Susan Schorpen, the mother of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia, whose 2004 abduction made national headlines, was found dead on April 10 of a suspected drug overdose, PEOPLE confirms. She was 47.
The Florida woman’s already-difficult life shattered on February 1, 2004 when she experienced every parent’s nightmare.
Her 11-year-old daughter, Carlie Brucia, vanished while walking home from a friend’s house. Her parents reported her missing within an hour of her disappearance.“I knew something was wrong,” Schorpen told PEOPLE at the time. “In my heart, in my mind, I knew.”
She was right. A surveillance video at a car wash showed Carlie being confronted by a man who grabbed her by the arm and led her to his car.
The story quickly became national news. Schorpen appeared on television, begging for the return of her daughter.
But her pleas went unanswered. Authorities arrested Joseph P. Smith, a 37-year-old father of three with a long rap sheet. Four days later, Smith led cops to Carlie’s body. She had been raped and murdered. Smith was later convicted of killing the girl. He remains on death row in Florida.
Schorpen was devastated by the loss. “I’ll never be the same,” she told PEOPLE at the time. “She was my life, my beautiful girl. I can’t get past what happened to her. No one should go through what my family has been through.”
To deal with her heartbreak, Schorpen tried to immerse herself in fighting for the rights of children. But Schorpen battled substance abuse and was arrested several times on drug-related charges.
Schorpen became close friends with child advocate Judy Cornett after Carlie’s murder. “Susan was an interesting lady, one that I really liked, the one hiding behind her drug addiction,” Cornett tells PEOPLE. “The void of Carlie not being a part of her life became a huge scar on her heart and a big missing puzzle piece.”
“Carlie’s death was something impossible for Susan to recover from, this was clearly one of the biggest blows imaginable in her life,” Cornett continues. “While society acknowledged the scale and depth of the loss, it proceeded to erect a very strict frame of reference about what was acceptable behavior. Susan could not meet those standards, she struggled with addiction, which was no secret.”
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Schorpen struggled while preparing for the trial of her daughter’s killer. “She was truly broken,” says Cornett. “She tried to pick up the pieces but always seemed to have tragedies fall before her.”
Schorpen faced several more traumas: Her mother died soon after Carlie’s abduction. Her brother then died in a car accident. Her father then passed away. After all that, her 11-year-old son was seriously injured after being hit by a drunk driver.
But there were lighter moments, as well. As a volunteer for a Predator Patrol safety rally to raise awareness for abused children, Schorpen was front and center as she whacked a piñata and interacted with the children. “Susan was making some of the funniest faces and every time she changed her face she would laugh,” Cornett recalls. “She had a contagious laugh and such a beautiful smile.”
But behind the smile, there was always a shadow of sadness. “I still cry a lot,” she told PEOPLE in 2011. “I miss Carlie every minute of every day. Nothing has been normal since it happened.”
With Schorpen’s sudden death, her friends and family are taking solace in the fact that she is finally at peace.
“She is now another Angel up in Heaven looking over her loved ones,” says Cornett. “She leaves behind a solid group of friends who loved her and always stood next to her through her life journey. We can now hold hands and know she is in a better place. She now has peace that she is with her baby girl, Carlie.”