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By Rob Stafford Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 11/21/2009 8:56:52 AM ET 2009-11-21T13:56:52
transcript

This aired on Dateline NBC on Friday, Nov. 20, 2009. You can see related web-exclusive videos here.

A child's memory…

Desi Pena: I remember big hair. That's the first thing I think about.

Rob Stafford, Dateline NBC correspondent: A lotta hair?

Desi Pena: A lotta hair. Very big hair.

…of an adored mother who disappeared.

Desi Pena: I remember feeling very, very sad and hurt. Like, why would she leave me? How come she doesn't love me? Was I bad?

And a night of terror....

RobStafford: Do you remember the look on his face that night?

Desi Pena: (nods)

She can never forget.

RobStafford: Have the nightmares stopped?

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Desi Pena: No.

Desi was just three when her mother vanished into the cold November night. A toddler with haunted eyes. And haunted dreams.

Aunt: You couldn't sleep? Why?

Desi Pena: Scared.

Aunt: You were scared?

While the police investigation languished .... Video: Desi on anger and forgiveness

RobStafford: Did police take fingerprints at the house?

Forrester: No.  The house was never processed.  It wasn't photographed.  Nothing.

…The killer walked free.

Sharyn: How different our life would have been if he had not been in it. 

And all Desi could do was hold fast to her terrible memories. And wait. It's Mary Jane's smile that everyone remembers. That infectious grin.

Lulu: She was just like a light. You know how fireflies gravitate to a light or something? That's how she was.

The youngest of seven children growing up outside Toledo, Ohio, she was hard to ignore. Her older sister Lulu says she loved to dance and act the clown.

Lulu: I have to admit, Mary Jane was one who loved to pull the pranks. You know, it was like, "Mary Jane, stop it."  (laughs)

She was loving too. Her mother Maria says she would kiss her each day before school. And when she was grown they would chat on the phone most nights before bed. Every night that is, until the night she disappeared.

Perhaps it's not surprising then how much she loved her own daughter. Mary Jane found herself a single mom at 24, but her sister Lulu says she didn't feel a moment's regret. Baby Desiree was her blessing.

Lulu: They were inseparable. They were just like, you know, they'd just look into each other's eyes and they were just completely connected.

Life wasn't easy those first years. Mary Jane scrambled to make ends meet. But in the summer of 1990, that was about to change. Mary Jane was a waitress at a diner. And she was getting special attention from one of the customers.

Lulu: He would not want any other waitress except for her.

Tom Zich was new to town. He'd relocated from Wisconsin to take a high-paying job at the Jeep factory.  He left Mary Jane $100 tips and promised her a better life.

Lulu: "I'll take care of you and your daughter together. And you won't have to worry about anything."

After a whirlwind romance the couple married in 1990. Mary Jane quit her job and moved into Tom's bachelor pad off State Road 51 in Genoa, Ohio.

MicheleMauder: I thought, Wow, what is she doing with this older gentleman?

Michele Mauder was one of Mary Jane's oldest friends. She was surprised at the match - Tom was nearly seventeen years older than Mary Jane -  but she was impressed with the tender way he treated his young bride. He was generous too.

MicheleMauder: He would buy her necklaces and rings and very nice things. He wined and dined her, so that was-- an attractive-- aspect in her life,that, "Wow, this is-- this is nice to be taken care of."

And according to Tom, Mary Jane needed some serious taking care of. . Just six months into their marriage Tom Zich took Mary Jane's siblings aside one by one and told them their baby sister had a problem.

Lulu: That she was on drugs, that she's been going to Toledo to buy her drugs and to take her drugs.

One night her parents dropped by the Zich home and found Mary Jane locked in the bathroom, screaming for her daughter. Tom said he'd locked her in there for her own good. He was trying to stop Mary Jane from running off to score drugs.

Lulu: She had tied some bed sheets and strung them outside of the window. Tom had seen her jump out of the window. He dragged her back in the house you know screaming and kicking and crying.

It was so painful to witness. Then as suddenly as it came, the crisis was over. Mary Jane didn't seem to want to talk about it.

Lulu: A lot of times, you know, I would ask her, "Are you okay?"  And she'd just simply say, "Yes." And you know, she'd go on, you know, into her bubbly little self and kind of like brush it off.

Early in December 1991, the family gathered for a holiday party. Mary Jane's mother was looking forward to seeing her - she hadn't called her for a few days.

Lulu: So them Tom showed up with Desiree and we're all just kind of, like, looking around, wondering Well, where's Mary Jane?

Tom Zich didn't have any answers for Mary Jane's brother, Joe.

Joe: I says, "Where's Mary Jane?" "Don't know. She took off." I said, "What do you mean she took off?" "She left." And I says, "Well, what are you doing about it?" and he says, "Nothing."

And all the time Tom was talking, one of Mary Jane's other brothers, couldn't take his eyes off little Desi's face.

Dan: And she had this look of terror in her eyes. I've never seen a child look that terrified in my whole life. She was just terrified. Once i saw the look, i said:"something terrible has happened here. This baby is so scared. Something bad has happened.

December 1991. The winter gloom hung over the smokestacks of the Jeep plant. Inside Mary Jane's husband, Tom, clocked onto the line as usual - waiting for word. His wife had been missing more than a week.

Irma: My mom's the one that started calling all of us, two or three times a day saying "Have you heard from Mary Jane? Have you seen her?"

Mary Jane's mother was used to her daughter's daily phone calls. Not this unexplained silence.

Eight days after she had vanished, Tom Zich reported his wife missing to the Ottawa County sheriff's office. He told deputies his wife had gone out after receiving a phone call. He said she had run out on him before and that she was an addict who had gotten involved with drug dealers.

As police tried to track her down, Mary Jane's brothers and sisters did their own search, looking for her car around town. But it was useless. There was no trace.

Then almost three weeks after they'd last seen her, Mary Jane's brothers got word- an ex-boyfriend had spotted her car outside a dive bar fourteen miles away in downtown Toledo. It was a known hotspot for drug traffic. They rushed to the scene.

Danny: The car was gone.  Nothin' there, so we went over to the bar, there, and asked if anybody'd seen the car and they-- they handed us a card and said, they said, "detectives were here."  they said, "they want you to call them."

Detectives from Toledo's Homicide Unit. Police had found the car before the brothers - a woman's body was in the trunk.

Danny: It was like a horror film. That was not my beautiful little sister.  That was something horrible.

Mary Jane's brother, Danny, identified the body. His 27-year old sister - missing for three weeks - had been strangled with a rope of some kind

Toledo homicide detectives were at a loss. They had a body and a car. But no physical evidence that could lead them back to a crime scene. 

Danny went on television pleading for information.

Danny: I would like to say if anybody out there knows anything whatsoever, please come forward; help us right now.  Because we're at a loss right now.  We don't know where to turn to; where to look.

It didn't take long for the grief-stricken family to start pointing fingers. One of  Mary Jane's brothers attacked Tom Zich at the funeral home. Mourners pulled the men apart. Mary Jane's siblings were convinced that the man who had promised her a better life had cruelly taken it away.

Lulu: There was no other person it could have been. He didn't care about my sister at all. She was just like a piece of garbage he threw away.

Tom Zich had a different story for investigators.

Joe: He told the police that Dan and I killed our sister because we found out she was on drugs. And we killed her.

Danny: They asked us where we were at during the time that Mary Jane disappeared, what we did to try and find her. Why were we being interrogated when we were the victims?

The brothers could barely contain their frustration with the investigation. Police warned them not to take the law into their own hands.

Danny: I had two sheriffs’ deputies come to the house. They told my wife to relay the message that if anything happened to Tom Zich, they would be comin' to arrest myself and my brother.

Rob Stafford: And they'd be lookin' in the right place.

Joe: At that time, they would've been, definitely.  Yes, they would've.

But unknown to Mary Jane's family, police now had another suspect in their sights. A secret boyfriend. A few weeks before the murder, Michele Mauder had figured out her childhood friend was having an affair.

MicheleMauder: She wanted me to watch Desiree just for a little bit. I think it was maybe 15, 20 minutes.

Mary Jane was late picking up her daughter.

MicheleMauder: And when she came back-- it was a different-- different mood. And I said to her, "what's going on?" and-- she had a hickey on her neck. And that was the last time I seen her.

What Mary Jane didn't tell Michele was the name of her lover.

Police found out it was none other than her high school crush, Kenny Montano. He had recently been paroled after serving time in prison for drug trafficking.

There it was again. The drug connection. Montano answered a few questions those first few days but then he stopped talking. He was a no-show at the police station. Did he have something to hide?

An anonymous caller revealed a possible motive. Mary Jane had been pregnant by her lover. Had Montano killed Mary Jane when he found out about the baby?

While police sifted through the evidence and drew up a list of suspects, there was one person who said she knew exactly who the killer was.

Desi Pena: I wanted to tell people what I knew and what I saw.

But would anyone listen?

Lulu: When all this happened with my sister, it was just like it crushed us that they didn't help us.

The family of murder victim Mary Jane could not understand why police weren't taking a closer look at her husband. Why hadn't police set foot in their home to search for clues?

Lulu: We kept telling them, you need to go in there and search that house. And that's when they kept saying, well, your family just needs to settle down and not overreact so much.

Maybe they were overreacting? After all, Tom did not seem like a killer. He had a steady job. Had served in the military.  And Mary Jane was what? According to Tom, she was a troubled woman with a serious addiction. Did they really know her anymore?

RobStafford: Is it possible your sister had a drug problem and she did leave?

Joe: No, no. She was not a drug addict.  My sister was not a drug addict.

RobStafford: You're biased.

Joe: Yes, I am.  Because I know her.  I knew my sister. She was not a drug addict.

That's what Michelle Mauder told police too - Mary Jane was no addict and she couldn't understand why Tom Zich kept saying she was.

Michele Mauder: He would come over unexpected and-- not invited. So it was very uncomfortable. It was very-- strange.  You knew something was mor-- something was wrong.

Michele had her own, far more horrifying tale to tell investigators-  scenes she had witnessed from the Zichs' marriage.

Michele Mauder: She was standing there, and she was just flushed and all red and hot to touch.  And just very upset. Shaken. 

Mary Jane was just out of the shower one summer afternoon when her friend stopped by unannounced. She told her that Tom had locked her in a chicken coop they had on their property for over an hour in 90 degree weather.

Michele Mauder: And it was just devastating to me.  I just cried and cried with her.  And I knew at that point that it was sadistic.   

A few weeks later Michele met her friend in the park. It was a dull afternoon but Mary Jane was wearing sunglasses and refused to take them off.

Michele Mauder: I reached over and grabbed them glasses off of her. And as I did, she had a huge black eye.  And she goes, "Don't look now, he's here." And sure enough, as we walked through the park, he was there.  I had seen him. Different spots. And he was, you know, watching her and actually just basically stalking.  Stalking us.

Mary Jane was planning to leave her husband, Michele says but she was trying to figure out how to do it safely.

Michele Mauder: She said if anything happens to me, you make sure that my parents raise Desiree.

In retrospect Michele thinks Kenny Montano, her friend's lover, made Mary Jane feel safe. Far from being involved in her murder, Michele believes the ex-con was her protector.

Michele Mauder: -- It was her way out, I think. But at the same time, I didn’t tell her that-- if he found out, he'd kill her.  And she goes, "Yeah, I know." 

Had Tom Zich somehow found out about the affair and killed his wife? Mary Jane's family pushed Michele to tell police what she knew. She gave a statement to the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office... but there was no follow-up.

Not long after police interviewed Michele Mauder, they got a phone call from a waitress at a diner near the Zich home. She wanted to talk.

Detective: Miss Urbanksi, will you identify yourself for the record?

LuAnna: My name is LuAnna Urbanski.

LuAnna Urbanski told police Mary Jane hadn't been the only one interested in a new relationship. Months before the murder, Tom had started dropping in on her at the diner.

Rob Stafford: Was Tom just there for the food?

LuAnna: No, I don't think so.

Rob Stafford: He was interested in you?

LuAnna: Yeah, I think. Yeah.

Just as he had done with Mary Jane he had insisted that only LuAnna could wait on him. Just as he had with Mary Jane, he had pestered her for dates.

LuAnna: He would come in and talk to me while I would work - talk to me about his personal life and I would talk about mine.

Right from the start, Tom had told LuAnna his marriage was over and that his wife was out to ruin him.

LuAnna: He goes, "Well, she came home today.  And she told me that we're gettin' a divorce and she's hiring a lawyer and she's taking my properties."

Around the time of Mary Jane's disappearance, LuAnna told police tom couldn't keep his story straight about where she was and why he was now left to care for three-year-old Desi. First, he said the marriage had ended amicably and he expected Mary Jane back any day. Then he said Mary Jane had walked out on him never to return.

But Tom didn't seem sad or anxious. In fact quite the opposite, LuAnna told police. He had joked about Mary Jane's funeral before her body had even been found asking LuAnna to make a salad for the wake.

LuAnna: I said Tom you shouldn't even be thinking like that. You know you shouldn't even be thinking that she's already dead or anything. Besides, you got enough money you could hire a nice caterer and have a nice funeral and he goes she's had her last party on me.

But most chilling was a conversation, LuAnna says, she had with Tom and Desi at the diner.

LuAnna: Desiree was there. And I remember she was whispering in her dad's ear. And he was whispering in hers. And she goes, "I need a new Mommy."

Rob Stafford: I need a new Mommy?

LuAnna: Yeah. "My mummy's been bad."

LuAnna was not the only person surprised by some of the statements little Desi was making. The three year old was living with her stepdad but some nights Mary Jane's mother would babysit for him while he worked his shift at the factory.

And now weeks after the murder, Desi was starting to say things. Things the family recorded on tape.

Tape of three-year-old Desi:

Desi: She scared.

Woman: She got scared?

Desi: yeah. I was scared too.

Things that made the family think she knew something about her mother's fate and that she was in terrible danger.

RobStafford: Why's she in danger?

Joe: Because Desi saw everything that happened to her mother that night when she was murdered. Desi was there.

Dan: I remember one time she was playing with a couple of Barbie dolls and she was saying, "The Mommy and Daddy are fighting. And the Daddy hurt the Mommy. And the Mommy's crying. And there's blood coming out of her eye. " And I looked at her, I said, my god, what is she talking about? She's only three years old.

Three-year-old Desiree was the daughter of murder victim Mary Jane Zich. She lived with her stepdad Tom but most evenings she'd visit her grandmother while her dad went to work.

Lulu: She would, at times, blurt things out, and we would just, you know, be like blown away.

Desi's aunts and uncles started keeping a journal of the strange things Desi said. "Mary Jane died because Mommy was bad." "Daddy had a rope and can tie you up with it."

The family suspected Desi was describing events she had witnessed. That her strange comments were not fantasy, but actual memories.

Aunt: Where was Mommy?

Desi: She said, "Don’t get my baby."

Desi's aunt coaxed the little girl to repeat what she had said on audio tape

Aunt: Does your Mommy - does she - did she scream?

Desi: Yes she did.

Aunt: What is she screaming at?

Desi: She scream at the monster.

Aunt: Where's your Mommy now?

Desi: She .. Went.. She went to God.

Desi told her aunt she would sometimes sleep with her stepdad Tom when she had nightmares.

Aunt: You were scared?

Desi: Yeah.

Aunt: You were scared?

Desi: Because-

Aunt: Because why?

Desi: Because the monsters get me.

Aunt: The monster was in your room?

Desi: He scared me. And he's going to eat me all up.

As the weeks passed, Desi's stories became more explicit. She said that the monster she was describing was none other than her stepdad Tom Zich and that she had seen him kill her mother. Desi's family believed she was a critical eyewitness but investigators at the Toledo Police Department were skeptical.

Joe: All we got told was that she was making up stories, that people were putting things in her head and this and that.

Rob Stafford: Fair to say you hate Tom Zich?

Dan: Absolutely. Hate him with a passion.

Rob Stafford: And did your hatred taint Desi's memory of what happened?

Dan: No.

Joe: We never talked about Tom when Desi was small. We never tried to pump into her that you should hate Tom because he killed your mother.

Four months after Mary Jane's body had been found, the investigation was at a standstill.

Desi's grandparents despaired. They were racked with worry for little Desi. If what she was saying was true, the child was living with the man who she had seen kill her mother.

Rob Stafford: At this point, you're saying the killer has custody?

Joe: Yes.

Dan: Yes.

Sister: Yeah.

Rob Stafford: Of an eyewitness.

Joe: Right.

Dan: Right.

The family thought they saw signs of Tom mistreating Desi.

Lulu: Every time she would come over to my mom and dad's, she would have bruising on her.

Desi's grandparents tried to win custody of her through the courts but failed. So one afternoon, they simply refused to give her back after she had come to visit.

Tom Zich reported the family to the local police. Detective Bud Chasteen got the call. He says he didn't like Tom from the moment he met him and his suspicions only deepened when he found out about the murder of Desi's mother.

Rob Stafford: How would you describe Tom Zich?

Bud Chasteen: Conniving, manipulative. Just a dirtbag.

Still the law was clear - Tom Zich had custody of Desi so Chasteen told the family to give her back.

Working weekends and late nights, the detective pored over the homicide case files. He found out Tom Zich had a record in Wisconsin and Ohio that included a DUI and a citation for animal cruelty. But there was something else.

Male voice: He loved fire.  There were numerous fires surrounding Tom Zich.  And none of 'em were ever proven to be of his doing.  But very, very many of 'em were suspected to be of his doing.

Chasteen: He was found in a vehicle that was on fire. It was not his vehicle but yet Tom was able to come forward and identify that as being his father. And the body was so badly burned that I don't know how anybody could make an identification unless they knew something that the investigators didn't.

Rob Stafford: Do you think Tom Zich killed his father?

Chasteen: My personal opinion, yes.

Tom Zich was never charged with arson and to this day he denies the detective's allegations. Remember Tom Zich was never charged and to this day he denies he committed arson. Tom Zich was never charged with arson, and his attorney says Chasteen's allegations are baseless.

Tom Zich's attorney says Chasteen's allegations are nothing more than rumor and innuendo. Neither Tom Zich or his attorney would comment on the detective's allegations.

Detective Chasteen now agonized over Desi's safety. He wrote in his notes, "Should we put a live in plant in the home to protect the baby?" Six months later family court placed Desi with her grandparents.

On a mission now, Chasteen took the evidence he had collected to the local prosecutor. But the prosecutor told him he couldn't file charges against Tom Zich without something more concrete linking him to the crime. Problem was, there was no physical evidence in the files at all. No investigator had ever taken a look inside the Zich home.

Rob Stafford: As soon as Mary Jane is found dead shouldn't you go directly to that house where she was last seen and search it?

Chasteen: I would think so.

Bob Bratton: Times were a little bit different back then.

Bob Bratton took over as Sheriff of Ottawa County long after the initial investigation. That agency had responded to the missing person's report Tom filed after Mary Jane disappeared.

Stafford: Why wasn't the house searched back in ‘91?

Bob Bratton: I'll be blunt. When the body was found in Toledo, the Ottawa County sheriff's administration said "Not our case anymore." Everybody was pulled.

In 1994, Detective Chasteen persuaded the new sheriff to join forces with him to work the case. It was now nearly three years since Mary Jane's death.

Six-year-old Desi was now living with her grandparents. She said her memories of her mother's murder were as powerful as ever... The newly created task force arranged for her to talk to a psychologist.

RobStafford: Did you believe her?

SheriffBob Bratton: I believed her. I believed her based on what the psychologist was tellin' us.  Absolutely-- believed her.

The task force also got a look inside the Zich home. It had been remodeled since Mary Jane's death, but investigators found a blood spot in the upstairs closet.

SheriffBob Bratton: Why would that be back there? How did that get back in that part of the closet? So we-- we looked at that as being supportive evidence or cause to pursue this further.

The local prosecutor did not agree. Once again he refused to file charges, saying the task force case was too weak. Detective Chasteen was appalled. Tom Zich was still living in the Genoa area. In 1995 he was convicted of soliciting oral sex and ordered to pay a small fine.

RobStafford: Did you see him-- around town?

Chasteen: Oh, yeah.  Uh-huh (affirm).  Always had this smirk on his face.  Always had this, (laughter) "got away with it."

But had he?

RobStafford: How often do you think about your mom?

Desi Pena: Every day.

21-year-old Desiree Pena had been haunted by her mother's murder since she was three years old.

Desi Pena: His hands were like around her - like around this. In this area. And she was laying with her back flat on the floor.

As a little girl, Desi told everyone who would listen that her stepdad Tom was the killer. But nothing ever seemed to happen.

RobStafford: Were you frustrated?

Desi Pena: there were times.  Yes. I just felt like-- like-- almost like no one cared-- no one cared e-- enough about my mom.

So Desi bottled up her terrible memories, not sure who to trust. She moved to Texas when she was in high school. Got married a few years later and had a child of her own. And she learned to live with her nightmares.

That's when it happened. Out of the blue she found out the Toledo Police Department was re-opening the case. And the lead detective, Steve Forrester wanted to hear her story.

She started by telling him about the early days of her mother's marriage. They were happy at first, she said. Tom and her mom.

Desi Pena: Every once in a while, he had a corvette and they would take rides in it.  And I would remember seein' them, you know, drive up and her hair would be in the wind.  And (laughs) they looked like they were having a good time.

But then the marriage had started to unravel. There was a lot of fighting.

Desi Pena: He would lock her in her room for days, days at a time. And I just remember, you know, laying on the floor and seeing her fingers underneath the door.

That night in November 1991 started like so many others, she told the detective.

Desi Pena: I remember hearing a lot of fighting. Heard my mom screaming. And I saw him on top of her.

Desi says she peeked through a crack in her bedroom door

Desi Pena: And then I saw him strangling her. I just remember seeing her face and how much she was crying.

Desi says she heard her mother choking. Tom yelled at her to close her door. Terrified, she hid under her bed. She's not sure how long she was there

Desi Pena: I went to their bedroom and he was over her. But she was on the bed and he was dressing her. And I remember this distinctly because my mom always dressed beautifully. And he was dressing her in this sweat suit. And I remember thinking she's not gonna like that. That's not something she would want to wear.

What happened next is a bit of a blur. Shards of memory. Searching for her mother in the backyard. Hiding from Tom. But Desi says she does remember her stepdad taking her to a garage with blacked out windows. She saw her mom there she say for the last time- lying in the trunk of her car.

Desi Pena: I just saw her hair mostly. And I was like, "What's Mommy doing?" He was like, "Oh, she's just sleeping," and I knew that that wasn't right ‘cause people don't sleep in the trunk of a car.

Then there are Desi's memories of the time she spent living side by side with the man who she says killed her mother.

Desi Pena: He would throw things at me. He would hit me all the time.

Rob Stafford: What was the lowest point?

Desi Pena: I remember Tom telling me she's not coming back because she doesn't love you and she doesn't care about you.

It was a heartbreaking story but was it enough to convict a man of murder? Detective Forrester didn't think so.

Detective Forrester: I wasn't going to come to the prosecutor's office and say, "I-- I have a case for you.  And, by the way, your witness was three years old at the time." 

Forrester started piecing together the evidence one last time. Looking for any clue previous investigators had missed. December 18th 1991: Mary Jane's body was found in the trunk of her car.

The coroner's report showed she had been strangled with a ligature. It also showed no drugs in her system. That didn't match her husband, Tom Zich's, story. 

Detective Forrester: He's telling everyone, you know, this is probably a drug murder.

Rob Stafford: Any evidence that Mary Jane was doin' drugs?

Detective Forrester: No.

The coroner had also found semen in Mary Jane's body but it had never been tested. Forrester sent it to the lab and got a hit. Mary Jane had had sex shortly before she died.

Rob Stafford: Kenny Montano's DNA is found in Mary Jane's body.

Detective Forrester: Right.

Kenny Montano, was Mary Jane's high school crush who had been released from prison weeks before she died. In 1991 he had ducked investigators looking for information. But now he couldn't avoid them. He was back in prison. This time on a manslaughter conviction: He'd killed a man in a bar fight.

Despite his criminal record, the cold case detective quickly concluded Montano was who he said he was - Mary Jane's lover, not her killer. And he helped forrester piece together mary jane's last days. She and desi spent thanksgiving with montano and his family. The next day she had gone home, telling montano she was going to ask tom for a divorce.

Detective Forrester: Desiree was at the house with Tom Zich once Mary Jane had gone missing. So there was never a question that Mary Jane made it home.

Rob Stafford: Did anyone see Mary Jane come out of that house?

Detective Forrester: No. Video: Zich's ex-wives speak

If Desi was telling the truth then Mary Jane had been strangled in the home. But there was no physical evidence to corroborate Desi's story. Or maybe there was? Forrester noticed something about Mary Jane's body.

Detective Forrester: She was described by friends and family as a meticulous person. Always lipstick. Always make up. Never would go anywhere without being completely made up, and yet here she is in the trunk dressed very casually with no underwear on.

Forrester speculated that Tom and Mary Jane had started to fight after she got out of the shower. Then just like Desi had said, Zich killed her and then dressed her, grabbing anything he could find.

But what made Tom Zich snap? Forrester needed to talk to people who could help him get inside the head of his prime suspect. And he was shocked by what he found.

Sharyn Bonderud: God forgive me, I know it's not nice. But he's a devil.

Sharyn: I knew in my heart, that he did this, and I was sick. I was sick about it.

Sharon Bonderud had been married to Tom Zich more than a decade before Mary Jane's death. She was eager to talk to cold case Detective Steve Forrester about her ex.

Sharyn: I don’t want to shed another tear over that man.

For four years, Tom had seemed like the perfect husband and father to her two young daughters, Sharyn told the detective. That all changed one night when she caught him kissing another woman in a bar. Tom flew into a rage.

Sharyn: He gets in my car and he started stroking my hair. And he said, "I really did love you," and with that he started to strangle me.

Sharyn can only guess why Tom let her live. She grabbed her children and went into hiding.

She says Tom only had one request when she filed for divorce. He wanted to see the kids.

Sharyn: Both my kids were hysterical. And "No, Mommy. No, Mommy. No. What are you what? Daddy's coming. No mommy he hurts us. And I said what are you talking about? Mommy he hurts us, he hurts us and they showed me where.

Sharyn's daughters told her Tom had been molesting them for years. She was devastated but decided not to press charges to spare her kids more pain.

But it was a pain she couldn't avoid. In 1991, Sharyn remembers getting a call at work. It was Mary Jane Zich.

Sharyn: I was very busy. And this woman called and asked about Tom, if I was married to him.  and I said, "Yes. And he molested my children," and I hung up. 

Forrester thinks Mary Jane had stumbled onto a terrible secret.

Forrester was gripped by the coincidence - Mary Jane had been strangled too. What's more, when the detective delved further into Tom's past, he found out he had been married a total of six times. Those wives that would talk to the detective described a violent, controlling man. When he lost his temper, they said, Tom Zich went for the throat.

Even more convinced that Tom was the killer, the cold case detective tried to figure out how he could have committed the crime. 

Detective Forrester: Our theory is that he drove Desiree to Toledo with the body in the trunk.

And a picture gradually emerged: Forrester tracked down a woman who remembered babysitting for Tom around the same time Mary Jane went missing.

Rob Stafford: Had this woman ever met Desiree before?

Detective Forrester: No.

Rob Stafford: Ever babysat for him?

Detective Forrester: Never before or since.

Rob Stafford: And suddenly he's asking her to take the child?

Detective Forrester: Right.

Rob Stafford: Frantically?

Detective Forrester: Right.

Had Tom dropped off Desi with the babysitter and then dumped Mary Jane's car in front of the dive bar where it was found three weeks later by police? But how would Tom have been able to pick up Desi after dumping the car?

Buried in the case files Forrester found the statement of a man who said he'd given Zich a lift home from a diner in Toledo back to his home in Genoa.

Had Tom picked up his truck and gone to fetch Desi home again before anyone noticed they were gone?

Rob Stafford: So, this puzzle's coming together?

Detective Forrester: Uh-huh.

Rob Stafford: Are you there yet?

Detective Forrester: Yeah, I think we're close.

But what Forrester really wanted was a confession of some kind.

Detective Forrester: The last time anybody saw her was the day after Thanksgiving of that year, right?

TomZich: That I'm not sure about.

Armed with a hidden recording device, Forrester and his partner tracked down Tom Zich. He wasn't hard to find. He was still working at the Jeep factory.

Rob Stafford: What was his demeanor?

Detective Forrester: Con artist, calm. You know, trying to manipulate us.

Detective Forrester: Were you married before Mary Jane?

Tom Zich: Yes.

Detective Forrester: How many times?

Tom Zich: Er, twice.

Detective Forrester: Twice before her. And what were their names?

Tom Zich: Hope was one girl's name. And the other one, um...

Detective Forrester: I see she made an impression on you!

(Zich laughs)

Rob Stafford: What struck you most about talking to Tom Zich?

Detective Forrester: I think-- you know, what struck me most is-- is how insignificant-- these women are to him. 

Forrester noted 31 inconsistencies in Tom Zich's version of events. Thirty-one ways his statement could be picked apart.

In June 2007, Tom Zich was arrested and charged with murder. He pleaded not guilty.

Rob Stafford: To see that picture of Tom Zich in handcuffs, what does that feel like?

Desi Pena: It felt like now-- now we're in control almost.  Like now-- now you don't get to do what whatever you wanna do.

The trial of Tom Zich opened in June 2009, nearly eighteen years after Mary Jane's body had been discovered. Prosecutors told Desi she was their star witness and for days she waiting anxiously -preparing to face down the man she says killed her mother.

Desi Pena: I wanted him to look at me and I wanted to look at him. And for him to see that I wasn't afraid of him.

As witness after witness testified - the waitress, the ex-wives, her mother's best friend - Desi wondered when she would she be called to the stand.

Desi Pena: That felt very, very—stressful. Because I didn't wanna-- I didn't wanna mess up.  I didn't wanna ruin anything.

But prosecutors decided they had enough without her. Video: Closing arguments: Sealing Zich's fate

And then a shock. The defense attorney rested without calling a single witness. As if the prosecution's case wasn't worth rebutting. Closing arguments were brief:

State closing: He took a rope and he placed it around Mary Jane Zich's neck and he held it tightly until she wasn't moving anymore.

Defense closing: There is not one shred of physical evidence linking Tom to this case. Zero.

The jurors deliberated for a little less than four hours.

We, the jury, find the defendant guilty of murder.

Desi, surrounded on all sides by family, could not hold back her tears when the verdict was read.

Desi Pena: It was very emotional for me to be next to my grandma. I can't imagine what it'd be like to lose a child. And she was so strong and just being with all of them really helped me get through it.

Tom Zich was sentenced to 15 years to life.  He is appealing the verdict. In the meantime, because of the appeal, Zich's lawyer says he cannot comment on allegations that he molested Sharon's children, that he was violent towards some of his ex-wives, that he physically abused Desi, that he may have been involved in arson or that he knew anything about his father's death.  The lawyer called the allegations nothing more than rumors and innuendo.

As for Desi, she is enrolled in college - she wants to be a doctor. And she says she can now let go of those dark terrible memories she held for so long. And embrace the good.

Desi Pena: She had beautiful eyes, very bright. And she's always smiling. Always smiling.

It's those memories she wants her little boy to hear about. The little boy - with his eyes and impish grin who looks just like her mother. Sweet Mary Jane.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

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