On the Saturday night in April when Chicago police found the gleaming red BMW ransacked and abandoned in an alley behind the city’s symphony hall, the engine was still warm, the keys were still in the ignition. There was no trace of the owner, 22-year-old college student Carolyn MacLean, or of Scott Swanson, 23, the young man she had secretly married a week before and whose credit cards had been dumped out on the ground nearby. The couple were missing. Parents and friends of the pair feared an abduction—or worse. “We are optimistic,” said Carolyn’s mother, Kathleen MacLean, “only because no bodies have been found.” Yet as anxious weeks turned into months, the missing posters faded with age, an intensive police search across three states turned up no leads, and hope gradually yielded to a sense of foreboding. Newspaper reports on false sightings of the couple added to public fascination with the case.
Then, on July 26, a letter arrived at the Haddonfield, N.J., home of Carolyn’s parents: “Dearest Mother, Daddy, Susi and Grandpop,” it began. Filling eight pages of turquoise stationery in her perfect handwriting, Carolyn reported that she and Scott had settled in California and were safe and well. But their four-month secret life had become too painful to bear. They were ready to come out of hiding.
In San Diego, where they had been living in a $400-a-month converted garage, Swanson and MacLean tried to explain their mysterious vanishing act.
“We were just leaving things and materialism behind,” Carolyn told a television reporter. Added James MacLean, a prosperous corporate attorney who had flown in with his wife for a joyous reunion: “I’m a father. I don’t think they ran from us.” If the sudden return of the prodigals ended one mystery, it raised a troubling new question: How could two kids from strict religious backgrounds and safe suburban homes inflict such a torture of uncertainty on their parents and friends?
Scott and Carolyn’s romance began at Wheaton College, a Christian school outside Chicago whose students promise in writing to forswear premarital sex, drugs, alcohol and, according to the college’s “statement of responsibilities,” most forms of social dancing. They met during finals week in May of 1987. Scott gave Carolyn pink satin pajamas, and the two were often seen wearing matching leather bomber jackets. “They weren’t like your typical couple who hold hands and smile,” says Gwendy Kem, 22, Carolyn’s former roommate. “When they were together, they were in their own world.” One of Scott and Carolyn’s favorite books was A Severe Mercy, a religious memoir by Sheldon Vanauken that describes how he and his wife created a “shining barrier” to shut out the world in pursuit of untainted love. According to Gwendy, the couple began to mull over the possibility of eloping in December: “Carolyn thought if they eloped it would be just between them and God.”
During the weekend of March 26-27, Scott and Carolyn slipped away to the resort town of Lake Geneva, Wis., where they were married by an Episcopal clergyman. “We were disappointed,” says Scott’s mother, Nancy, “that there was something so important to our son that we couldn’t share.” Following a brief postwedding visit to Carolyn’s grandmother in Flint, Mich., the couple said they would drive the 350 miles to the Swanson family home in Elgin, Ill. Instead, they left the red BMW—its keys under a floor mat—near a Chicago police station (from there it was stolen and later abandoned in the alley).
While Scott’s parents were readying a small wedding celebration, the couple were boarding a plane. Under assumed names they flew to San Diego to begin their new, unencumbered lives. But if A Severe Mercy’s perfect love was their guide, they were soon faced with a sobering dose of reality. After settling into their seedy beachfront apartment in Mission Beach and landing menial jobs at local sandwich shops, the starry-eyed pair found that life without ID or credit cards was a stressful mix of unending hard work and deception.
Scott, who called himself Michael James, doted on Carolyn, alias Scotty Soffren, doing the laundry and buying her flowers. But friends say he was also extremely jealous. Once, when he saw Carolyn talking to an acquaintance, “He just went up in flames,” says François Goedhuys, who gave Carolyn a job at his café in La Jolla. “He just couldn’t handle it. He was really possessive, attached to his Scotty.” Goedhuys says the couple did not use drugs, “but they did drink a lot.” They told only sketchy stories about their pasts. “Michael” described himself as homeless; “Scotty” spun a touching tale about her parents dying in a fire. But their true pasts seemed to tug at them. Throughout the spring and early summer, the two followed press clips about their disappearance in a local library. In time the enormous consequences of their actions seemed to sink in. “It was tough enough just living here,” said Scott. “The tensions were almost destroying us.” Their made-up lives began to crumble. Finally, for Scott and Carolyn there was only one option; they realized that their contrived charade must end.
At Swanson’s well-kept home in Elgin, his parents greeted news of their son’s reappearance with relief. “We don’t feel enormous rage,” said Nancy Swanson. “I have mixed feelings. This has been such a stressful four months. I wish they hadn’t done it. They’re going to feel the consequences for the rest of their lives, and that’s painful.” The Swansons did not rush out to the West Coast. They would wait, they said, until Scott could be reunited with his two brothers as well. The Swansons’ neighbors seemed baffled by the disappearance. “They were the Brady Bunch of Elgin,” says Donna Potuznik. “We all went through hell and high water with our kids, but it was like the Swansons were above it.”
In MacLean’s hometown of Haddonfield, in a neighborhood of half-million-dollar homes, Carolyn’s red BMW, cleaned now of police fingerprint dust, sits in the family garage along with her sister’s white BMW and her father’s Mercedes—all with matching vanity tags. Susi MacLean, Carolyn’s 26-year-old sister, is elated but nonetheless perplexed by Carolyn’s behavior. “We really are the perfect family,” she says, smiling, “the family that everyone wants to be.” When Carolyn disappeared, Susi “felt abandoned. I was supposed to be her maid of honor, after all. I finally had to decide that I couldn’t keep putting my own life on hold.” Susi insists that her parents, devout Baptists, approved of Carolyn’s marriage. But Gwendy Kern recalls that Carolyn’s father was angered by Carolyn’s elopement. “Rebellion is normal in teenagers,” says a friend of the MacLeans’. “Maybe it was just a little bit delayed in Carolyn’s case. And now she had a husband to side with her.”
After the couple surfaced in San Diego, Carolyn tried to explain why she hadn’t phoned home. “They would have found us for sure, and we did not want that. My father is not one to say, ‘Oh, they’re in San Diego. They’re alive. Let them be happy. Everything is fine.’ That’s not the way it is.” Part of the reason for reemergence was financial, she admits: “I was working seven days a week, 10 hours a day. I wanted to be a writer, not a deli worker.”
Both Scott and Carolyn say that they want to put the episode behind them, perhaps stay in San Diego and make plans for their future. But those plans will be clouded. Back in Chicago, officials have decided the couple won’t have to pay the sizable cost of the search, but 21,000 fellow citizens responding to a recent poll were angry enough to say they should; both Scott and Carolyn will have to reenroll at Wheaton if they want to earn their degrees, and as the college’s president, Richard Chase, points out, “There is disappointment that they put our community through this.” Scott, who has received more than $25,000 over the past three years from an ROTC scholarship, faces the prospect of having to reimburse his tuition costs or serve four years in the military as an enlisted man.
Perhaps more daunting is the fence-mending Scott and Carolyn must do with friends and relatives. “There is a lot of resentment toward us,” says Carolyn. “We don’t want to appear as if we were just out there having a good time. We just want to forget.” But that may not be possible. Scott and Carolyn’s misguided attempt to create a life that excluded the people who care about and love them most has left wounds that may eventually be healed, but cannot be forgotten.
—By Susan Schindehette, with John Callan in San Diego, Beth Austin and Grant Pick in Chicago