It was the perfect campsite, a place where the five kids in the Jaeger family could skip stones in a drifting river and wake up to views of the Montana Rockies.
Marietta Jaeger and her husband, their three teenagers and two grade-schoolers in tow, had driven 2,000 miles from their suburban Detroit home to reach the spot at Missouri Headwaters State Park. The swath of land near the tiny town of Three Forks gave way to mountains, forests and the hardscrabble Horseshoe Hills.
It was June 1973. The park was the first stop in a long-planned dream vacation, their first family camping trip. And everything was falling into place. They'd even snagged a prime site by the riverbank, complete with a picnic table under shade trees.
When it was time for bed, the younger kids scrambled into a tent and cocooned themselves in sleeping bags. Heidi, 13, snugged in next to 7-year-old Susie, the coltish, brown-haired baby of the family, whose natural exuberance was balanced by a surprising thoughtfulness for her age. At one point in the night the two girls woke up and talked before settling back to sleep.
David Meirhofer, 24, heard them. He was a contractor from the nearby outpost of Manhattan, a member of the town's bowling team and someone known, if he was known at all, as a loner. He'd been scouting the campground and happened to walk by the tent when Susie and Heidi were talking.
- photo by Scott Langley
One of the girls sounded young, he noted. He waited until everyone was asleep. Then he slashed open the tent, grabbed Susie, quickly choked her into unconsciousness and dragged her out. No one stirred.
Heidi woke before dawn, startled by cold air drifting in through the tent hole. "She sat up and looked around," Marietta tells me on a recent day. "And Susie wasn't there."
"None of it seemed real"
It would be 15 months before the Jaegers knew what happened to their youngest daughter. "I kept thinking that it couldn't possibly be happening," says Marietta, now 77.
We've met at Caffe Dolce, a few miles from her home in Missoula, and she tells me she prefers to be called Jaeger-Lane these days, owing to a remarriage after years of widowhood. Bill, her first husband, died of a heart attack a little over a decade after Susie was taken.
Her husband never recovered from the rage and grief, Jaeger-Lane says. "At first, neither of us could believe it happened," she adds. Jaeger-Lane has curly white hair and the startlingly blue eyes that stared into so many television cameras after her daughter's disappearance. "None of it seemed real," she says.
Her parents were also at the campground at the time of the kidnapping; they'd joined the trip to see the grandkids. They all sat stunned, day after day, trying to understand the devastating events.
The picnic table by the river became the staging ground for television interviews. Jaeger-Lane, then 35, spoke carefully, flatly. "We won't go home until we're a whole family again," she told reporters.
She and Bill had been asleep in her parents' truck when Heidi wakened them, shouting that Susie was gone. Bill raced to Three Forks to find police.
Within hours, the area was swarming with officers and search parties, scouring the landscape on foot and by horse, boat and plane. There was a single hopeful moment: The FBI got a credible call from a man who demanded ransom and said he'd phone back with instructions for the handoff. He never did.
The turning point
"Then they started dragging the river by the campsite," Jaeger-Lane says. The terror was overwhelming. "They kept bringing the net up, and each time, I didn't know if Susie would be there." All day she imagined what she'd do if the FBI brought her the kidnapper. "I knew I could kill him with my bare hands."
Jaeger-Lane is a devout Catholic. Her entire life she'd been taught to "love your enemy." And now she wanted her enemy to hang.
"That night I had an argument with God," she says. "I told him, 'Susie is an innocent, defenseless little girl, and I'm her mother, and it's only natural that I should want to hurt the man who took her.'"
How was she supposed to make it through this? Her answer changed her life.
"I realized that if I gave into rage and fury and that desire for revenge it would consume me, and I'd never be any good for anyone," she says. "When we live with rage and bitterness, we destroy ourselves—we give the killer another victim."
Somehow she had to find compassion, for the sake of her family and for the sake of her missing child. If she ever got to speak to the kidnapper, and if she showed him kindness, he might treat Susie better, Jaeger-Lane reasoned. If she let the kidnapper know she didn't want him executed, he might turn himself in.
- photo courtesy of Marietta Jaeger-Lane
- Susie Jaeger was kidnapped from a campsite at Missouri Headwaters State Park in June 1973, less than two days after posing for this photo with her mother.
Day by day she trained herself to feel concern for the man who, finally, would be revealed as Meirhofer. He confessed to the unspeakable. And Jaeger-Lane did the unimaginable. She forgave him.
Survivors who are against the death penalty
When I ask Jaeger-Lane to tell her story it's impossible not to apologize. "I'm sorry to make you relive this," I say to her during several days of talking in Missoula. I'm taking notes and at certain points my pen stops moving, as if it has decided on its own that the facts are too horrific to record. "It's okay," Jaeger-Lane reassures me. "I've been telling this story for 40 years."
She's talked about it with students everywhere from Hellgate High School (where she spoke in February) to Southern Methodist University in Dallas (where she spoke in October).
She's recounted it numerous times at the Montana Legislature to support bills that would abolish the death penalty (something that state lawmakers are loathe to do). She's told her story in towns and state houses around the country; at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, in Geneva; and in Rome, Japan and South Korea. She's described it to media outlets from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle to "Good Morning America."
And she's done so as a forerunner in one of the most unlikely and increasingly visible anti-death penalty campaigns—led by survivors of violent crimes.