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The Case of the Girl Who Never Came Home

Part 6-7: 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

Cindy Zarzycki had been missing for more than 20 years. The veteran detective Mac and his unlikely assistant, Jen, the researcher with training in the psychology of interviewing criminals, had divided the labor of making a murder case against Art Ream, the father of Cindy's boyfriend.

Jen interviewed Ream's ex-wives, extended family members, and the picture that came together was ugly.

Jen Leibow: He was a pretty prolific pedophile. He definitely had a fetish for, you know, nine to fifteen year old girls. That he got away with a lot of it and that was really surprising.

By the end of 2007 Mac and Jen also had the stories from Cindy's girlfriends that Cindy planned to meet Art Ream at the Dairy Queen the Sunday she disappeared. They had the old "Have-You-Seen-Me" picture of Cindy recovered from Ream's keepsake box in his carpet warehouse.

But what they didn't have was significant: no body and no hard evidence.

Ream was locked up in a prison in Muskegon, 10 years into a 12-year sentence for raping a young girl. Mac thought with his suspect on ice he'd have time to develop the circumstantial evidence the assistant D.A. said he needed.

But the detective got a jolt when he discovered that Ream was gonna be getting out in the next few weeks, on parole. He was going to be walking free right after Christmas 2007. Well, Mac was going to need an arrest warrant immediately. So he crossed his fingers and showed an assistant prosecutor named Steve Kaplan what he had.

Dennis Murphy: You got a green light?

Derek McLaughlin: Got a green light.

Dennis Murphy: So how do you feel?

Derek McLaughlin: I couldn't wait to get the warrant in my hand. I couldn't wait to go up there and see Art.

On Jan. 8, 2008, Jen, Mac and his regular partner drove an unmarked police car up wintry roads to Muskegon. They were going to arrest Ream and bring him back to their police station for one more interview, their last crack at him before he lawyered up. Ream was waiting in a prison holding cell.

Derek McLaughlin: I said, "Well, I have a warrant for your arrest for the murder of Cindy Zarzycki."

Jen Leibow: It was almost eerie that he had, his lack of reaction. It was like, We just charged you with the first and second degree murder of a 13-year-old girl, pass the salt.

They'd rigged up a concealed camera in the police car but it didn't capture anything useful from Ream. He was blithely shooting the breeze with his arresting officers.

Jen Leibow: He was actually even joking a lot with us on the way home yelling at the truckers for not driving well and laughing with us.

Jen may have been the one in the car intrigued most by psychology and the criminal mind, but it was Mac who had the idea for the head game they were about to play on Art Ream. They'd make a stop before the police station at the cemetery where Ream's son Scott had been buried 13 years before.

Mac told his partner to pull over at a flower shop. He bought a dozen daisies and threw them in the back seat.

Derek McLaughlin: And so he gets outta the car. We got him in belly chains and leg irons and he's scuffling up there to the grave site and he starts crying. I said here, Why don't you put some flowers on your kid's grave, you know, make it look nice.

Jen Leibow: We saw he was sort of at a weak point there. He was emotional, he was sad, and you know, we're standing over his son's grave, and I said, "Art, you can bury your son. You've got that closure. You laid your son to rest. Can't you do the same for the Zarzyckis? Can't you give them that same peace?" And he was quiet and I looked at him and I said, "Art, where's Cindy?" and he looked at me and he shook his head and he just said, "That's a low blow."

Later, inside the interview room at the Eastpointe cop shop--with another concealed camera rolling--Mac and Jen came at Art Ream for the next eight hours. Not confrontational. More like friends talking. They had all the time in the world for him and his ramblings.

Jen Leibow: I think at this point, I hope you understand we're just trying to find Cindy.

Art Ream: Well, so far, I'm surprised, to be honest with you.

Jen Leibow: What do you mean?

Art Ream: Your attitudes and, you know, your treatment.

Jen Leibow: You're saying it's better or worse than you thought?

Art Ream: Can't be worse, it's got to be better, you know, I mean...

Derek McLaughlin: Well, we're just, we're nice people. And we know that there's another side to Art Ream.

Art Ream: Some of these things that people are saying about me makes me sound like a monster. I don't understand it, you know, I mean.

Dennis Murphy: Is he giving you anything?

Jen Leibow: He's telling us that he can't tell us anything because it will open “Pandora's box.”

Dennis Murphy: What's that supposed to mean?

Jen Leibow: Well, to us it meant there was a whole lot of bad information that he wasn't gonna reveal. You know, incriminating information.

Art Ream: So i'm not gonna lie to you, but i'm not gonna to tell you what you want to know.

Jen Leibow: You know, that's not something an innocent person says. An innocent person doesn't have a Pandora's box to open.

They took a dinner break. Turkey sandwiches and, later, when they resumed, the interrogation took a deeply creepy turn for the young researcher. Mac had stepped out of the room, leaving Jen with Art Ream. The hidden camera had run out of juice so Jen switched on her tape recorder.

Jen Leibow: And you know he sorta looked towards the door in a way that, you know, is anyone there, and leaned in towards me and said in a whisper, "You know it didn't happen exactly the way they said it did, it wasn't, it's like nothing you'd ever believe." And I got the impression that maybe, you know, Mac as a police officer, the police presence, was a reminder of punishment and maybe he'll talk to me alone.

Dennis Murphy: Let's you and me talk, huh?

Jen Leibow: Yeah. So I alerted Mac to that and Mac stayed right outside the door and I proceeded to talk to Art for about four more hours.

Dennis Murphy: A cat and mouse game?

Jen Leibow: Yes.

Dennis Murphy: Clarice?

Jen Leibow: Yes.

The young investigator alone with a manipulative convict with a monstrous history? Yes, she thought the same thing. She'd walked into a scene from "Silence of the Lambs." She was playing Clarice Starling to Art Ream's Hannibal Lector.

Jen Leibow: He even said to me during that part of the interview, You know, I'm not Hannibal Lector. I'm thinking he’s been our own personal Hannibal Lector on this case, you know, that's exactly who he is.

She played along as the non-threatening young female. He'd sexually devoured young women and hadn't been close to one in years.

Jen Leibow: So I'm, you know, just going real easy with him....just really having a conversation.

Jen Leibow: I kinda feel like a f - - - - - idiot sitting here 'cause i got nothing out of all this.

Art Ream: You did.

Jen Leibow: You know everything, so how - -

Art Ream: No, I don't know everything.

Dennis Murphy: So you think you got a shot? Maybe the only shot?

Jen Leibow: Maybe. This is the last shot we have with him. He's gonna be arraigned the next day and get his lawyer the next day. So we couldn’t talk to him after this.

Ream suggested a game of sorts. Find the body. He'd had a number of real estate properties linked to him over the years, and Jen pulled out a list of those locations from her case file. If she'd give him an address, he'd tell her whether she was hot or cold.

Jen Leibow: He says, "Yes, you should look there. Well no, that’s not a good place to look."

Jen Leibow: If I were gonna start off with any of these places, should this be the place that I start at?

Art Ream: It's a good start, yeah.

Jen Leibow: Is it really a good start?

Art Ream: Rule all these out. You know, take it from there. Do your homework.

Jen Leibow: if I were gonna start off with any of these places, should this be the place that I start at?

Art Ream: It’s a good start, yeah.

Jen Leibow: Is it really a good start?

Art Ream: Rule all these out. You know, take it from there. Do your homework.

Dennis Murphy: He's playing this kind of juvenile game.

Jen Leibow: Yeah.

Dennis Murphy: What's he getting out of this little game?

Jen Leibow: Oh, I think he enjoyed being in control. I think he enjoyed being a manipulator. He also didn’t have to sit there in a cell, you know, waiting. He got to smoke and he was in a room, so he enjoyed it that way.

Art Ream: See, you're opening up that damn box.

Jen Leibow: I am not afraid to open that box.

Art Ream: 'Cause I told you to wipe that one off the slate. And I shouldn't have said that.

Jen Leibow: Why? It's like telling me, "Don't look in Canada."

Art Ream: Why not?

Dennis Murphy: What was the best info you got outta him?

Jen Leibow: The fact that he sat there and could tell me where the body was...

Dennis Murphy: Could entertain that thought...

Jen Leibow: Where it wasn’t. Yeah, I mean an innocent person can't tell you where the body is or isn't.

It was 2:30 in the morning. The marathon day--the arrest, the visit to the cemetery, the eight hour interview--was over.

Art Ream: Can I go to sleep now? I can't keep my eyes open anymore.

But Art Ream stayed buttoned up. He hadn't opened what he called his Pandora's Box. But he was still going to stand trial for the murder of Cindy Zarzycki.

Part 7

If she'd come back from the Dairy Queen and lived, Cindy Zarzycki would have been 35 years old. But she didn't. And now Art Ream, the father of her long-ago teenage boyfriend, was about to stand trial for her murder -- even if he wouldn't admit it to his persistent interrogators.

Cindy's sister, Connie, was prepared to testify.

Connie Johnson: It was very stressful on our family. I mean we've already wondered what happened for 22 years. And then we all have to relive it on the stand. We know he did it. We just need the jury to know he did it, too.

Remarkably, Cindy's dad was still holding out for a miracle.

Ed Zarzycki: I was still hoping.

Dennis Murphy: Still hoping that she's alive?

Ed Zarzycki: Yes.

Eric Smith: This family and this case is exactly why we started this cold case unit.

The police on the case had gotten some extra investigative oomph from the county prosecutor's office. Chief Prosecutor Eric Smith has made it a signature of his term in office to go after the hard-to-solve cases, like Cindy's.

Eric Smith: From the first meeting you have with the victim's family and you tell 'em we're gonna pick up their case, you see the relief, you see the tears come out. At that point, it almost doesn't matter to them what the end result is. Just the fact that we're goin' back to try and get justice.

Trial prosecutor Steve Kaplan had successfully handled every cold case, gaining convictions or plea bargains in all 21 of them. But he knew Case #22--the Cindy case--was full of holes.

Steve Kaplan: We did not have a body. We did not have any eyewitness to her being with anybody, kidnapped or ambushed. We had no physical evidence against anybody.

And in pre-trial wrangling, this wholly circumstantial case got a lot dicier. Much of Mac and Jen's marathon interrogation of Art Ream was tossed out because he'd had no lawyer present.

The judge also declared "inadmissible" some potentially devastating evidence. First, she ruled the jury could not hear about Ream's history as a pedophile and of his sex crimes. And then, she threw out a chilling statement from that hitchhiker case, when Ream had abducted and raped a young girl, then tossed her from his car. The victim, it turned out, remembered a license plate number, leading to Ream's arrest and conviction. And that prompted Ream to allegedly declare to an accomplice -- "If i ever do this again, I'll kill the next victim." Two rulings from the bench that were two strikes against the prosecution.

Steve Kaplan: The case is diminished. It would be like entering a gunfight with only part of your arsenal.

The prosecutor began his case by knocking down the runaway theory. Older-sister Connie testified that Cindy would never have done a runner without packing a bag.

Connie Johnson: I have a photographic memory, and I know her stuff was still there. She didn't take makeup or clothes or anything.

Steve Kaplan: What was her state of mind? Happy, unhappy?

Connie Johnson: She was one of the most happy, easy to get along with people. She let things slide off her back.

Steve Kaplan: Cindy Zarzycki is the poster child for not being a runaway. She loved her family. She had no drug addictions. She had no mental illnesses. She is the last 13-year-old who would run away.

What had happened to her, then, was suggested by the testimony of two of her best friends, Cathy Bouford and Theresa Olechowski. They both told the jury -- as they said they'd told police back in 1986 -- about Cindy's plans to meet her boyfriend's father, Art Ream.

Cathy Bouford: They were making plans. They were going to go down, meet at Dairy Queen.

Theresa Olechowski: She told me she would be meeting Arthur Ream, Scott's father, at the Dairy Queen because he was going to take her to a surprise party for Scott in Pontiac.

But the party was a ruse, later testimony would reveal. Scott's birthday had been in January, not April when Cindy disappeared. The invitation, Kaplan argued, was merely a ploy to lure Cindy to the Dairy Queen and then into Ream's van. She hadn't been seen since.

Theresa Olechowski testimony: I know that Cindy is in a much better place. She's not on Earth right now. She didn't run away. I believe she's with the Lord.

And where was Cindy's boyfriend, Scott, on that Sunday in question, April 20th? Not in Michigan, according to a late-addition witness.

Steve Kaplan: It was one of those TV-movie moments where a witness surfaces just before trial.

The relentless lead detective, Derek McLaughlin, had recently found this man, a former employee of Art Ream in the carpet business. The ex-employee testified that he'd requested time off to attend to some business in Texas.

Gary Shellabarger: He told me that the only way I'd be able to get that time off was if I took Scott with me down to south Texas and he would pay the airfare and expenses for Scott if I would take him with me.

Steve Kaplan: How long were you and Scott away?

Gary Shellabarger: We left on the Friday, which would've been the 18th. And we were back nine to ten days later.

Dennis Murphy: So your theory is this Arthur Ream has been grooming his son's girlfriend and gets the son out of the way so he can carry out his molestation.

Steve Kaplan: Yes. Yes, he gets the son out of dodge, in Texas.

And, the prosecutor said, there was one more circumstantial sign of Art Ream's connection to Cindy, and it was the only physical evidence of significance produced in the case -- Exhibit No. 10.

Derek McLaughlin: Exhibit 10 is a mailer coupon that has a missing picture of Cindy Zarzycki.

In 2007, you remember, Det. McLaughlin had uncovered the curious item tucked away in a jewelry box in Ream's old carpet warehouse. Why in the world would Ream have it there, the prosecutor asked the detective?

Derek McLaughlin: They're like trophies. They like to save things that-- that the normal person wouldn't.

In his cross-examination of the detective, defense attorney Tim Kohler argued that Art Ream hadn't been in that warehouse for years and suggested the evidence could have been tainted.

Timothy Kohler: You don't know if anybody had been in there or not had been in there. You weren't there all the time, were you?

Derek McLaughlin: No, sir.

Timothy Kohler: You don't know what would've been brought in or taken out of there, do you?

Derek McLaughlin: That's correct.

In his defense case, Kohler called just a couple of witnesses, none particularly useful.

Dennis Murphy: Your general strategy to the-- to the jury and the court is what?

Timothy Kohler: You don't have enough evidence. It's a tragic event, but you don't have enough evidence. Because I know I don't have the burden. The burden is on the prosecutor.

So Kohler jabbed away at the prosecution's key witnesses, particularly Det. McLaughlin. Kohler, for instance, wondered if Mac had exhaustively run down all those leads on Cindy as a possible runaway.

Timothy Kohler: They have had numerous, by their own testimony, numerous calls about her that they didn't follow up.

Dennis Murphy: And your mission as a defense lawyer is to play that seed of doubt.

Timothy Kohler: That's right, that's right.

And Kohler hoped he'd raised sufficient doubt as he rested his case. To the news reporters, on at least one scorecard, it looked as though the defense had a good shot.

Dennis Murphy: As you went into closing arguments, what was the betting in the courtroom about guilty or not guilty?

Amber Hunt: Probably about 30/70. In favor of not guilty.

Dennis Murphy: Favor of not guilty?

Amber Hunt: Yeah.

Reporter Amber Hunt of the Detroit Free Press had heard a totally circumstantial case. There was no body and Ream's past as a pedophile had been excluded.

Amber Hunt: It was not a slam-dunk case by any means.

But before the lawyers had the opportunity to give closing arguments, something extraordinary was about to happen in judge's chambers ... a hush-hush meeting that could blow the case out of the water.

Amber Hunt: And I just happened to notice that the judge said "Nobody can overhear this." And then I put two and two together.