They were what the media would have called an All-American couple. He was a brilliant young officer that the U.S. Army was about to send to medical school. She was a beauty queen who sang, loved animals, and entertained in hospitals. They had settled into a happy life in Jacksonville, AL. Then, just before Christmas in 1971, they disappeared without a trace.
Lt. Kendall Phillips hailed from Laurel, DE. He was an outstanding athlete in high school, lettering in basketball and baseball and named All-State in football. An Honor Student, he was also his class valedictorian. Giving up sports when he entered college at the University of Delaware to focus on his studies, he graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering. His ROTC commission provided his entry into the Army.
Susan Phillips grew up outside Philadelphia, PA. After high school, she attended Wesley Junior College, then the University of Delaware. In 1967, while a student there, she was crowned Miss Delaware. She traveled the state in her capacity as the crown holder, which led to a homecoming in Kendall’s hometown, where he was chosen to escort her. The meeting was blessed, as the two were married in 1970.
Kendall was assigned to Fort McClelland, AL., and the couple began building a life there. By all accounts, they were happy. Fellow officers described Phillips as a model officer. They had established a widening social network. A few months before their disappearance, the Anniston Star had even profiled Susan for her work in protecting animals.
On December 19, the couple loaded up their blue Camaro convertible, accompanied by two of their five dogs, and left Alabama for a holiday visit to Kendall’s family in Laurel. Neighbors were to care for the other three pets. During the trip, Kendall was set to interview for admission to Jefferson Medical College. He was to then return to Alabama while Susan remained with her parents for a visit. A gas station owner, Mickey Ponder, saw them around 8:30 AM when they purchased $2.80 in gasoline. Then, they simply disappeared. When they did not show for a scheduled lunch and had not been heard from, the family reported them missing to Alabama authorities.
A widespread search began with Civil Defense teams searching roadways and adjacent areas. A Board of Inquiry into the disappearance was established at Fort McClellan. The investigation in Alabama expanded to more remote areas, including the rugged terrain at Jacksonville Mountain. Media across the nation covered the couple’s disappearance in media nationwide.
In large part, the absence of an accident scene led authorities to suspect foul play. The search had eventually spread across Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. The efforts attracted some powerful allies. Alabama Governor George Wallace and Delaware Governor Russell Peterson committed resources and were regularly updated. Peterson also reached out to other Governors to solicit their involvement and cooperation. Noel Koch, a member of President Nixon’s staff, also reached out to the family and shared his intentions of making the President aware. The FBI soon became involved in the search.
Searchers scoured their potential route between Jacksonville and Atlanta on foot and via automobile and helicopter. Divers searched lakes, ponds, and rivers. Planes covered what seemed to be all possible travel routes for the couple. Family members and volunteers drove the Interstates and significant roadways between Atlanta and Delaware without sightings or clues. On January 7, the Wilmington News-Journal newspaper announced a $5000 reward.
Susan’s parents, Howard and Dorothy Levens, along with their youngest daughter and two of their sons, traveled to the Phillips home in Alabama on Christmas Day to monitor the search efforts and look for the couple themselves. They transferred their daughter, Christine, into Jacksonville Elementary School to stay in Alabama as searches continued. On December 30, 1971, after twelve days had passed with no sightings and no clues uncovered, authorities cut the investigation back to only following up on leads.
A psychic from Toledo, OH, 90-year-old Rev. Bessie Howard, had contacted the family and asked for an article of Susan’s clothing. Mrs. Levens mailed her some of Susan’s personal effects. That individual said she had a vision that the couple would be found in a river near a curve on I-85. The psychic also said the couple had been driving too fast and had left the road at the river. The family visited the area but found no indication of an accident.
On Tuesday, January 11, 1972, the mystery came to a sad conclusion. The couple had been missing for 24 days when wildlife worker Robert Busha was patrolling on Lake Hartwell, which is on the border of Georgia and South Carolina, came across a floating body. That body was soon determined to be that of Kendall Phillips.
A half-century later, Busha still recalls the incident clearly. “It was January, and it was cold. There was no one fishing. I hadn’t seen anyone all day until I saw him. We didn’t have radios. I had to go out and find a phone to call the Sheriff’s Department.” Busha tied a life jacket to the body, then took his boat to a ramp in Fair Play, SC, to access a phone. He called the Oconee County Sheriff, who called the Hart County, GA Sheriff. Busha then picked up Hart Sheriff Whitaker and took him to where he had seen the victim. They recovered the body, which was severely bloated. The Sheriff had to cut the fabric of the victim’s pants to retrieve his identification.
Hart County (G.A.) Sheriff C.I. Whitaker said to a reporter then, “About 2:30 Tuesday afternoon, we got a call that a game warden had found a body floating in the lake, near the shore, about a half-mile south of I-85. We found his wallet intact, with credit cards, money, and his I.D. in it when we got there. We thought he might have gone off the bridge and called out divers.”
Around 10 PM that evening, dive teams found the submerged Camaro about 150 feet from shore, in 35 feet of water, with Mrs. Phillips’ body inside. She was in the back seat with a leg across the front seat. The driver’s door was open. The divers discovered one of their dogs from inside the car as well. Searchers found the grill and a headlight from the vehicle beneath the bridge.
The subsequent investigation determined that the couple’s car had hit the guardrail, knocking it down along with two speed limit signs. The front end of the recovered car showed substantial damage. Whitaker proposed that the impact may have knocked the passengers out, rendering them unable to escape. Mrs. Phillips was known to be an excellent swimmer. Kendall Phillips’ autopsy determined drowning as his cause of death.
Lavonia, GA Police Chief Joe Foster said, “They must have been traveling at a terrific rate of speed. Apparently, the car sailed forward for more than 35 feet before hitting in the lake. Foster added that both the FBI and the US Amy had personnel present for the dive recovery.
An Anniston Star headline later declared, “Coincidences Hid Bodies.” Susan’s parents had visited the area a couple of weeks previously, but no evidence of the accident was detected. An investigation determined that road crews had found the damaged guardrail on December 22 and seen debris from the contact but saw no evidence of a vehicle. They assumed the car that had struck the rail had continued on its way. The crew repaired the damage, which unintentionally kept evidence of the accident from searchers. Guardrail damage was widespread on I-85, so teams were accustomed to finding them.
Sheriff Whitaker said that an Army officer had gone into the water in the same area in a similar accident only a few years earlier. His body wasn’t found for four days, even though the area is highly traveled.
The prediction from the Ohio psychic Reverend Howard was eerily close to reality. After a joint memorial service, Kendall Phillips was buried in a family plot in Laurel, DE, and Susan Phillips was buried in Media, PA. Three of Kendall’s high school friends established a scholarship memorial fund in his name.