SFGATE: New true crime show recounts how a Bay Area daughter’s ‘recovered memory’ led to a murder trial

BY Katie Dowd, SFGATE – Posted October 10, 2021

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.

A story in the San Mateo Times from December 1969 discusses details from the Susan Nason crime scene.San Mateo Times/Screenshot

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. 

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