South Florida Sun Sentinel from Fort Lauderdale, Florida on October 4, 2001 · Page 67
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South Florida Sun Sentinel from Fort Lauderdale, Florida · Page 67

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Fort Lauderdale, Florida
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Thursday, October 4, 2001
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Page 67
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South Florida Sun-Sentinel sun-sentine!.com LIFESTYLE NWS Thursday, October 4, 2001 5E Her hope of finding Amy alive has been fading & 1 iTtffitfTf fiTitfl AMY ' 'Vi CONTINUED FROM PAGE IE "I went to funerals for bikers. I'd walk around and show them pictures of Amy. I would tell them, I'm just a mother. I'm a mother looking for her child. I just want to bring her home. "I put myself outside the situation, I had to. I'd tell myself, even these men must have mothers somewhere. To the bikers, I was that crazy lady from Miami. They would laugh at me." In 1993, she promised her husband, Ned, on his deathbed that she would not stop looking for Amy. She never has. "In the beginning, I wanted to stay in bed and cry," Susan says. "Then I'd hear Amy's friends out there, answering the phones. I couldn't show them that I was failing. I said, 'Sue, stop feeling sorry for yourself and get out of bed. Because if you don't, nothing is going to happen, and you're going to die." ... I had this fire in me to find her. Nobody could do it for me. I like to take charge. I speak out. That's who lam. "You never give up," Susan says of both her illness and her search for her daughter. "You just keep setting new goals." And she has many. This month, Susan will dedicate the Amy Billig Memorial Park at a leafy corner in Coconut Grove, a short stroll from the banyan tree in the yard where the Billigs' historic Dade County pine home once stood. (The Billigs had to sell it years ago, and the house was torn down.) Susan wants to see her son's two daughters grow up. But she is 76 now, and the cancer has returned. Again, the prognosis is grim. "Stage four cancer," she says matter-of-factly, while telling callers she is fine. As fearless as the days she wore business suits to her meetings with the tattooed and grisly bikers. Her hope of finding Amy alive is fading. And the "life force" she once felt from her daughter is dim. Three years ago, Susan finally held a service at her home to "celebrate Amy's life." ;r But in the back of her mind, the fantasy is still there. That 2 - there will be a knock on the r " door, and Amy will be standing 7i there. Perhaps everything else pales when you've sat through ! - the middle of the night, won-i , deringwhat happened to your "-' child. Perhaps that makes can-cer, even dying, not so scary for J Susan Billig. Except, perhaps, j for one thought. If she dies, who will wait for Amy? 1 SHE NEVER ARRIVED Amy Billig came home from r school on March 5 and called r her father. Ned Billig played ; -f the trumpet and ran an art gal- ;J lery on Main Highway. Susan was an interior designer and a l-t former club singer. ! Former New Yorkers, the Billigs sent their daughter to K- private school and reveled in T j the Grove's bohemiart atmo- t sphere. Amy was meeting two friends for lunch that day, and she needed money. Stop by the -, gallery, her father told her. ''- ' Amy set off on foot, wearing ;:T a short denim skirt and plat- Z form sandals. Motorists saw ;-l her walking or hitchhiking at ! . the corner of Poinciana Street ! . and Main Highway, which Calling Classified is easy! flargestOassified' In print ana ami MB r 7 .4 V-.' k.- n 1 V DEDICATED TO HER DAUGHTER'S MEMORY: Sue Billig's Coconut Grove home has a room decorated with family pictures, most of her 17-year-old daughter Amy. Staff photoA. Enrique Valentin winds into the Grove business district where Ned waited. She never arrived. Her parents called police. Shortly after, the Billigs received an anonymous telephone call. Bikers, who had roared through town on their Harley-Davidsons en route to Biker Week in Daytona Beach, had taken Amy. A bail bondsman friend introduced Susan Billig to two bikers, who saidihey would help. So began Susan's twisted journey into the biker world. She would trace their path to Orlando, where she found an abandoned clubhouse. A store clerk nearby swore Amy had been there a week before, guarded by two fierce-looking bikers. In the months that followed, Susan was told Amy was with bikers in Virginia, New Jersey, then the West Coast. At home, she was tormented by cruel calls from a U.S. Customs agent named Henry Blair, who told her Amy was his sex slave. Blair, who later denied ever knowing Amy, harassed Susan for two decades. He eventually went to prison for stalking. But even now, Susan has the same telephone number, in case Amy calls. In late 1 975, Susan received her first phone call from Paul Branch, a biker known as an executioner for the Pagans. ' Branch told Susan that Amy was his "old lady" and lived with him in Orlando, before he went to prison. He told Susan she had been drugged and beaten before he got her. She barely spoke. She didn't seem to know who she was. He described Amy using details not made public. Branch told Susan he would find Amy. In the years that followed, Susan clung to his promises and false leads. Branch led her to Tulsa, and eventually, to Seattle, where he said Amy was a prostitute. Susan flew to Seattle with a friend in the late 1970s. They combed the biker bars and seedy neighborhoods. The bikers led them to a girl named Willow who looked like Amy. Susan spent Thanksgiving dinner with the bikers. Then she flew home. She never heard from Paul Branch again. DEATHBED CONFESSION? Three and a half years ago, the story took another twist. In early 1998, Paul Branch died of cancer. A television crew doing a documentary about the Amy Billig case locat - ! s 1 to ed his girlfriend at their trailer in Virginia. Branch, she said, had made a deathbed confession about Amy Billig. Amy was picked up in Coconut Grove in 1974 and taken to a biker party in the Everglades. She was drugged, gang-raped and beaten. She had died that night, and her body left in the swamp. Newspapers reported the Amy Billig mystery had been solved. A Miami police detective, who interviewed Branch two months before he died, seemed to accept this account, although Branch confessed nothing of the sort to him. Susan Billig did not believe a word of it. She does not believe Branch made such a confession, or that Amy was dead the night she vanished. "She made up the whole thing," Susan says of Branch's girlfriend, who reportedly was . paid for her interview. Further disputing the deathbed confession was an old biker known as Pompano Red.-Red and Branch lived together in a South Dade trailer in the 1970s. Susan had met him there during visits to Branch. During research for Without a Trace, author dreg Aunapu found a very sick Pompano Red living in Hollywood. Red told Aunapu that he drove Amy Billig from Florida to Virginia sometime after Branch went to prison in the mid '70s. In Virginia, he turned Amy over to another biker. He did not see her again. If that was false, why would Red admit driving a kidnapped girl across state lines, asks Aunapu, who believes Amy died or was killed later, possibly after bikers took her to the West Coast. If Amy died the night she disappeared, why did Branch repeatedly call Susan Billig over the years and lead her across the country? What about the store clerk in Orlando who said she saw Amy with two bikers? Looking back, Susan believes Branch told her the truth. "It was a feeling in my gut," she says. "As much as Paul could be honest because of the person he was, I believed he was honest with me. What he was with other people, I shut out of my mind." How long was Amy alive? How and where did she die? Could she still be alive? Amy was fragile, still a teenager, her mother says. Her mind and body must have succumbed to the repeated drugs, The 1) 4C1 SvV Second beatings and rapes. Branch and other bikers who said they saw her always described her the same way: out of it and al most mute. How could Susan believe the word of a man like Paul Branch? "Paul Branch called me out of the blue to say that Amy was in Seattle," Susan says. "I felt a strong life force in Seattle ... You want to believe the best. I wanted Amy to be alive. I wanted to believe that she was alive and that he would bring her back to me." GONE 27 YEARS Amy Billig, if she were alive today, would be 44 years old. She has been gone 27 years; more years than she spent with her family in Coconut Grove. Her younger brother, Joshua, is 43. Amy has two nieces, Elizabeth, 13, and Maya, 7. Elizabeth has her spirited walk and resembles her. Maya is her grandmother's "playmate" after school. "The little one believes in angels," Susan says. "Maybe Amy is a guardian angel, looking over the children. I hope so. "Lying in bed, I look at Amy's picture and try to picture what she might look like now. In my heart, I'm still looking. But there's nobody telling me where to look, or where to go. Right now, I'm pretty empty. I was lucky. I had all these sightings that kept me going. I really believe that it was searching for Amy that kept me alive all these years." So Susan Billig keeps moving the goal line. Finding new reasons to stay alive. "I'm not ready to die yet," she says. But her reason has never changed. Through. 27 summers, winters, springs and falls. Through every passing year without her daughter. "I look out the window and say Amy, be safe. I feel a life force. The more I see over the years and the more I do, the more I keep her alive in my heart. I feel a terrible loss, but I still have that tremendous hope that I'll open the door and there will be this woman standing there who says, 'Mama.' It's what the children called me when they were small. There has to be a part of me that says she must still be alive." Kathleen Kernicky can be reached at 954-356-4725 or (impolite) science of Visit the Museum this weekend for a full day of family fun! Magic! Music! Animal Encounters! and MORE! PLUS the Grand Opening of the new GLOSSOLOGY exhibit! Street Downtown Fort Lauderdale mini Catch the hottest highlights and happenings in local high school sports on TV! 4 .,' ..flienVf 4r North Broward Hospital District ft our Ms. Protect M Broward Community College ? Tske yw Us ToTk2M Y 1 fAOToTS hScofftflerHgAWycC'; NAME Of CHUB BIRTHOATE NAME OF ADULT 1 ; i name of chilo birmwe phone number 'addhess;ityzip CHECK ONE: D CHECK MONEY ORDER Mall completed form with $10 per child to: South Florida Parenting Kid Fun Pan 6555 Nob Hill fid.. Sunrise FL 33351. 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