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TRYING TO OPEN A CLOSED CASE

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Someone screamed. Two witnesses saw a woman being dragged behind a Wildwood restaurant. And there were 26 "unanswered" external injuries on the partially clad body of a New York woman found dead last Memorial Day weekend.

Her death has been ruled accidental.

Her family believes someone got away with murder.

The parents of 20-year-old Susan Negersmith believe the injuries and the witness reports are examples of "crucial" evidence sufficient to reopen their daughter's case. They want her death reclassified as a homicide.

It's an uphill battle. Both the state and the county stand by their earlier findings that a drunken Susan passed out and died lying on the cold paving of the restaurant parking lot.

"It's extremely frustrating," the victim's father, Kent Negersmith, said during a recent telephone interview. "It's not something that may seem to others as a task. It's something you have to do, like breathe.

"I believe my daughter was beaten and strangled. I feel it's a cover-up and our efforts are not going to stop."

On May 26, Negersmith and a group of friends traveled to Wildwood to celebrate the end of the school year and stayed at the Sunata motel on Atlantic Avenue.

She had just returned home two weeks earlier from a New York state college and was pursuing a career in marketing, her father said.

Her family and friends said she had a love for the shore and her outgoing, likable personality made her fun to be around. Kent Negersmith said she was an "average" student.

"Every now and then she and her friends liked to party," Kent Negersmith said. "That was normal for the general college population. That's what she was doing in Wildwood."

The next morning, a man found her lying face up on the cold ground outside Schellenger's Restaurant. She had several bad cuts, scrapes and bruises on her body and one of her teeth was chipped, according to forensic reports released by the family's attorney, Gary C. Hobbs, of Glens Falls, N.Y.

Even though each injury was reported, the only explanation police gave was that Negersmith was intoxicated and she had fallen several times before her death.

"Other than the possibility of a chipped tooth and a black eye, I can find no accounting for the remaining 26 areas of trauma across Susan's body," said Hobbs.

She was not wearing shoes or socks, but her feet were clean, police reports show.

"What this means is that she probably didn't walk to the area where her body was found," said Hobbs. Her socks and sneakers were never located, he added.

Toxicology reports conclude the former high school cheerleader and expert skier from Carmel, N.Y., died from a combination of heart failure, intoxication and exposure, according to reports from Cape May County Medical Examiner Dr. John Napoleon.

Kent and Colleen Negersmith have hired Hobbs to help them in their effort to push state and county officials to reopen the investigation.

"To me it's obvious this is a homicide," said Kent Negersmith. "The whole thing is very hard to understand why people don't react to it. We won't quit until it become obvious that I'm wrong. Hopefully the case will be reopened."

Their efforts began several months ago and so far, have been rebuffed.

"At the conclusion of the examination, we made the correlation between the investigation and medical physical information and I was quite satisfied that a proper determination was made regarding the cause and manner of death," New Jersey State Medical Examiner Robert Goode told Hobbs in a letter dated Jan. 18.

"I am reluctant to commit a large additional block of time to an investigation which I think was conducted properly ... No new information has come to light and re-evaluation would simply be doing the same thing twice," Goode added.

"This is an investigation matter and we just do not comment on them," Cape May County Prosecutor John Corino said during a telephone interview last week.

The Negersmiths' latest mission is to use police reports, police incident statements, police interviews, witness statements, autopsy reports and the opinion of at least one noted pathologist, to get the investigation reopened.

"There are just too many questions that remain unanswered in the case," Hobbs said.

"How can they explain the scrape marks found on her back and buttock area? There was also a piece of glass found embedded in her anal cavity. They never explain the reasons for any of this," Hobbs added.

Wildwood Patrolman Chris Howard, one of the first officers on the crime scene, noted that there appeared to be bruises around Susan's neck in his May 27, 1990 report, Hobbs said.

Howard said Monday he "is not at liberty to comment" any further about the case.

"I think the family has to do what they have to do," said Howard, regarding the Negersmiths' attempts to reopen their daughter's case. "I know the case was very well investigated and it was completed. Other than that, I cannot comment right off the cuff about the case."

Susan Negersmith was last seen with a young man who was supposedly walking her back to her hotel, Hobbs stated.

"This male was reported as being with Susan for a period of one to one and one-half hours," said Hobbs. "Upon returning to his party, this male bragged that he had sexual relations with Susan in a parking lot.

"The next morning after Susan's body was found, the male told friends that Susan was 'fine when I left her at her hotel.' It has been confirmed that Susan never got back to her motel."

Other "remarkable" evidence Hobbs addresses is the fact that Negersmith's clothing had been "ripped" from her body.

"Both Susan's family and myself find it hard to believe that Susan caused all of her own injuries, then removed and discarded her shoes and socks, removed her pants and underwear from her right leg, leaving them draped over her left ankle, removed her denim jacket, lifted her shirt and brassiere, exposing her breasts, moved the garbage can and mop bucket in front of the entranceway into the Schellenger's Restaurant garbage and storage area, and then laid down on the cold cement so that she would ultimately die," Hobbs said in a letter to Corino.

Around midnight on May 26, two Schellenger's Restaurant employees had left a mop bucket and large plastic garbage pail against the fence portion of the storage area, said Hobbs.

Police photographs of the scene show the mop bucket and garbage pail were moved from the fence and placed in front of Negersmith's body, blocking it from the view of anyone on Schellenger Avenue.

"This indicates that someone did not want Susan's body found," Hobbs said.

Hobbs added: "At approximately the time of Susan's death, there were reports of a woman's scream coming from Schellenger Avenue. A woman fitting Susan's description was seen being dragged into an alley behind Schellenger's Restaurant by a white male prior to her death."

Police reports and witness statements, provided to The Press of Atlantic City by Hobbs, confirm his statements.

Negersmith's body had indications of a "severe beating" across her head, face, neck, arms and legs, said Hobbs.

Witnesses who said they saw Negersmith within one hour of her death stated that she had no physical injuries, he said.

Negersmith's official cause of death was listed as "lethal cardiac arrhythmia and hypothermia due to alcohol intoxication and exposure, Napoleon reported on June 27.

Dr. Vincent DiMaio, a chief pathologist for the city of San Antonio, Texas, said Negersmith's blood-alcohol level of .285 was insufficient to cause her death.

"Based on this material, it is my opinion that the death of your daughter Susan is undoubtedly a homicide," DiMaio said in a letter addressed to Kent Negersmith dated Nov. 7.

DiMaio, who was requested to review Susan Negersmith's autopsy reports, believes she could have been strangled. He also was skeptical that hypothermia can occur when a person is exposed to the elements for a few hours in 55-degree temperatures.

"Taking all this information into account, what are the possible mechanisms of death?" DiMaio asked. "The first is that while severely intoxicated, which she was, she was beaten about the head. ...

"While she may or may not have been beaten," he continued, "these injuries played a minor role in her death and the mechanism was (manual) strangulation."

It would not be necessary to find strangulation marks around Susan Negersmith's neck to prove she was strangled, he said. Mild pressure around the neck of a "severally intoxicated" victim is all that is needed to cause death, DiMaio concluded.

"Absence of any (strangulation) marks either external or internal would not be incompatible with the diagnosis, in that because she was unconscious, she could not struggle and therefore would not have received any injuries," said DiMaio.

Police estimate that Negersmith died at 3:30 a.m. on May 27. She was reportedly last seen alive an hour before, Hobbs noted. The temperature that morning ranged between 52 and 56 degrees, reports show.

"In regards to the hypothermia theory, I really don't put any credence in it," said DiMaio in a letter to Negersmith's parents. "We know that at temperatures of 68 degrees, a person can survive indefinitely immersed in water ...

"There was an insufficient amount of time for your daughter to become hypothermic at the stated temperature."

Kent Negersmith said he wants his daughter's murderer found and brought to justice.

"The thing that hurts the most is she didn't get a chance to live her life," he said.

"She would have loved to have had babies and gotten married. That was taken from her."

The young woman had a close-knit tie to her parents, her older brother and sister and a 3-year-old step-sister.

"The thing I miss the most is that I could always call her," said her father. "I can't do that now."

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