Justice for Susan
Her family called her “Sunshine.”
Susan Reeve ’75 exuded a bright intellect and a radiant spirit her parents still look upon today with enormous pride. Growing up, she was an exceptional student and a role model for her three younger siblings. Her personality and artistic talent served her well when she arrived at Hollins College, where according to her father, “Susan matured remarkably into a very attractive, capable, and confident young woman.” After graduating, she returned home and landed a job with a top advertising agency. She also got engaged to her high school sweetheart, a graduate student at Columbia University; a wedding date had not been set, but no one doubted that once he completed his education, the two of them would marry and raise a family.
When Susan was twenty-two years old, her life, filled with so much promise, was suddenly and terribly taken away.
The passage of time has not rendered the senselessness and brutality of Susan Reeve’s death any less heartbreaking. Yet in its aftermath, a tragedy became a story of courage and perseverance. For more than thirty-five years, Susan’s father and mother have fought to see her killer face justice. At the same time, they have ensured their daughter’s memory, one that has already profoundly affected so many, will touch the lives of Hollins women for years to come.
Susan Vecina Reeve was born in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1953, the oldest child of Arthur and Barbara Reeve. When she was two, Susan and her parents moved to the borough of Demarest, about a fifteen-minute drive from Englewood, where over the next few years the family welcomed another daughter and two sons. “Susie was the oldest child in our family, so she sort of took care of her siblings. She was the motherly type,” remembered her father. Her industriousness became one of her most appealing traits through childhood and adolescence. She liked to cook and even made a lot of her own clothes. As a teenager, Susan spent her summers working, either at a restaurant in Shelter Island on New York’s Long Island, where the family vacationed, or at a bank in her hometown.
When Susan started her college search, the Reeves decided after attending a college fair to take a look at some southern schools. “We went down to Hollins,” said Arthur Reeve, “and when we came in through the gate and turned past the chapel to the quadrangle, all of our minds were made up.”
The Reeves’ collective intuition did not deceive them—Susan and Hollins turned out to be a perfect match. “She just absolutely loved the place, and was very, very happy,” said her father. “It gives us so much satisfaction to know that during the last four years of her life she had a wonderful experience there.”
“Sue was joyful, creative, self-assured, and just plain fun to be around, yet was also very focused and responsible,” remembered Katherine “Kacky” Salmons ’75, who became close friends with Susan during their Hollins years. “She worked hard during the week and regularly drove to Pennsylvania on weekends to visit her boyfriend.” Susan had begun dating Daniel Olmstead in high school, and he was attending Lehigh University (he later went to graduate school at Columbia).
Barbara Reeve had studied interior design, and Susan decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and major in art. Professor Emeritus of Art Bill White, who began teaching at Hollins the same semester Susan enrolled in 1971, remembered working with her in his drawing and design classes. He also provided guidance for her senior studio project in painting. “Susan was a good student who loved art and made good use of her time at Hollins to grow in her creativity and skills. She was always smiling, always pleasant.”
In May 1975, Susan graduated from Hollins and moved back to her family’s home in Demarest. Kacky Salmons also lived with the Reeves that summer. “I have lovely memories of the summer spent with the Reeves,” she recalled. “Nat King Cole on the stereo and weekends at their house on Shelter Island, where the days were long, vegetation was rich, and the water of Long Island Sound was frigid. This was a very special place where everyone slowed down and enjoyed one another’s company.”
The summer of ’75 indeed seemed magical: Susan and Olmsted announced their engagement, and she landed a good job at Grey Advertising in New York. Each morning through the summer and early fall, she walked three blocks to catch the commuter bus into Manhattan and returned home the same way every evening. The bus stop was in a safe, well-traveled, populated area. No one had reason to believe a young woman, even alone, would be in any danger there. But on a mid-October evening, a recently paroled thirty-five-year-old house painter who had spent much of his adult life in prison for crimes including rape and assault drove through and saw Susan making her way home.
In his book, Dissecting Death: Secrets of a Medical Examiner, former Rockland County, New York, chief medical examiner Dr. Frederick Zugibe called Robert Reldan’s life “a strange concoction of coincidences, macabre twists, and lucky breaks.” Born Robert Nadler in 1940 (for unknown reasons, he later reversed the letters of his last name), he grew up in a well-known and well-to-do family in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a standout in school both academically and athletically. His aunt, Lillian Booth, the widow of one of the founders of IBM, saw to it that young Reldan experienced the finer things in life. “In his teens he ran with a group of wealthy jet setters,” wrote Zugibe, and with his aunt’s considerable financial support Reldan spent his free time traveling to Europe and taking scuba diving and flying lessons.
However, Lillian Booth’s indulgences did not offer enough excitement for Reldan. In 1958, at age eighteen, he was convicted of stealing five cars. Five years later, he was arrested in New York City for snatching purses from women in elevators—three hundred of them. Reldan’s relatives used their connections to help him avoid punishment for those incidents, but in 1967 his criminal behavior took a more serious and violent turn: he was convicted of raping a Teaneck, New Jersey, mother of two. This time, Reldan’s family could not save him from incarceration, and he was sentenced to serve time at Rahway State Prison.
Reldan was jailed at about the same time Rahway and other New Jersey correctional institutions were launching a groundbreaking new rehabilitation program for sex offenders. “If a man was convicted of a sex offense,” explained former New Jersey chief warden Harry Camisa in his book, Inside Out, “he was given a choice: take the straight sentence and go into the general population at one of the adult male prisons or take treatment in the special unit at Rahway with an indeterminate sentence—they could hold the guy until they said he was ready to return to society, even if that exceeded the fixed maximum of the regular sentence.” According to Camisa, “indeterminate” could mean life behind bars if prison psychologists believed the offender could not be rehabilitated. However, “the advantages were that the indeterminate sentence could also be a lot shorter than the fixed if the guy responded well to treatment—or could con the shrinks into believing he was ‘cured.’” Reldan opted for the treatment program, and in therapy sessions he deftly used his intelligence and charm to convince clinicians of his transformation. Reldan became the first graduate of Rahway’s Sex Offenders Rehabilitation Program and was paroled in late 1970.
Five months after his release, Reldan attended an outpatient therapy session at a New Jersey hospital. When Reldan left the appointment, he attacked a woman in the hospital parking lot. His subsequent conviction for the assault sent him back to prison, where he again chose to enter treatment. Reldan was somehow able to re-establish himself as the “poster boy,” in the words of Zugibe, for sex offender rehabilitation at Rahway. “He convinced everyone that the educational course for convicted rapists had changed his life and he was ready to come out and contribute to society,” said Arthur Reeve.
William Prendergast, director of Rahway’s sex offenders program, was certain Reldan had at last been successfully treated. In 1975 he arranged for both of them to appear on a nationally syndicated television show about rape, “The Unspeakable Crime,” hosted by David Frost, so that Reldan could share his success story. In May of that year, shortly after the broadcast, he was once again granted parole.
Almost to the day of Susan Reeve’s graduation from Hollins, Robert Reldan was released from prison.
On October 14, 1975, at about 6:10 p.m., Susan Reeve arrived back in Demarest on the bus from Manhattan. In the days to come, the bus driver and a fellow passenger would say they distinctly remembered her getting off the bus at her regular stop at the intersection of County Road and Anderson Avenue. A local resident later recalled driving down the street Susan normally traveled home and seeing someone matching her description talking to someone outside a parked vehicle near the bus stop. “The man thought there was something unsettling about the interaction between the two people,” said Arthur Reeve. “But he was running late to pick up his child at a school function and decided he didn’t have time to stop and find out if there was anything wrong. When he drove back a few minutes later, they and the vehicle were both gone.”
In any event, Susan did not come home that night. “We went through a couple of weeks then of not knowing what had happened to her,” remembered her father. “It was a very, very difficult time.”
Susan’s disappearance occurred eight days after Susan Heynes, a twenty-six-year-old newlywed from Great Britain, vanished from her home in Haworth, a five-minute drive from Demarest. Convinced the two missing persons cases were related, the Bergen County prosecutor’s office composed a list of sex offenders who had recently been paroled—a list that included Robert Reldan. On October 22, police officers interviewed Reldan, who admitted he was in the vicinity of the intersection where Reeve was last seen alive at the approximate time she disappeared. According to New Jersey Supreme Court records, the investigators’ suspicions rose further when Reldan added, “I hope no more girls get killed.” At that time, both women were still considered missing and not dead.
On October 27, Susan Heynes’ body was found in a wooded area of Rockland County, New York. The next day, thirteen miles away, Susan Reeve’s body was located in Tallman State Park. Autopsies showed both women had been strangled and Reeve had also been raped. With the case having crossed state lines, the FBI joined New Jersey law enforcement officials to lead what had become a double-homicide investigation. Harry Camisa noted in Inside Out that after William Prendergast heard about the murders and learned Reldan was the chief suspect, he said, “Bob Reldan is a brilliant man. He has studied how psychological tests are administered until he knows all the angles. If he’s guilty, he conned the Rahway officials who paroled him and he conned me.”
New Jersey Supreme Court records note Prendergast told investigators that if Reldan did indeed commit the murders, he would do something to draw the attention of the authorities. On October 30, a man matching Reldan’s description was seen trying to break into a Norwood, New Jersey, home. The intruder fled in a 1969 red Opel Kadett station wagon. The next day, a homeowner in Closter, New Jersey, entered his kitchen and found a man going through his wife’s purse. He later identified the man as Reldan from a photograph. The detective who responded to the call noticed a red Opel Kadett parked down the street from the house, and a license check determined the car was registered to Reldan, who was subsequently arrested. A warrant was issued giving police permission to search the car for evidence of the break-ins and investigators found samples of human hair in the vehicle, which were taken to a FBI laboratory and analyzed microscopically. The hairs belonged to Susan Reeve and Susan Heynes.
Reldan was convicted on breaking-and-entering charges and returned to Rahway State Prison. With their prime suspect in the murders of Reeve and Heynes securely in custody, the Bergen County prosecutor’s office took care to prepare their case against him. Investigators found eyewitnesses who saw Reldan near where each woman was abducted. A sandblaster’s mask rented by Reldan was discovered forty feet from the intersection where Reeve was last confirmed to have been seen. A New York jeweler came forward to say Reldan tried to sell him an engagement ring that was found to have belonged to Heynes. Each woman’s scent was traced by police dogs to Reldan’s car. Blood samples that matched Reeve’s were discovered in his aunt’s garage. And Reldan confided in a fellow prisoner that he committed the murders.
A grand jury indicted Reldan for the murders of Susan Reeve and Susan Heynes in January 1977, and he was transferred to Trenton State Prison to await trial. Reldan did not spend all the pretrial period focusing on his defense; he also took the opportunity to devise a plan to kill his wealthy aunt in order to receive an expected inheritance. Through another convict Reldan connected with a purported hit man—who turned out to be an undercover detective. A jury subsequently found him guilty of conspiracy and gave him a five-year sentence. Even though Reldan was recorded on tape trying to orchestrate her murder, Lillian Booth adamantly refused to believe her nephew would try to have her killed. Her steadfast denial would have significant repercussions thirty years later.
In contrast with the relative ease with which Reldan was convicted of orchestrating a murder for hire, getting justice for the killing of Susan Reeve and Susan Heynes was a far more arduous process. Reldan’s first trial, held in May and June of 1979, ended in a hung jury. A new trial commenced in Hackensack, New Jersey, that fall and apparently Reldan felt his chances for acquittal were not good. On October 15, a sheriff’s deputy was guarding Reldan in a holding area on the third floor of the courthouse while waiting for the trial to resume. Harry Camisa describes what happened next:
…[Reldan] suddenly whipped out a can of Mace, sprayed the deputy in the face and jumped out of a window, falling 35 feet to the ground. He landed on a patch of grass surrounded by concrete and, uninjured, took off running. About a block away, he confronted a lawyer who was just getting out of his car, squirted Mace in this guy’s face and stole his Cadillac. He drove north on Route 17, stopped long enough in Paramus to snatch a woman’s purse, and headed into New York State. New Jersey and New York police picked up his trail and finally nailed him in Tuxedo, New York, when, after an hour-long high-speed chase, he flipped the lawyer’s Cadillac over—not far from the spot where police had found the bodies of Heynes and Reeve.
Police said they had no idea how Reldan obtained the Mace, or who the week before had attempted to bribe five jurors in his murder trial with cash amounts ranging from $100 to $900. But the trial continued on as scheduled. On October 17, the jury convicted Reldan of first-degree murder in the death of Susan Reeve and second-degree murder in the slaying of Susan Heynes. He was sentenced to life in Trenton State Prison.
A parent’s worst nightmare is the loss of a child. Arthur and Barbara Reeve also had to come to grips with the horrific nature of their daughter’s death. When asked how they kept going, Arthur Reeve explained, “There isn’t any advice. You bond with your wife, you accept what life has dealt to you, and you go on from there. There’s no other way of approaching it.” The Reeves’ first priority was helping their other children deal with what had happened. Two were away at college, leaving one child living at home when the tragedy occurred. “Our youngest son was still in high school and he had to cope with the trials and the attention from the reporters who would camp at the end of our driveway,” said Reeve. “Of course we didn’t have any explanations for him. It was more difficult for him than anyone else in the family.”
Susan’s professors and friends also found it hard to cope with her untimely death. Bill White recalled, “When there was a memorial service planned at Hollins to remember Susan, I was asked to read the Lord’s Prayer. As a tribute to her, I said yes. I was at the podium and as I began reading I suddenly saw Susan’s face, smiling in her warm way. The vision of her stopped me and I began to cry. I was not able to continue and the chaplain had to finish the prayer.”
Because of the positive impact Hollins had on their daughter, the Reeves maintained close ties with the college, chairing the Parents Advisory Council in 1978 and serving on the Major Gifts Committee in the early eighties. The Reeves wanted to celebrate Susan’s life, and her Hollins classmates came up with the idea of establishing a scholarship fund in her name. “It seemed to be the best way of remembering Susie and we had a lot of people come together,” said Reeve. With the support of other friends and her family, the fund quickly grew to where it could support four student scholarships, one for each class. In gratitude to Susan’s classmates, the Reeves asked that it be named the Susan Reeve Class of 1975 Scholarship Fund.
While the Reeves were gradually putting their lives back together, Robert Reldan was not giving up on getting out of prison, if not legally then by other means. In April 1981 he claimed he had fallen on a pile of rocks in the prison yard and sustained a chest injury that required medical attention beyond what was available at Trenton State Prison. He talked officials into taking him to nearby St. Francis Medical Center for x-rays. Reldan’s brazen attempt at escape during his 1979 trial had not been forgotten, and in advance of his transport, two officers were sent to the hospital to ensure its security.
Near the emergency room, one of the officers spotted a familiar-looking woman who appeared to be trying to disguise herself with sunglasses and a bandana. The officer realized the woman was Sherry-Anne Stevens, a regular visitor of Reldan’s at the prison. Concerned, the officer approached two Trenton policemen who were in the ER at the same time and asked them to find out what she was doing there. The policemen discovered she was carrying a shopping bag containing a sawed-off shotgun and twenty-three rounds of ammunition. Stevens was arrested and rushed out of the hospital just as Reldan was brought in. “Evidently this young woman had fallen in love with him in the courtroom,” said Reeve. “If he had gotten hold of [the shotgun] I guess he would have killed everybody in the emergency room.”
As unsettling as Reldan’s latest escape attempt was, more troubling news came a year later. In May 1982, a New Jersey Appellate Division court found that errors had been made in the admission of evidence in the second trial and overturned his 1979 conviction. A third trial was ordered. It began on January 17, 1986, and featured a bizarre twist—Reldan chose this time to represent himself. “He’s a very intelligent person,” said Reeve, “but he’s also a very conceited person, and his own conceit got in his way.”
For the Reeves, a new trial meant reliving the pain of Susan’s death. But Reldan’s decision to act in his own defense set the stage for a particularly grim moment. “The prosecutor called Barbara to testify about what Susie was wearing the day she was killed, and she had to sit there on the witness stand and be cross-examined by the man who had murdered her daughter,” Arthur Reeve remembered. “It was a very difficult thing for her to go through. I was very proud of how she handled getting caught in front of him.”
For Reldan, serving as his own attorney backfired. Once again, he was convicted of killing Susan Reeve and Susan Heynes. He was given a mandatory life sentence for the first-degree murder of Reeve, to be served consecutively with the sentence he had received for conspiring to kill his aunt, and a consecutive thirty-year term prison term for the second-degree murder of Heynes.
More than ten years had passed since Susan’s death. For the Reeves, any sense of closure they gained from Reldan’s sentence was overshadowed by constant reminders of how they had lost their daughter. “Every morning and night I had to commute right past where Susie was attacked,” said Arthur Reeve, “so we decided we were going to leave.” They found refuge in Amelia Island, Florida, not far from Jacksonville. Barbara set up temporary living quarters in an apartment on the beach and used her talents as an interior designer to oversee the renovation of the house they had bought, while Arthur continued his law practice in New Jersey and traveled to Florida on weekends. He retired in 1995, and he and Barbara moved into the house where they still live today.
The death of Robert Reldan’s aunt Lillian Booth in December 2007 set into motion events that disrupted the peace the Reeves had long sought. Through the years, Booth was unwavering in her support of Reldan despite his conviction for conspiring to kill her. According to The Record newspaper in Hackensack, New Jersey, Booth wrote a letter in which she said, “I did not believe my nephew would hurt me, nor do I today.”
In the fall of 2008, Arthur Reeve returned to New Jersey to testify before the parole board, the first time a hearing was held to consider a possible early release for Reldan since his conviction twenty-two years before. “Fortunately they did the right thing and kept him in prison,” Reeve said. “But when I went up there I got a call from the prosecutor in Bergen County. And he said, ‘Do you realize Reldan has inherited income from a substantial trust fund?’” Lillian Booth, whose estate had been valued at $220 million, had left Reldan the income from a $9 million trust fund.
The Reeves hired a Hackensack law firm, Rem Zeller, to file a wrongful death action on behalf of their daughter. “I explained to [attorney] Robert Zeller, ‘I don’t care whether you take this on a contingent basis or charge 100 percent, I want to keep Reldan from having that money because if he ever got out on parole, it would just enable him to do this all over again,’” said Reeve. “Barbara and I didn’t want any money because it would be almost insulting for us to think of accepting anything monetary as compensation for Susie’s death. So we decided we would sue this guy and if we got anything we would use it to enhance Susie’s scholarship fund.” Zeller successfully petitioned a New Jersey Superior Court judge in December 2008 to stop any allocation of the inheritance to Reldan. But then he and the Reeves faced a significant and unexpected obstacle.
The New Jersey legislature in 2000 passed a law removing the two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death claims for deaths caused by murder or manslaughter. However, the bill only eliminated the provision from claims for compensation from economic loss. A two-year deadline was still on the books for lawsuits related to pain and suffering, the only legal category under which the Reeves could sue and recover compensation; at the time of her death Susan was not financially supporting her family, thus her murder could not be argued as causing economic hardship. Zeller realized a crucial mistake was made when the original legislation was drafted, one that would stop the Reeves’ lawsuit in its tracks if it was not addressed. He and Arthur Reeve immediately tracked down the legislators who sponsored the bill. “They said they didn’t know there was a difference between pain and suffering and monetary damages,” Reeve recalled. “They were very cooperative—they had both retired but went back to the legislature and said, ‘This is not what we intended.’”
In January 2009, the two sponsors gave Zeller sworn statements affirming that if they had known about the difference between the two claim types, they would have eliminated the deadline for both. He wrote up new legislation and persuaded a state senator and an assemblyman to sponsor a bill to have murder cases excluded from the deadline for survivor actions. On June 25, 2009, the state Senate unanimously passed the new legislation a month after it was introduced; getting the bill through the state Assembly, however, was more problematic. “The bill just bogged down there,” Reeve explained, “and in New Jersey, if you sponsor legislation and it gets through one house and not the other and the legislative year ends, it’s all washed out. You have to start over. And that would have been the death knell for our suit.”
Zeller spent the next several months racing against time to help shepherd the bill through the Assembly. Finally, on January 11, 2010, the last day of the legislative session, the bill was approved unanimously. Six days later, on his last day in office, Gov. Jon Corzine signed it into law. The Reeves could finally move forward with their lawsuit.
On September 15, 2010, a settlement was reached in Superior Court in Hackensack: the Reeves received an immediate payment of $300,000, which was given to Hollins and brought the value of the scholarship fund to $750,000, plus the annual income from Reldan’s $9 million trust for the rest of his life (he will turn seventy-one in June). In an interview with The Record, Zeller estimated that the income from the trust will average anywhere from 4 percent to 7 percent. “His trust fund is invested in government bonds so there’s not a tremendous amount of income,” said Reeve, “but we hope over the next four or five years to get the scholarship fund in Susan’s name up to $1 million.
“Has justice been done? Yes, absolutely. It’s absolutely sweet justice that we have been able to take money from the man who raped and murdered our daughter and turn it over to Hollins to educate young women. What sense of justice would be greater than that? It’s very satisfying to Barbara and me.”
Arthur and Barbara Reeve are both in their early eighties now, but they are still fighting as vigorously as ever to make sure Robert Reldan never gets out of prison. Recently a law was passed in New Jersey mandating parole hearings for all state prison inmates every three years, meaning Reldan could be up for parole again in 2012. “I think about it every night of my life,” said Arthur Reeve. “Some people are fascinated by criminals like Reldan and want to get them out, so there’s always a chance. We took the first part of the money that we got from Reldan to retain Robert Zeller and his law firm on a continuing basis to make sure he stays locked up. Barbara and I might not be around when he comes up for parole again.”
Along with the successful settlement of their lawsuit against Reldan, the Reeves were heartened last year by another special event. “We reunited with Susie’s fiancé, Danny,” said Reeve. “Thirty-five years had gone by, a long time, but it was delightful. It was very touching to talk to him again because you don’t know how a person is going to react to hearing from the family of the girl he intended to marry so many years ago. There’s no question in my mind that he and Susie would have been married and they would have had a very successful life together. He went on to get his doctorate, marry and have a family, and become a very successful businessman. He’s semiretired now.”
The Reeves and their surviving children reconnected with Olmsted during a trip to New York. “We found out that Susie’s engagement ring, which had belonged to her fiancé’s grandmother, was still in the prosecutor’s files in Hackensack, along with some earrings Susie wore the day she was killed.”
Susan Reeve would have celebrated her fifty-eighth birthday on April 28. As they have done every year on her birthday since its inception, Arthur and Barbara Reeve and Susan’s sister and brothers each made a contribution to the scholarship fund that bears her name. “She was cremated and didn’t have a gravestone or anything, so the scholarship fund is her memorial,” her father said. “Susie would have been excited to know there had been a scholarship fund named after her at Hollins. One that is becoming quite substantial.”
Jeff Hodges is director of public relations.
Acknowledgments: Arthur and Barbara Reeve; The Record (Hackensack, N.J.); Inside Out: Fifty Years Behind the Walls of New Jersey’s Trenton State Prison by Harry Camisa; The New York Times; Associated Press; Serial Killer True Crime Library; Dissecting Death: Secrets of a Medical Examiner by Frederick Zugibe and David L. Carroll; “Killer’s Multimillion-Dollar Inheritance Funds Settlement with Victim’s Estate” by Mary Pat Gallagher (law.com); Rem Zeller Law Group; the New Jersey Supreme Court.