IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The Case of the Girl Who Never Came Home

Part 10-11: 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

They gathered by a river behind an old farmhouse, searchers, forensic anthropologists, guided only by a crude map drawn by the killer.

Derek McLaughlin: He says she's down by the river. She's 25 feet to the west of the bridge.

How surreal it was for Mac. When he got to the scene, he remembered back to what the psychic had said and was amazed that the area was so much as the psychic had described it.

Derek McLaughlin: One of the first things that popped into my head was-- when we first got out there, you know, the bridge ... The banks of the river ... The field of flowers. It was unbelievable.

The tranquility of the river and woods on that July day in 2008 was in stark contrast to what the searchers hoped they'd find there: the burial site of Cindy Zarzycki.

Art Ream had dug a gravesite in what turned out to be a flood plain. Maybe all trace of Cindy had been washed away.

Jen Leibow: Cadaver dogs didn't find anything. We weren't exactly sure where it was.

Derek McLaughlin: I knew she was there. It was still trying to find a needle in a haystack.

So Mac got permission to spring Ream from prison to narrow down the search. He lumbered in convicts' chains to the place where he thought he'd dumped the murdered 13-year old 22-years before.

Derek McLaughlin: When he came out with us, he more or less couldn't remember exactly where he'd put Cindy.

The pedophile killer poked about here and there as though he were trying to select a picnic spot.

Eric Smith: Just walking around going, "Yeah, I remember these trees. I think I was over here, or it, it, it could be over here."

Prosecutor Eric Smith, whose Cold Case unit had put Ream away for the rest of his life, was made crazy by Ream's casual banter.

Eric Smith: To the point where I just said, "Stop. Just shut up." The fact that he could stand out there knowing full well the last time, maybe the last time he was here, he's burying Cindy Zarzycki and he's walking around as though he doesn't have a care in the world. Maybe it was that I'm a father, but that got to me in a hurry.

Ream was then hustled back to prison, but not before Mac took him to a suspicious spot that, earlier, the detective had had a cadaver dog sniff at.

Derek McLaughlin: he looked at the spot. He says, "No." He says, he says, "I think it's closer to the river."

Meanwhile, about an hour northeast, in their retirement cottage by Lake Huron, Ed and Linda Zarzycki were well aware that the search for Cindy had started but Mac spared them the agonies.

Ed Zarzycki: “You stay put. But I promise when we find her remains, we'll call you.”

It was turning into a frustrating day. Four holes came up empty. She could be anywhere. Still, the searchers pushed on as the July day became a scorcher. They were doing it for the girl's father and for Mac.

Dennis Murphy: You had promised the father? You said--

Derek McLaughlin: Yep.

Dennis Murphy: "Ed, i'm gonna get you your girl's body back"?

Derek McLaughlin: And that's somethin' that yeah, I shoulda never done. But I did. That's one thing a law enforcement person (laughter) shouldn't do is promise somebody that they're gonna get their deceased daughter back, you know. They were genuine people, who missed their daughter. If it was me, I'd want someone workin' the case, on my case, if I had a daughter that came up missing.

A neighborly farmer came by with his front-end loader to pitch in. Like so many others touched by Cindy's case, the farmer, a diabetic, became completely caught up in the mission and forgot to eat.

Derek McLaughlin: His wife come down worried about him. I said, "Why don't you just take your tractor home and call it a day?" I says, "You look whipped." He says, "No." He says, "I'm out here to find this little girl."

By then, it was getting late in the day.

Derek McLaughlin: And it's getting dark. It's hot. It's mosquitoes.

Outside the dig area, Cindy's brother and sister were waiting for any news. The shadows getting longer.

Connie Johnson: What happens when it becomes dark? You know, are they gonna bring lights out there and keep searching, or whatever? And I said, "That's when we pray." And I prayed. My exact prayer was that, "If they are to find her, lord, tonight, let 'em do it now."

Mac and the chief anthropologist had been ready to call it quits. But they decided to look one more time at the very spot Ream had dismissed earlier because it wasn't near the river. The anthropologist was intrigued.

Derek McLaughlin: And he says, "Let's give it one more shot. This looks like a-- a good area to look at."

It would be hole #5. The farmer on the loader scooped out a four-by-10 foot trench.

Derek McLaughlin: And there was a little hump in the middle of this trench. I'm looking at it and I remember askin' Art, when he buried Cindy, I said, "Did you flatten out her grave, or did just leave it like a hump, like they do in the movies?" He says, "I just left it a hump."

Mac jumped into the hole.

Derek McLaughlin: So, the first time all day long, I grabbed a shovel with another trooper. And we're digging. Any my second shovel, I wrenched the dirt back and up popped this bone.

For the anthropologist, it was the moment.

Derek McLaughlin: And he picks up the bone. And he holds it like this. And he says, "Mac, do you know what this is?" and I think I'm in a state of shock at this time. And-- and-- I says, "no, I don't." And he says, "Well, it's a bone. It's a tibia bone to an adolescent child." And I says, "How do you know that?" he goes, "Well, one it-- I'm an anthropologist." And two, he says, "The bone hasn't been fused yet." So, I said, "Okay." I says, "So it's not an animal bone." I think I'm still in a state of shock, and he goes, "No." He says, "Cindy's right below us."

Dennis Murphy: you'd found Cindy?

Derek McLaughlin: Yeah.

Dennis Murphy: After all those years?

Derek McLaughlin: (nods his head and tears up)

Mac and the anthropology team were bringing up more remains... Recovering personal items that maybe the girl's family could identify.

What he was finding was enough for Mac to make a phone call he'd always wanted to make.

Ed Zarzycki: He calls up about 5:30 and said, "Can you be here?"

More painstaking digging, still nothing unmistakably Cindy. Until...

As the investigators carefully removed the purse's contents, they found something that almost declared "Yes. I am Cindy Zarzycki's remains."

A mix tape.

Prosecutor Smith approached the Zarzycki family who'd now gathered on the fringe of the dig.

Eric Smith: I said, well, there were certain things in her purse that were pretty distinctive. And they didn't say anything, and I said, "home-made, home-made tapes of music."

Connie Johnson: And he said the word, "cassette tapes." And I laughed and cried all at the same time and said, "that's-- that's Cindy."

Dennis Murphy: Mac promised you results and he got 'em.

Ed Zarzycki: Yes, he did. He promised me. He says, "I will not give up till we find Cindy."

Derek McLaughlin: I still can't believe it. It was like-- we weren't supposed to find her that day. But, I tell ya-- she-- she was callin' to us. We weren't going to leave that area without her letting us know where she was.

But there was something amidst the bones that no one could recognize. A piece of jewelry. There was one remaining mystery to solve.


It was a life cut short by the pedophile father of her first crush. The teenage artifacts of Cindy Zarzycki--thick with dried mud--were set out on a police station table.

Dennis Murphy: Detective, this is really distressing to see this stuff. This is the last of Cindy that came out of the grave, huh?

Derek McLaughlin: That's correct.

For Derek McLaughlin, the detective who couldn't rest until he found her, the tube socks with the stripes worn by a budding athlete, were what got him.

Derek McLaughlin: and her friends always said that she wore 'em even in wintertime in the gym-- or wearing jeans. When I saw the socks, I said that's-- that's Cindy.

For best friend Theresa, there were the white boots with the buckle. Only one was found, the other apparently swept away.

Theresa Olechowski: Her shoes are what did it for me. I had gotten a pair for Christmas and Cindy desperately wanted them. And she nagged her grandmother for these shoes. And her grandmother finally broke down and bought her the shoes.

Derek McLaughlin: The tapes, Cindy always carried around her tapes, her music.

For her older sister Connie, the mix tape cassettes taken from Cindy's purse, coming months before a DNA match from the lab, was all the confirmation that she would need. Had the tapes, just maybe, been Cindy's birthday present for Scott, her boyfriend?

Connie says she and Cindy gave away mix tapes as gifts all the time.

Connie Johnson: We would pick their favorite songs or something that had meaning to us to show how much we cared for that person.

But there was one item from the grave that no one in Cindy's family could remember -- a gold necklace with a charm on it, an anchor.

Derek McLaughlin: We found it around her neck area.

Dennis Murphy: And her family didn't know what to make of that.

Derek McLaughlin: Exactly. We asked them if they could I.D. this and they -- nobody could.

But Linda Bronson, one of Art Ream's ex-wives, said yes, she knew what it was. Art had worn that anchor chain all the time.

So what we're thinking is that what Art did is after he put Cindy in the grave, he put his-- necklace around her neck and then buried her.

Dennis Murphy: What do you make of that?

Derek McLaughlin: A possession type thing.

Just as he'd kept a missing-person's flyer of Cindy as a trophy.

At his sentencing -- mandatory life -- Ream was still trying to keep his grip on the family he'd devastated for more than two decades. He offered to tell Cindy's dad explicit details of what happened after he and Cindy met up at the Dairy Queen.

Art Ream: I would like to ask the father if I could get his permission to write him and maybe it would help us both if, if he knew everything.

But Ed Zarzycki said no way. He and his family really had moved on, thanks to Det. McLaughlin after years of police failure. Cindy's mother, Alice, said locating her daughter's remains had given them all closure.

Alice Zarzycki: If we had not found Cindy's body, a piece of me maybe coulda had one little piece of hope maybe it's not really true. (crying) And if it wasn't really true, i'd see her again.

Ed and his wife Linda accepted Mac's invitation to visit the riverside grave with him.

Dennis Murphy: Did you get anything from it?

Ed Zarzycki: I think the only thing that I got from it was it was a very peaceful spot, you know, by the river. And when we left it almost felt like her spirit went with us. And she was with family again.

In November, 2008, with DNA lab results finally confirming what everyone knew, Cindy's remains were returned to her family for a memorial service. Hundreds of mourners filled the funeral home in Eastpointe. Her pastor from the 1980s remembered Cindy.

Pastor: A great girl just right on the edge of being a kid sometimes and being a young lady some other times.

One of sister Connie's daughter's read a poem of remembrance, speaking emotionally about someone she'd only learned about from pictures and family stories.

Niece: Darling Cindy Jo, i love you even though we never met because you're the aunt I never got to know.

The next day, the casket bearing Cindy's remains was brought to the cemetery that would be her final resting place. Cindy's long-suffering father welcomed her home after 22 years of paralyzing uncertainty.

Ed Zarzycki had bought the burial plot for her two years before. His faith told him that someday Cindy would be laid to rest next to a sister, lost in infancy, and across the way from her beloved Grandma Franny, who spoiled her with those gotta-have white shoes.

Other family members and friends, old and new, paid their respects, including Mac and Jen whose non-stop dedication to finding Cindy made this bittersweet day finally possible.

Derek McLaughlin: Bye, little girl.

Jen Leibow: It really puts a fire under you to realize, you know, what we can do as investigators you know, lets other perpetrators know that even if you-- you think you committed a perfect crime, you didn't leave your DNA and you didn't leave any fibers or hairs behind, they're still gonna get ya.

And yet, Mac hasn't entirely closed out this case file. He believes Art Ream may have buried more bodies by that river bank. He's opened two new investigations.

Derek McLaughlin: Pandora's box is-- still has a few things in it.

Jen Leibow: Yeah.

"If you're lost you can look

And you will find me

Time after time."

Whatever happens in the future, Mac says getting justice for Cindy was not just the case of a lifetime; it was a lifetime's satisfaction.

Derek McLaughlin: This is the best thing that's ever happened to me. And that's including even the birth of my kids. To be able to give somethin' of this magnitude back to a family.

End of report.