- By Joe Capozzi Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Roughly 1,557 miles north of the Jupiter Inlet, in a resort town on the upper reaches of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, a 52-year-old restaurant owner has spent much of the past week praying for the safe return of Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen.
Susan Muer has never met the families of the two 14-year-old Tequesta boys, who were last seen piloting a 19-foot fishing boat out if the inlet July 24.
But the former Palm Beach woman is eager to talk to the boys’ parents and offer emotional support, even if it means opening her own emotional wounds from a tragedy that tore apart her family 22 years ago.
“I’ve been thinking about them every minute. I don’t want anyone to go through what we went through,’’ Muer said in a telephone interview from her home in Harbor Springs, Mich.
“I want to get a hold of them somehow so that we can, if they want to, talk. Maybe I could offer support or structure for them. I know I can’t change their world right now, but we do have very similar circumstances. I know what they are feeling.’’
On March 12, 1993, Susan’s parents — Palm Beach restaurateur Chuck Muer and his wife Betty, both 55 — left the Bahamas on “Charley’s Crab,” a 40-foot-long boat, along with lifelong friends George and Lynn Drummey. They traveled into the path of a major storm and, despite a 16-day search, were never seen again.
Susan Muer remembers how she and her six siblings struggled to cling to hope as the Coast Guard searched for three days and friends searched until March 28.
About six days into the search, Muer recalled, “I realized my parents were gone because there was no way they could have survived on that water. At some point, your logic takes control.’’
The Muer family’s restaurants, including Charley’s Crab and Chuck & Harold’s, were later sold as the seven Muer siblings got out of the restaurant business. But three weeks ago, Susan Muer got back into it.
She opened Muer Kitchens in Harbor Springs, just two blocks from the shores of Lake Michigan and about 90 minutes south of the Canadian border. A prominent photograph of her parents decorates the restaurant, where the menu includes popular dishes like New England seafood pot pie and curry chicken salad.
“To me, it’s pretty much a way to honor them,’’ she said. “They gave me a love of food and friends and family. This is my legacy, to bring back Muer food in a way my dad would have — nothing fancy but the food.’’
Susan said business has been brisk since Muer Kitchens opened, occupying all of her time beginning at 4 a.m. each day.
She was at home preparing for another day at the restaurant early last Monday, making coffee and listening to the television, when she heard about Austin and Perry on CNN.
“When I saw it, (she thought) I need to call the parents. I don’t know what to say, but I do know how they feel. It hit me so hard. I was horrified for the family and the parents. It just brought me back to the day my parents went missing. That was me down there, trying to find them,” she said.
“My parents are one thing. But your child, that’s different. These people are trying to find their children. Not being able to and the frustration and anxiety of just wanting to walk across the water and pick them up and bring them home and you can’t. … That’s how I felt.’’
Susan said she has spoken in the past week with her sister, Julie, who lives in Idaho, about Austin and Perry, as well as with co-workers and customers in Michigan who know what happened to her parents.
“It’s been 22 years, and they’re still entrenched in tragedy as much as I am, because it affected so many people. It affects the community,” she said.
The last clue to the whereabouts of Chuck and Betty Muer and the Drummeys was a silent 911 call made in the pre-dawn hours of March 13, 1993, from a cellphone in the Atlantic Ocean about 25 miles east of Lantana.
Every March 13, Susan Muer said she drops a bouquet of flowers into the closest body of water and says a prayer for her parents. This past March, she tossed a bouquet off a 300-foot cliff above Lake Michigan.
Susan said she is not comfortable about reaching out to the two boys’ families, but she will be happy to talk to them if and when they are ready.
“It’s overwhelming. You want to gain some sort of control and there’s absolutely nothing you can do except pray and hope and grieve,’’ she said. “You’ll be OK in the long run, you finally come to grips with it, but nothing will ever be the same.’’