The Night Caller

updated 02/26/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/26/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE ORDEAL BEGAN ON MARCH 5, 1974. That afternoon, 17-year-old Amy Billig came home from school and, needing some lunch money, set off for the art gallery owned by her parents, Ned and Susan, in the affluent Coconut Grove section of Miami. It was an easy walk to town, under shady banyan trees along well-traveled Main Highway, and several construction workers recalled seeing her en route. But Amy, a raven-haired high school senior, never arrived.

The calls began three weeks later. In a low, menacing drawl, a man who said his name was Hal Johnson told Susan Billig that he had taken her daughter, trained her as a sex slave and sold her to a biker gang. He called again and again in the dead of night, with chilling dedication, for the next 21 years. Sometimes the phone would ring as many as seven times a night for weeks; sometimes "Johnson" allowed months to pass in silence. But always his calls resumed, with taunts, threats and mockery. "Oh, God, tell me more about her—are you sure she's well?" Billig pleads in a typical conversation, taped with the aid of the FBI last October. "Her body is magnificent...." Johnson all but leers into the phone. "I don't want to talk about that," Billig cuts him off, exasperated and distraught. "I'm her mother."

Constantly, the caller toyed with the Billigs by giving them false clues, often directing them to perilous biker havens around the country. Financially drained from chasing down the red herrings, they were forced to sell their gallery and move to a smaller house.

"It was like a twisted soap opera," says Billig, now 70, ah interior designer who suffers from lung cancer, the same disease that killed her husband in 1993. "Always the same tone of voice, the same story. He would call while Ned was dying beside me." And when she came home, grieving, from her husband's funeral, still the phone rang: "Ned's dead, isn't he? You're alone now, aren't you? You'd better watch out."

For two decades, Hal Johnson frustrated police and the FBI, using pay phones and, after his calls were traced, always leaving the scene before the law arrived. Then, in 1993, he began using an untraceable cellular phone. But last Oct. 21, technology finally caught up with him. Using new telephone equipment, detectives pinpointed Johnson's phone to a branch of the U.S. Customs department. And it became clear why he had proved so elusive. "We knew it was one of our own," says Mike Hearns, a Coral Gables police detective.

After tapes of Hal Johnson's voice were played for customs officials, Billig's tormentor was identified as group supervisor Henry Johnson Blair, 48, a much-decorated undercover investigator. Last year, for example, Blair was awarded Spain's highest civilian honor by King Juan Carlos for helping recover a stolen painting by the 17th-century Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens. Blair, who lives in the Miami suburb of Kendall with his wife, Cynthia, a hospital administrator, and two grown daughters, initially denied making the harassing calls. But when confronted with the tapes, he confessed. Freed on $75,000 bond, but suspended from his job, he will stand trial on Feb. 20 on three counts of aggravated stalking, facing a maximum of 15 years in prison. Despite his confession, Blair—to ensure that his case goes before a jury—has pleaded not guilty. Under separate investigation in the matter of Amy Billig's disappearance, he has denied having any contact with the girl.

Her mother was there in a Miami court on Nov. 17 for Blair's bond hearing. "There was mostly disgust," she says of her reaction. "He looks like your ordinary next-door neighbor. I wondered, how could he do this to me, this man with a wife and two girls?"

Ironically, lifelong New Yorkers Ned and Susan Billig moved with their family—Amy's brother, Josh, 38, is now a stonemason, married, with two children of his own—to Miami in 1968 to escape urban crime. Settling in Coconut Grove, they opened the Dimensions gallery, showcasing local artists, and quickly became respected in the community. Charming and gregarious, Amy was especially popular, an accomplished flutist who also volunteered with the Dolphin Project on Key Bis-cayne, a program to prepare captive dolphins for release back into the wild. To get to her various appointments, Amy often hitchhiked. "In those days everyone hitchhiked," Susan Billig says. "I did, even if I was just going to the gallery. People trusted people."

Whether Amy Billig happened to trust the wrong person, or whether she was forcibly abducted, may never be known. Her disappearance sparked a massive community search, with assistance from area police and, later, the FBI. Over the years, the Billigs viewed the remains of countless Jane Does. "Every time they would exhume a corpse," Billig says, "I'd sigh with relief and be happy it wasn't Amy, but be saddened for someone else's daughter, buried in an unknown grave."

And all along, there was Hal Johnson. "I would hang up often," Billig says. "But then I'd think, 'What if this man knows something about my child?' " Relief seemed impossible: The Billigs didn't dare change their phone number, in case Johnson actually knew where Amy was. To help them follow up on his bogus tales of marauding motorcyclists, the Billigs hired a private investigator, Frank Rubino, who later became their attorney. Over 21 years, Billig herself interviewed innumerable bikers in bars, prisons and elsewhere.

Last October, Billig received an especially intense series of harassing calls, taped with a judge's approval. The customs official droned, matter-of-factly, that Amy "was sold to a motorcycle gang and took to Canada... from Canada, she was unloaded in London...." Once "trained" she was sold "to ragheads" in Saudi Arabia. Then Blair added a perverse twist to his vulgar rap. "He has a special request," he said of Amy's current captor. "He wants you and her together."

Surely nothing in Blair's utterly ordinary life presaged such sadism. Born in New Orleans, the son of a Coast Guard officer and a homemaker, he spent a rootless childhood, moving whenever his father was transferred. The family settled in Miami, where Blair graduated from Coral Gables High School. Though a poor student at Miami Dade Community College, he went on to the University of South Florida at Tampa. He joined U.S. Customs in 1970 and has since patrolled Florida's skies and waterways as part of a unit that made drug seizures. He now supervises an anti-smuggling outfit from his Miami office.

In his confession, Blair blamed his calls on obsessive-compulsive behavior arising, he said, from the stress of his job. He claimed he never sought psychiatric counseling because it might have wrecked his career. "Just a bunch of crank calls" is how he described his vicious campaign, insisting that he "would never act out on anything.... The pressures would mount. I would call, and then it would subside."

A recent evaluation by clinical psychologist Sonia I. Ruiz portrayed Blair as deeply troubled, plagued with crying spells and thoughts of suicide. "There are indications of depression and alcoholism...," reads the report.

Though Blair has finally been identified, Susan Billig feels little relief. "I don't sleep any better now that the voice has a face," she says. "I won't until I have a finality about why he was so interested in me and if he had anything to do with my child."

That remains to be seen, though there are intriguing clues. An entry in Amy's battered diary, written six weeks before she disappeared, now takes on new meaning. "Hank says as soon as I finish school, he wants me to go to South America with him. I told him he's crazy."

Henry Johnson Blair is known to family and friends as Hank. No one who was close to Amy recalls that she knew anyone by that name—or whether she ever could have met Blair. But Blair was well acquainted with South America, having made numerous trips there in the early 70s as a sky marshal, an undercover agent who rode on commercial airlines to combat hijackings. Around the time Amy vanished, Blair, then 27, and his wife—who appears to have remained supportive during his legal troubles—claim vaguely to have been honeymooning in San Francisco for 10 to 13 days. If the former number is correct, Amy was abducted just after the Blairs returned to Florida.

Even if Henry Blair didn't take her daughter, it's not likely Susan Billig will ever forgive him for the havoc he wreaked on her family. "This man took my life apart for 21 years," she says. "From the very beginning, he tore my heart out."

RICHARD JEROME
GREG AUNAPU in Miami

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