In 1998, I was an 18-year-old senior at Saratoga Springs High School, juggling homework, the SATs, college applications, cello lessons and a number of other extracurricular activities, which I’d loaded on to impress the liberal arts institutions I was applying to. All that, and trying to fit in, which wasn’t going so well. Despite having a seeming billion things on my mind, I distinctly remember being shaken by a local news story that broke that March: the disappearance of Albany college student Suzanne G. Lyall, a woman who’d grown up in nearby Ballston Spa, was just a year older than I was and had vanished without a trace one night after work. It would soon become a national news story—and went on to become one of the most notable, unsolved cold cases in Upstate New York history.
Seventeen years later, in March 2015, when I was a full-time freelance writer, digging around for feature ideas to pitch to the big consumer magazines that I hoped to write for, I started my own “file” on Lyall’s case. It quickly ballooned to four pages of notes and links, and I crafted the following pitch, which never got sent out to an editor or has seen the light of day until today (I’ve only edited it slightly for clarity; also, remember, I was writing this for an audience three years ago).
On March 2, 1998 at around 9:20pm, 19-year-old Suzanne Lyall got off her evening shift at Babbage’s, a video game outlet at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, NY. A sophomore computer sciences major at the State University of New York at Albany, Lyall had transferred from Oneonta after only one year and was working the job part time to make ends meet. Besides being a little worried about her midterms and overall lack of funds, Lyall was in good spirits, and her family hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary about her. She seemed happy; her boyfriend, Richard Condon, had secretly proposed to her recently (and she’d said “yes”). And although she’d mentioned to a Babbage’s co-worker that she’d been stalked by an unidentified man, it hadn’t been an issue of concern.
That night, just like every other one, city buses were running from the mall to stops in and around Albany, as well as at the nearby university. Lyall hopped on one, getting off 25 minutes later at Collins Circle, a broad, open area near the center of campus.
That was the last time anyone saw or heard from her ever again.
Seventeen years later, her parents, Doug and Mary Lyall, are still holding out hope that someone—anyone—will come forward with new information about her whereabouts. They’ve launched a nonprofit organization, The Center for Hope, which provides support for families of missing loved ones; and have actively been taking part in initiatives like the New York State Missing Persons Day to keep the memory of their daughter alive.
What must be most frustrating to the Lyalls is the seeming lack of new leads. According to the Center for the Resolution of Unsolved Crimes, between 2009-12, a total of 200,000 or more cold cases have glutted police departments across the country. More startlingly, a 2014 Journal of Forensic Sciences study noted that cold cases—investigations that go unsolved for a year or more—were solved less by new DNA-matching technologies à la CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, than by good old-fashioned police work and the emergence of new witnesses. In short, while modern DNA techniques may translate better onto the small screen, they haven’t revolutionized cold-case investigative work. Ultimately, it’s thorough, people-led investigations that get the job done.
That’s pretty daunting information when you think about it. If the police investigators who are still searching for leads on Ms. Lyall all these years later were to find new trace DNA evidence they’d missed the first time around, would it even amount to a breakthrough in the case?
I went on to tell the hypothetical editor I never sent this pitch to that: “I’d be interested in digging into this particular cold case, but instead of focusing on Ms. Lyall’s disappearance and the toll it’s taken on her family—what others have written and reported about—I’d want to dive headlong into the New York State Police and Federal Bureau of Investigation’s cold-case investigative process, giving it a human face.” I asked rhetorical questions, such as: “What goes through a police detective’s mind when he gets a case like this on his desk? How do leads get tracked down, and how does one decipher a good lead from a bad one? What psychological effect does it have on the policemen and -women who spend countless hours trying to crack these cases?” (Here, I was likely echoing my own role as a journalist, and what it’s like reporting a major story or feature.) And I emphasized that the piece “would greatly hinge on cooperation from the Lyalls (for background), the New York State Police, the Albany office of the FBI and intensive research into how a cold case is investigated from the crucial first few days onward.”
As you can see, I did my homework, at least in terms of the pitch. I was obsessed; for days and weeks, I pored over every piece of written news reported on Lyall, websites dedicated to her, a Facebook page launched in her memory and taped newscasts that had landed on YouTube. I found out that her case had been on America’s Most Wanted and was listed on the FBI’s Kidnappings/Missing Persons list. People magazine had done a feature story on her in 2000. And a handful of laws had passed in her name: 1999’s “Suzanne’s Law” (or the Campus Safety Act) was first passed at the state level, and was then federalized in 2003 by President George W. Bush under the PROTECT Act. And a third related bill had been proposed by State Senator James Tedisco, but hadn’t gone anywhere (he’s apparently still trying to get it passed).
Sadly, the same year I put my pitch file together, Suzanne’s father, Doug, died. He’d fought hard for answers about his daughter’s disappearance for years—but hadn’t gotten the closure so many parents and families yearn for in their quest to locate missing children. I couldn’t help but feel for his widow, too—Suzanne’s mother, Mary—who now had to weather a second loss, one that was altogether more permanent than the first. I so badly wanted to write that feature for Rolling Stone or Esquire or GQ to remind people that Suzanne Lyall of Upstate New York was still missing, and mattered. Hell, she could still be found. This was a young woman who’d grown up just a stone’s throw away from me in Saratoga—who had her entire life ahead of her just like I did at the time. And given her degree studies at Albany, would’ve probably ended up having an illustrious career at Vicarious Visions or IBM or even Google or Facebook someday.
I hope this story-about-an-unpublished-story does what I originally envisioned it would do: re-ignite interest in Suzanne Lyall’s case; and maybe, just maybe embolden someone who knows something about it to come forward with new information about her whereabouts.
This Saturday, April 7, marks the 17th Annual New York State Missing Persons Day. I’d urge you all to spend a few minutes of silent meditation, thinking about Suzanne G. Lyall and all people who’ve been affected by her disappearance. Maybe you even know where she is. If you do, do us all a favor and bring her home.