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After 24 years, Nutley police sued as man searches for answers in sister's disappearance

The Record, Bergen County logo The Record, Bergen County 5 days ago Kaitlyn Kanzler, NorthJersey.com
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The brother of a woman who has been missing since 1996 is suing the Nutley Police Department andits records custodian for evidence in his sister's disappearance. 

Arthur Merchant filed the lawsuit on Sept. 9, claiming that police and Ceci Tramontana violated the state's Open Public Records Act and failed to give him documents requested in his sister's case.

Susan Walsh, 36, vanished on July 16, 1996, after she left her Washington Avenue apartment to make a call on a payphone. The Nutley police failed to "yield any results" during their missing person investigation, frustrating Walsh and Merchants' father, Floyd Merchant, the suit states.

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Acting out of his frustration, Floyd Merchant hired a private investigator, Patrick Barry, to search for his daughter. Barry collected witness statements, videos, pictures and eyewitness lists, which were finalized in 1997 and given to the Nutley Police Department, according to the suit.

On July 17, Merchant, who lives in Glen Gardner, filed a public records request with the police but said he was denied access to the records he requested and only received "a few newspaper clippings, random poems and a missing person's flyer."

a person holding a sign: In 2006, Nutley Police Detective Lt. Steven Rogers reopened the case of Nutley woman, Susan Walsh, who went missing in 1996. Rogers has since retired and Nutley police said the case is still open but her brother is suing the department for access to documents. © File Photo In 2006, Nutley Police Detective Lt. Steven Rogers reopened the case of Nutley woman, Susan Walsh, who went missing in 1996. Rogers has since retired and Nutley police said the case is still open but her brother is suing the department for access to documents.

 According to the lawsuit, the explanation was that "criminal investigatory records are exempt from the definition of 'government record'" and that Walsh's disappearance is still an ongoing investigation. Under the state's OPRA law, government records must be made available to anyone who requests them, with certain exceptions. 

Susan Walsh standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: In this photo from 2001, Martha Young, hold a photograph of her daughter Susan Young, who went missing in 1996 from Nutley. Walsh's brother is suing the Nutley Police Department for access to records regarding the investigation. © File Photo In this photo from 2001, Martha Young, hold a photograph of her daughter Susan Young, who went missing in 1996 from Nutley. Walsh's brother is suing the Nutley Police Department for access to records regarding the investigation.

"Suffice it to say, [Merchant] and his family are in the same position they were in 24 years ago," the lawsuit says.

The complaint alleges the department "improperly and unlawfully" withheld "the vast majority of records" Merchant requested and that he has been denied access to anything useful. The suit also claims that Merchant is entitled to the information provided to the Nutley Police Department by Barry because his father paid for his investigation.

Nutley Detective Lt. Anthony Montanari said the case is still an open investigation. But Merchant wants proof that they are actually investigating Walsh's disappearance.

"For the past 24 years, [Merchant] has called the Nutley Police Department searching for answers," the suit said. "The response he receives is always the same, 'it's still an ongoing investigation.'"

The suit demands that the police provide proof they are still looking into Merchant's sister's disappearance and that they provide proof that the "disclosure of records in this decades-old case would be 'inimical to the public interest.'"

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24 years missing

Susan Walsh had a troubled life, but she had big dreams.

She was a freelance journalist who had written for the Village Voice, investigating club subcultures and helping a fellow Voice reporter, James Ridgeway, research the sex industry for a book. She was also an exotic dancer working toward a master's degree at New York University.

She had begun drinking and taking prescription drugs again several months before she disappeared, after being in recovery for alcoholism for 11 years. She had increased her use of Xanax, which she took for depression. She complained about being stalked by ex-boyfriends, CIA agents and members of the Russian mob, with a friend saying she was the most paranoid person they knew.

But friends and family agreed that Walsh would never just walk out on her 12-year-old son. There were rumors she had been kidnapped by a stalker or a vampire from one of the club subcultures she had written about,or that she was silenced by the Russian mob, or her disappearance was a hoax to drum up publicity for the book she helped research.

In interviews, Floyd Merchant died in 2013 without getting any answers about what happened to his daughter.

Walsh's case was featured on "Unsolved Mysteries." She was 5 feet 6 inches tall and about 110 pounds at the time of her disappearance, with blond hair and blue eyes. She would now be 60 years old. She was last seen wearing a black tank dress and black sandals.

Kaitlyn Kanzler covers Essex County for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: kanzler@northjersey.com

Twitter: @KaitlynKanzler8

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: After 24 years, Nutley police sued as man searches for answers in sister's disappearance

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