he ghost of Helen Brach has been following me for nearly 17 years. Now that a former suitor has been indicted for plotting her murder, maybe she'll let me get some professional peace.

Richard J. Bailey, a smooth-talking owner of horses and stables in the Chicago area, was charged Wednesday with conspiring to kill Brach after she found out in 1977 that he had been duping her on horse deals.

Brach, of course, was the heir to the $20 million fortune of the family that founded the Brach candy company. She had a storybook life that apparently ended as a horror story in the days after she left Mayo Clinic on Feb. 17, 1977. There is no record of her ever being seen after she left the Kahler Hotel that day, nor has her body ever been found. Nonetheless, she was declared legally dead in 1984, seven years after her disappearance.

Brach was about 65 years old when she disappeared. She grew up as Helen Vorhees in rural southeastern Ohio, in a town called Hopedale. Her hope turned to fortune when, as a dining room hostess in Miami Beach, she met Frank V. Brach, head of the candy company. A few years later, in the early 1950s, they were married. Frank Brach died in 1970 at the age of 80.

In the following years, she traveled widely and visited her roots and stayed at her cottage on a lake in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. Her cottage was on the fringes of my hometown newspaper's circulation area .

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I had never heard of Helen Brach until December 1977, when I began an internship with The Times-Reporter. The first story I ever wrote as a professional journalist was an update nearly 10 months after her disappearance, when her estate had offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to her whereabouts.

I wrote frequent updates on the mystery during my three-month internship, and followed the case closely enough to later write some freelance articles on my own. In 1980, I traveled to Chicago and met with John C. Menk, the court-appointed guardian of Brach's will. He said at the time he was convinced that Bailey was involved in Brach's disappearance. But he couldn't prove it.

In 1982, I moved to Chicago and the Brach case was no longer on my mind -- until two years later, when I heard some co-workers discussing it. The suburban newspaper chain I worked for served Glenview, where the Brach mansion was located. Brach was declared dead, and the paper was doing a story about the court action. I contributed, since I knew a lot of the background.

A year later, when the seven-acre Brach compound in Glenview was being subdivided for additional homes, the mansion was featured as an interior-design showcase, with each room decorated by a different designer. I toured the home and wrote a story.

Eventually, I married a woman from Glenview who remembers driving past the Brach mansion with high school friends and speculating on the bizarre rumors about Brach's disappearance -- particularly the meat grinder purchased around the time of the disappearance by Jack Matlick, a handyman at the mansion.

My wife also remembers Bailey, the man accused of plotting Brach's murder, from her days of riding lessons and, later, as a waitress at a restaurant near Bailey's stables. Her memories are not fond. Apparently he was not a good tipper.

For about five years, Brach was out of the news and out of my mind. After all, she had long been declared dead. Even the wild speculation and colorful hunches seemed to fade. Meanwhile, I had long since moved away from Chicago and Glenview. I was far away, in Rochester, Minn.

Then in December 1990, a body was found in a county forest preserve outside of Chicago. Federal investigators would not rule out the possibility it might be Brach's. People in the Post-Bulletin newsroom were discussing the story. Why is this ghost coming back to haunt me? I wondered why this paper was interested in that old story. Of course! Rochester. Mayo Clinic. Where Brach was last seen.

And now the indictment. I got the assignment Wednesday and called the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago for the latest information. I wrote the background from memory.

After all, off and on for nearly 17 years, through three states, I had been covering this story -- following, or being chased by, this ghost.

I hope the feds got the right guy in Bailey. I hope they solve the mystery. I hope Brach's surviving brother, Charles Vorhees, still of Hopedale, has some peace of mind. And I hope I never have to write about Helen Brach again.@et