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June 13, 2001
By DAVE ALTIMARI; Courant Staff Writer
EAST HAVEN — John Susman has been declared dead twice in seven months.
The dentist, who disappeared in October 1992, was declared legally dead in East Haven Probate Court last November.
While his family fought over his nearly $400,000 estate, and only four months after police pursued a report of a sighting at a Santa Fe, N.M., restaurant, Susman’s skeletal remains were discovered late last week by land surveyors less than a quarter mile from his former home on Cosey Beach Avenue.
The state medical examiner’s office identified the orthodontist’s remains through dental records earlier this week.
But the mysteries surrounding Susman’s death are deepening. How did he die? How did police miss finding his body despite a massive search of the area almost eight years ago? Was it even there at the time? The medical examiner was unable to determine a cause of death and may never be able to.
“Right now there’s just not enough information to go on to determine what happened to him,” East Haven Police Chief Leonard L. Gallo said.
Meanwhile Susman’s relatives, who had been battling for months in probate court over whether Susman was dead or alive, are now preparing for his funeral.
“The family is in shock at the finding of John’s remains,” said New Haven attorney Leonard Fasano, who represented Arnold Susman, John’s brother and the administrator of his estate.
Several members of Susman’s immediate family testified in probate court last September that John Susman was still alive. They were fighting a petition by Pamela Susman, John’s daughter and the beneficiary of his will, to have him declared legally dead and have the bulk of his estate turned over to her. That estate was valued just last month at $380,370, including the $35,000 sale of his entire dental practice – down to the dead bolt on the front door and plastic toothbrush holders.
His family believed John Susman, who was 43 when he disappeared, set up an elaborate ruse that included telephoning a death threat to himself and leaving $10,000 in cash on a coffee table, to make it appear that something nefarious had happened to him or that he had fled.
Documents filed last fall by Fasano on the family’s behalf in probate court paint a picture of a depressed man popping anti-depressant pills and writing wistfully about vanishing to live on a tropical island.
In the documents, family members describe a man whose world is crashing around him. There was the bitter divorce from his wife Marcella, the pressure from his new girlfriend to get married and the complaints from his daughter Pamela who didn’t want him in a relationship.
In addition, John Susman was taking several prescription drugs including Prozac, Zoloft, Tofranil, Anafranil and Sineguan, according to probate records. Some of the drugs he prescribed for himself; his psychiatrist, Julien Lieb, prescribed others, the documents say.
Pamela Susman was 11 when her father disappeared only hours after she had talked to him on the phone, court records say. Now 19, she hired West Haven attorney Gary Ginsberg last September and authorized him to hire private investigator Daniel Markle to search for her father.
After conducting numerous license searches, reviewing FBI files and interviewing some family and friends, Markle concluded that no one had heard from John Susman since his disappearance.
But police had been getting reports of sightings for years. In July 1994, John Susman’s former mother in law told police her dentist in Arizona had seen Susman at an orthodontist conference a month earlier in southern California. The FBI investigated, but could not confirm the report.
Early last year, there was a report of a sighting in Israel. And, just a few months ago, an orthodontist friend who attended dental school with Susman told police he saw the man eating in the restaurant in Sante Fe.
Then there was the claim by an ex-girlfriend who said she saw him wearing a mask and walking in the East Haven neighborhood where his parents live.
East Haven Judge of Probate Michael Albis dismissed those sightings and in November declared John Susman legally dead.
Albis ruled that, under state statutes, Pamela Susman only had to establish her father’s continued absence for seven years, and that he had not been heard from in that time period. Albis declined to order the state medical examiner’s office to issue a death certificate, leaving open the possibility that Susman might be found alive and the estate declared his again.
The discovery of Susman’s skeletal remains renders that order moot. Now the question is whether Susman’s death certificate will list a cause.
Anthropologists from the University of New Haven are assisting the medical examiner’s office in trying to determine how Susman died. Sources said the remains show no visible signs of trauma, such as a gunshot wound, and said there was no evidence of a struggle in his home eight years ago.
At the time of his disappearance, police used bloodhounds and airplanes to comb the marshy area behind Susman’s home on Cosey Beach Avenue. Last week, Susman’s body was found in thick brush about 50 feet from Brazos Road.
On Tuesday, East Haven detectives returned to that area to cut away reeds and look for additional physical evidence. Today, state police detectives will join in the search.
“We aren’t even sure of the length of time that the body was there,” said Gallo, the East Haven police chief. “This case is as cold as cold can get.”