They seem like a pair straight out of central casting for a TV cop show — a baby boomer gumshoe who prefers pounding pavement to accessing technology, and a pretty Generation X investigator who can make an Internet search engine hum.
But Derek “Mac” McLaughlin and Jennifer Leibow are quite real, and they are now being hailed for their impressive work in bringing a 22-year-old murder mystery to its conclusion — and bringing a blessed sense of closure to a long-grieving suburban Detroit family.
McLaughlin and Leibow appeared with Meredith Vieira live on TODAY Friday to tell how they unraveled the case of 13-year-old Cindy Zarzycki, whose disappearance on April 19, 1986 was first treated as a runaway — but, the pair discovered, was actually a case of murder that echoed “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Case closed — at last
McLaughlin told Vieira that cracking the case, and putting Cindy’s killer behind bars for the rest of his life, was personally satisfying after he dedicated some 13 years to it. But more importantly, it closed a painful book for Cindy’s family.
“Mr. Zarzycki, the pain I saw on his face through 13 years, I couldn’t even imagine what he went through,” McLaughlin told Vieira. “My daughter was the same age when I took this case on, so being able to give back to the family was just unbelievable.”
The remarkable story, profiled in a special two-hour “Dateline” on NBC Friday, begins with McLaughlin, who took on the case when he was promoted to the Youth Bureau Detective Division in Eastpointe, Mich. By the time he came on board in 1995, the Zarzycki missing person’s case was already nine years old.
“My chief came down and he threw a box on my desk and he says, `This is an old case … I want you to solve it,” McLaughlin told NBC.
McLaughlin learned that young Cindy was heading to a nearby Dairy Queen to be picked up and driven to the birthday party of her schoolgirl crush, classmate Scott Ream. Cindy had been grounded, so she didn’t tell her parents where she was going.
“We went further into his background, checked out his criminal history, and found out that he had a past with 13-year-old girls, 14-year-old girls, he had a couple of hits on his criminal history as to raping girls,” McLaughlin told Vieira.
The odd couple
By 2004, McLaughlin was convinced he had his man — but not a shred of evidence to prove it. Then fate offered him a helping hand: Leibow, a young intern in a Chicago-based interrogation company, had swiped the Zarzycki file off her boss’s desk and, by her own admission, become obsessed with it.
“It was really contagious, I took that file home with me almost every single night and just kept re-reading it,” Leibow told NBC. She became so wrapped up in the case that she made a call to McLaughlin.
“I said, ‘This is going to be hard, you have no evidence. If you need an extra set of hands, let me help you in any way I can.’ And he agreed,” Leibow told Vieira.
With her company agreeing to donate Leibow’s time to the case, she began a three-year phone relationship with McLaughlin, poring over aspects of the Zarzycki case. McLaughlin said Leibow became indispensable.
“It was unbelievable. She did research that I couldn’t get to, with computerized searches,” McLaughlin explained. “She taught me how to reply to e-mails. She got on different search engines.”
Still, McLaughlin was nervous about approaching Art Ream and trying to wrestle a confession out of him when the physical evidence against him was nonexistent. Ream was already incarcerated on a rape conviction, and McLaughlin told Vieira that Ream was “well-versed with prison life, he didn’t like police officers, he didn’t like women. So we had to attack this at a different angle — we only had one chance to get it straight.”
Like Clarice Starling
McLaughlin’s bond with Leibow — and his belief in her talents — had become so strong that he decided to allow her to be the first to interview Ream. It was also her first interrogation as a newly minted criminal investigator.
Leibow was successful in getting Ream to help police locate Cindy’s remains. The court gained a conviction, and Ream is now saddled with a life sentence. As the facts turned out, there had never been any birthday party for Cindy’s schoolgirl heartthrob — Art Ream had lured her to the Dairy Queen with the bogus story.
Now the Zarzycki case is finally wrapped up after some 22 years, but McLaughlin and Leibow have no intention of ending their professional partnership. Leibow told TODAY the pair “absolutely” plan to tackle another case together.
As she issued a warning to criminals on TODAY, the young Leibow even began to sound like her grizzled vet partner.
“There is an important message for every guy out there committing a crime like this,” Leibow told Vieira. “Even without the evidence, there’s still detectives out there who are going to find you, hunt you down and get you convicted of these crimes.”
The Dairy Queen killer case airs on “Dateline” on NBC Friday at 9 p.m. ET.