Susan Nason was a few days short of her 10th birthday when she went missing on Sept. 22, 1969. After an ordinary day at Foster City Elementary School, Susan walked to a friend’s house to drop off a pair of forgotten gym shoes. From there, she disappeared, kicking off a massive Bay Area search that tragically ended in the discovery of her body near Crystal Springs Reservoir a few months later.
The case went cold for decades. Then, 20 years on, a woman came forward with an astonishing claim: She had recovered repressed memories of watching her father kill Susan.
The Bay Area case that rocked the region and set the “recovered memory” precedent across the nation is the subject of Showtime’s new docuseries “Buried,” which premieres on Oct. 10. The four episodes utilize trial clips and police interviews to show the battle between Eileen Franklin-Lipsker and her father, George Franklin. (As an aside for locals, it’s also fascinating to see so much footage of Bay Area suburbs in the 1960s.)
The tale is a stomach-churning one, no matter whose side you’re on. In 1989, Eileen, then 29, told police she’d realized in a flash that she was witness to a murder. According to Eileen’s court testimony, through therapy, she recovered lost memories of her father sexually assaulting and bludgeoning Susan to death. It was the first murder case in U.S. history to rely on recovered memories.
Eileen testified that she remembered specific details of the day her father killed Susan, particularly a ring on Susan’s hand that was crushed during the assault. Her lawyers argued this was information only an eyewitness could know, although searching through newspaper archives shows those details were widely reported in the local press.
She also had repeated inconsistencies in her remembrances, and there was no physical evidence or witness testimony to link the former Foster City firefighter to the crime. Nonetheless, George Franklin was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Today, recovered memory is considered something of a pseudoscience, and the case is held up as its prime example of a miscarriage of justice.
But that is only half the story. As the trial unfolded, the Franklin family’s worst secrets became matters of public discussion and sometimes ridicule. Eileen and one of her sisters accused their father of sexually assaulting them throughout their childhood, and even George’s own lawyer admits on “Buried” that George had a history of dubious — if not legally actionable — sexual activity. It all made for a very strange and salacious tabloid brew, and Eileen became a regular on TV talk shows, many clips of which are shown on “Buried.”
It is a story full of victims. Not a single person is untouched by violence. Although “Buried” takes a small stumble in the final hour trying to belatedly give airtime to both sides, it’s a devastating portrait of how the cycle of abuse devours everything in its path. Left mostly unaddressed, though, is the last, lingering question for its most often forgotten victim: Susan Nason.
Although some members of Franklin’s family still maintain George was her murderer — he was exonerated on appeal in 1995 — there are as few clues today as there were when she disappeared in 1969.
At the time, the San Mateo Times reported there were multiple sightings of a suspicious man in a blue sedan circling near the school. One 9-year-old girl came forward and told police a week before the man had flagged her down and said he knew her parents. He claimed to have “toys” in the car and wanted to drive her home. When he opened the car door, the girl saw a rifle sitting in the front seat. Frightened, she ran home and told her mother. A few days later, more Foster City Elementary students reported unsettling behavior from a man in a blue station wagon who seemed to be casing the school. They said he was middle aged with dark hair greying on the sides. “But that fits 10 million Americans,” a police spokesperson bemoaned.
Only one other person of interest has ever been identified in connection with the case. In 1970, a 56-year-old San Jose man was arrested on suspicion of the murder, but eventually the charge was dropped and he instead faced unrelated child molestation charges, then only a misdemeanor. Franklin was the last named suspect in the murder.
If you know anything that may aid law enforcement in closing Susan’s case, there are several tip lines. The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office takes tips at 800-547-2700, and the Foster City Police Department has an anonymous hotline at 650-286-3323.
By day, native Nebraskan Harry MacLean helps settle conflicts as an arbitration attorney. On nights and weekends, he ruminates over methods and motives of killing.
The true-crime author’s book “Once Upon a Time: A True Story of Memory, Murder and the Law” examined a controversial case when a daughter’s playmate went missing. Decades later, the daughter, now an adult, reported a vivid memory: She had watched her own father kill her friend.
The 1990 case that sparked a national conversation about repressed memory is now being retold in a new four-part Showtime documentary series.
“Buried” premiered Oct. 10. It continues on Sundays through October.
And it stars MacLean, a Lincoln boy who grew up to become a true-crime impresario, as the series’ on-screen narrator.
Figuring out what makes people tick comes with the territory for MacLean, who has made it his life’s work as both an attorney and homicide-focused writer. He examines the mindset behind murders, secrets and lies. He dissects the motives and conditions that drive crime and punishment.
MacLean’s fascination with human nature’s dark side started at age 15, when Charles Starkweather infamously rampaged through Nebraska and Wyoming in 1958. The murder spree had personal association for the teenager. His older brother was a classmate of Starkweather, and the MacLeans lived near the Lincoln home of Clara and Lauer Ward and their maid Lillian Fencl — three of Starkweather’s 11 victims.
As a boy, he also read and re-read “In Cold Blood,” Truman Capote’s masterful recounting of the small-town Kansas murders of the Clutter family.
MacLean went to law school, worked as a Securities and Exchange Commission trial attorney, served a term as general counsel of the Peace Corps, and rose to become a juvenile court judge in Denver. All the while, he wanted to write. He didn’t know what to write until he read about the unsolved murder of Rex McElroy, the despised town bully of Skidmore, Missouri.
Vigilantes shot McElroy multiple times in 1981, killing him. Despite multiple witnesses to the murder, investigations and grand juries, the killing couldn’t be tied to the shooters. The murderers remain unknown to this day.
Reading about Skidmore, “almost smacked me in the face,” MacLean said. “…It involved a breakdown of the legal system and people taking the law into their own hands – it was like I was made to write it.”
After immersing himself in research he wrote an outline, found an editor at Harper Collins and published his first book, “In Broad Daylight.” Critics loved it. Readers didn’t — at least at first. It eventually found a mass audience as a Dell paperback, won a prestigious Edgar Award and got adapted into a TV movie starring Brian Dennehy and Chris Cooper.
MacLean’s analytical legal mind and storyteller instincts help him make sense of complex, dramatic cases. His next book chronicled how and why four decades elapsed between the 1964 kidnapping and murder of two Black teenagers and the successful prosecution of their Klansman killer.
That set the stage for MacLean’s next project, the one now showing on Showtime. As a child, a woman named Eileen Franklin-Lipsker had a playmate who went missing. As an adult, she reported a vivid memory of witnessing her father kill that playmate. This recollection was the only thing connecting George Franklin to the disappearance.
MacLean dove deep into the case. He worked to get inside the alleged killer’s head. He interviewed many women who, like Franklin-Lipsker, had been sexually abused.
“It’s a dark story because he was a bad guy,” MacLean said of George Franklin. Also: “You could tell it was going to be a great story. I knew using a repressed memory that led to a murder charge had never been done before. The case was going to stand or fall on this.”
The clincher, he said, “was the idea that somebody could recover a repressed memory of a murder intact and play it back like a video, take that into the courtroom, and convince 12 jurors of the guilt of the person on trial.”
“Once Upon a Time” became a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
It also sparked controversy, since it was a skeptical view of Eileen’s story at a time before psychologists started the “memory wars” debate about whether repressed memories can be trusted. (Many now believe they can’t.)
A district court judge overturned George Franklin’s conviction in 1995. Janice Franklin revealed that her sister Eileen’s repressed memory was recalled through hypnosis, contradicting testimony.
Eileen then accused her father of two other murders. Someone else later confessed to both.
A trio of Israeli filmmakers focused on the case as the subject of their first American project. The team’s lead investigator, producer Molly Forster, drew on many sources, including MacLean’s book. They picked MacLean to narrate, and he prepped for on-camera interviews by re-reading all his notes — by delving again into the recesses of a dark tale.
“We think Harry is a fantastic true-crime writer,” Forster said. “Our aim was to portray Harry as an objective storyteller that observes the plot from an outsider’s standpoint and takes the viewer with him, hand-in-hand, through this journey into the unexplored realms of memory and trauma.”
MacLean is anxious to see how the series represents events. Reliving the brutal material, he said, “kind of stirred” old demons – “but at a distance.“
It’s no coincidence that MacLean so often covers trauma. The author lost his father at seven.
After his father’s death, he acted out and got shipped to boarding school. Now, as a writer, he said he’s intrigued by “how different personalities react to it – who does it so screw up that it controls the rest of their life as opposed to those who adapt and go on to a normal, successful life.”
After decades contemplating it, he’s taking on the Starkweather odyssey in a new book that, he said, will address the complicity or innocence of Caril Ann Fugate, who accompanied Starkweather during the crime spree.
The pair were captured and convicted. He was executed. She was found guilty as an accomplice. MacLean hopes to interview her.
MacLean is exploring the role trauma played in Fugate’s experience. “She had a really rough childhood that I’ve uncovered,” he said. When the defendants stood trial, trauma theory didn’t exist. Fugate was never even psychologically evaluated.
“There was no focus on the adolescent brain at all. She was only 14. Charlie was 19. That has to be taken into account when you view her behavior. I’m not sure it excuses her or convicts her – I’ll sort that out in the book.”
His upcoming Starkweather book will be a reflection of who MacLean is and the life he has led, he thinks. All his books are “part of the tapestry of…how I see the world,” he said.
“I’ve got my own take on things. Someone else writing about these events would tell an entirely different story.”
It’s often punishing work, but the reward of dreaming up a book idea, making a convincing case using old court files and new interviews and then getting published is more than worth it.
“That’s probably more satisfying than anything I’ve ever done as a lawyer just because of the level of creativity involved,” MacLean said.
Years ago MacLean did a mid-life review and concluded he probably had a book in him. It turns out he had several. None have been the great American novel he once thought he’d write — his lone work of fiction is “The Joy of Killing” — but all have tapped his deep fascination with the application or absence of justice. The Showtime series has given new life to his tale about the repressed memory case. The forthcoming Starkweather book will add his take to an American serial killer saga that has captivated generations.
Published: 17:38 EDT, 14 October 2021 | Updated: 08:27 EDT, 15 October 2021
Eileen Franklin said she saw her father sexually assault her best friend. And then, she saw him lift a rock high up over his head and bash her friend’s head in.
For 20 years the unsolved killing of eight-year-old Susan Nason in 1969 haunted the idyllic town of Foster City, located on a peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose. Eileen never told anyone about the killing – she didn’t remember it. Not until, she said, a moment while playing with her young daughter caused the suppressed memory to resurface.
When Eileen’s story came to light and her father was arrested, her testimony at George Franklin’s trial led to his conviction in 1990 and launched a debate about repressed memory. It also spurred a national conversation about incest and child sexual abuse and an examination of the statute of limitations for those crimes.
As a coping mechanism for trauma, the brain represses a memory but can recover it later. This concept sparked the so-called Memory Wars in the 1990s. The ‘long-standing question about the existence of repressed memories has been at the heart of one of the most heated debates in modern psychology,’ according to an article in journal Perspectives on the Psychological Sciences.
George Franklin, who maintained his innocence, appealed his conviction, which was overturned. He was freed and not retried.
Eileen, who also said her father sexually abused her, testified that the memory of the murder can back to her after she became a mother.
She testified: ‘I was sitting on the sofa in my family room and my daughter was playing on the floor with some of her little playmates. And my daughter said something to me, which caused me to look down at her and I matched her gaze and at that moment she really closely resembled Susan and I remembered seeing Susan sitting there and seeing my father with the rock above his head.’
A new Showtime docuseries, Buried, looks at the twists and turns of the Franklin case, which was the first murder trial and conviction to involve repressed memory, and has experts weigh in from both sides about the nature of memory.
‘We still don’t have the answers how memory works and can it work this way,’ Ari Pines, one of the series’ directors, told DailyMail.com.
Family-oriented Foster City in the 1960s was just starting to be built up.
‘It was a very safe area,’ Daniel Munier, who grew up in Foster City, said in the docuseries.
Aimee Alotta, one of Eileen’s childhood friends, said that her family moved in the same day the Franklins did. George and Leah Franklin had five children and Eileen was their middle child. ‘Eileen was probably the quietest of the bunch. She was definitely George’s favorite.’
In a TV interview, Eileen said that growing up she was not a very attractive child. ‘My dad used to tell me how beautiful I was when everyone else in the neighborhood told me how ugly I was,’ she recalled.
She called her father, George, ‘irresistible’ and said women always flirted with him. ‘And I just thought my daddy is so handsome and so smart and so attractive. I just thought he was it.’
To the neighborhood, George Franklin was ‘a married father of five firefighter,’ Elaine Tipton, who prosecuted Franklin, said in the series.
But behind closed doors, the Franklin children were physically abused and George drank. His son, George Franklin Jr is heard on a cassette tape calling George an ‘abusive alcoholic father.
‘He beat me because I was his son.’
Eileen was not the only one to accuse him of sexual abuse. Her older sister, Janis, said he also molested her.
Harry Maclean, author of Once Upon A Time, which is about the Franklin case, said he did not doubt the stories about the abuse. ‘Every form of dysfunction I’ve ever encountered I saw in that family,’ Maclean said in Buried.
‘It was a house of hell.’
Doug Horngrad, George’s attorney during his trial, said the abuse was what motivated Eileen, saying on the series that she ‘was on a revenge trip.’ He said the prosecution’s entire case centered on Eileen and her testimony. ‘There was no corroborating evidence. Zero. Zilch.’
The district attorney’s office and the detectives who looked into Eileen’s statement disagreed.
‘The information that she was providing was matching up identically with the facts of the crime,’ Elaine Tipton, the prosecutor, said.
Eileen knew that Susie was wearing white socks and brown shoes and that the dress she was wearing was A-line. ‘But the most significant thing was that her friend’s hand, Susan’s right hand was wounded (and) injured,’ Tipton explained, ‘and she recalls noticing a silver ring and that the ring was damaged.’
Eileen said that Susie had her hand to her head when her father bashed her with a rock and saw her friend’s ring crushed. This convinced one detective that she was being straightforward and truthful. ‘Because Eileen knew information about the killing that no one should have known.’
Maclean pointed out that George Franklin, a firefighter, had no alibi and was not on duty the day Susan Nason disappeared.
Her mother, Margaret Nason, testified that Susan came home after school and asked if she could go and return a pair of shoes to her friend. Margaret said yes, and the friend, Celia Oakley, recalled in the docuseries that Susie was kind enough to bring the shoes to her house.
‘The police were able to deduce that I was the last person to see Susie,’ she said.
Their interaction was quick.
‘After about an hour, I started looking for her. I rode all the streets in the neighborhood. No one had seen her,’ Margaret Nason testified.
Police organized a search and archival news footage shows officers with dogs looking for the eight-year-old girl. Residents pitched in and also canvassed the neighborhood.
Susan remained missing for ten weeks. Her body was found 11 miles away from Foster City at the Crystal Springs Reservoir, which provides drinking water for San Francisco and several other places.
Her skull had been smashed.
The day Susan disappeared, Eileen testified that she was with her father in his Volkswagen van when she saw Susan. She asked her dad if her friend could come with them. Susan got into the van and they drove to the reservoirs and pulled off into an unpaved area. Eileen said she was in the passenger seat when she turned around and saw her father on top of Susie.
Then they were at the reservoir and Eileen said in a statement to detectives that Susie was sitting on a rock or something slightly elevated.
‘And when I looked up my father had a rock in his two hands, and was approaching her. And Susan screamed and brought her hand to her head. And he crashed the rock down against her head where her hands were. And he did a second blow… ‘
‘And he told me that if I ever told anyone about this he would kill me.’
Tipton, the prosecutor, said Eileen’s account was she had no memory of this for 20 years and then it came back to her in pieces.
Bessel Van Der Kolk, a psychiatrist, author and trauma expert, explained that repression and disassociation has always been a part of psychiatry. People, he said, couldn’t remember things after horrible experiences.
‘The trauma itself messes up your mind. The mind brain body creates a capacity to just push things away and put it out of consciousness, which is a normal reaction,’ he said in Buried.
‘The brain stops processing information and defends itself against what’s happening and it shuts things down.’
Elizabeth Loftus, a memory scientist, said that people think of memory as a recording but those in the field think of it as a reconstructive process. ‘When you’re remembering something you’re actually taking bits and pieces of experience. You’re bringing it together and constructing something that feels like a real memory,’ she explained, adding that memory was more akin to a Wikipedia page – you can go in and edit it but so can others.
Loftus, who testified for the defense in the George Franklin trial, said she looked into the evidence about repressed memories. ‘I was pretty shocked because there wasn’t any credible scientific support for this.’
Closing arguments at George Franklin’s trial came down to Eileen’s credibility. Tipton, the prosecutor, recalled in Buried that there were moments when Eileen would say something and there would be almost a stillness in the courtroom. ‘A lot of specific detail in her recall was not anywhere in the records,’ she said. ‘It was just registering as authentic.’
The jury deliberated for less than a day and found George Franklin guilty of first degree murder in 1990.
‘At the end of the trial when they read the verdict, I took it hard because I believe in his innocence and I believe in the system and something very wrong had happened,’ Horngrad, George’s attorney, said.
George Franklin appealed. Dennis Riordan, his appeal attorney, noted that the judge during sentencing called Franklin wicked and depraved. Franklin was sentenced to life in prison.
‘When I reviewed the entire record, I was firmly convinced that there was… not an iota of credible evidence that he had murdered Susan Nason in 1969,’ Riordan said in the docuseries.
In 1995, his conviction was reversed, which meant Franklin could be retried if prosecutors chose to do so. Among other things, the trial judge should have allowed the defense to introduce evidence of newspaper accounts of Susan Nason’s murder, according to the ruling, which the Los Angeles Times reported.
‘Our defense was that everything Eileen testified to was in the public domain,’ Horngrad said.
After the trial, two books were written about the case, Eileen made the rounds of talk shows, including Oprah, and a TV movie called Fatal Memories, which starred Shelley Long as Eileen, was released in 1992.
Detectives and Eileen both hinted that George Franklin was possibly responsible for other murders. Those hints never panned out or pointed to anything solid. He was never charged or tried again.
Franklin was released after serving six and a half years in prison. In interviews after his release, he denied that he murdered Susan and that he sexually abused her and Eileen, saying ‘absolutely not,’ when asked. He died in 2016, according to the series.
MacLean, who was in law for 15 years before he became an author, pointed out that Franklin was not acquitted of the murder, the appeals judge had ruled he hadn’t gotten a fair trial.
‘Even if Eileen’s memory is false that does not establish in my mind that George Franklin did not kill Susan Nason,’ he said in Buried. ‘There’s a lot of facts that point to him as the most likely culprit.’
George Franklin lived around the corner from Susie, who he knew because she was his daughter’s best friend, MacLean said, adding that when Susan had been over the Franklin house she had little tickling matches with George.
‘And the idea that he would molest her and then kill her to cover it up isn’t that far-fetched given his character for violence.’
After the trial, ‘Eileen Franklin changed her name and relocated to a new state. She has since been widowed twice. She wishes to remain anonymous,’ according to Buried.
‘It’s completely destroyed my life,’ she said in a TV interview after the trial. ‘I’ve lost my family through this. I have lost several years of my life. I don’t really know who I am when new memories emerge especially memories of murder and violence and me being his accomplice. It’s been devastating.’