May 29, 2000 12:00 PM

Mary Lyall fixes her gaze on four jars of marmalade that have stood on a bench in her kitchen since she made them one night more than two years ago. “I don’t know why,” says Lyall, 57, shaking her head at the preserves. “I clean under them, then leave them sitting there, just sitting there.”

Much has been left untouched in the family’s Ballston Spa, N.Y., home since March 2, 1998. That night, 19-year-old Suzanne Lyall, the youngest of Mary’s three children with her husband, Douglas, 58, disappeared somewhere between the computer store where she worked and her dorm room at the State University of New York at Albany. But the Lyalls themselves have been far from idle. Last year they were the driving force behind the passage of a state law intended to speed intervention by outside law enforcement agencies when violent crimes occur on campus. Since then they have collected 30,000 signatures backing another bill—one named for their daughter—that would increase penalties for about 30 different violent crimes should they be committed within 1,000 feet of a campus. “These are people who could be bitter or filled with hatred,” says Jim Tedisco, the state legislator from Schenectady who wrote Suzanne’s Law. “But they’re not striking out against the system; they’re using it to help others.”

For the Lyalls, who waver daily between hope and despair, the campaign fills an even more fundamental need. Says Douglas, a rehabilitation counselor for the mentally ill who took early retirement after Suzanne disappeared: “It’s a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

With Suzanne around, they never needed one. Shy and creative—known to spring from the shower with soapy hair to jot down a poem before it slipped her mind—Suzanne “was the darling of the family,” says her sister Sandra Morton, 30. (Brother Steven is 33.) After graduating with honors from Ballston Spa High, she attended SUNY College at Oneonta, N.Y., for a year before transferring to Albany for its computing program and to be near boyfriend Rich Condon, 23, a fellow student. “She wanted to spread her wings,” Douglas says.

The Lyalls had no cause for concern when they last spoke with Suzanne on Sun., March 1, 1998. “She was worried about her mid-terms but seemed really happy,” says Mary. Then on Tuesday morning they received a call from Condon telling them she hadn’t returned to her dorm. Campus police assured the Lyalls that students routinely go missing for short times for innocent reasons. But the family’s dread was immediate. “I knew something awful had happened,” says Douglas. “Suzie was not a risk-taker. She didn’t party or use alcohol or drugs.”

Campus police confirmed as much but didn’t call in state police until Wednesday—later than the Lyalls would have liked. (“They do a good job,” says Douglas, “but if someone is missing they need to defer to the experts.”) As it was, clues were few. Suzanne had left the computer store at a local mall at 9:20 p.m. and had reportedly been seen getting off a bus on campus a short time later. Her ATM card was used the following morning—to withdraw just $20 at a convenience store in Albany—but there the trail ends, “The worst thing is not knowing,” says Renee Janack-Cook, 22, a high school friend. “Was she fearful? Did she just leave?”

Haunted by the same questions, the Lyalls joined a crime-victims support group, through which they heard of a California couple who had campaigned successfully for better campus security laws after their daughter had disappeared in 1996. Soon afterward they met with state legislators and Gov. George Pataki to push for a similar bill, and on April 6, 1999—Suzanne’s birthday—their wishes became law. Until then, says Douglas, “we had no idea that we had clout, that people would be willing to listen to us.”

Now that they know, they won’t rest. Among their latest projects: lobbying federal legislators to change from 17 to 20 the age at which a report of a missing person warrants an immediate police search. Still, their minds rarely stray from thoughts of Suzanne. “If we leave the house, the first thing I think of when I return is, ‘Did anybody phone? Was today the day I missed that call?’ ” says Mary. “You’re always wondering.”

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