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The Case of the Girl Who Never Came Home

Part 2-3: 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.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

Thirteen-year-old Cindy Zarzycki was headed to the Dairy Queen a few blocks from her home on a Sunday morning. That's what she told her kid brother Eddie when she wheeled and barked at him to go back home, not follow her. Cindy had been going to this same Dairy Queen since she was in her mother's womb. Alice Zarzycki had been divorced from Cindy's father, Ed, since 1981. The two of them had been getting cones and sundaes there from junior high days together. Married and pregnant, they still stopped by.

Alice Zarzycki: I remember when I was expecting Cindy, I didn't have cravings. But Ed would have cravings. He would have to have a strawberry sundae from the Dairy Queen.

After the marriage broke up, there was no way Alice thought she could raise the three children. She worked nights, was left with only a small house and had little money. Ed got custody.

Cindy became the daughter she'd see on weekends.

Alice Zarzycki: She was a middle child and that's usually a child that tries really hard to please.

On the Saturday before she went missing, Cindy dropped in on her mom's -- a visit allowed by her dad's grounding rules. They talked a little about her punishment for walking home from the distant mall.

Alice Zarzycki: She was upset. She--but she knew she did wrong.

But a mom with an extra sense about these things had a feeling something else was agitating her teen-age daughter.

Alice Zarzycki: And she had somethin' on her mind.

Maybe it involved the new love of her life, a 14-year-old named Scott.

Alice Zarzycki: It was a very early on crush.

Whatever it was, Cindy didn't let it out as she played her mixed tapes and tried on her mother's clothes that Saturday afternoon.

Alice Zarzycki: She asked, could she spend the night. I would've loved to have been able to say “Yes,” but I had to work. And I had to tell her no.

Restless, Cindy then made that unauthorized visit to her girlfriend Cathy's house, where she'd use the phone to finalize plans for what was supposed to be a surprise birthday party for Scott the following day, the Sunday. Cindy hadn't said anything about a party to her mom.

Alice Zarzycki: It's always troubled me that I didn't have her stay. I wondered what kind of secret that she was trying to get around to telling me.

By three o'clock Sunday afternoon, Cindy was getting into big trouble with her father.

Alice Zarzycki: I got a phone call from ed and he said, “Would you tell Cindy to come back home now?” And I said, “Well, Cindy was over yesterday but she's not here today” and he said, “She isn't home.”

Dennis Murphy: When are you starting to get worried?

Ed Zarzycki: Probably about five, six o'clock. It was dinner time and they're usually all home for dinner, and she wasn't around.

Dennis Murphy: What did you do?

Ed Zarzycki: I went to the police station and then they told me that I had to wait 24 hours to file a report.

Eddie, Jr.: She should've been home. She's not home. Now we're calling friends trying to find out where's she's at.

Ed Zarzycki: And so we went to different places looking for her.

Cindy's brother, sister, mother and father divided the search. Two to stay by the phones, the others driving down dark streets looking for the blonde teenager. Had she run off with Scott? Was this her little rebellion against her father's grounding rules? Where could Cindy be, missing now for more than twelve hours?

Alice Zarzycki: At that point, we were still hoping that she'd just spent the night at somebody's house.

Theresa Olechowski: And I remember my mom coming into the room and saying, “Do you know where Cindy is?” She said, “If you know anything, you better spill it.”

Dennis Murphy: Now, your 13-year-old self, are you wondering where she is?

Theresa Olechowski: I was concerned right away. Yeah.

But on the bright side, this was East Detroit with the motto "A family town." Bad stuff happened in the big city nearby. Not here.

Theresa Olechowski: You didn't hear about that in East Detroit. You heard about it in, you know, other states. And so, when you're 13, you think you're untouchable.

Still, that Sunday night the phone didn't ring. Cindy's bed stayed empty.

Ed Zarzycki: It was panic. You knew that there was something wrong.

Her mom wanted everyone to just take a deep breath.

Alice Zarzycki: It's not like Jaws where you got that little music going and you know there's something. We're just making a mountain out of a molehill. It'll be over. We'll find her. Everything'll be all right.

Monday morning, first thing, Ed Zarzycki went back down to the small town police station to report his daughter officially a missing person. He says the officer taking the report told him she was probably just a runaway.

Dennis Murphy: Did it make sense to you when they suggested that?

Ed Zarzycki: I was hoping that was it. But when someone hasn't run away and always is in contact you maybe had a feeling that there might be something wrong.

Two town cops were assigned the Cindy Zarzycki case and by 10 a.m., they'd pulled Cindy's friend Cathy out of history class.

Cathy Bouford: And asked me some questions. I told them specifically who she was going with, where they were.

Dennis Murphy: You told them the story about i talked to her and she said i'm going to the dairy queen?

Cathy Bouford: Yes.

Theresa was interviewed by the officers at her home after school. Like Cathy, she told the cops about Cindy's plans to meet someone at Dairy Queen on Sunday but she had the impression the officers had already locked onto a theory that Cindy was hiding out at another girlfriend's.

Theresa Olechowski: They seemed to want to discuss more about who would keep her if she ran away.

Eddie Jr.: They just assumed she's not here. What could happen she ran away and open and closed.

On their own, family members did what they could to find Cindy. They staked out the trailer park, where Cindy's boyfriend Scott lived, hoping she might be there. They printed and distributed posters of their missing daughter and sister. Her mother, Alice, asked the local papers if they'd run Cindy's picture as a news item but they turned her down in that age before amber alerts.

Alice Zarzycki: Cindy had just seen a movie, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” so I put an ad in the personals, “Desperately Seeking Cindy.” Nobody- nobody responded to it.

Six weeks after she went missing, it was Cindy's birthday, June 8.

Ed Zarzycki: Had a birthday cake and nobody to blow out the candles.

Obsessed with finding Cindy, their runaway. Looking at the mall. On the street. How many times did a young blonde teen with a similar build catch their eye for just a moment? Once, late at night, the authorities in Detroit called Ed.

Ed Zarzycki: A body had come up at the morgue. And asked if I would come down and identify ‘cause it had some similarities to Cindy.

Dennis Murphy: Were you relieved when you went to the morgue that day and it wasn't your Cindy?

Ed Zarzycki: Yes. Yes.

Dennis Murphy: So there was still a flicker of hope out there.

Ed Zarzycki: Yes.

Cindy's best friend from the second grade where they won every three-legged race together had moved onto high school. Cindy's father was the school custodian.

Theresa Olechowski: And I remember seeing him in the hallways. And just the broken look on his face. I can't even imagine--you know as a parent myself what that must have been like. To watch her friends grow up around him everyday and not have his daughter.

And Theresa, the best friend, was as obsessed as everyone else in trying to find out what had happened to Cindy Zarzycki.

Theresa Olechowski: We'd look and hang up posters. We did that for a long time. I never forgot her.

Dennis Murphy: But what did you really think?

Theresa Olechowski: I knew she was dead the whole time.

Part 3

Cindy Zarzycki became one of those "Have You Seen This Child" faces on the back of store coupons. Forever 13 years old. She'd walked off to Dairy Queen on a Sunday morning in 1986 and was never seen again.

Connie Johnson: She looked up to me. I let her down.

Dennis Murphy: Why do you say that?

Connie Johnson: (crying) 'Cause I wasn't there.

Cindy's older sister, Connie, had been away from the house that weekend. Her kid brother, Eddie, was also tortured with guilt.

Eddie, Jr.: We shoulda been there and helped her out.

Dennis Murphy: You shoulda tagged along?

Eddie, Jr.: Yep.

In 1994 - eight years after her disappearance and commemorating Cindy's 21st birthday - the Zarzyckis held a candlelight vigil in front of the family home.

Dennis Murphy: Connie, there was a message to the police, wasn't there: “We're still here, we haven't gone away”?

Connie Johnson: Right.

Dennis Murphy: And we need to get this thing going again.

Connie Johnson: Right, and I had written a poem and actually had that poem published.

Dennis Murphy: You remember a few lines in it?

Connie Johnson: “Cindy Jo, where did you go?” and it talked about looking for her. My poem was mostly that she's out there, and I'll find her.

That's when the family recalled one of Cindy's favorite songs from the old mix tapes: Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." The chorus spoke to them:

Connie Johnson: "If you look, you will find me, time after time."

And if Cindy came looking for them, the family made sure that the old home phone number never got changed. The house she knew stayed in the family just in case one happy day she turned up at the front door. One thing that had changed by the early 90's was the name of the town. Gritty sounding "East Detroit" had been redubbed the more upscale "Eastpointe."

In the police station, though, nothing had much changed with the Cindy cold case file. It had been handed down from officer to officer over the years for a little defrosting, mostly chasing down tips of Cindy sightings around the country that went nowhere. But after the family's candlelight vigil spurred media interest, a new detective named Danielle Davis took a look at the file and decided to reclassify it as a possible murder.

Alice Zarzycki: And officially that would allow it to be opened.

One of the Det. Davis's first questions was to find out what Cindy's teen crush back then, the boy named Scott, knew about her disappearance. Scott Ream--by then 22 years old--was located and agreed to a police interview right after the upcoming Fourth of July holiday.

It never happened. Scott Ream was killed by a drunk driver first.

Alice Zarzycki: So there was nothing that could be done, but that did start part of the ball rolling.

One person reading those fresh news stories about the missing girl, it turned out, was Scott Ream's mother, a woman named Linda Bronson. She was divorced from Scott's father. The mother, Linda Bronson, was upset by what she read as innuendo in the news stories that her now dead son had somehow been responsible for Cindy's disappearance.

Linda Bronson: And I knew that just couldn't be true. That is why I contacted Danielle Davis.

But Linda Bronson wasn't calling just to clear her son's name, she had some information to offer ... and Det. Davis was listening.

Linda Bronson: She was very interested in it. She believed me. She wholeheArtedly believed me. At least, I felt she did.

Now, for the first in eight years, the Eastpointe police department began looking at the Cindy case as something other than a possible runaway.

The detective, Danielle Davis, began piecing together a timeline of Cindy's last weekend home, chasing down old witnesses. But, after that flurry of fresh energy came a new setback: Det. Davis left the department. Once again, the Cindy cold case file would be passed on to a new set of investigative eyes.

In May of 1995, an Eastpointe cop named Derek McLaughlin--"Mac" to one and all--got promoted to the detective division's Youth Bureau. It handled 40 to 50 juvenile cases a month.

Derek McLaughlin: My chief came down and he threw this box on my desk. He says, "This is an old file." He says, "It's still an open case." He says, "I want you to solve it."

Dennis Murphy: Solve it.

Derek McLaughlin: Solve it.

Mac stayed late that night reading the yellowing case files. In Cindy's old snapshots, in her diary, she looked and sounded to him like a happy normal kid, not a potential runaway. The business about the crush on Scott jumped out at him as central as to what he'd need to find out to advance the case.

Derek McLaughlin: And the whole case really intrigued me.

Dennis Murphy: Why?

Derek McLaughlin: Some statements - I read all the statements that Detective Davis had filled out. All the interviews that she conducted. There was some things that were poppin' out at me that were substantial.

One thing really stood out -- the lead that Linda Bronson, the mother of Cindy's boyfriend, had given Det. Davis. It was a bombshell.

Linda Bronson: After thinking about it for a short time, I realized that Art was involved in this girl's disappearance.

And who was Art? He was Scott Ream's father and Linda Bronson's ex-husband, a carpet installer with a warehouse business. But what he also was, according to the ex, was a man who preyed on young girls.

A search of the records revealed a sex-crime in Art Ream's past. Twenty years earlier, in 1975, he'd been convicted, and locked up for three years, for taking indecent liberties with a minor.

For Det. McLaughlin, the cold case was now showing signs of a pulse.

Derek McLaughlin: The person of interest at this time was Art Ream, the father of Scott Ream.

Dennis Murphy: The boyfriend, the father: He's got a rap sheet?

Derek McLaughlin: That's right.

But even though Ream had moved to the top of the case file, authorities had nothing to charge him with and no evidence whatsoever of a crime, at the Dairy Queen or anyplace else. At the same time, I was getting a whole lot of leads coming in at this time. Missing, exploited children out of New York. Well, you had to check it out, you know, 'cause you just never knew. And I checked every one of them out that called in personally.

Dennis Murphy: So, dead or alive: You can't answer the basic question at this point?

Derek McLaughlin: Right.

But Cindy's family recognized this new detective on the case was different. He was taking it to heArt, just as they did.

Connie Johnson: As I got to know him better, he wasn't going to work on the case. He was going to find Cindy.

And finding Cindy, or her body if it came to that, was paramount to a family frozen in uncertainty, unable to mourn and move ahead. Could Mac find Connie's sister?

Dennis Murphy: It wasn't even a case number to him?

Connie Johnson: She was my sister, his sister. My dad and mom's daughter.

After a few years on the case, Mac got a call from Art Ream's ex-wife, Linda. She had some news. Art Ream was back in prison for raping a child, this time convicted of criminal sexual conduct. Ream was going nowhere. The detective would have time to come up with a strategy for getting inside the suspect's head.

Derek McLaughlin: I knew that he didn't like police officers. He didn't like to talk to 'em. So I had to figure out a way how I could talk to this guy.

If Art Ream turned out to be a Hannibal Lector, he was going to need a Clarice Starling to help bring him down.