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She was 17. Headed to her father’s Miami gallery. Then she was never seen again

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Where’s Amy Billig?

The 17-year-old was last seen on March 5, 1974. She was on her way to her father’s Coconut Grove art gallery.

She was never seen again.

Her mother, Sue Billig, went on a decades-long a mission to find her.

Was she kidnapped? Was she killed?

Amy was never found.

Will the case ever be solved?

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Amy Billig Miami Herald File

MOTHER’S DEATH

Published June 8, 2005

Susan Billig died without ever finding her daughter.

The Coconut Grove woman — whose 31-year quest to find her missing teenage daughter took her from drug dens to prisons across the country and even across the Atlantic — died Tuesday of complications from a heart attack. She was 80.

“I don’t think she ever found peace,” said her son, Josh Billig. “She took that as a really tough wound right to the grave.”

The story of Billig and her daughter Amy has reverberated in Miami for more than a generation.

Some have forgotten the details over the intervening three decades, but not Billig, who remained a stoic figure undaunted by time.

This much we all know: On March 5, 1974, 17-year-old Amy disappeared near the Billig’s Coconut Grove home. She was on her way to her dad’s art gallery in the Grove, then a Bohemian enclave.

Some said Amy accepted a ride from a biker. Others said she got into a van or pickup truck.

Clues were strewn across the state — her camera along Florida’s Turnpike in Central Florida; her hairbrush at a convenience store in Kissimmee.

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Susan Billig had searched for her daughter, Amy Billig, since 1974 when she disappeared from Coconut Grove. Tim Chapman Miami Herald File

And there was Susan Billig, knocking on doors, passing out fliers, calling police, holding news conferences. She painstakingly checked out the stories she was told: Amy was seen buying tea in Seattle; a biker was with her in Tulsa; she was a sex slave in Saudi Arabia.

The years melted away and the twists turned tragic, but never hopeless.

Her husband, Ned Billig, died of lung cancer in 1993. When he died, she was recovering herself — also of lung cancer. Ned’s dying words to his wife: “I want to see Amy before I die.”

Over the years, Coconut Grove grew from a Bohemian haunt to a tourist magnet. Tips poured in. Some were crazies playing with her. Among them, Henry Blair, a former U.S. Customs agent who investigated the case.

Blair had prank-called Billig, teasing her with false clues about her daughter’s whereabouts. In 1996, Blair was sentenced to two years in jail and ordered to pay the family $5 million — as his income would allow.

Susan’s son, Josh Billig, grew up — she once said she wished she had spent more time with him. Josh Billig never held it against his mother. “I tried to assure her that it wasn’t a problem for me,” Josh Billig said.

He has two daughters now.

Last year, on the 30th anniversary of Amy’s disappearance, her mother spoke to The Herald: “Because I didn’t know if she was dead, I couldn’t forsake her and move on.”

Hers was a familiar story in the news. It was featured on shows such as “Unsolved Mysteries” and “America’s Most Wanted.”

No one wrote about Billig as tenderly as Edna Buchanan, now a novelist who covered the case for the Miami Herald.

“I always feared that her husband, that Sue and that I would die without ever knowing what happened to Amy,” Buchanan said Tuesday night. “I think about it every day, every night of my life because the cases that haunt you are unsolved ones. She never gave up and endured risks that no one would ever take to try and find her daughter.”

Even a last major revelation did not convince Billig that her daughter was dead.

In 1996, a woman in Virginia told the BBC that her husband, a biker named Paul Branch, told her on his deathbed that Amy was kidnapped and gang raped near the Everglades. Amy fought back, the widow said, then was drugged, cut up and left in a canal.

In recent years, the family had come to doubt the credibility of the story, Josh Billig said.

Amy’s disappearance remained very much unsolved. Buchanan never bought the theory: If the biker’s story were true, too many people would have known. The word would have gotten out.

“The biker chicks grow older. They become mothers themselves. They develop consciences,” Buchanan said. “A lone serial killer — I still adhere to that theory.”

During the final years of Susan Billig’s life, her son said, her search became less intense. The leads dwindled.

In the last year, she suffered three heart attacks. The last one weakened her too much and left her in the hospital for more than two weeks.

Billig resigned herself not to the fact that Amy was dead, but that she might not solve the mystery while alive, said Josh Billig, 47.

AMBER, Blue and Silver Alerts are used by local law enforcement to notify the public that someone has gone missing. Here’s what you need to know about what each color code means.

Last year on a rainy day, Susan Billig went to Peacock Park in Coconut Grove, where her son built a coral rock bench to honor his sister.

“I’ve kind of almost lost the feeling that she’s alive,” she said at the time. “But not entirely. I can’t stand to be that sad.”

She died at home surrounded by family.

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Amy Billig disappeared when she was 17. Miami Herald File

DEADBED ADMISSION

PUBLISHED Feb. 27, 1998

After 24 years of obsessive, futile searching for her lost daughter, Susan Billig is ready to believe this: That Amy, 17, was killed, probably horribly, by a motorcycle gang March 5, 1974, the same day she disappeared in Miami.

Ready to believe it, yes. Willing and able? Not quite.

“I’m willing to think about it as the possible truth,” Billig said Thursday, considering deathbed admissions — not a confession — by a former motorcycle gang member who led her on a cruel, useless cross-country hunt 20 years ago.

He ducked out on her in Tulsa, Okla. She went ahead on her own, questioning bikers all the way to Seattle.

Finally, as he was dying, he told his girlfriend about a biker party at which Amy was raped and drugged to death.

Is it true?

“Bikers will not tell you anything,” Billig said. “They lie and lie.”

But do dying liars tell the truth?

“I can’t imagine in my mind how anybody would say something while they’re dying if it weren’t true,” Billig said.

The man whose word is in question is the late Paul Branch, a member of the Pagans gang in the 1970s. He died of cancer in 1996 on New Year’s Eve, a few months after Miami police homicide detectives questioned him in a trailer where he lived near Charlottesville, Va.

They came home without the answers they wanted most but pretty sure that Amy was a captive of bikers, including Branch, on the last day of her life.

The woman with whom Branch lived apparently knew nothing about the Billig case.

“Did you tell that detective the truth?” she asked him.

“Not everything,” he answered.

The police had known about Branch for years, suspecting he knew what happened, knew him as a close-up witness if not as an active participant.

Branch never admitted it, detective Jack Calvar said, but as he lay dying he told the woman that a group of Pagans stopped for Amy that afternoon in Coconut Grove, on a Main Highway corner where she was trying to hitch a ride.

“I lied to the cops. I know what happened to that girl,” Branch told the woman.

Susan Billig believes she truthfully repeated the story. So do the police.

“He said this girl went to a party with a girl named Nancy in the Pagans’ club house,” the detective said. “While she was at the party, she took drugs and got real messed up. She got sassy with one of the bikers and it p----- him off. They decided to pull a train.”

Pulling a train is slang for a gang rape.

“She fought back, so they kept injecting her with drugs, and she finally overdosed and died. They took her body to the swamps.”

The first detective to lead the investigation of Amy Billig’s disappearance suspected something like that had happened to her. The latest detective, Calvar, thought so, too.

Paul Branch’s involvement dates from 1975, when he made a phone call to Susan Billig, whose urgent search for her daughter was widely publicized.

“I saw a picture of your daughter in the paper,” Branch said. “That girl lived with me. She was my girlfriend. I bought her from a biker in Orlando.”

Branch told Billig that he was arrested later and left the girl and his motorcycle with his roommate. When he got out of jail, they were gone.

And another biker who saw a picture of Amy identified her as Branch’s girlfriend. There was no other proof, and the police now think it was a lie, but the story seemed plausible at the time.

Motorcycle gangs were notorious for that kind of behavior. Something else gave Branch credibility: “He described her to a T, including an appendicitis scar that nobody knew about at the time,” Calvar said.

When he and co-detective Carlos Avila visited Branch in 1996, he told them essentially the same story he originally gave Susan Billig.

They don’t believe that Branch lived with Amy, but they believe he took a close, intimate look that day in 1975. Long recollection “It’s not like you’re going to remember the same story from 20 years ago. Carlos and I thought he was telling the truth,” Calvar said.

What about the deathbed story he told after the detectives went away? The detectives are not convinced, but they are inclined to think it was true.

“When somebody pretty much knows he’s going to die, he pretty much comes clean. He won’t make up something when he could have just let it lie,” Calvar said.

If dying liars tell the truth, why did Branch say one thing to Calvar and another to the woman? “Because I’m the cops,” the detective said. “But what reason would he have to lie to her?”

Believing the story is one thing. It’s another to confirm it with something more believable than the statements of people who are hard to believe. With nothing but that, it will be hard to justify arresting anyone.

Harder still to win a conviction if it comes to that.

Calvar and Avila are looking for better evidence. They don’t know if any exists.

They got another lead from Branch’s deathbed talk, as reported by the woman after the detectives left Charlottesville: “Why the hell do they keep bothering me?” Branch griped. “Why don’t they talk to [another gang member] in New Jersey?”

The man he meant is in a Virginia prison and a jailbird continuously since May 1974 — two months after Amy Billig disappeared. The city detectives went to see the convict this week. They came back Wednesday night, without the corroboration they needed but not empty-handed.

Detective Calvar said the man, whose name he won’t tell, claimed he had been in South Florida but left in 1973 and was in Virginia when Amy Billig was abducted in Miami.

Calvar said his story, if true, should be easy to verify.

“He promised to help me,” Calvar said. “He gave me some names of people down here that I was not aware of.”

Making an arrest and winning a conviction are secondary, he said. The detectives’ primary goal is to help Susan Billig come to terms with the crime after 24 years of probably false hope that Amy is somehow, somewhere, still alive.

No investigator who ever touched this case has failed to feel the mother’s pain. She is ready to let go of her dreams but can’t.

A part of her requires confirmation of Paul Branch’s deathbed story of Amy’s awful death.

“I don’t want closure,” she said. “Closure means I’m never going to see her again. All these years, I thought she was alive and I’d see her again. People said I’m obsessed. Yes, I’m obsessed. Maybe I was making myself feel all those leads were good because I wanted to believe Amy was alive.

“It’s a very difficult thing for me to believe right now. I haven’t been able to cry. I haven’t been able to sleep.”

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A worn softball, a sentimental reminder of the young girl lost 30 years ago sits atop a stone bench placed in memory of Amy Billig. The bench marks the meditation garden dedicated to her in a corner of Peacock Park in Coconut Grove. Billig disappeared mysteriously in 1974. Michael Strader Marko Miami Herald File

MISSING FOR A DECADE

Published March 4, 1984

She is alive in the hearts of those who love her, and in the minds of strangers long baffled by South Florida’s most famous and enduring missing persons case.

Susan Billig will stay at home Monday, close to her telephone, awaiting the call that has not come for a decade.

On March 5, 1974, her only daughter, Amy, beautiful, talented and vibrant, a poet, a vegetarian, a lover of animals, walked down a sunlit Coconut Grove street at noon, on the way to her father’s art gallery. She vanished without a trace, like footprints on sea-washed sand.

“It’s incredible. Ten years,” Susan Billig says. “Had I known 10 years ago that it would be this long, I could not have survived. Every day I think that tomorrow, I’m going to find her.”

A decade has not dulled the pain or this mother’s dedication. Never has she stopped searching. A cherished child, Amy was born to Susan and Ned Billig after 10 years of marriage and four miscarriages.

The heart-breaking hunt for their vanished daughter has cost the couple all that they ever owned.

Frustrated Miami police, who struck only dead ends, concluded long ago that Amy was abducted and murdered, her body hidden. “I feel she’s alive,” insists her mother. “And somehow, if she is alive, she knows that I’m looking for her. But if she was killed at the beginning, I have to know that, too. I have made a promise to Amy in my heart. I must find her.”

After 10 years of lonely investigation and coast-to-coast pursuit of clues that took her from the ornate lobby of the Fontainebleau Hotel to an Outlaws motorcycle gang headquarters in Seattle, she is certain that Amy was abducted, beaten, raped and drugged by a biker gang.

A motorcycle gang did rumble through Miami that day.

“If my information is wrong, then another girl who looked exactly like Amy was standing on the corner of Main Highway and taken that day. To me,” Susan Billig says, “that’s too improbable a coincidence.

“Who knows what condition she is in — beaten to the point where she has no memory. If she is alive, she’s been through such harrowing experiences.”

Doctors have described to Susan Billig the psychology of persons held captive.

“It’s a survival tactic, you forget everything to survive, like prisoners of war.”

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Amy Billig was headed to her father’s gallery in Coconut Grove when she disappeared. Miami Herald File

She wanted to take out newspaper ads this week with Amy’s picture. She wrote the copy: “IT IS 10 YEARS. SOMEONE OUT THERE MUST KNOW WHO TOOK OUR CHILD, AMY BILLIG. WHERE IS SHE? CONFIDENTIAL REWARD FOR INFORMATION FOR HER RECOVERY. ALIVE OR DEAD. PLEASE, WE BEG YOU. MISSING SINCE MARCH 5, 1974, COCONUT GROVE, FLA. CALL 445-7334.”

“I would like it to run in every paper in the country,” she says, “so that if Amy saw it, she could recognize herself. Wherever she is, she has no memory of an early life. This would help her remember who she is.”

The ads will not be placed. The couple cannot afford them.

As to the reward for Amy’s return, they vow to either beg or borrow the money.

In the beginning, a concerned community held fund-raisers and aided in the search. Now, most have forgotten, except for the cruel crank caller — a man who torments the couple with as many as seven taunting calls a night in the darkness before dawn. Cranks and those who prey upon the desperate stalked them from the start.

Shortly after Amy vanished, two Miami Beach teenage brothers tried a clumsy extortion-ransom attempt. It diverted police, cost the Billigs thousands of dollars and, most importantly, a major delay at a time crucial to the investigation.

Whoever kidnapped Amy Billig could step forward now and tell all he knows without fear of punishment. The statute of limitations has long elapsed for any and all crimes — short of first-degree murder.

“It’s been many years,” says Miami Homicide Sgt. Mike Gonzalez. “If somebody had some information, even somebody involved in the abduction back when it originally happened, they shouldn’t be afraid to come forward now and give us any information about what happened to her. It could be very valuable in helping us trace her if she is still alive.”

Missing Persons Detective Saundra Weilbacher, also on the case from the start, is scheduled to retire in September. She could have done so in January.

The elusive ghost of Amy Billig haunts her.

“I hate to go without seeing this case solved,” says Weilbacher, also a mother. She, too, never believed that the mystery would stretch on for 10 years.

The last known photo of Amy came into the hands of her parents just recently. They were unaware that it existed.

A local photographer had snapped Amy as she stood in front of her father’s gallery during the annual arts festival, just weeks before she vanished.

Recently, he asked Susan Billig if she would like to have it.

“Of course I wanted it,” she says.

In it, Amy is wearing the Indian turquoise necklace her mother gave her for her 17th birthday on Jan. 9. She is smiling.

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