Village Life

The Long and Lasting Shadow of Amy Billig

Coconut Grove in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the subtropical capital of American counterculture, a bayside Bohemia of free-spirited artisans, tie-dyed vagabonds and hippie weed smokers who gathered daily in Peacock Park.

As a young teen, Josh Billig felt much at home in that colorful world.

“I loved the Grove in the 70s,” he recently recounted as he sat outside in the walled garden of his home in the Grove. “My father had opened an art gallery, and I would walk around downtown like a little street urchin, popping in and out of shops. I was very gregarious, and I felt like I knew everybody – the Hare Krishnas, the street people in the park. And there was music everywhere, too. It was a fun place.”

And then suddenly, everything changed. It was March 5, 1974, a little more than 50 years ago, when 17-year-old Amy Billig, Josh’s older sister, vanished without a trace. She has never been found.

The Amy Billig case is an American tragedy, an oft-told, troubling tale in which the lack of certainty about what happened to the high school senior thrust her parents and her only sibling into an unwanted spotlight while spawning lurid, unsettling conjecture. Amy was kidnapped while hitchhiking, goes one popular theory. She was seized by an outlaw motorcycle gang. She was raped, trafficked as a sex slave. She was murdered by a serial killer, her body cut up and fed to the Everglades alligators. 

Amy Billig shortly before she disappeared from Coconut Grove, in 1974.

A half century on from that fateful date, this is what is known for sure: On a Tuesday afternoon Amy Billig, her long dark hair flowing past her shoulders, dressed in a denim skirt and cork-soled sandals, set off from the family’s home in the South Grove for her father’s gallery in Commodore Plaza, a journey of about a mile. Her plan was to get a couple of dollars from her dad and then meet friends for lunch. She did not make it to her father’s gallery, and was never seen again.

Her disappearance was covered extensively by the news media. Over the years the case has been the subject of books, documentary films and featured in television shows, including “Unsolved Mysteries.”  Acclaimed Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan wrote movingly about the Billigs, particularly in her 1987 memoir The Corpse Had a Familiar Face, where she described Amy this way:

She was beautiful, although she did not yet know it.  She was warm and talented. She wrote playful, pretty poetry, dabbled in watercolors, excelled at the flute and guitar. She was a practicing vegetarian, a budding feminist, a voracious reader. She loved Sylvia Plath, Chinese food, clothes from secondhand stores, babies, little children, and her family.”

The suffering of Amy’s parents, Susan and Ned Billig, was also well-documented.

From the day of her disappearance, Susan Billig dedicated her life to finding her daughter, traveling across the country and abroad to meet with psychics, bikers, drug dealers and all manner of crazies who professed to have information. For 20 years she was tormented by one persistent caller who claimed that he was holding Amy captive and seemed to sadistically delight in describing how he abused her. That man, Henry Blair, a former U.S. Customs agent in Miami who investigated the case, was convicted in 1996 of two counts of misdemeanor stalking. He was sentenced to two years in prison. In settling a civil lawsuit, Blair was ordered to pay the family $5 million. He made two annual payments of $10,000, Josh Billig says, before he died.

Over the years, search parties were organized, rewards offered, psychics consulted, extortion attempts made, death bed confessions offered that could not be confirmed.

The missing poster of Amy Billig, shared widely on the ‘Help Find Amy Billig’ Facebook page to reinvigorate the search, posted on February 6, 2015.

Officially, the case remains open. “There has not been anything new in the last few years besides a male who alleged he went to school with her prior to her disappearance,” Michael Vega, a spokesman for the Miami Police Department, told the Spotlight. “The information provided did not lead to anything.”

Ned Billig died in 1993 at 69, Susan in 2005 at the age of 80. Both had cancer.

Josh was just 16 when his sister disappeared. “I got threats. I started carrying a gun at 17 and did for years, keeping it in my truck,” he says. “I was a little paranoid about it.” 

Struggling to find meaning in his studies, Josh dropped out of Coral Gables High School. His participation in the Boy Scouts, his most important community, flagged. He began smoking more marijuana, drinking a bit.  

“Emotionally, I probably didn’t know then that my life was changing because of my sister and the family scene,” he says. “The older I get the more I see how it affected my entire life, affected my psyche, the way I was thinking. The hardest thing about it was you never had any closure.  Literally you go through life thinking maybe it will change, maybe it isn’t like you think it is.”

Now 66, Josh Billig eventually regained his equilibrium. He got his GED, was embraced by his Scout troop and became an Eagle Scout. He took community college classes. He became a stonemason and has gained renown for his rock wall artistry. His works can be seen all around South Florida, including at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and, the project he is most proud of, the wall in front of The Moorings, a gated community on Main Highway, not far from where Amy had been last seen.

He also built a Florida keystone bench in Coconut Grove’s Peacock Park, nestled beneath palm trees near the mangrove-shrouded shoreline, and dedicated to his sister.

Josh Billig on the memorial bench he built for his sister Amy in Coconut Grove’s Peacock Park, a serene tribute nestled among palm trees and mangroves. (Patrick Farrell for the Spotlight.)

Yet even when fitting limestone rocks together like a rough-hewn puzzle, Josh Billig remains haunted by family history, and wonders about the profession he chose. Walls endure. Walls promise protection. Walls don’t disappear.

 “As kids we talked about it,” he says, recalling the first 10 years of his life before the family move here from New York. “Building a snow fort, we’d say, ‘If anyone tried to attack us, we’d be safe.’” 

Josh and his wife Michelle still live in the South Grove. They have two grown daughters, one of whom recently gave birth to their first grandchild. That took Josh back to his first child’s birth.  

“When my first daughter was born, the second I saw her, I understood better what my parents had gone through,” he says. “That’s why they were so upset all these years. The things they had to go through…”

If Amy is alive, she would be 67 years old.  Does Josh think she’s out there? 

“Not really,” he says. “I always kind of think it’s possible. I do. You can’t take that out of your mind completely, but I admit it’s unlikely. I get half dozen calls a year, some of them nuttier than others. But I do think it possible that somebody will tell me something that did happen, information we can use. Just to know.”

For years Josh continued to pay for his mother’s phone line, switched to a cell phone. “She wanted us to keep it in case Amy called,” he says.  But the phone had to be charged and kept handy, and it was finally discontinued. Says Josh: “If my sister got it together enough to call my mother’s number, she can figure out how to call mine.”

Susan Billig died without ever gaining the closure she sought.  But shortly before her death, she decided to have her daughter’s name etched into the family gravestone in Graceland Memorial Park North.  “Amy, January 9, 1957 – March 5, 1974.”

Did Susan Billig believe her daughter was dead?  “I don’t think she ever accepted it,” says Josh.  “She spent a lot of years with a lot of sorrow, and that’s known to be bad for your health.  She had breast cancer, lung cancer. At the end she had grown tired of life, tired of the sorrow, tired of the fight.”

Josh Billig stands contemplatively in Coconut Grove, reflecting on his sister’s legacy and the enduring mystery of her disappearance.

Many years ago, when Josh was in his 30s, he made a note of a recurring memory, something he thought he might write a song about. At the time of Amy’s disappearance, he says, both sister and brother smoked cigarettes. A day or two into her absence, Josh found a carton of her smokes. He took one from an open pack. The next day he took a couple more. 

“Over the course of the next couple of weeks,” he says, “I emptied out this carton, smoke after smoke, pack after pack, until they were all gone. And all the time I’m thinking: Amy’s gonna come back and I’ll have to get her a carton of cigarettes. 

“I was always thinking I would replace it,” he says. “And I never had to replace it.”

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