Murder, Memories and a Shattered Family: The Twisted Case Unearthed in Showtime's Buried

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Susan Nason and Eileen Franklin were 8 years old and the best of friends.

Their families lived around the corner from each other in Foster City, Calif., and the girls, who had just started third grade, spent lots of time at each other's homes.

So when Susan disappeared on Sept. 22, 1969, after getting permission from her mom to return a pair of gym shoes to her friend's house, in an era when young kids roaming their own neighborhoods unaccompanied was the norm, two families were devastated and a whole community was terrified by the prospect of a kidnapper on the loose.

Police and search parties scoured the streets and surrounding woods, to no avail.

On Dec. 2 of that year, Susan's remains were found under an old mattress lying at the bottom of a ravine, roughly 35 feet below Half Moon Bay Road near the Crystal Springs Reservoir, which is about 10 miles away from Foster City. She was formally identified by dental records, and her mother recognized her own stitch work on the dress her daughter had been wearing.

Foster City Police Chief Gordon Penfold told reporters at the time that Susan's parents were "in shock. They've had an emotional collapse."

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Investigators said there was too much decomposition to determine if she had been molested. Cause of death appeared to be blunt-force trauma, her head below her right ear caved in from a massive blow, perhaps from a rock.

"This is going to be a tough case to crack," Penhold admitted. "But we've got the Sheriff's Office with us now."

Susan's murder remained unsolved, authorities only ending up with more questions than answers as their few leads led nowhere.

In the meantime, Eileen's family moved away from Foster City in 1971.

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The case remained cold until January 1989 when, one day, Eileen was at her Los Angeles-area home with her 2-year-old son Aaron on her lap and her 5-year-old daughter Jessica coloring on the floor with two friends. At some point, she would recall, her eyes met Jessica's and a terrifying image just popped into her head: Susan being murdered.

She resisted the increasingly vivid memory at first, but then started sharing what she was seeing—first with her therapist, and then with family members, including her siblings, mother and husband. A horrific sequence of events soon came into focus.

According to court documents, her spouse, Barry Lisker, encouraged her to go to the police, but she hesitated. Barry was actually the first to contact authorities, making an anonymous call on Nov. 17, 1989, to say that his wife had witnessed a murder committed by someone she knew well, but she was scared to come forward because the killer had threatened her life. The police said they couldn't really do anything until they heard from the alleged witness herself.

On another call later that day, Eileen spoke to police to back up what Barry had said, but she was reluctant to give too many details, including the purported killer's name.

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In another call a few days later, she told police almost everything she had remembered: Being in a vehicle with the killer when they picked up Susan across the street from the child's house. Driving out to the woods in the direction of Half Moon Bay. The killer assaulting her friend and striking Susan twice in the head with a rock. Helping the killer cover the dead girl with an old mattress. Seeing a crushed silver ring on Susan's finger.

It wasn't until her sixth phone call with authorities, their second conversation of the day on Nov. 22, after detectives told Eileen that her story seemed consistent with what they'd read in the case file (the victim was hit twice in the head, likely with a rock; there was a smashed metal ring on Susan's right middle finger, etc.) that wasn't previously reported in the media, that she told them she had seen her father, George Franklin, kill Susan.

George, a retired firefighter, was arrested on suspicion of murder on Nov. 28 and went on trial the following year. He pleaded not guilty.

Buried, Showtime
SHOWTIME

The four-part Showtime docuseries Buried digs into what was at the time the first instance of a repressed memory coming to light and leading to not only an arrest, but a murder conviction—a shocking outcome that, culturally speaking, would not only affect criminal investigations and case law forever after but also inspire countless plot twists on shows ranging from Law & Order to Melrose Place. Shelley Long played Eileen in the inevitable 1992 TV movie about the trial, Fatal Memories.

"The story had so many [effects] on the justice system, the mental health profession, and how society at large thinks about memory," Buried director Ari Pines told Vanity Fair ahead of the series' Oct. 10 premiere. "It's like a psychological thriller, legal drama and Greek tragedy, all rolled into one."

Once they were old enough, the four Franklin sisters had all been quick to get away from their father. By multiple accounts, George was a controlling, abusive man who beat and sexually abused Eileen and her older sister Janice Franklin, and, according to a probation report released in 1992, once held a gun to his wife's head.

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Janice first went to police in 1984 with her suspicion that her father may have killed Susan, but she had no evidence for them to pursue the accusation. Her and Eileen's accounts of his past abuse made some wonder if perhaps they wanted revenge by any means possible.

According to Eileen and Janice, their mother, Leah Franklin, who separated from George in 1974, told them that she also had suspected her former husband was responsible for Susan's death but was too afraid to go to police.

The prosecutor who first heard Eileen's story, San Mateo County Assistant District Attorney Martin Murray, found her credible.

"Look, if there's anything I want you to find out, find out if she's a nut," Murray recalled telling detective Robert Morse in a deposition, part of a federal lawsuit George Franklin later filed against Murray, his daughter and the detectives who first interviewed her in 1989 for allegedly conspiring to arrest him without probable cause. (He lost, and the Ninth Circuit upheld the decision in 2002.)

But George's attorney would maintain that Eileen was suggestible and that outside influences had helped her paint a compelling but imagined version of events from 1969.

Eileen Franklin, Buried, Showtime
AP Photo/Olga Shalygin

During a preliminary hearing in May 1990, Eileen testified that she remembered riding in her dad's Volkswagen van when she spotted Susan—"Suzie," as she called her as a child—and asked him if they could pick her up. The two kids went to play around in the back of the van, she recalled, where there was a mattress instead of seats.

George drove toward Crystal Springs Reservoir and pulled over on Half Moon Bay Road, her testimony continued, and Eileen went up front while her dad went into the back of the van. When she turned around, her father was on top of Susan and the child was struggling and telling him to stop. Her next memory, Eileen said, was standing at the top of an embankment looking down at her father, who had a rock in his hand, and Susan.

"I think I did something that caused Susan to look up at me," Eileen said. After seeing him hit her twice, "I closed my eyes. I think I turned away."

Eileen said that when she tried to run toward her friend, her father grabbed her arm and said it was her fault for inviting Susan along in the first place and that he would kill her if she told anyone what happened.

George Franklin, Buried, Showtime
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma,Pool

When George's lawyer, Douglas Horngrad, pressed her on cross-examination about inconsistencies in her account among the times she had told her story, Eileen replied, "I can't give exact perfect details."

Horngrad suggested she was influenced by her husband, the one who had called police in the first place—and who, Eileen admitted, wanted to keep some of the money she was being offered to sell the rights to her story, while she preferred to give it away to charity. The lawyer also floated the possibility that her purported memories had surfaced while she was hypnotized in therapy, knowing California courts didn't allow testimony derived from hypnosis. (One detective's notes from a 1989 interview with Eileen read "Wit/S hypnotized to lose weight," according to court documents.)

Kirk Barrett, a marriage counselor Eileen had been seeing when her memory returned in January 1989, testified during the pretrial hearing that his patient had suffered from post-traumatic stress, which caused her to suppress her memories of what happened to Susan—a fairly normal way for the mind to deal with trauma, he said.

At trial that fall, George did not testify in his own defense and there was no physical evidence connecting him to the victim or crime scene. But Eileen told her story on the stand, as did her sister Janice and mom Leah, who testified that her ex-husband had been physically abusive toward her and she felt he was capable of what he was accused of. Several psychiatrists testified for the prosecution about other cases of repressed memories coming to light and proving reliable.

After a month-long trial and eight hours of jury deliberations, George was found guilty of first-degree murder.

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"I'm overwhelmed," Eileen told reporters after the verdict in November 1990. "I'm extremely relieved that it's over. I know I've done the right thing."

But no, she wasn't happy about the result, she said. "There can't be a true victory for me because my father's still going to prison."

Margaret Nason, Susan's mother, said, "It does lay it to rest, 21 years later." She and her husband Don Nason still lived in the same Foster City home where they had once been raising Susan and her older sister.

Speaking as to why detectives had never taken a good look at George back in 1969, San Mateo County Deputy District Attorney Elaine Tipton, the lead prosecutor, said, "Twenty-one years ago, it was assumed that persons who molested children were strangers, outsiders and phantoms. They appeared and then they went away." At the time, she explained, authorities weren't inclined to suspect a familiar face from the neighborhood.

"I'm convinced the verdict will stand," she said.

In January 1992, San Mateo Municipal Court Judge Thomas M. Smith gave George a life sentence with the possibility of parole, calling him a "depraved and wicked man."

While she had sounded conflicted about her father's ultimate fate, Eileen had written in a letter to the probation department, which provided the sentencing recommendation: "George Franklin should spend the last moments of his life imprisoned, which is far better than how Susan Nason spent hers."

George Franklin, Buried, Showtime
Paul Sakuma/AP/Shutterstock

Three years later, an appellate court threw out the conviction, agreeing with the defense that George did not get a fair trial, that the judge had wrongfully excluded newspaper articles that could have bolstered their argument that Eileen had read details about the crime and woven them into her story. Adding to their appeal, Janice Franklin had come forward to say that she and her sister had been hypnotized before the trial to see if the experience could help bring even more memories to light, contradicting Eileen's claim she never underwent related hypnosis.

Moreover, according to defense attorney Douglas Horngrad, prosecutors had considered charging George with another murder, also based on a memory Eileen claimed to have of her father killing 18-year-old Veronica Cascio of Pacifica, Calif. Her body, stabbed 30 times, was found in a creek on a local golf course on Jan. 8, 1976.

But Horngrad's team confirmed that George had an alibi for when Veronica died and a DNA test of the semen found on the victim was not a match. (That case stayed cold until 2014, when a DNA match implicated Oregon prison inmate Rodney Lynn Halbower, who was behind bars for attempted murder. He was convicted of the murders of Veronica and 17-year-old Paula Baxter—both of which were among five San Mateo County slayings in 1976 dubbed the "Gypsy Hill killings"—in 2018 and given two life sentences.)

With all of that, Eileen's version of events was called into dire question. Leah, her mother, had also come to doubt the concept of repressed memories—and her daughter's story.

"I realized it was all wrong," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. "I got some information, I believed it, and I later found it was wrong."

Eileen Franklin, Buried, Showtime
Pete Dasilva/AP/Shutterstock

George had remained in prison while prosecutors fought the ruling, but in July 1996, he was released. San Mateo County District Attorney Jim Fox said his office wouldn't be retrying the case, that they simply didn't have the evidence to obtain a conviction. Deputy Chief District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe said, however, that the evidence they presented in 1990 was "valid and appropriate," and the court's decision didn't change that.

"I don't think we'll ever see a case like this again, nor do we want to," Wagstaffe said, calling the ruling "heartbreaking." Fox said he had talked to Eileen and to Susan Nason's parents before announcing his decision. "They are terribly disappointed...but they absolutely understand it," he said.

Meanwhile, George's lawyer Horngrad told reporters that his client "has been in prison or jail for six years, seven months and four days. It is an absolute travesty and a tragedy. George is going to get out of jail tomorrow and put his life back together. This has been a Kafkaesque experience for him."

Talking to the Los Angeles Times later, the attorney said, "The broader lesson here is that you cannot—nor should you—charge someone criminally, deprive them of their liberty, based on so-called repressed memory."

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George died in 2016.

"It's really hard to determine who the perpetrator is. It still could be George," Buried director Pines recently told Oxygen.com, referring to the murder of Susan Nason. "Even if you don't believe Eileen and believe that her memory is false, he still may have done it. Everyone in that family suspected him for a good reason. He was a pedophile, he knew the victim, he lived close by. But it's very hard to reach any certainty in this case."

The concept of repressed memory—which rose to prominence in the wake of the Franklin saga as the foundation for countless damage-seeking lawsuits and explosive accusations and then was just as vehemently disputed by those who found the process completely unreliable, or downright fraudulent in some cases—remains controversial to this day. And Buried delves into that aftermath.

"Sometimes nowadays it's called dissociative amnesia, but it is still so controversial and disputable within the memory-research community," Pines told Vanity Fair. "You will come across experts who will tell you there is a mechanism like this, and that it might even be very common for people to have repressed memories. But then you will talk with other experts who will tell you that no such thing exists."

All four episodes of Buried are streaming on demand via Showtime and the Showtime Anytime app.

For more true crime updates on your need-to-know cases, head to Oxygen.com.

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