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The Case of the Girl Who Never Came Home

Part 4-5: 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

It wasn't until a few years after he'd been ordered to solve the Cindy case that Detective Derek McLaughlin -- "Mac" -- actually sat down with the missing girl's father. Ed Zarzycki, by then, had remarried, a woman named Linda. She would become the family's principal contact with the police because she knew it wasn't in Ed's quiet nature to even talk much anymore about Cindy.

Linda Zarzycki: When a birthday came, or the anniversary of her death came, or Christmas came-- (crying) I could feel his pain. She became my child, as well.

Mac, the father of three daughters and a son, asked the couple to understand his situation.

Derek McLaughlin: I said, "Listen, I'm gonna do everything I can. But i'm kinda limited in what I can do because of my workload that I have now." Linda was great. She even said, I'll do anything. I got secretarial skills. I can help you file. I can type up things, I can do this and do that, just so I could spend more time dealing with her family's case.

Linda Zarzycki, the stepmother, would go to the Eastpointe police station on her lunch hour to pore through the case file. She'd suggest theories to Mac.

Linda Zarzycki: And he said, yep, he thought of that too but he kept running into brick walls, he just couldn't seem to make progress.

But in 2004, the brick wall was about to start crumbling because a new player, a completely unlikely partner for the veteran detective, had talked herself onto the case.

She wasn't even a cop. She was a 23-year-old college intern with a law enforcement consulting firm in Chicago where Mac had taken courses on how to interrogate criminals. Immediately, the young intern was fascinated by Cindy's case file. She'd picked it off her boss's desk when he wasn't looking.

Jen Leibow: I've since admitted it to my boss. I read the file and it really was contagious. I took that file home with me almost every single night and just kept re-reading it.

Jen Leibow was at the time an undergrad studying for a communications degree. She quickly became obsessed with the suburban Detroit teenager who'd disappeared when she herself was only four.

Jen Leibow: And then I brought it up to my bosses and they allowed me to call Mac and see if, you know, I can be an extra set of hands for him. Anything he needed. You know, as a new investigator. I could learn from him, but I could also help him out.

And a phone relationship it remained for the next 2 and a half years. Mac back in Eastpointe doing the shoe leather investigating as he had time for. And Jen Leibow in Chicago going digital--diving into stuff that was mostly a mystery to Mac--advanced computer research, searching missing-person Web sites, sifting MySpace pages, hunting for Cindy's old friends. Along the way, she taught Mac how to use e-mail.

Derek McLaughlin: She's doing a lot of research. Stuff that I don't have time to do. And she's helping me with that.

Jen's fascination with the psychology of the criminal mind brought her back time and again to some letters in the Cindy case file.

Jen Leibow: PArticularly letters from Cindy's sister that they had written to the police department just saying, you know, please don't forget about this case. You know, this is my sister. This is a person and there was a sense of injustice there that, you know, it looked like Art Ream was the one who did this to Cindy and has been sort of keeping the family psychologically hostage for all these years, you know, not knowing what happened to their daughter.

Art Ream, the father of Cindy's long-ago teenage boyfriend, Scott, was behind bars for raping a young girl. In fact, Mac had gone to Jen's consulting firm that taught interview skills to ready himself for a confrontation with Art Ream.

Dennis Murphy: 'Cause that had been your narrow goal when you went to them initially. It's give me some tips on how to approach this guy. How to crack this nut, huh?

Derek McLaughlin: That's correct. Yeah.

It wasn't until 2007 that Detective Mclaughlin and his long-distance partner Jen Leibow made a critical decision in their case. They decided to reset the clock to April 1986 and start the investigation all over. That meant conducting fresh interviews. It changed everything.

Now two women who'd been regarded as no more than bit players in the missing Cindy drama were tracked down by Mac and Jen and became star witnesses following a tedious search.

Jen Leibow: They had moved. Their information wasn't the same. New last names, all that.

Cathy and Theresa, two of Cindy's best friends in 1986, each felt that the police had brushed off what they tried to tell them just hours after Cindy disappeared. Both thought the investigation lackadaisical.

Theresa Olechowski: Seriously flawed and botched from the get-go.

Now, two decades later, Mac asked Theresa to come down to the Eastpointe P.D. and go over her story yet again.

This time the police interview was a very different experience.

Theresa Olechowski: I knew right away, walking in there, that he was listening to what I was saying very intently.

The story that the two friends told had for some reason never made it into the police files. It had to do with a surprise birthday party for Scott and a planned meeting at the Dairy Queen.

Cindy had been over at Cathy's house that Saturday evening. Cindy said she was going to hook up with Scott's father in the morning.

Cathy Bouford: And she had mentioned that she was going to this belated birthday party in Pontiac. She was supposed to meet Art at the Dairy Queen the next day, Sunday.

Dennis Murphy: How'd she talk about this person, Art?

Cathy Bouford: She was just very friendly with him. That was pretty much, pretty much it.

Dennis Murphy: Did she talk to this Art at your house on the phone?

Cathy Bouford: Yes. She called Art to confirm the plans of the next day.

Cathy heard Cindy tell the person on the phone that she'd look for his white van between 10 and 11 the next morning. Cindy told her girlfriend she had a birthday present for Scott. She asked Cathy to please come along with her. Cathy said her mother wouldn't let her.

Cathy Bouford: When she was leaving my house she turned around to me and she said, Will you please just show up? Just say you're gonna be there, like a reassuring, like she needed someone to really truly be there. And I said, "I'll see what I can do." And that was it.

Cindy called her other friend Theresa Sunday morning. Same story. A surprise party for Scott in Pontiac, Mich. She was getting her ride at the Dairy Queen in a few minutes.

Theresa Olechowski: She did ask me to go. And she knew right away when she asked me that I wouldn't be coming because absolutely my mother didn't let me leave and go two feet down the block without someone going with me.... But I think she really wanted to see Scott and she would have done just about anything, maybe.

Derek McLaughlin: It was truly amazing what, what they were telling me.

It had taken more than 20 years but police had finally stitched together a timeline for what was certainly Cindy's final weekend. The bait: a chance to be with the puppy-love boyfriend Scott, the boy's father waiting in his white van at the Dairy Queen.

Theresa Olechowski: I remember him specifically saying to her on the phone--this was one of the conversations she told me about -- that he didn't understand why Ed Zarzycki would ground her for walking home from the mall because it was no big deal. I think he was trying to make her feel comfortable with him.

The story, told by both girls, now adults, absolutely floored Mac. Various cops over the years -- even Mac -- had talked to them but, somehow, didn't hear it, or didn't extract it, or, maybe, it wasn't offered in the same way. Despite his excitement, Mac had one nagging question: Was it true?

Derek McLaughlin: I even asked them, when I interviewed both Cathy and Theresa, I said, "When was the last time you two even talked?”, thinking that they might have concocted some story, you know--and they said, “We haven't. I haven't talked to her since Cindy disappeared.” And I go, “Really?” I says, and she goes, “Yeah.” They told me almost identical story.

Dennis Murphy: And did you believe their stories?

Derek McLaughlin: Oh, absolutely.

Mac and Jen's investigation was finally gaining traction.

Part 5

The Dairy Queen was where the trail went cold. Cindy Zarzycki's long-ago girlfriends said she'd made plans to walk there on a Sunday morning to meet her boyfriend's father, Art. Together they'd ride in his white van to an out-of-town surprise birthday party for Cindy's young flame, Scott.

Linda Bronson: It was obvious that he was very interested in young girls.

When the detective, Mac, talked to Linda Bronson, one of Art Ream's four ex-wives, he learned more about his primary suspect's stomach-churning history, a pedophile who'd been imprisoned in the 70's for taking indecent liberties with a minor. That's tame-sounding legal language for what the victim, a hitchhiker, said he actually did: abducted her, raped her in his car and then tossed her out the door.

Linda had two children with Ream, Scott and another boy. Children, thought the ex, who were useful to Ream's appetites when the boys became young teens.

Linda Bronson: They attracted young girls and Art liked having the young girls around. I think that was why he liked having Scott there because he knew that girls would be attracted to him. And you know he'd have his chance to do whatever he wanted to do. Or whatever he thought he could get away with. He'd entice them with alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes and he would be their friend. And he'd be the cool dad around, you know.

By 2007, with everything Mac was learning about Art Ream, the theory that Cindy was merely a teenage runaway was as outdated as her old mix tapes. This was a murder investigation and the detective's thinking followed two paths: Could he make the boyfriend's father--or others--for the crime and, secondly, did he have any way of finding Cindy's remains?

As a sign of either how desperate Mac was or how wide he was willing to throw his net, he paid a call on a psychic. The mystic had a strip-mall storefront -- sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a chicken joint. A cousin of Cindy said she was weirded out when she heard him give a reading on the missing teenager at a party.

Mac figured he had nothing to lose.

Derek McLaughlin: Well, at this point, well, I'll try anything.

The psychic told the cop he didn't have time for him. He had clients booked months in advance.

Derek McLaughlin: I begged him. I says, "Hey, listen, I says, let me just, two minutes of your time." And so he took us in the back, sat us down, and he had the reading cards flipped over. And he says, Well, she died a brutal death and she is dead. There's the seeker card. And he says you must be the seeker and he says you've been looking for her killer for a long time. And I said, yeah, and he said well, he's incarcerated, in fact you're gonna be seeing this guy in a few weeks. So at this point my hair's rising on the back of my neck.

The psychic had no way of knowing that Mac was indeed going to have his first meeting with Ream just a few weeks hence in the Muskegon prison where he was serving out his second sex-crime conviction. The psychic turned more cards.

Derek McLaughlin: He's telling me a lotta, lotta things. He's saying that's where she's buried by a river, in the banks of a river, by a bridge and by a big field of purple flowers.

So where was this riverside grave? The cards didn't say.

If Art Ream knew, Mac was going to have to get it out of his suspect's head the old-fashioned way, by interrogation and gamesmanship.

Interviewer: All right Art, brought a new partner with me ... Detective McLaughlin.

Mac's first meeting with the man he suspected of abducting and murdering Cindy came in early 2007. A prison interrogation of Ream had been arranged and two senior members of Jen's consulting firm --interviewers skilled in psychological techniques --would be working with Mac.

And coming to town with them was Jen Leibow. The detective and the young researcher who wanted so badly to be in on the case met for the first time after years of telephone calls and e-mails.

Derek McLaughlin: As soon as she walked out of the elevator, I knew that was her.

Jen Leibow: It was a good meeting. It was long overdue.

But the business at hand was at hand. Into the prison for an eight-hour grilling of Art Ream. At this point, he's 58 years old. He's been in prison for the past 10 years.

Derek McLaughlin: You do know where she's at, Art, that's the problem here, that's the whole problem of this whole investigation.

The initial strategy was to deal with him as though it were a given: Everyone in that interview room knew Ream had something to do with Cindy's disappearance and now was the time to explain it all.

Derek McLaughlin: You could put closure to this thing, right now, today, and help a family out. You think about it right now. If you need some paper, I'll get you some paper, you can write it down.

Art Ream: No, I'm not going to write it down.

Derek McLaughlin: Why not?

Art Ream: My memory's not that good. My spelling's not that good.

In that first interview Ream controlled the game, just as the psychological detectives had feared. Mac suggested he could do himself some good by giving up the location of Cindy's body.

Derek McLaughlin: I can't make any promises, but, do the prosecutors, do the judges listen to me? Of course they do.

Then the accusations took a harder edge.

Derek McLaughlin: And you got information that will tell me where this girl is, and you're not saying nothing. And I just think that's b - - - - - - -. He just sits there. Doesn't deny it. Doesn't refute it. Doesn't do anything except sit there and nod his head, saying, well, you got that right.

A suspect, but no body. No witnesses. No forensics. The DA's office was going to need more before moving ahead on Art Ream.

If the DA was demanding better evidence, then Mac wanted to get into this place and have a look around. It used to be a warehouse where Art Ream had his carpet business. In 1997, when he was arrested, he was hustled off to prison so quickly that he never got a chance to return to the warehouse to tidy up. It had been virtually locked up for the last ten years. The DA gave Mac a green light to search the place.

Derek McLaughlin: We're nearing the end of our looking around and this bucket in the corner was this--my partner Kelly, she reached down and pulled out this Longines watch box. She opens it up and she goes, "Oh my god, Mac, look at this." So I look at it and I'm looking at jewelry. I'm looking at some cufflinks and some necklaces and stuff and I go, "what's the tip?" She goes, "No, the piece of paper here."

The torn paper was an old direct mail sales coupon for a construction glass on one side...and on the other, a Have-You-Seen Me notice for Cindy Zarzycki with her picture and a 1-800 call line for leads.

Derek McLaughlin: We're ecstatic. We're sitting here going, Why would this guy have this in his property?

Dennis Murphy: Maybe because his son was involved and there was the girlfriend and maybe the son had put it in there?

Derek McLaughlin: We were thinking the same way. We're going: Man, this is probably Scott's. You know they're gonna say, Well, this is Scott's stuff, you know? And then we looked at the expiration date on the back of the advertisement.

There it was, in the small print: "Expires June 1995."

Dennis Murphy: And why is that important?

Derek McLaughlin: Well, Scott died July 4 of 1994.

Dennis Murphy: Scott was dead by the time this thing was put into this keepsake box?

Derek McLaughlin: That's correct.

Dennis Murphy: Was this the best evidence you had to date?

Derek McLaughlin: Well, that was the only physical evidence we had.

Had Mac and his partner stumbled upon a pedophile killer's trophy? The DA was very interested in what they'd found.

Derek McLaughlin: "Mac," he says, "You got a winner here. I think I can, I can work with this."