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Monday, November 24, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Town Wants To Move On, But Can't Shake Past -- Susan Smith Tragedy Shadows Union, S.C.

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

UNION, S.C. - Michael would have turned 6 last month, and Alex by now would be 4. They still receive gifts. All the time, people bring them gifts.

Recently, someone gave them a toy truck, a tiny plastic horse, two pinwheels (one for each brother), a plaster angel kneeling in prayer, a $2 bouquet of supermarket flowers and miniature wind chimes, left to tinkle softly in the country graveyard.

At the lake where they died, a little girl from Monroe, N.C., left a stuffed scarecrow and a pumpkin made of cornhusks. A woman named Shirley Crask left a pot of mums. Idania Pena sent a letter from Miami: "In loving memory of two beautiful creatures that perished in the hands of the person they most trusted: their own mother. . . . What got into Susan Smith's mind that night, only the devil knows. . . . " The Barnes family of Maple Shade, N.J., sent an arrangement of carnations and daisies. The card reads, "Never forgotten."

Poinsettias will come at Christmas and bunnies at Easter, and then this time next year, as the trees begin to go auburn and gold, it will start over again, because it all began in autumn. In late October and early November 1994, the town of Union, S.C., ceased to be just another speck on the map.

Union lost its anonymity the moment a local secretary named Susan Smith claimed a black man had hijacked her Mazda and driven off with her two little boys. The world watched as townspeople searched fields and forests; as Smith went on national television with her estranged husband, David, and pleaded for the return of their sons; and as the sheriff, after nine long days, delivered the horrible truth, that the boys weren't missing but had been murdered - not by any black man, but by Susan Smith herself.

No road map for recovery

Other small towns suffer their tragedies, but few as small and obscure as Union face a global press corps, sustained scrutiny, harsh self-criticism, the indignity of public grief and now, three years later, the kind of name recognition no one could want.

Some are proud to belong to a community that refused to wither in the spotlight. But others, when they travel, won't say where they're from because they'd rather not answer questions. Union - isn't that where that woman drowned her babies?

When a place has been forced to defend itself before the eyes of the world, there is no road map for recovery.

"Every time we think it's all behind us, it comes up again," says June Miller, Union County's longtime clerk of court. "We'll never really be the same. What more is there to say?"

The highway sign simply reads John D. Long Lake. Nothing gives away what happened there the clear, cool night of Oct. 25, 1994.

For those who've been before, the changes will show. Everything is different except the gently rippled lake and its thick ring of trees.

A guardrail now barricades the parking lot. The boat ramp is gone.

The ramp led nine people to their deaths. First were Michael, who was 3, and Alex, 14 months. They were buckled into their car seats when their mother stepped out, lowered the emergency brake and let the car roll down the steep ramp, into the deep water.

After Smith confessed, hundreds came to stand on the ramp, pray over that ground, throw flowers on the quiet surface of the lake and, later, touch the smooth granite monuments erected by the waterside. Last summer, Tim and Angie Phillips came with their three small children and two family friends, one of them a 3-year-old. They parked on the ramp. Something went wrong and their Suburban rolled into the lake. The whole family drowned, and the friends, too. They were from Union County, so the community not only grieved again, but wondered what it had done to deserve so much pain.

Early this year, the state moved the monuments 50 yards from the water, to the wooded edge of the access road. In the spring, they'll plant boxwoods, build a split-rail fence and lay a gravel walkway.

They ripped up the ramp, every bit.

"If they'd asked me, I'd have said drain the lake, shut the place down," says Cathy Allen, a Union teacher.

No reminders needed

Allen, for one, doesn't need reminders. Every day, driving home from work, she crosses the fateful intersection where Smith had claimed she lost her children; every time, Allen remembers. And sometimes when her 5-year-old grandson says his prayers, he still says God bless Michael and Alex. "There will always be something to remind each of us that such a thing happened here," she says.

The familiar landmarks remain: the courthouse on Main Street, where Smith stood trial for her life; her small brick house on Toney Road (a nurse's aide now rents it from Smith's mother); Conso Products, the decorative-trim factory where Smith worked as a secretary. Now, at Foster Park, there's a new set of playground equipment, and a marker, in memory of the Smith boys. Employees of Winn-Dixie, the grocery store where David Smith worked, paid for it as a lasting tribute.

Buildings don't tell the whole story, that Susan Smith did not simply wake up one day and decide to kill her children, that it was a lot more complicated than that. Her saga of suicide attempts and molestation and depression and marital deception is embodied in those closest to the case. Most of them have left town.

Smith, now 26, is in prison in Columbia; she was sentenced in 1995 to life in prison and must serve at least 30 years. David Smith, last anyone heard, had moved to Florida. Tom Findlay, Susan Smith's ex-lover, started a new life in Birmingham, Ala. Cary Findlay, who is Tom Findlay's father and Susan Smith's former employer, let his mansion become a bed-and-breakfast; he now divides his time between England and Union.

Smith's mother and stepfather are still around. So is Sheriff Howard Wells, whose office wall is crowded with photographs and certificates of gratitude, not only for his integrity, but for coming across on camera as a noble representative of Union and South Carolina. They still credit him for containing a potentially volatile racial divide by refusing to detain the many black men who might have fit Smith's description of her hijacker.

"That's one of the things that helped the healing process," says the Rev. A.L. Brackett, who is still something of a spokesman for Union's black community.

Brackett is grateful for the fellowship that grew from the Smith case. Pastors who together counseled the inconsolable community became close friends.

And city and county leaders, who had to work together to prepare Union for a trial-time media deluge, allied again this year. They courted Walt Disney, which is building a catalog distribution warehouse in Union County; more than 300 people will get jobs.

To help restore its pride, Union leaders last year started a weekend festival. They planned historic-home tours, an art exhibit, a barbecue cookoff, a log-rolling contest and live bands. They contacted two of the nation's largest newspapers, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, to suggest a news item.

" . . . The town of 10,000 started the event following the Susan Smith murder trial to showcase its softer side," the Journal wrote.

This year, as the bands and barbecue mavens set up, television trucks arrived on Main Street, but not for anybody's sauce recipe. They came because it was the third anniversary of the brothers' deaths.

The previous year, Union had the festival two years to the weekend after Smith confessed to the sheriff where he could find her boys.

A coincidence, says Vickie Shields, the local "hometown coordinator" under the South Carolina Downtown Development Corp. No one noticed the timing until too late. "Really, I think this is an example of how little this situation is on the minds of people who live here."

Or is it?

Paul Patrick, a florist, says, "It was a real tragedy but I don't think anybody's still dwelling on it three years later."

June Miller, the clerk of court, says, "It's over and done with and we go on with our lives."

But at Patrick's shop, he keeps a pocket paperback of "Sins of the Mother," one of many books published on the Smith case. Patrick is in there. He has turned to his part so often the spine is creased.

Miller saved videos of local newscasts and the Smiths' network interviews, and recently appeared in a Smith documentary for the Arts and Entertainment Network. She keeps business cards of reporters she may never see again. Many sent her flowers after the trial. The flowers came with thank-you notes. She kept those, too.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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