A hot ball of glowing gasses steadily climbed in the eastern sky, threatening to drive temperatures into the triple digits in defiance of the onset of fall. It was the 25th day of September and the start of a typical Sunday in the small town of Denton: Texans moseyed into diners for breakfast and into churches for redemption, while Roger Staubach and Rookie of the Year Tony Dorsett prepared to host the New York Giants.
Later that afternoon, Tom Landry walked his team out onto the scorching turf of Texas Stadium. 35 miles away, 12-year-old Suzanna Marie Mages was being lured by a stranger—or was he? At the end of the first quarter, the Cowboys had taken a 14-point lead, and Suzie had been abducted. The Cowboys beat the Giants, 41-21, and they would go on to capture their second Super Bowl Championship. Suzie would never be seen alive again.
A Southern College Town
Known as the historical district and nightlife hub, Fry Street is the main drag and host to assorted shops, bars, restaurants, and, in 1977, a “head shop,” said to be the first of its kind. Unlike many small towns scattered across the Great State of Texas, Denton is a college town, home to the University of North Texas. In 1977, the town could, at times, resemble Haight-Ashbury, with its frizzy-haired peaceniks dancing in the streets. Though in Texas’s defense, most were not native to the Great State.
Among the bars and shops of Fry Street sat Mary’s Natural Foods, a small market owned by the victim’s mother, Mary Mages.
(An interesting photographic journal of the infamous Fry Street can be purchased and previewed here: The Fry Street Neighborhood 1977-1986: A Photographic Memoir by Alec Williams & Leslie Couture. There are quotes about this case from “The Girl on the Bike,” and you will also see “Mary’s Natural Foods,” the restaurant owned by the victim’s mother. I particularly enjoyed the commentary by The Girl on the Bike who reminds us that streaking was a thing in those days.)
A Tragic Event
On that Sunday, the Mages family’s washing machine had broken, so Mary drove her daughter, Suzie, to a laundromat on Eagle Drive, a mile or so from Fry Street. Mary left her daughter to tend to the wash while she went to her store to handle a matter of business. When Mary returned a short time later, her daughter was gone.
Suzie had left the coin-operated machines spinning and agitating, unattended, while she went next door to the Burger King. Witnesses reported seeing Suzie inside the Burger King wearing her blue jeans and a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt. She was talking with a man described as a tall adult with dirty blond hair long, sideburns, and a mustache. It was, after all, 1977.
The two chatted casually while waiting to place their orders. To my knowledge, there were no witnesses seeing the two leave together.
An Intense Search Underway
Search efforts were pursued by the family, by the police, and by a squad of volunteers from the community. Witnesses were interviewed, and a sketch of the Burger King stranger was produced.
On October 4, 1977, a body was recovered from the water of an abandoned gravel pit in southwest Dallas, more than forty miles from where Suzie was last seen at the Denton Burger King. Dental records confirmed that the remains were that of Suzanna Marie Mages.
An autopsy was performed, and the medical examiner determined the cause of death to be drowning. There was no evidence of violence, nor was there any evidence of sexual assault. However, the mode of death was ruled homicide due to the circumstances of Suzie’s disappearance and recovery.
When recovered, it was determined Suzie was dressed as she had been at the last time she was seen, with two small but significant exceptions: she had no socks, and her zipper was down. Her mother stated that Suzie would never wear shoes without socks.
Suzie was said to be an experienced, if not excellent, swimmer. There were no signs of trauma, so it is unlikely that her death was related to an accident. The contents of her lungs were consistent with the water wherein she was recovered, indicating that she drowned at the location of recovery. Her stomach contents would suggest that she died within eight hours of her visit to the Burger King.
Persons of Interest
There have been several persons of interest in this case, including a man with whom the family was familiar, and who resembled the man seen with the victim at Burger King. He was thought to have an interest in underaged girls, and shortly after the disappearance of Suzie, he was observed to have multiple, significant scratches on his arm and hand.
Without having access to investigative reports, it’s impossible to know if any of the persons of interest were completely eliminated as suspects, or if suspicion remained. With virtually no evidence, the case would be difficult to prosecute absent a confession or eyewitness testimony that could be corroborated. Many unsolved cases are laid to rest with the investigators having strong suspicions of who might be involved, but no evidence to do anything about it.
Technology has advanced significantly since 1977, namely the breakthrough of DNA evidence. As mentioned in my post on the Angie Dodge murder, a great book was written by Joseph Wambaugh called The Blooding. It is about the first case where DNA evidence was used to solve a murder, and it is a fascinating read. Here is a link to that book:
Thoughts for a Cold Case Investigation
It is said there is little or no evidence in this case. A fresh look at any case offers the possibility of finding new leads or discovering new evidence.
Hair samples and nail clippings are collected during autopsies. When someone is strangled or forcibly drowned, one might expect to find DNA of the killer beneath the victim’s fingernails, as it is natural for a victim to claw at her killer as she struggles to get free.
It would be prudent to assume that Suzie was familiar with her killer. As mentioned by witnesses at the Burger King, she seemed comfortable speaking with him. Also, there was no report (to my knowledge) of a struggle, abduction, or any other commotion. She just vanished. The absence of any spectacle would suggest that the victim was comfortable accepting a ride from her abductor, and that is what she did. Since we know she was killed forty miles from where she was abducted, one would assume that up until the time she was killed, she was not in fear of her life. Unless, of course, she had been bound and gagged and placed in a trunk, though there is no evidence of that having been the case.
Sexual Assault Motive
Another indication that the victim knew her killer is that it appears she had been re-dressed. In sexual assault cases, that can be an indication that the victim was known by her killer.
It is likely that sexual assault was the motive, even though there was no evidence of it discovered. Since the victim was submerged in water for ten days, it is very likely that evidence was destroyed.
Also, sexual assault murders don’t always include sexual penetration of the victim. In the aforementioned Angie Dodge case, there was no evidence of sexual penetration; however, the suspect ejaculated on her body, leaving DNA evidence.
Strange Event or Coincidence?
A few days prior to Suzie’s abduction, she had written a fictional story about a girl who was kidnapped and murdered. The family dismissed this as coincidental. In my experience, there are few coincidences in life and death.
An investigation of this case should include an intense study of that essay. Suzie’s friends and teachers should be interviewed again, and that written story should be among the topics discussed. Why would a 12-year-old write such a thing? Had someone close to her joked with her about the subject? Had an older man with whom she was acquainted suggest he’d like to run away with her?
Suzie was an honor student, a loving daughter, and a responsible young lady. I don’t doubt any of those attributes, which makes this case that much more puzzling, and tragic.
More on the Suzanna Mages Case
My friends at Gone Cold, a Texas-based crime podcast, interviewed me about this case. Vincent and his wife, Erica, are doing a great job of investigative journalism on these cold cases down south, and I would highly encourage you to check out their show. Their review of this case is going to span at least three episodes, and a lot more detail will be revealed.
In the first two episodes, Vincent interviews Suzie’s father and a detective who has reopened the investigation. The third episode will cover more of the case and also feature my interview. So be sure to check out the Gone Cold Podcast, and visit their website.
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