ages didn’t stop those Vultures for one second. If they even saw one of us kids they chase us shouting questions about Susie at us. It was awful.
Mindy Peltier says
Barbie, thank you SO MUCH for sharing your memories. They add so much to my small part of the story. The detail about the family dogs broke my heart anew. I’m so sorry that the reporters made it worse, not only for the family, but for the friends and neighbors. Thank you for taking the time to help me honor the memory of sweet Susie!
My family was taking a road trip in our new 1974 VW Pop-up camper and stopped at the campground at Three Forks. My 6 year old sister and I (8.5) met Susie and played with her until dinner. Then next morning we awoke to someone knocking loudly on the camper and our Doberman growling. My older sister was up in the pop-top and told our Dad he better open the door as she could see lots of sheriff’s cars surrounding us. They questioned us all for awhile, then took my parents information and let us go home. We drove back to our home in central California as fast as we could.
My parents were contacted later that year to be re-interviewed. But we never heard any more. I saw the episode on “Untold Stories of the FBI” when my daughter was a baby and remembered how terrified we were for a long time after that. My older sister had been up in the cemetary above the campground and the episode showed that’s where Susie’s killer had watched her from. This made it even more horrible.
Mindy Peltier says
Oh my goodness, Lisa, I can’t image the terror! I still grieve for Susie, but rejoice that your family was spared. I assume you raised your daughter with the same fear I did, that panic if they are out of sight, being afraid to let them go to the park even when they were technically old enough. Thank you for taking the time to adding your story along with mine.
Lynda Johnson says
I will never forget little Susie. For years, I had her picture on my Refrigerator and Prayed for her, as my daughter was her age. We lived in Helena at the time. Just a month ago, on my way home from Belgrade. I drove to the Headwaters campground. I always had wondered about that place. She will always have a place in my heart. 🙏✝️💜
Mindy Peltier says
Thank you, Lynda, for sharing your memory of this horrific time for the state of Montana. We all endured heartache. I agree, always in our hearts. Thank you for commenting.
Hagar Pike says
I read the story a second time, and I apologize because I thought you remembered Susie Jaeger by playing with her in the neighborhood, not by the news.
Laura Wagner says
I grew up in Butte and so clearly remember Susie Jaeger – I can honestly say I have thought about her several times a week ever since then. Not sure what made me search her name today, but I guess it was so I could read what your wrote. Thank you.
Mindy Peltier says
Laura, thank you so much for your visit to my blog today. I think you and I were impacted by Susie in the same way. Even though she didn’t get to grow up, we basically grew up with her. And, we get to keep her memory alive. Many blessings to you.
Lynda Johnson says
I also have Never Forgotton Susie Jaeger! My daughter was her age and we lived in Helena at the time.
Tammy McCarl Balzer says
Mindy. Thank you for your writings. I do so remember and I was the same kind of mother … over protective if people want to call it that. My daughter’s now have children and they are the same…and I will also be with my preciois grandchildren, for God entrusted them to us. What great memories I have of the Brainerd neighbors.
Mindy Peltier says
Thank you for taking the time to read and share in this memory. Yes, your family is very deeply a part of this story, especially since you would walk home with my little sisters and me after softball practice. We were so blessed to grow up in a neighborhood with so many wonderful families. We’ve talked about having a reunion some day.
I always wondered if others were impacted the way I was, so thank you for sharing your heart. It is so hard to not be impacted by such tragedies. Blessings to you, sweet friend!
Deb/Sweet Tea says
This post makes me shiver and it also brings to mind the “Girl Scout murders” which shook our entire state back in the 70’s. Innocnce is short-lived in the world we live in.
Mindy Peltier says
I looked that up, no wonder my reminder made you shiver. The sad thing is, this guy actually killed a Boy Scout the same way, taking him from the tent. This is why I avoid the reading the news on a daily basis. I dread hearing more stories and hearing more names. 🙂