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Secrets in the Box

/ Source: Dateline NBC

There it is, in a corner of the closet. The package of papers.  “The box,” they called it, as they moved it when they moved, house to house, and pushed it  out of sight - unopened.  Unable to throw it away, unable to look inside. Afraid of what they might find in the box.

Susan Waller: Our whole family moved to California when I was really small.      

The story is about family. A family like any.  Not so different, really.  At those heady days when the sisters were small, and the world of adults a mystery.

Susan Waller: My sister Sherry was-- eight years older.  And Shauna was-- was ten years older.

Keith Morrison: Were you a surprise?

Susan Waller: Uh-huh.

Keith Morrison: Huh.  A good surpri--

Susan Waller: A good surprise.  For my mom.

Shana, Sherry, and Susan Kirkup.  Three rather well-to-do little girls, kissed by the privelege of success.

Shana Thomas: My dad-- was in senior management. 

Shana, the eldest, remembers him best. Robert Kirkup.  An upwardly mobile corporate executive who provided quite handsomely for the family he all too rarely saw.

Shana Thomas: As a young child up, of my dad, I recall, is him gettin' on a plane and havin' to leave.

Keith Morrison: You saw him going off on airplanes.  He was an important man; had a good job.  It must have been wonderful to watch him come home, then.

Shana Thomas: Yes.

And waiting at home, with the three girls, was Robert's wife, Janet.

Susan Waller: Everybody loved her.  She was sweet, nice, happy.  She loved to cook, bake.

It all fit some sort of traditional ideal: successful father, stay-at-home mom, three lovely little girls.

Susan Waller: It was a typical family.  You know, she stayed at home, cooked and cleaned.  And he went out and made the money

Robert provided Janet and the girls with all the trappings: big house, pool, even a horse for little Susan.

Keith Morrison: It was good for a while.  For a long while.

Shana Thomas: A long time.

But nothing stays perfect forever.  Things  happen to people. And in 1989, things happened to the Kirkup family. The company to which Robert had devoted his professional life began to spiral toward bankruptcy.  He didn't wait for the axe to fall.  He left with his dignity intact, announced his intention to try something completely different.

Susan Waller: And-- him and-- his friend that he worked with-- decided to buy a bar business.

Here it was: not exactly upscale, even though it held the remaining hopes of the Kirkup family. But for all his success in senior management, robert did not appear to possess an aptitude for running a saloon.

By the fall of 1991, less than two years after they started their great new adventure, the bar went under.  And then the bank forclosed on the kirkup house.

Keith Morrison: So, their financial circumstances took a real hit?

Shana Thomas: Correct.

What could they do?  No home, no job, barely a dribble of income from leftover investments. But they did have this:  a motorhome.  And, back in 1991, it still looked pretty good.

By then, Shana and Sherry were on their own.  Each with young children.  Shana had made a career as a respiratory therapist. Only Susan was still at home with her parents.

And so Robert and Janet got in their motorhome and took to the open road, and offered their youngest an option.  

Susan Waller: I was given the choice (chuckle) to either go live with them in their motor home and go travel around the country or to go live with my sister Shauna.

Keith Morrison: How old were you then?

Susan Waller: Sixteen.  So I went and lived with Shauna.

Shana Thomas: They dropped Susan off with me.  And they went on the road.  And they were just going wherever.

The Kirkups meandered east.  Making prolonged pit stops with relatives -- first with Janet's mother in Illinois, then with Robert's in Michigan. Janet would call and write all her children, discussing her trip, inquiring about her expanding family, which by then, included grandkids.

But a subtle change occurred in late summer, 1992.  Those occasional letters from mom stopped arriving.  No phone calls, either.  And when any of the girls called their parents, though none of them did all that often, they could never reach their mother.  Only their father, Robert. 

Susan Waller: Every time I would call He would say-- "She's sleeping.  She's walking the dog.  she's shopping.

Keith Morrison: And what'd you say?  "Have her call me"?

Susan Waller: Uh-huh.  "Tell her I love her.  I miss her.  Have her call me."

Keith Morrison: And she never did.

Susan Waller: No, she never did.

Christmas came and went, and still, only dad on the phone.  Then finally, in January 1993, a letter arrived.  From Robert.  Their father had decided to come clean.

He poured out his heart, apparently, a six page letter.  And in that letter, he spelled out exactly why it was, they hadn't heard from their mother.

Keith Morrison: What did your dad say?

Shana Thomas: That she met a man that had a big bus.  He dropped her off in Buffalo and she took off.

Susan Waller: Some random man in a big motor home bus, and that was it.

Ran away with another man.  A man with a lot more money than Robert could spend on her.

Shana Thomas: I believed it, because my mother was so materialistic.

Susan Waller: And because I was close to Shana and so young, I just kinda went along with it. 

Robert, meanwhile, carried on.  Lived his nomadic life in that motor home. He lived simply.  Spent little.  And rarely mentioned the humiliation of his abandonment. But that's when that box, which would end up for years tucked away in the closet, began to grow. 

It was the middle sister Sherry who started to fill it.  If her mother had left them, the least they could do was try to find her.

Susan Waller: She went down to the San Bernardino County-- Sheriff's Department and filed the missing person's report.

An investigation was started, but it seemed to go nowhere. And so into the box went their father's letter and that missing person's report. To join the unwritten things, the unspeakable memories, already there. And - perhaps at least - the answer to the riddle that would soon begin to drive three sisters apart.

Robert and Janet Kirkup set off in their motorhome in late 1991. A year later, the children stopped hearing from their mother. And then a humiliated Robert wrote that she had left him, run off with another man.

Shocking news for any family.  But in this one, it was received in profoundly conflicting ways.  When she first heard the news, Susan Waller, the youngest daughter, was relieved.

Susan Waller: (sighs) "Wow, maybe she finally got away from that abuser."

Abuser?  Yes.  At least in susan's childhood world, that's what - in her tortured memory - her father was. 

Susan Waller: I remember growing up--  I used to have this knot in my stomach because I was waiting for him to come home from work , and I would look out the window to see if he was stumbling-- That meant he was drinking.  That meant he was angry.  And that meant we were gonna get beat.

Look at the smiling photos.  The idyllic childhood.  The happy life.  How those pictures lied, said Susan, omitting what has now hardened into her recollection of the truth. 

Susan Waller: To me, he wasn't a father.  He was this-- evil man.

And once her sisters were gone, said Susan, she and her mother both had knots in their stomachs.

Susan Waller: She was terrified of him.

Keith Morrison: He'd hit her too.

Susan Waller: Uh-huh (affirm).

Keith Morrison: So he was a really bully in the house.

Susan Waller: Absolutely. 

And because they both lived in such fear of Robert, Susan says, the bond between her and her mother grew even stronger.

Susan Waller: I always felt so safe around my mom.  And I always wanted to be near her. 

Well, maybe not always.  She was a teenager after all.  And when her parents lost their home and hit the road, Susan, then 16, chose at first to live with her sister and avoid life in the motorhome.

Susan Waller: At that time I thought, "Wow.  This is my way out.  I'm gonna go live with Shauna."

But living with Shana was not without its own difficulties. So Susan left and - for a while - joined her parents in their tiny motorhome.

Keith Morrison: What was that like, living with the two of them in the little, confined space like that?

Susan Waller: Difficult.  It was-- I was a teenager. I mean-

Susan Waller: They were drinking.  And my mother was very unhappy.

Susan lasted five months with her bickering parents before fleeing their misery and heading back to shana. And when she heard the story that a man with money had come along, why wouldn't her mother leave?

Leave them all.  Leave the whole sorry mess behind.  And Susan, frankly, understood completely, and wished her mother well.

Susan Waller: I guess part of me, somehow, wished that she was off somewhere, on, in Hawaii, on a beach.

She left him.  Walked out on not just her husband, but the entire family.  That's one point on which Susan and her sister Shana, agreed - though, as you'll see, for very different reasons.

Keith Morrison: Was it upsetting?

Shana Thomas: Very upsetting.  I was angry with my mother. She always had all the money she wanted.  She always had her-- a nice car to drive.  And I could picture that.

Keith Morrison: That your father couldn't provide for her the way she wanted, so she found--

Shana Thomas: Absolutely.

Keith Morrison: --a man who could?

Shana Thomas: I spoke with a lot of friends.  They said, "Oh, yeah, she could get up and walk away."

Funny thing about the childhood memories of siblings.  Shana and Susan were hardly the only sisters whose recollections strayed into contradictions. After all, they approached it from different perceptions and time changed things. Shana is a good deal older after all.  Still you have to wonder, were these people really from the same family, the same history?

Shana Thomas: (laughs) My mom had to have the best.  She had to keep up with the Joneses.  Or it wadn't good enough.

Shana, on her mother Janet:

Keith Morrison: She was spoiled.

Shana Thomas: She was very spoiled.  And she was very materialistic.

Even back in the best of days, said Shana, back when Robert was so frequently out of town for work, the children suffered the outbursts of parental temper.  But it wasn't her father Shana was her mother.

Shana Thomas: I don't know what I said to her.  I probably said somethin'-- I was a teenager.  She came out and she hit me as hard as she could, and it knocked me backwards.

Keith Morrison: So you remember your mom as being more volatile than your father?

Shana Thomas: Yeah.  Yeah.

In fact, Shana says her father never hit her or her sisters.  But there was a painful incident, Shana remembered... Which, she says, was the beginning of the end for her parent's marriage.

Years earlier her father confessed to an affair. Her mother could not forgive him.  And -  says Shana, attempted to pay him back.

Shana Thomas: I remember coming home from the bar one night and my mother was flashing one of the guys in the band.

So, another man with money?  She'd flirt, at the very least, said Shana. They'd argue. And she'd leave.

Shana Thomas: If there was another man that had a lot more money, and she was attracted him, and she was drinkin', she would go for it.

Shana, the eldest sister, believed her mother left for money. Susan, the baby, that she fled in fear. Oh, but there was one more sister, remember?  Sherry. The one who filed the missing persons report, who collected the contents of the box.

But Sherry had had enough of this family. She was drifting away. And then one day, she was simply gone.  Broke off all contact.  You'll see no more of her; none of them would. The burden of being angry, suspicious, finally grew too heavy to carry.

Susan Waller: It consumed her whole life.  And she got so tired and-- and said, "I give up. " And she simply handed me over the case and said, "I'm done.  You want to finish it?  Here you go."

It was not something Susan wanted. And Shana certainly didn't either, in fact, the rift between those two - their opposing memories and loyalties - was growing very wide.

Keith Morrison: Did you grow apart a lot in those years?

Susan Waller: Yes. And I always missed her. 

It was a poison gift, that box.   A sealed container in which there could be nothing good.

Susan Waller: So then I took it. (sighs) And I'm very, you know, sad to say that it took me quite a while.  I was scared.  I didn't want to face the box, and what was in that box.

The Kirkup family, once so apparently successful, was fractured now. Shana, the eldest, had stored up bad memories about their mother.  Susan, a mother herself by now, harbored dark memories of father. Sister sherry disappeared, broke off all contact, fed up apparently. Three sisters estranged, the marriage dead.

Mother  Janet Kirkup was gone, apparently left for a richer life with another man.  Washed her hands of the lot of them.

Keith Morrison: You, personally, could see your mother doing that.

Shana Thomas: Yes.

And where had she gone? Robert told his girls that the mystery man with the big motorhome had been camping close by at some point. Must have been secretly wooing their mother.  And then one dreadful day she insisted Robert drive her to the buffalo airport, drop her off at a nearby hotel.  And he never saw her again.

Susan Waller: Who was this person?  What did he look like? What did the motorhome look like?" 

Robert said he couldn't be sure, didn't know exactly. And so, alone, he drifted. And landed finally at Shana's place here in the broad stretch of desert where California meets Arizona.  A tiny place called big river.  Here he parked his motorhome in Shana's backyard.

And two hundred miles across the desert, in Susan's closet, a box of documents, unopened, gathered dust for years.

Susan Waller: I was scared.  I didn't want to face the box, and what was in that box.

It isn't clear anymore exactly what it was that made her feel like that box was calling her one day nearly sixteen years after her mother vanished. Maybe it was Susan's own maternal instinct asserting itself.  Something must have made her mother leave - everyone.  Maybe the box held an answer.  It was the spring of 2008, and she had just put her two young daughters to bed. 

She went to the closet, took out the box, opened it up.

Susan Waller: To face that, it was, it was, it (laughter) was difficult.

Just like Pandora's Box. Once opened, all was unavoidably changed.

Susan Waller: I said, "We have to do something.  This isn't right.

What, exactly, did Susan find in that box? Police reports, mostly. Lots of them. Turns out the police had been looking for her mother all these years -- quite diligently, in fact.  And this was the man who had done so.

Mark Siegel: There was no phone calls home, no letters home. No driver’s license.

It was six years after Susan's mother left before California investigators handed the missing person's case to Michigan state police detective/sergeant Mark Siegel.

Michigan because that's the last place anybody in the family besides Robert saw her....the visit with Robert's mother in the summer of 92. The trail very cold when Seigel picked it up.

Mark Siegel: It's like she vanished from the face of the earth.

If he could just find that mysterious man she'd run off with... But it was years later by now. People in motorhomes move around.  A lot.

With only the scant information Robert had given his girls, Siegel contacted one campground after another, hoping to elicit a memory from someone, anyone, about a lone man, a flirtatious woman, a broken marriage. 

All to no avail. This was 1998, Robert was still drifting. Siegel thought he might be able to help find his ex-wife. But:

Mark Siegel: With Robert traipsing about the country.  You know, you couldn't find him here.  You can't find him there. 

And then in August 1999, Siegel learned that Robert was back in Michigan.  So he and his partner tracked him down.  Went to see him.

Mark Siegel: We told him that we're just trying to locate Janet Kirkup.

Kirkup told them he had no idea.  How could he?   Janet had run off with another man. But then, as the conversation progressed, Robert said something, well, weird.

Mark Siegel: Then at one point he said, "I had nothing to do with her death." And I just leaned up to him, and I said, "Bob, nobody ever said that she was dead.  Nobody at all.  You're the one who mentioned it."  And he just hung his head, and he looked down.  He didn't say anything. 

In fact Siegel had suspected Janet was dead.  He also suspected that Kirkup might have played a role in that death.

Mark Siegel: And so we said, "Bob, it's over.  The girls have a right to know what happened to their mom. Get it off your chest.  And do the right thing."  And he just looked up, he didn't deny it. 

He just said, "I-- don't I have any rights?"  I said, "Well, yeah, of course. Were you telling me that you want an attorney?"  And he says, "Yeah.  I-- I need an attorney." 

And with that, the interview was over.  No further questions answered. Was Janet dead?  Did Robert Kirkup have something to do with her death? What he said wasn't evidence of anything.  But it was enough to generate a search warrant in that motorhome of his.

Mark Siegel: There was calendars from 1992 through 1996 in there.

Of particular interest was the calendar from 1992 -- the year Janet disappeared.

The cross-country trip had been meticulously logged -- each date in the calendar book crowded with destination, miles traveled, ending mileage for each day.  Crowded, that is, except for one of the entries: two days, left almost blank.

Mark Siegel: It listed a New York State Park, on the 16th and 17th of August of '92.  But there was no information.  That was the only place in the entire calendar that we found that had no location.  It was just New York State Park for those two days.  So, that, that's maybe where Janet Kirkup had met her demise.

Possible.  Maybe.   But it wasn't enough to make a case for murder - or anything else for that matter.  And so that was that.

Mark Siegel: Pretty much everything that could be done, was done. 

All this, in the spring of 2008, Susan found in that box in the closet. Siegel's decade old reports, the interview with Robert, analysis of those detailed calendar entries from her parent's life on the road.

Susan Waller: I said we've got to do something. He's getting away with murder.

Suddenly a memory flooded back. A summer night, 1992, during the time Susan was traveling in the motorhome with her parents -- after another of their alcohol-fueled blowouts, just weeks before Janet disappeared. 

Susan Waller: I said, "Let's go.  Mom, let's go.  We're-- we're leaving.  We're -- we're getting away from him. I got in the car.  And my mom got in the passenger seat. And I didn't know where I was going or what I was doing or anything.  I just wanted to go.  I wanted to get my mom and I wanted to go.

Keith Morrison: And she wanted to go back, didn't she?  She said, "Turn around.  Turn around."

Susan Waller: "Susan, we don't-- we don't have any money.  What are we gonna do?  Where are we gonna go?"  And I said, "I don't care.  Let's just go."

Keith Morrison: And then she made you turn around.

Susan Waller: And shortly after that, I left.

It was the last time she would see her mother.  And for all those intervening years, Susan had believed the story her mother had abandoned Robert. That she'd found something better.  But now she confronted a new belief.  She never left.  She must be dead.

So maybe it was guilt that formed the crazy idea in her head.

Susan Waller: I decided that I would start doing my own detective work. 

It was the spring of 2008. Susan Waller was a detective now. Amateur, of course, pouring over documents, contacting law enforcement.  Obsessed by the idea that her father murdered her mother.

Foolish, perhaps, to think she could solve a case if trained detectives couldn't.

And anyway, her sister, Shana, made it perfectly clear: Susan was not just obsessed, she was wrong.  Dead wrong.

Shana Thomas: My dad would not kill my mother.

What could she do?  Look for a body?  Where? Her father wasn't about to help her; and then, just a few weeks after she had opened the box, an opportunity.

Shana Thomas: He was passed out in his bathtub. 

It was Shana who found the old man like that. Out in his motorhome.  He'd been abusing his body with gallons of booze and an endless stream of cigarette smoke.  Too much for a heart to take. The ambulance came.  He was airlifted, half dead, to the hospital in Las Vegas, where the doctors hooked him up to a tangle of tubes and wires and monitors.

Shana called Susan to let her know.  Least she could do, father dying and all. And Susan?  Called the cops. Persuaded the Las Vegas police to descend on Robert's hospital room and question him - maybe this would be the last chance - about what she, Susan, believed was a murder.

Shana, hearing what Susan was up to, confronted her kid sister.

Shana Thomas: I went ballistic.  I did.  I said, "How dare you send anybody.  He's almost dead.  He's-- he's dying.  What are you doing?

Over Shana's objections, the detectives went to the hospital.

Susan Waller: They said, "Well, we have the luxury of having him connected to a heart monitor machine," and they said every time they asked him about Jan, his machine would go spike way up high.

Keith Morrison: That was like a polygraph?

Susan Waller: Uh-huh (affirm).

Betrayed by a racing heart. Except, Robert Kirkup did not actually confess to anything.

He didn't kill his wife, he told those Las Vegas detectives.  And there was nothing they could do to prove otherwise.

Keith Morrison: So there he was, in that hospital room.  And he was not a well man.

Susan Waller: No.  He was on life support.

Keith Morrison: He was expected to die.

Keith Morrison: So there he was, in that hospital room.  And he was not a well man.

Susan Waller: Uh-huh (affirm).

Keith Morrison: How did that feel?

Susan Waller: Horrible.  Because that would have been it.  It was over.  And I would have never known the truth.

So this prayer for a dying father was perhaps unique.

Susan Waller: "Please, God, let him live.  Please.  Because he needs to pay for what he's done."

And he did!  Live, that is.  Whether by divine intervention or not, Kirkup pulled through.  

Susan Waller: he was released, sent back home.  Or to his motor home, on Shana's property. 

Still, the old man's time was running out.  Susan felt sure of it.  As sure of that as she was desperate that he did not die with his secret intact.

Perhaps one last chance remained.

She packed up the box, and with it, all the information she and her sister sherry and those detectives had  gathered over 16-years, and got in her car and drove to the san bernardino county sheriff's department -- where the very first item in that box, janet's missing person report, had been filed all those years ago.

Susan Waller: And I went up to the front and asked to speak with a detective.

Keith Morrison: Just somebody walking in off the street?

Det. Greg Myler: Just walked in off the street.

Here's the man who came out to see her.  Sheriff's detective Greg Myler.

Det. Greg Myler: She had a case file in her hands.  And she believed her father killed her mother. 

A woman walking in off the street, a case folder 16 years old.  A mother mysteriously vanished.  For Myler, who was part of a newly formed cold case unit, it was perfect.

Det. Greg Myler: Well, her timing was remarkable. We were looking for work.

And that's how the box of documents moved again, migrated from Susan's closet to Greg Myler's desk.

And into his head.

Det. Greg Myler: I read the case. And I told her that I had the same feelings that Robert did in fact kill her mother, Janet. 

Keith Morrison: What would, if anything, ever solve this case?

Det. Greg Myler: A confession.  It needed a confession.  I told her that I was gonna go for it.

Det. Myler now prepared himself to face the old man, vowing not to leave until he found out what happened to Janet. But Robert Kirkup had his own story to tell.  Not necessarily the one that any of them expected to hear. The young detective might learn as much about the mysterious loyalties of sisters as he did about an old man's secret.

There is a long, straight ribbon of road that cuts through the miles and miles of California desert from Susan's Hemet to Shana's Big River.  An ocean of desert.

Shana and her father on one shore...

Shana Thomas: I know my dad couldn't have killed my mom.

... Susan and her memories of her mother on the other.

Susan Waller: I said, we've got to do something. He's getting away with murder.

Early on the morning of June 17th, 2008, Detective Greg Myler and his partner drove that desert road to the motorhome in Shana's back yard.

Det. Greg Myler: Shana came outside and-- questioned us as to why we were there--

Keith Morrison: "Who are you?  What are you doin'?"

Det. Greg Myler: Exactly.

Keith Morrison: Did she have a pretty good idea just by lookin' at you?

Det. Greg Myler: Yes.  She wasn't happy.

Undeterred, the detectives knocked at the motorhome.  Kirkup invited them in.  Said he'd be happy to answer their questions. The detectives turned on their digital audio recorder --

Detective Alexander: Today's date is June 17th, 2008, it's approximately 930 hours, i'm in Big River, California with Detective Myler . . . 

The three of them.  Now inside the cramped motorhome.  The very same motorhome in which Robert and Janet had been traveling when she disappeared.  And if it can be said that an inanimate object can keep a secret, then the secret of whatever happened to Janet is in the motorhome.  The same secret detectives so wanted Robert to reveal.  Will the motorhome now bare witness to the final act in this story?

Keith Morrison: What did that place look like by the way?

Det. Greg Myler: It was very cluttered, very dirty.  He had been smoking non-stop as we-- we spoke to him.  He went through six or seven packs of cigarettes. 

Through the brackish haze, the detectives set about their first task: make him comfortable.

Det. Greg Myler: What's your favorite place?

Kirkup: Favorite place? Hawaii.

Det. Greg Myler: I know you didn't drive the motorhome around there (laughter). We let him tell us his story-- and we listened to him very intently.  

Kirkup: I don't know where she is.  The last time I saw her was out in New York State. She, she left me. I didn't leave her; she walked away.

Keith Morrison: Is there is a signal or something? When do you change?

Det. Greg Myler: Once we felt that he was comfortable with us, we started applying the pressure.

Det. Greg Myler: You actually admitted that your wife was dead and it wasn't an accident and you're the person responsible.

Finally, the accusation they had come to make.

Det. Greg Myler: Bob, you killed her, we know you killed her, I don't know why we're having such a difficult time with you coming clean.

But Kirkup refused to break.

Kirkup: You know, it just goes against my better judgment to say I did something that I didn't do.

Det. Greg Myler: We tried to wear him down through the interview.

Keith Morrison: And tried and tried and tried.  How long did this go on?

Det. Greg Myler: For six hours.

Det. Greg Myler: We all know you killed her.  We all, Bob, Bob, you know you killed her too.

Keith Morrison: And still he wouldn't confess.

Det. Greg Myler: No.  No.  He-- continued to deny his involvement

Kirkup: You know, I don't know what else to say. I mean, I know what you'd like me to say, but I can't do it. Based on my inner thing about not confessing to something that I didn't do.

Det. Greg Myler: We were feeling a little bit defeated.

Done.  Defeated.  Maybe he really was innocent. But Detective Myler had one more card to play.

Det. Greg Myler: Shana was a very important piece to this puzzle.

Kirkup: I had a good relationship with Shana, but the other two you guys already know about. And Shana is the only one that believes me.

Det. Greg Myler: We-- told Robert-- that we were gonna go talk to his daughter, Shana.

Keith Morrison: How did he react to that?

Det. Greg Myler: His eyes got very large.  His mouth dropped open.

So they left the motorhome and walked to Shana's house. And they took with them that box -the one the other sister, Sherry, started all those years ago... Before she passed it on to Susan, who put it in a closet, then made it her life. And gave it to detectives, who now, finally, carried it here, to Shana.

She, for the very first time, saw the evidence  implicating the father who's story she had been living with. And had so ardently believed.

Keith Morrison: But as she read the file, what happened?

Det. Greg Myler: She cried for a long time.  And-- she thanked us.  No one had let her read the file prior to that because she was always a defender of her father. 

And so now they had a request.  Perhaps the most difficult one Shana had ever contemplated.

Det. Greg Myler: We told her she was the key to getting her father to confess to what he did.  And that we needed her help.

Now it was Shana's choice.  If she refused the detective's request, Robert Kirkup would remain a free man.  If she cooperated, she might - or might not - finally learn the truth about her mother. Now or never.

For six hours, Detective Myler and his partner had tried to get Robert Kirkup to confess to killing his wife. 

Det. Greg Myler: You killed Janet. 

Kirkup: No, I didn't.

Det. Greg Myler: You killed Janet. There is no denying it, Bob. You killed Janet. You killed her. You killed your daughter's mother.

But Kirkup, despite his failing health and advancing years, stuck by his story: He was telling the truth.

Kirkup: First of all, I have -- I didn't kill her. I wouldn't kill anybody period. It's not in me. To tell you I did something I didn't do, is, to me is, not good, it's kind of insane.

Their last hope now lay with his eldest daughter, Shana. They showed her that box - the case against her father.  The father she still believed in. Would she talk to him, they asked? She had a choice.   And she said yes.

Keith Morrison: Why'd you go in there?

Shana Thomas: I wanted to know.

Keith Morrison: Did you think that that was a time when he might actually be ready to tell the truth?

Shana Thomas: Maybe, because--

Keith Morrison: Because he was so close to dying?

Shana Thomas: Yeah. 

Shana and the two detectives made their way back to Kirkup's motor home.  And there in that tiny space, Shana faced the father she loved, and made her case.

Shana Thomas: I've stood by you. I've stood by you.

She implored him to take a polygraph.

Shana Thomas: Take this test and prove to me that you did not kill my mother.

She would always love him, she said.  But now she needed the truth.

Shana Thomas: I'm the only one that's been there, not Susan, not Sherry. I'm the only one that's cared.

Kirkup: I know.

Det. Greg Myler: He needed to know that she was going to be there for him no matter what.

And then finally, out it came.

Kirkup: Well, I'm tired of it. I'm tired of, you know, of all the questioning. Tired of going through what I've been through.

Would it be the truth? Or would it be, at least, truth enough for the one daughter who seemed to love him?

Kirkup: So, I guess I'll go ahead and tell you.

Shana's two sisters had spent nearly sixteen years trying in vain to get their father to say these words -- and with them the truth about their mother's disappearance. It had taken Shana twenty minutes.

And now, willing to divulge his secret only to this one faithful daughter, here it was.

Kirkup: She started a big fight with me. Started hitting me,  uh, knocked my glasses off my face, broke my glasses, got a knife out of the kitchen drawer, and came at me with it.

Shana Thomas: In the motorhome?

Kirkup: Yeah. And we struggled. And, I was just, I was trying to, you know, defend myself, I didn't want a shiv stuck in me. And, we struggled, and ended up back there in, on the floor in the bedroom. She was trying to stab me, and by the time it was over, she was lying there. He didn't have, uh, a pulse or anything, and that scared the hell out of me. You'd have to say that was strangulation or whatever.

Keith Morrison: Finally, somebody who cares about him walks into the room.  The only person he had left in the world, and therefore, the only person to whom he was prepared to make his confession.

Shana Thomas: And it devastated me.

Kirkup: I left that campground and took her somewhere, you know, I don't think I could even find it, and, uh, buried her.

Shana Thomas: You buried her?

Kirkup: Yes, I wasn't just going to leave her lay there on the side of the road or something.

Det. Greg Myler: What state was this in?

Kirkup: New York.

Sitting there, listening to her father describe the final moments of her mother's life, hearing him claim that he was really only defending himself, Shana felt reality slip beneath her.

When he did say he did that, it devastated me, it traumatized me.

Keith Morrison: You can hear it in your voice when you're talking to him.  You could hear how terrible it was for you.  Because you did believe in him all those years, didn't you?

Shana Thomas:  (crying) I couldn't believe that he would do something--

Detective Myler called Susan.  Told her what happened.

Susan Waller: I had a picture of my mother in my arms.  And I walked around the corner, and I just collapsed to the floor. 

Law enforcement finally had their confession.  But still, no body.  Kirkup was unable to help them locate Janet's burial place in upstate New York which left prosecutors with only his version of events. Self defense. Not enough for a murder charge.

Kirkup: And if it wasn't her, maybe it'd be me with a knife in me. I don't know, you know, it was self-defense.

In September 2008, Kirkup was charged with second degree manslaughter.  He pleaded guilty.  And the youngest, Susan, spoke at the sentencing.  And released the pent up anger of a lifetime.

Susan Waller: I told him what an evil man he was.  And I told him that he robbed me of sharing all of-- all of the things that a mother shares with her daughter.  She wasn't there when I got married.  She didn't get to see my beautiful daughters.

Keith Morrison: You had a lot to tell 'im?

Susan Waller: Yeah.  And he wouldn't even look at me.

He showed no emotion at all.  He just sat and stared straight ahead.   

Kirkup was sentenced to a term of 5-15 years in prison. Because of his advanced age and failing health, few believe he'll live long enough to make parole. But Susan wants to be sure.

Susan Waller: I will be at every parole hearing, and I will fight to make sure that he's, doesn't get of there.

She held a memorial service for her mother, invited her sisters to attend. Shana, despite her fractured relationship with her baby sister, was there.

Shana Thomas: The memorial was beautiful, and I'm glad I did go.

And for a moment, at least, these two were a family again.

Keith Morrison: Did you reconcile, do you think?

Susan Waller: Unh-uh.

Keith Morrison: How come?

Susan Waller: (sniffing) I think it's gonna take some time.

Robert Kirkup declined to be interviewed on camera.  But he did send us a letter repeating what he told us in person:  that he killed Janet in self-defense, that there was "no truth" to Susan's allegations of abuse, and finally, that he hopes his daughters can somehow "find it in their hearts to forgive him".

His motorhome is still here, in Shana's backyard. Virtually untouched since they led him away.

The box of documents did its work, solved the mystery, found justice - after 16 years - for janet kirkup. But not for her family. 

Keith Morrison: He murdered something in everybody.  (sighing) In all of the family.  In you too.

Susan Waller: He destroyed our family.

Keith Morrison: You lost them both, really, didn't you?

Shana Thomas: I lost both of my parents.  Both of 'em.  My mother and my father, at the same time.

Keith Morrison: When he confessed?

Shana Thomas: Yep.

Peace among the Kirkups?  Someday maybe.  But not yet. One more thing to do.

Susan Waller: I'm never gonna give up looking, and trying to find out where my mother's remains are. And if it takes the rest of my life, I'll do it.

Keith Morrison: That's a big commitment.

Susan Waller: She was my mom.