LOS ANGELES – It was after dark and 15-year-old Susan Jordan was still not home on that school night 30 years ago when her worried family got a chilling call they'll never forget.
"Susie isn't home from school yet is she?" a man's voice said. "You will never see your daughter again."
Her father and two brothers leaped into a truck and drove frantically around their neighborhood screaming her name. Another call from the man directed them to look in a nearby orange grove, where a police dog led officers to the girl's body.
On Thursday, almost three decades later, her relatives had hoped to see the execution of the man who placed those taunting phone calls. Instead, a judge on Tuesday delayed what would have been California's first execution in nearly five years.
Albert Greenwood Brown was convicted in 1982 for Susan's murder and sentenced to death.
Though Susan's killing on Oct. 28, 1980, sparked a flurry of media attention in Riverside, a sprawling inland city about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, much of the publicity around the case has focused on Brown and his exhaustive legal maneuvers to avoid the death penalty.
But a series of letters and messages her relatives recently sent Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pleading with him not to grant clemency provide a glimpse into the family's anguish. Susan's younger brother James Jordan, who was 7 at the time, described how he was standing next to his mother when Brown called.
"I remember her pleading with him and the look of terror on her face," James Jordan wrote.
Susan's mother and two of her three siblings have written to Schwarzenegger expressing anger over the length of the process.
After decades of appeals and reversals, the courts ultimately upheld Brown's death sentence and he was scheduled for execution Wednesday, though it was pushed back until Thursday to allow his defense team time to file more motions.
U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel said Tuesday that he halted the Thursday execution because he didn't have enough time "to render a reasoned decision and permit adequate appellate review."
The judge said lawyers for Brown had "raised substantial questions of fact as to whether at least some of the deficiencies" in the state's lethal injection process that prompted Fogel to halt California executions in 2006 remained. Brown has alleged that the state's new lethal injection protocols did little to improve upon the old methods.
California's attorney general can still appeal Fogel's decision. But if the decision isn't reversed by Friday, the state will be unable to execute Brown — or any other death row inmate — for several months because the state's entire supply of sodium thiopental expires Friday. The chemical is used to sedate inmates before they are fatally injected with two other drugs.
If his lawyers can delay the execution until Friday, Brown could not be executed until next year, the earliest the state can restock the drug.
"You and your lawyers have had the audacity to plead for your life by unjustly dragging out your sentence for nearly 30 years," Susan's mother Angelina Jordan wrote in a Sept. 1 letter to Brown. "Your day of accountability is now upon you. The Jordan family will be watching."
A spokesman for the Riverside district attorney said some siblings have been planning to travel to San Quentin to witness the execution.
The family's plea was accompanied by photographs of Susan, as a young girl holding a cuddly toy and in her final high school photo as a slender teen with thick dark hair and doleful brown eyes.
"The real tragedy of waiting 30 years is that nobody, apart from friends and family, even know who she is," wrote Susan's younger sister, Karen Brown. "Now all the public knows is that some faceless teenage girl was murdered back in 1980. What they see instead is the face of her murderer."
Police found Susan's body face down in the dirt amid orange trees a block from her high school. Brown had pulled her into the grove as she was walking to school. He raped her and then strangled her with one of her shoelaces.
"I will never forget the image of Susan Jordan lying there in the orange grove ... looking so helpless," said retired police Sgt. Benjamin Reiser, who was the lead investigator on the case.
He recalled Susan gripping the rubber tip of a spark plug cable between her thumb and forefinger. Detectives thought Brown tried to strangle her with the cable but found it too short, so used her shoelace instead. Somehow, she'd held on to the end of the cable.
"It was almost as if she was telling us whoever did this worked for an auto dealer," Reiser said. Brown was employed cleaning cars at a dealer.
Investigators later found shoes at Brown's house matching footprints at the scene, as well as Susan's school books, news clippings about the murder and a phone book turned to the Jordans' listing.
Brown had been released from state prison four months before the killing after serving time for the 1978 rape of a 14-year-old girl. Like Susan, the victim in that case had dark hair and eyes.
"He seemed to be drawn to that type of female," Reiser said.
Susan's older brother, Brian Jordan, has blamed himself for the death because his sister had asked him for a ride to school but he said no.
"His life has been in a downward spiral ever since," James Jordan wrote.
Repeated phone calls and e-mail messages left with Susan's mother and siblings were not returned.
Calls to Brown's lawyers, who were working on last-minute legal moves, also went unreturned.
James Clark, the death penalty policy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the case demonstrates why capital punishment should be scrapped for life in prison without the possibility of parole.
He argued that if a family knows a killer is sentenced to life, the limbo of waiting for a death sentence to be carried out is eliminated.
"If Mr. Brown had been sentenced to life without parole, this ordeal would have ended 28 years ago," when Brown was sentenced, Clark said. "The entire death sentence process is painful for victims' families and this legal chaos just makes it worse."
Hudson Joel Brown, who is married to Susan's younger sister Karen, said relatives wanted the death sentence.
"The family hasn't found solace in the knowledge that their loved one's murderer has spent 30 years watching television, exercising, receiving three meals per day plus free medical care while filing a never-ending flood of appeals," he wrote in a letter. "Albert Brown has received a merciful life sentence instead of the death that he deserves."
Rod Pacheco, the district attorney for Riverside County, has been working hard to ensure Brown is executed. He filed a 25-page petition with Schwarzenegger outlining why Brown's sentence should be carried out.
"Evil does exist in this world, and he is it," Pacheco said in an interview. "He has shown no remorse whatsoever."