by Barbara Dundon
While doing an interview for public radio in rural Vermont, Susan Randall, formerly of Chestnut Hill, saw a young man run out of an empty school bus and race across a cornfield. She followed. He eventually confessed to a triple murder, “right into my DAT [digital audio tape] recorder,” says Randall, which stunned this young journalist, then in her 20’s.
The event changed the trajectory of her life. Randall, now 44, will talk about her work as a private eye and now a federal public defender investigator, as part of a panel discussion following the screening of the film “The House I Live In” on Friday, April 5, at Enon Baptist Tabernacle Church, in Germantown. The film follows the lives of 20 people caught up in various roles in the War on Drugs, including one of Susan Randall’s drug clients: Anthony Johnson. The event is co-sponsored by Enon and the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in Chestnut Hill.
Randall spent her early years in Chestnut Hill and attended Springside School with her two older sisters. Although the family moved to a farm in Lancaster when she was in elementary school, she considers this home, too.
“’You know the book ‘The Secret Life of Bees’”? she asked. “Do you remember the pink house, where the girl goes to be surrounded by the women who love her?” she asks. “Aunt Mary (Mary Hopkins, of St. Martin’s Lane) and Aunt Susie (Susan MacBride, of Roxborough) were my second moms – they were my ‘pink house’ growing up. I always come back to Chestnut Hill to be with them.”
After graduating from Brown University in 1993 she moved to New York, where she first interned at the “MacNeil Lehrer NewsHour” and then continued to pursue a career in journalism, moving to documentary film and later filing stories for NPR. It was while researching the lives of famous people for the A&E television series “Biography” that she began to mine her talents as investigator.
When she “hit the expiration date on living in NYC” in her late 20’s, she moved to Vermont, fell in love with a handsome man she met at a swimming hole and married.
“The Justice of the Peace who married us,” Randall said, “was Nancy Stevens,” who was the first non-law enforcement, female private investigator in the state of Vermont. When Stevens learned about her background, she hired Randall to come work with her.
Susan discovered she was good at this job.
“I see people as experts of their own lives – lives I know nothing about,” Randall said. “I like to try to understand people, and once I know the details of their life, place it in a bigger context and try to understand the backdrop of what made them who they are. I found early on that I could get people to talk and that I truly enjoyed listening.”
Susan worked with Stevens for five years before starting her own PI agency, Vermont Private Eye.
When Susan and her defense team got an acquittal in “a huge murder case” in 2002, she found her life changed again.
“This almost never happens – a not guilty verdict,” Randall said.
Her client had confessed to a murder he did not commit. And the acquittal brought her more attention. Her practice grew.
Eugene Jarecki, a neighbor of Randall’s in rural Vermont, took an interest in her work. In a “swap” proposed by Randall, he agreed to help her produce and edit a “sentencing video” which she could show to a prosecutor and judge – a short 10- 12 minute film to tell a client’s story in rich detail. Jarecki agreed to help with Anthony Johnson’s video, and Susan used the video to help mitigate the sentence. In exchange, Susan said, Jarecki could use the footage as part of his film about the War on Drugs – The House I Live In.
“If you followed one of these cases with a film crew,” Randall told Jarecki, “you could win a Sundance” – a Sundance Film Festival award. The festival is a premier showcase for independent films. Jarecki took her advice, and the film won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary in 2012.
Randall sat in the edit room and consulted with the director on and off for three years, as the film was coming together. Even though she has film background, she was not involved in the movie’s production. Instead, she was “sort of a muse.”
After 13 years of working on her own, Susan said she realized she was “feeling the vicarious effects of dealing with a lot of trauma.” She longed for a sense of community that she has now found working as an investigator for the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Burlington. Here she is honing her skills as an investigator and as a mitigation specialist, using her journalism background to tell compelling stories about the lives of her clients in order to lessen the harshness of their sentences.
What’s next for this ambitious filmmaker turned Federal Defender investigator, who is also the mother of two: Raz, age 11 and Lena, 9?
“I’ve been thinking about writing a book,” she said, “one where I talk about how my clients’ lives have worm-holed their way into my psyche and hugely affected my life. No one wants to talk about the effect of this work on those of us who work in the field. Not just the defense, but how it affects all of us, from the police to the DEA to probation to the prosecutor.”
It’s no accident that the screensaver on her computer features the quote: “Leap and the net will appear.”
The program and screening of “The House I Live In” will begin at 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 5, at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, 2800 W. Cheltenham Ave. in Germantown. The movie explains how the war on drugs in this country not only has incarcerated a huge number of people – mostly minorities – for nonviolent drug crimes, but also has failed to achieve its purpose.
There is no charge for admission. A panel discussion, which includes Randall and Jarecki, will follow the film.