The Death of Susan Reinert

I  belong to several groups on Facebook relating to true crime. In one of them the book "Echoes in the Darkness" by Joseph Wambaugh was recommended.  I am in the process of reading it now.  One of the most surprising things to me was that I had never heard of this case what so ever.  There was even a mini-series made in 1987, back when mini-series' were big, and yet I've never seen that either.  I wonder if one of the reasons I have not is that in 1992 everything in the book came into question.

On Monday, June 25, 1979 the body of Susan Reinert was found in the hatchback of her car in a hotel parking lot in Harrisburg Pennsylvania.  It appeared from all the bruises that she had been beaten prior to her death.  Her body was wrapped in chains.  An autopsy revealed that she had been dosed with a massive amount of morphine. Aside from determining who had done this to Susan, the bigger question became where were her children, Karen aged 11 and Michael aged 10. To this day they have never been found.  The last people to at least admit seeing the three alive were neighbors who say they saw them running from their home to their car on Friday, June 22nd during what residents have called a "freak hailstorm."

Susan Reinert was an English teacher at Upper Merion Area High School in King of Prussia Pennsylvania.  The school had been in the press quite a bit over the last several months as their former principal, Jay Smith had caused quite the scandal with legal issues.  In fact, on the day Susan's body was found Smith was due in court, in Harrisburg, to be sentenced for crimes he had been convicted.  I will go into those crimes a bit later.  Prosecutors would find it of no coincidence that not only was late to his sentencing hearing but that Susan had been found nearby.  But, as they say, what they know, and what they can prove are often two different things.  Smith himself did not become suspect number one.

While the school had seen the drama in the media surrounding their former principal and now the murder of one of their teachers, the drama inside the school had been going on for years.  Jay Smith had always come off as an odd duck to just about everyone there, but then there was William "Bill" Bradfield Jr. Like Susan, he too worked in the English department.  It seems there were two groups of people at Upper Merion.... those who thought Bradfield hung the moon and were easy manipulated and those who thought he was completely full of himself, and well just about everything.  It does not appear that there was many in between.  

Bradfield was living with another Upper Merion teacher, Sue Meyers.  Their relationship was an odd one.  By 1979 they had been together for about fifteen years although only lived together for about the last five. But, few people knew about it and even some who did know thought it was only a roommate type situation.  This was one of Bradfield's rules in the relationship.  He had every excuse in the book to convince Sue that their relationship must remain secret. According to Sue's account Bradfield had repeatedly been unfaithful to her but every time could "reel" her back in.  Any time she got suspicious about things he smoothed things over but even she was growing tired of the way things were by 1979.  In fact, they had not had intercourse in nearly two years by then. 

Susan Reinert divorced her husband in the mid 1970's and it seems soon she too was seeing Bradfield. But again, he had a rule, no one was to know and he all but controlled things.  As women do, she too became frustrated and rumors began to fly at Upper Merion about the two being involved. Apparently to do damage control Bradfield told those closest to him that they were just friends; that he felt sorry for Susan as she was considered mousy and was now a single parent.  Later he would often express disdain for Susan to those closest to him. In fact, it appears the only person he did not show these feelings to were Susan herself.  She would continue thinking that they were in fact a couple, despite the fact that she seemed to rarely see him outside of work, and at work they were not open about things.  By the end of 1978 she apparently gave him an ultimatum.  He asked her (and she agreed) to hold on just a bit longer but apparently promised her he would move out of the home he shared with Sue Meyers and into his parents' home as a sign of good faith to her.  She believed him and began telling people that she and Bradfield were to be married in the summer of 1979.  By all accounts Bradfield never moved out and that summer Susan was found dead in her car, but not before she had changed her will and obtaining over $700,000 in life insurance and naming Bradfield the sole beneficiary.  

For her part Sue Meyers was still a bit suspicious of things.  Sometime in late 1978 to early 1979 Bradfield had come to here with a legal paper he wanted her to sign that was a cohabitation agreement. Around this time there had been a big deal about this kind of thing. In 1977 actor Lee Marvin was sued by a woman who had been his companion for several years and in fact had taken his name although they were not married.  She would claim that she had given up her chance at a career for him basically to be at his beck and call per se and that when he broke up with her she felt she was entitled to a portion of his belongings or holdings, just as if she would be if they had been married and divorced.  Her suit was not successful but it was not without merit either and even the courts ruled that it should be looked at case by case when there was not an agreement in place.  So, after fifteen years together, five of them living together, Sue Meyers did have a right to be suspicious that suddenly she was being asked to sign this paper.  She asked Bradfield his reasons and he told her that while stressing that he and Susan Reinert were still nothing more than friends, and he planned to talk her out of it, she had added him as the beneficiary to a "small" life insurance policy she had.  Investigators would believe he knew there was nothing small about the policy.

So, after Susan's death and learning all of these strange things about William Bradfield, he became the number one suspect, but really they had little to nothing on him.  They were also learning more about Susan's estate issues as well as it seems that the insurance was not paying up, probably because they too were suspicious.  Nearly two years after Susan's death Bradfield filed to have her estate go through probate. It had also been discovered that near the end of 1978 Susan's mother had died and she had gotten a large cash inheritance.  It was found that Bradfield had convinced Susan to give him $25,000 for what prosecutors would later call an "investment scheme."  In reality he just simply took her money.  Through his depositions for the probate they were first able to nail him for "theft by deception" for the $25,000 and he was sentenced to two years.

During his time in prison for the theft, investigators worked even harder on the murder case.  Bradfield had claimed to be near the Jersey shore on the weekend that Susan had died and her children disappeared.  Sue Meyers and friend Vince Valaitis and Chris Pappas (also teachers at Upper Merion) confirmed this to solidify his alibi.  On April 6, 1983, just after serving his prison sentence investigators finally felt they were ready to arrest Bradfield for the murders of not just Susan, but of her children also despite their bodies not being found.  

By the time it was all over, at least at Bradfield's end they really could only prove that he put the plan in motion, not that he had been the one to commit the murders.  That was ok with them though because Bradfield was convicted on three counts of conspiracy to commit murder on October 28, 1983 and received three life sentences. Bradfield never admitted to having any part in the crime and continually blamed his ex boss, Jay Smith.  Some say that Smith's role in this was fabricated and set up by Bradfield while others firmly believe Smith was involved.  At any rate, none of Bradfield's appeals came through and he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1998 while serving his time.

So all of this leads us back to Jay Smith. And, even if you believe he was set up for murder by Bradfield, you have to admit with all of his issues he was an easy target.  You would also have to admit that while it may or may not be confirmed, it definitely was a possibility.

Life truly began to crumble for Smith when he was arrested on August 19, 1978. Two bystanders had seen a man emerge from a car in a parking lot brandishing guns and looking inside a van.  They made their way to a phone and called the police describing the vehicle.  Smith was apprehended a short time later.  When the officer pulled him over he even pulled a gun on the officer but it seems he easily dropped it when asked.  Inside the car they found four loaded guns, a hooded mask, a silencer made from an oil filter and a syringe filled with some sort of tranquilizing drug.  He was promptly arrested, officially for prowling, until it could be sorted out. While he was in the jail he had made a call and the arresting officer overheard Smith telling someone to go to his home and get rid of some files and other things.  They became suspicious and decided to watch the house.  When an employee from the school showed up at the Smith house and began to bring boxes out of the home the police stopped him.  They did not arrest the man but they secured the house and waited for a search warrant to be signed by a judge.

Once inside the home they made their way down to the basement to a room in which even Smith's wife claimed he always kept locked.  Inside the room they found several pounds of marijuana, several more guns and silencers, and a lot of equipment that technically belonged to his school. They also found a variety of pornographic material that pertained to many areas such as homosexuality, and having swing partners. But more importantly they found a false badge and uniform for a security company.  The year prior a Sears store in the area had been robbed of over $50,000 when a man, dressed as if from the security company that collected their money had come in.  A few weeks later another Sears store had the same incident happen only this time the person in charge was keenly aware of the past incident and became suspicious.  Before the police could arrive the man had left the store. Since that time they had been looking for the person involved, and now it seemed they had their man.  The ID they found even had the name of the person who had signed for the $50,000.  

For his part, Smith had an answer for everything.  First, of course they had the wrong man for the robbery.  The pot? It belonged to his daughter, Stephanie and her husband, Eddie Hunsberger who were heroin addicts.  The pornography? That was all research material for a book he was writing about basically how to prevent your child from becoming a homosexual.  Keep in mind this was the late 70's and while some of the things said seem so arcane to us today, many were truly believed in those days.  To be honest I am unsure that I heard any excuse about the guns.  Many say that of all the things found it seems that he was most concerned about the pornography found in his home, as if that was the worse thing to his reputation.

The fact of the matter, as bad as all of those things were, especially the robbery, they did not compare to the rumor floating around, one that would follow him until his death.  Stephanie and Eddie Hunsberger had last been seen by his parents on February 25, 1978.  The Hunsberger's lived with her parents and were apparently, as Smith stated, drug addicts.  The problem was that they were never seen or heard from again, except supposedly by Jay Smith and his stories often changed.  Eddie's mother would say at some point that Smith's wife said to her once "I hope Jay hasn't done anything to them."  Smith told the Hunsberger's that the couple had moved to California, which they did not believe and at his trial Smith's wife would claim they had called from there recently, but there was no verification of this.  What they do know is that for at least six months after their disappearance Jay Smith continue to cash welfare checks for the couple.  Like the Reinert children, the Hunsberger's have never been found.

So, at any rate, here was Jay Smith facing charges related to the robbery, attempted robbery, drug possession and firearms.  He spent a little time in jail initially and then he made bail.  He would eventually be convicted but once again apparently allowed to remain out of jail waiting for an appeal until his sentencing, which again, was the day in which Susan Reinert's body was found. He received a sentence of "up to five years." He was still serving that sentence when he was charged on June 25, 1985, exactly six years to the day later, with the murders of Susan and her children. So... what did they have?

Keep in mind that for one this was long before modern DNA techniques were available.  I found some "evidence" that was stated to have been found, but to be honest, I have no idea when these items were found.  The first as a comb found under the body of Susan Reinert in her car that had Smith's Army Reserve Unit number printed on it.  The other was a green pin in which witnesses claimed Karen Reinert had worn the last day she was seen.  The pin was found under the passenger seat of Smith's vehicle.  Most other "evidence" became the reason that in 1987, after being convicted and sentenced to death row Smith's conviction was overturned. This evidence came in the form of hearsay from friends and associates of William Bradfield's.  So what did they have to say?

It appears that in the months leading up to Susan's murder, and after Jay Smith brush with the law, Bradfield was telling many people that Jay Smith and Susan were in a romantic relationship.  He also indicated to several people that he was scared that Smith was going to murder Susan and possibly her children because, well in one version, "she knew too much."  He told some people that Smith had ties to the Mafia and was a hit man.  He told others that other people were in danger from Smith also.  But, he got all these people to keep their mouths shut and not so much as tell Susan, let alone authorities because he was going to get the proof.  Later when asked why none of the people who testify had told no one, they could not answer.  

Sue Meyers had her doubts about a lot of things when it came to Bradfield but when it came to believing him about his feelings about Susan and there being a possible relationship between Susan and Jay Smith she would say she had no doubts at all.  In my opinion this came from the fact that she was so invested in Bradfield and had a huge hatred for Susan Reinert.  The two women had even come to blows at the school.  And noone was very fond of Jay Smith. She likely felt there were no two people more suited for each other.  But, Sue was suspicious when Jay Smith was in jail facing the robbery charges that Bradfield seemed pre-occupied in helping him and had "suddenly" realized at some point that at least one of the robberies could not possibly be Smith since he would now claim they were together.  Bradfield even went to court for Smith testifying that they had been together on that day, but obviously it was not believed. 

Another, very strange thing was mentioned in reference to Jay Smith's involvement that could lead someone to lean either for or against him.  In August of 1978, during the search of his home binding chains had been found. Of course this was likely to go with the pornographic and sadist things found, but then in June of 1979 Susan's body was also found wrapped in chains.  There really seemed no reason for them.  If you lean towards the guilty side then you believe Smith had some pre-occupation with chains. But, if you lean to the side that he was framed, then you see the chains as one of those "links" used.  

In the end the jury convicted him in 1986 and he was ultimately sentenced to death.  However, in 1989 an appeals court reversed that conviction in effect saying that all those friends of Bradfield's that testified to things he had told them should never have been allowed to take the stand.  The court ordered a new trial but Smith's lawyer argued that to do so violated double jeopardy laws. Besides, it was not long until more information, unfavorable to the prosecution came to light.  

Police Detective, Jack Holtz, had hired a company to come and clean out his attic.  While doing so a man discovered items pertaining to Smith's trial.  Among the items was a comb, identical to the one found under Susan Reinert's body, yet supposedly not the exact one, notes contradicting testimony and a letter from Joseph Wambaugh offering $50,000 in the event that Smith was arrested and taken to trial for the murders.  This information first found their way into the hands of a reporter.  It was later determined that the comb, in which prosecutors had relied heavily on in the trial had been made in bulk and not only easily available but readily handed out. This meant that it was not something only Smith could have possessed.  There were indications that there had been sand on the feet of Susan's body and apparently at least one expert claimed that it could have come from the beach in which William Bradfield had admitted to being at the time of the crime, yet the defense had never heard that information.  Then there was the issue of the $50,000.  Eventually both Holtz and Wambaugh were cleared of any wrongdoing in that matter despite both admitting that it had occurred.  According to both, no information was exchanged until after the prosecution had rested their case and Wambaugh's argument was that clearly investigators felt Smith was involved but his book would not be successful without the arrest being made.   

In 1992 the courts reviewed Smith's defense motion that a new trial would equate double jeopardy and surprisingly, let alone breaking with traditional rulings or even precedence they agreed.  The court ordered that Smith be released from prison and that he could never be tried again.  They ruled that in their opinion that the "misconduct" of the prosecutor was at a level in which a fair trial could not be obtained.  After his release Smith attempted several law suits against the police, the prosecutors and even Joseph Wambaugh.  All of his cases failed in the courts.  Smith died in May of 2009 still proclaiming his innocence in Susan Reinert's murder.  

Several years after Bradfield died (in 1998) it was revealed that many notes were found that have been described as being in "code" and a picture was discovered.  The picture almost looked like a grave in a field and investigators have tried to determine where this picture was taken and wonder if in fact the bodies of the Reinert children were buried there. There have been many theories over the years as to what happened to the children.  There are some who believe the rumors that the children's bodies could have been placed in the incinerator at Upper Merion and some believe the children could have been weighed down and drowned in a body of water.  Some believe rumors that he Reinert children were left alive and being raised by the Hunsbergers. Since neither Bradfield nor Smith ever admitted being involved at all it seems it may never be known.

The biggest mystery is what happened to the children, not just the Reinert children but also Stephanie Smith Hunsberger and her husband Eddie.  The Reinert children were officially declared dead in 1987.  Next to that, the next biggest mystery or debate is whether Smith got away with murder or if he was set up by Bradfield.  I have to admit I am close to being on the fence with this one.  I saw no more information about the pin that was found in Smith's car that was supposedly linked to Karen Reinert.  I would have like to have heard more on that, like, when was it found; how was it found; was it at least tested for fingerprints?  Is the pin still around somewhere and could it be tested with modern DNA testing?  Jay Smith was obviously, by all accounts, not a good or misjudged person but regardless of this actions in other areas we have to determine if this was one of his crimes and that is just hard to tell.  It just seems like it could have been very easy to set him up and it almost sounds as if Bradfield was doing just that by his comments to all of his friends.  Investigators found no indication or evidence that linked Smith and Susan Reinert romantically in any way.  Susan Reinert apparently told her therapist many things about Bradfield but there's no indication that she mentioned Smith.  She had told her therapist that there was a plan for her, her children and Bradfield to visit Europe after the wedding she was sure was to happen but that she had not told the children because she did not want her ex husband to find out. Apparently though it seems that she intended for them to live there because the only connection they found between Susan Reinert and Jay Smith was a letter she wrote to him asking for a reference as she planned to apply at a school in Europe.  Investigators found both her letter and Smith's response and both seemed to nothing more than two professionals trading niceties.  The only person that ever said they had a romantic relationship was Bradfield.  Was that the plan?  Make everyone think this so he could set him up?  In the same respect, Bradfield either had to have an accomplice help him plant Susan's body in her car and do something with the children or Meyers, Valaitis, and Pappas all liked about never losing sight of him on that weekend for the time it would have taken him to return to Harrisburg even if it was just to drive and plant the body. Unless of course one of them were involved, but to be fair there's absolutely no indication of this what so ever.  Even if the sand supposedly found on Susan's feet did come from the same area they all admitted to being in does not mean Bradfield did not have an accomplice and really it does not mean it was not Smith.  However, he was pretty sloppy if it was Smith with supposedly leaving a comb, leaving the body so close to where he was scheduled to be the next morning, among other things.

Most believe that the only reason Susan's body was found, let alone left nearly out in the open since even the hatchback of her car was partly open was because Bradfield needed her to be found to collect the insurance.  Prosecutors maintain that Jay Smith played his roll in order to get a share of the insurance himself.  There are some that believe Smith helped Bradfield in order to get part of the insurance proceeds himself.  Others believe that Bradfield was so manipulative and thought he was so much smarter than everyone else that he found Smith to be an easy patsy.  He knew the investigators would come looking for him once they knew about the insurance or talked to any of Susan's friends and he knew Jay Smith was already in trouble for other things, and suspected in the disappearance of his own daughter and son in law.  How far of a stretch would it be for him to have killed a fellow co-worker.  But, he needed to have a motive to do so and it is conceivable that is where Bradfield came through with the stories he told friends about a relationship between Susan and Smith.  

Regardless of who you believe was or was not involved, the principal players in this are all dead now and the truth may never be known, and sadly it's also just as unlikely the Reinert children will ever be found.

Comments

  1. I read about this case years ago, and always felt so badly for the Reinert kids, and their father, who never got any answers.

    Fun trivia-the woman that started the "palimony" suit against Lee Marvin was named Michelle Triola. She lived with Dick Van Dyke from the mid-70's until she died in 2009.

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