Opening a World of Pain to Find Woman’s Killer

Sandy Sudweeks can’t believe what she’s doing. Then again, a lot of things haven’t made sense since that Sunday afternoon a year ago when her daughter’s hysterical boyfriend showed up on her doorstep in Costa Mesa and, eventually getting it out, told Sudweeks that her daughter was dead.

Unbelievable, but only the precursor for a year in which Sudweeks, a professor at Golden West College, has drifted through the emotions--and, sometimes, strange lack of them--as she copes with the murder of 26-year-old Sunny Adrienne Sudweeks.

On Feb. 23, the anniversary will arrive like a package from the Unabomber. But because no one has been arrested for her daughter’s murder, Sudweeks has work to do.

That’s what she can’t believe.

In the strange world she now inhabits halfway between the strongest reality there is and the sense that it can’t be real, Sudweeks says, “You know what I have to do now? This is so creepy. I have to publicize my daughter’s death. I have to market her death. I have to get people interested in writing about her. I have to think up angles that reporters might be interested in.”

Sudweeks, in her early 50s, is saying this not with anger or palpable sorrow but with a resignation that makes it clear there is no other choice. Maybe some publicity will help move the case along. Maybe somebody will remember something. Maybe the killer, who police suspect has probably done this sort of thing before and may again, might be tracked down. She knows the trail is cold, but who knows, maybe an article will stir up something.


So, Sudweeks dredges up the memories again. It’s a mother’s task for her daughter that she can’t believe she’s got to do. In doing so, it forces her to reflect on a year--and a day last February--that is every parent’s worst nightmare. Last September, Atlantic Monthly magazine titled its lead article, “A Grief Like No Other,” and it was about parents whose children have been murdered.

As Sudweeks has learned, the magazine was right on point. While every parent may privately fear a child’s death, or murder, no one is prepared for it. As Sudweeks recalls the conversation with a 911 operator on the day she learned Sunny was dead, in which she was trying to confirm the boyfriend’s hysterical finding, she remembers the heat that enveloped her and her chest tightening as the operator said, “Do you have a priest or minister?”

With that, Sudweeks knew. What troubled her in the ensuing weeks, though, was that she could talk about Sunny’s death freely, without automatically crying. In fact, she worried about the absence of tears and persistent grief.

“It’s been a year now, and I haven’t had the level of grief, the intensity of grief I expected,” she says. “I was concerned about that. Why aren’t I feeling anger? Why not devastating sadness? I would have waves of sadness and grief come over me, but they were short-lived. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me.”

She came to learn that people grieve in different ways. “Your emotions shift around,” Sudweeks says. “You’re walking on mud. One foot goes this way, one foot goes that way.”

She’s drawn much sustenance from attending meetings of the local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, part of a national network. While attendees’ stories of rage and grief can be painful to hear--and even though Sudweeks hasn’t experienced the anger that engulfs many--she feels an unmistakable bond with the group.

When she was killed, Sunny Sudweeks was just finishing photography studies at Orange Coast College. She lived with her boyfriend and another friend, and both of them were gone for the evening to their graveyard shift jobs when Sunny was killed. Her boyfriend found the body.

Sudweeks, divorced from Sunny’s father, praises Costa Mesa police both for the way they investigated the case and treated her. Still, the leads have gone nowhere. Her daughter, who was raped and strangled, lived in a second-floor apartment in the 1000 block of Mission Drive in Costa Mesa. Sudweeks believes the fact that her daughter lived upstairs indicates the killer singled her out, rather than randomly attacking someone in a ground-level unit from which escape would be easier.

Lately, Sudweeks has felt a change coming. “I find I’m crying a great deal more,” she says, pointing out that she attends church more often and sometimes is brought to tears just by walking in.

“I think it’s because my heart is opening up,” she says. “I feel like I’m defrosting. I’m finding that Sunny is on my mind and I can’t avoid it now. I’m starting to feel a lot of grief. I’ve lost my connection to a big part of the world,” she says, wiping at tears while talking about the mother-daughter connection that helped define who she was as a woman.

The ultimate sadness is the inescapable fact that no matter how much she asks “what if” or talks through her feelings, her daughter isn’t coming back.

“It’s like having two lives,” she says. “I have an outside life, where I go to work. Then, I have this inside life, which is just as real and huge.”

The Atlantic article posed this question: “How do you recover from the murder of a son or daughter? For thousands of distraught Americans, the terrible answer is that you don’t.”

Sudweeks says she won’t let her daughter’s death destroy her. “I have too strong an investment in life to let it do that. People say, ‘You’re so brave.’ I’m not. What choice do I have?”

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to