Founder of Journey to Hope and Mother of Susie Jaeger
Name: Susie Jaeger
Crime: Abducted and murdered
A cool breeze awoke Heidi. Confused, she looked around and realized that the cold came from a big hole cut in the tent. She quickly went from surprised to scared when she discovered that her little sister Susie was missing next to her.
Heidi rushed through the night to a nearby caravan where her parents were sleeping.
“Wake up, wake up,” she screamed.
Marietta tried to calm down the upset daughter, explaining that she was sure the youngest of her five children had just gone to the bathroom, but when the mother saw the hole that had been sliced in the tent, her confusion turned to fear. When she found the two stuffed lambs that Susie always slept with in the grass a few feet away, she had no doubt.
“I knew it was real and that Susie was not just wandering around. Clearly, something terrible had happened. I just prayed that someone had not taken her,” Marietta tells about the moment when she realized that her seven-year-old daughter had been abducted.
The Jaeger family arrived at the Missouri Headwaters State Park in Montana three nights earlier after driving for a week through eight states since leaving their home in Michigan.
For the next month, Bill and Marietta Jaeger were going to spend what they hoped to be a once-in-a-lifetime dream vacation that they would talk about for the rest of their lives.
“When we got there, I was just so happy. I felt I could not have been blessed with a better life than the one I had. Our trip had turned out to be the best time our family had ever had together. But the dream soon became a nightmare,” Marietta says.
The mother awoke all kids and told them that Susie was gone while her husband drove off to find a phone and call the police. Shortly after 4:00 a.m., the dispatcher received the call at the sheriff’s department in Gallatin County.
In the beginning, officers thought it was a false alarm as the area was known to be quiet and safe, but when the investigators saw the hole in the tent, they also began to worry. A violent crime had taken place and FBI agents from the Bozeman field office quickly joined the search for the missing girl.
There were only a few clues at the campsite. Among them were footprints that investigators found in the morning dew of the grass.
The footprints led to a nearby parking area, but the driver had taken off and one of the biggest missing persons searches in Montana was launched. A few hours later, the park was swarming with officers and members of the National Guard searching for the missing girl from horseback, helicopters, and boats.
While searching Headwaters State Park, some of the officers had a flashback to five years earlier when they had been going through the same scenic landscape searching for evidence in another case. During a troop outing, a 12-year-old boy was stabbed and beaten to death in the middle of the night while he was sleeping in a tent. Police never solved the case and the investigators worried that the killer was back.
The FBI and local authorities immediately set up a command post next to the Jaeger family’s caravan while searching the area with Marietta as an onlooker.
“There were helicopters in the air and they also searched the nearby river. Every time the boat stopped, my heart stopped. I was so scared that they were gonna pull up the net and that Susie would be in it,” Marietta tells.
Meanwhile, hundreds of citizens called in with tips and police investigated all of them. One of the callers was a man who urged police to investigate his 24-year-old neighbor whom he described as acting weird and showing an unusual interest in his children. Police knew the neighbor, but when they investigated David Meirhofer, nothing seemed suspicious and when another call came in, it changed the focus of the investigators.
One week after the kidnapping, a man called a deputy sheriff at home. The man claimed to be the kidnapper and he demanded $50,000 in ransom to be delivered to a bus station. To confirm that he was not a prank caller, the kidnapper described a minor deformity on the missing girl’s index fingers.
“When Susie was taken, I had to describe every little detail of her body to the FBI. Every little mark and every little scar, but we had over the years gotten so used to her most unique feature, the index fingers, that I completely forgot to mention it to the investigators. Therefore, nobody knew of them and I immediately knew he was the kidnapper. He could not have obtained these facts from any documents, but only by looking at my little girl,” Marietta tells.