For four years, Susan Hurlburt wondered what happened to her son.
Neil Harris Jr. was last seen at the Inwood LIRR station wearing a hoodie under a thick Carhartt jacket on Dec. 12, 2014. She hadn’t heard from him since.
Hurlburt, who grew up in Inwood but was living in upstate New York, looked all over the hamlet where her son had lived. She distributed missing person flyers and posted about him every week on Facebook, hoping someone would recognize him. She was optimistic Harris would someday resurface, but worried for his safety. He had a history of depression and other mental health issues, she said.
And when she moved from upstate New York to North Carolina two years ago, she kept her Nassau County number in case Harris ever called and regularly checked in with the AWARE Foundation, a national nonprofit that helps locate missing people.
Hurlburt, 61, formed a habit of giving food and money to the homeless she’d find on the street, thinking to herself, “God, I really hope someone’s doing this for my son.”
Hurlburt learned just months ago that her son died last year, but has found solace in knowing that an entire community had in fact cared for him, as she had hoped.
It was a Manhattan journalist who gave Hurlburt the gift of closure.
Jessica Brockington, 55, was digging through a missing persons database for a story when she stumbled on a flyer for Harris, who was 30 when he disappeared. The man looked heavier, his beard shorter, but he had the same dark eyes as the homeless man she’d met while walking her two small dogs through Riverside Park in Manhattan.
He went by "Stephen" and sat on the same bench near West 74th Street every day, through the muggy summer heat and in 20-degree weather, Brockington said.
Though he was withdrawn, the man had become a fixture in the park, so neighbors noticed when he suddenly stopped showing up at his perch.
Gisela Wielki, who lives near the park, often offered him food or kept him company on the bench.
"He left an impression on all of us," Wielki said. "Just in his silence, he became such a member of the community and entered all of our lives."
Harris was found dead in Manhattan in March 2017, Hurlburt said. Residents placed a plaque on the bench in his memory, and Wielki helped organize a memorial service at the nearby Christian Community Church where she's a pastor. The New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner determined he died of an intestinal hemorrhage caused by a chronic ulcer. But because he wasn’t identified, Harris was buried in the city’s potter’s field on Hart Island in the Bronx, Hurlburt said.
About a year later, Brockington found the missing persons notice and began to connect the dots.
“I just knew it in my bones that was him,” Brockington said.
Brockington went to Nassau County police for help. The department had put out alerts for Harris and thought briefly it had found him in Pennsylvania, but it didn’t have any other leads, Nassau County police Det. Raymond Olsen said.
Brockington eventually spoke to Hurlburt and told her she may have found her son. She helped Hurlburt locate a photo of Harris in a federal database that lists the missing and unidentified.
Hurlburt took one look and knew it was her son. Harris was thinner than when she had last seen him, but she had seen him at 300 pounds and 155 pounds, with dreadlocks and a shaved head.
“That was my son, and I knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt,” she said.
Hurlburt had Harris’ medical records sent to the city medical examiner’s office, and officials were able to identify him through an old arm injury, she said.
“It was devastating,” she said. “And then to find out that he’d been gone a whole year, that was even worse.”
Hurlburt is considering leaving Harris on Hart Island because that is where his father is also buried, she said. He never knew his father — who died in 1993 according to Hart Island records — and always wanted to meet him, she said.
Hurlburt remembers her son had a lighter side at times, with a soft spot for the homeless, Hurlburt said. Once, without her knowing, he bought a tent and pitched it in their backyard for a young woman he found sleeping at the Inwood train station. Another time, he invited a man he found sleeping in a van to the house for dinner.
“That’s what he did,” Hurlburt said. “He had a heart.”
Hurlburt takes comfort knowing there were people who cared for him, too.
Area residents have planned a memorial service for Harris this Sunday at the Christian Community Church on the Upper West Side, which Hurlburt and her daughter will attend. Hurlburt will get a chance to thank Brockington in person.
“I’m beyond grateful, much more than grateful,” said Hurlburt. “Jessica was a stranger and she didn’t have to keep going. She never gave up.”