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The Case of the Girl Who Never Came Home

Cindy Zarzycki was only 13 years old when she was last seen at a Dairy Queen in her hometown of Eastpointe, Mich. in the spring of 1986. For eight years following Cindy's disappearance, her case was treated as a runaway - until an odd-couple investigative team uncovered some disturbing details.
Cindy Zarzycki disappeared in 1986.
Cindy Zarzycki disappeared in 1986.Dateline NBC
/ Source: Dateline NBC

This report re-airs Dateline Friday, Sept. 3, 9 p.m./8C.

Do you remember making mix tape cassettes for your friends? All these years later, that's something a best friend recalls about Cindy.

Theresa Olechowski: Dance music. She loved to dance.

Maybe the soundtrack to your life in the middle 80's was like Cindy Zarzycki's. Another, Cyndi -- Cyndi Lauper -- Motley Crue, and especially hometown favorite: Madonna.

The older sister she swapped clothes with still laughs about it.

Connie Johnson: We had a song. I still remember every move to this day. Madonna's “Borderline” and Cindy and I would dance to that song over and over upstairs.

In the middle 80s, a kid like Cindy didn't live in a big universe. Hers was a blue-collar Detroit suburb known back then as East Detroit. Neighbors mostly assembled cars or stamped out the parts for them.

The borders of this teenage girl were home, school, church and the mall for movies, meeting boys and messing around. In the warm months, there were rundown ballfields for softball games, a family passion. And, of course, there was the friendly Dairy Queen down the street after softball. Eddie Jr.'s the kid brother.

Dennis Murphy: what did Cindy get, do you remember?

Eddie Jr.: Vanilla, probably swirled ice cReam cone. We always got the twist with the chocolate and...

Connie Johnson: The sprinkles! (laughs)

Eddie Jr.: Like, vanilla with sprinkles.

It was the early spring of 1986 and Cindy – 13, about to be 14 – would be playing first base and batting clean-up for her church softball team. Just two weeks before it all happened, she was playing catch outside with Eddie Jr., when Cindy piped up and asked her dad if he'd help coach the team that coming season.

Ed Zarzycki: It was kinda exciting because it was something that, as a father, I could connect with her.

It hadn't been easy for Cindy's father--raising a son and two daughters by himself after the marriage broke up. Ed Zarzycki was a school custodian and what exactly to do with a young daughter, other than love her, perplexed him a bit. So this new softball connection was a welcome one between father and daughter.

Ed Zarzycki: I mean, I had no problems with her. It was a joy to watch her come home from school and that, ‘cause she had so much enthusiasm, you know? And she always had a smile.

And not at all a shy kid. There was that time the summer before on a family camping trip across the river in Canada.

Ed Zarzycki: And in the middle of the night, when the bonfire was going and at that time, Greenwood had that song.

Dennis Murphy: “I'm proud to be an American,” Lee Greenwood.

Ed Zarzycki: “Proud to be an American.” And she was just singing that song just as loud. That was the type of person. She enjoyed life."

And in the last couple of years, she'd discovered boys.

Eddie Jr.: All I remember is she used to come home from school and write boys' names, like 50 times... “I love Scott.” or “I love Dave.”

The boy's name she was writing the most that spring, filling notebooks, was Scott.

Theresa Olechowski, Cindy's best friend since the second grade, like sisters in their matching too-cool-for-school white boots with buckles…

Theresa Olechowski: We wore those shoes everywhere!

...was at the mall the day Cindy's crush on 14-year old Scott began.

Theresa Olechowski: Scott had a couple of friends with him. And we passed by. We started talkin' to them. They started talkin' to us. And-- I think they had a lot of the same interests.

Cathy Bouford was Cindy's other great friend from school and sleepovers.

Cathy Bouford: She was really, really head-over-heels in love with him, but it wasn't anything like a long, deep relationship, so...

Dennis Murphy: This is puppy love? Infatuation?

Cathy Bouford: Puppy love. Yes, exactly.

But the place where puppy love blossomed - here at the Macomb Mall - would a few weeks later get Cindy in hot water with her father. This mall was about 7 miles from Cindy's house and she had standing orders from her dad never to walk home. But she did. And a single dad, raising a teenager, needed his rules followed.

Ed Zarzycki: So I had grounded her.

Dennis Murphy: Which meant what? Come home right after school?

Ed Zarzycki: Right after school. You know, to stay at the house.

Grounded. No mall. No Scott. They went to different schools.

Theresa Olechowski: I think she was probably frustrated like any 13-year old would be when grounded. But then, at that time, the most important thing on her mind was Scott. You know, “How am I gonna talk to Scott? And how am I gonna see Scott?”

After school Friday April 18, 1986, Cindy said goodbye to her friends Cathy and Theresa and reported directly home as per her father's punishment. But the next evening, Saturday, Cindy bolted from house arrest.

Cathy Bouford: Well, she called me and wanted to come over. And she escaped her house. Came over to my house between 6:00 and 6:30.

Dennis Murphy: She wasn't supposed to be there?

Cathy Bouford: No.

The two girls talked about--what else?—Scott, a boy Cathy had never met. Cindy used the phone to finalize surreptitious plans: She would go to the Dairy Queen and get a ride to a surprise birthday party planned for Scott the next day, Sunday. Cathy would be the alibi.

Cathy Bouford: She had told Mr. Zarzycki that she was going to church with me the next morning.

Come the next morning, Cindy told her kid brother she was going out for awhile.

Eddie, Jr.: I'm like, where? And you know we're supposed to be together, you know? You know Dad's not gonna be happy with us. And then she was like, I'm going and then just stay here. And then she started walking and then I followed her. And she's like, “Go home. Go back,” and that's when she really changed her voice and like scReamed at me to go back, I wasn't supposed to come there.

Dennis Murphy: You can't be the tag-along kid brother?

Eddie, Jr.: Right. Yup.

The infatuated 13-year old softball ace--in her cool white boots and jeans purse--pivoted and strode to the Dairy Queen. And then, she vanished.