tv Dateline NBC KICU May 9, 2014 8:00pm-9:01pm PDT
>> she did some modeling, yeah, she did some kind of a bridal thing at one time. >> that friday, sandy took the day off from her job at a car dealership to prepare for the party. >> sandy's husband greg said she was always a mom first. >> everything revolved around the kids. >> how excited was she to be a mom? >> i think she was really excited. i think that's what she wanted. yeah, she liked it. >> sandy had a plan. the kids would spend the day with vickie while she zipped around town. that morning she left vickie a message or her phone. >> pick up the cake after 2:00 today and i'll be around after that. talk to you later, bye-bye. >> but 4:00 came and went and no sandy. vickie's hands were full with her kids and sandy's. at first, she wasn't too concerned. >> maybe around 4:30, 5:00, i started calling her.
it just wasn't like her. i was just feeling frustrated. >> the hours went by and still no sandy. vickie's frustration turned to anger. but then she started to worry. around 7:00 that night, she began working the phones. >> we started calling greg and then we started hospitals, the police. we were just on the phones. we were worried. >> vickie and her husband kept sandy's kids at their home that night. did you sleep at all that night >> probably not much. i don't remember. it's a fog. where is she? what could have happened to her? >> so the next morning, still -- >> no sandy. had to get up and get ready to go to the birthday party. just sold shawn, it's okay, your mom will be there. >> meanwhile, greg johnson was looking around his home. there was nothing to indicate that sandy had left in a hurry, and somehow forgot to tell anyone. as strange as that would be. >> all her stuff is there. called the police, called, you
know, family, my sister. i think i probably called her father. >> were you in a full on panic at this point? maybe she was going out with friends? >> i was worried with the circumstances at the house. there was trouble, something not right. >> the birthday party for sean went ahead on saturday. there was cake and presents but no sandy. >> we were all trying to talk about where is she? what happened without the kids hearing. >> the afternoon -- >> did you think, okay we have this party. sandy will show up? >> that was our hope. >> we tried to proceed as normal. >> craig was crying like crazy. he was trying to hide it. >> do you remember anything about that day, your 5th
birthday? >> unfortunately i don't. >> sean johnson now 23 knows that was the day his life changed forever, the day the awful questions started. >> why isn't my mom around? >> the very questions police would start asking. they were called to a seattle super market. they noticed an abandoned vehicle. it was sandy johnson's car. her keys and cell phone were in it. no signs of sandy. >> detectives begin the search for sandy. when we return, finding sandy's car gives them hope. a second clue throws them for a loop. >> what does this mean?
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>> hours after sandy johnson was reported missing, the police made a discovery, a ford escort station wagon with the doors unlocked, keys in the ignition, her cell phone on the seat with her nowhere to be found. cousins gina and nancy. >> did you go from thinking maybe we will find her to there is a chance she is gone? >> she's gone. i figured if someone had her
that's it. >> captain scott back in 1996 was assigned to the case. it must have been alarming when you find sandy's car abandoned with the keys and her cell phone inside. >> at least it gave us an area to focus on. the vehicle was located in southwestern king county. >> the cops noted an unusual detail. the driver's seat was pushed back. sandy who was tiny drove in the forward position. as they were processing the car they got another break. her wallet was in the parking lot of a hardware store miles away. >> what does this mean?
>> what does it tell you when you find a car and a wallet and no sandy? >> sandy clearly had been taken away from her vehicle in some manner. at that point we were very focused on why this was vehicle located here? why was her wallet found across town? >> it added up to foul play. >> it was a strange and compelling case. a mother of two small children dropped off the radar screen. her disappearance was a priority right away. >> her family put up flyers in the seattle area. there was one exception. >> were you participating in the search? >> why not? >> i couldn't do that.
i stayed with the family. >> did anyone question that? >> they never questioned me. maybe amongst themselves. >> they were already taking a good look has her husband dig for details at their marriage. >> you are looking at people that are closest to the person missing. you have to. it made perfect sense to focus on the husband early on. >> it always seems like the spouse. >> we didn't know the dynamics. it is up to us to find out what are the details. >> sandy met greg at a hockey game. she pursued him and he fell fast. >> you seem low key. >> i am. >> was she a good complement
to you? >> yes. >> sean was born in 1991. katie followed. for the next few years their live was hectic. greg moved out. there were money pressures. >> what went wrong with the relationship? >> she couldn't talk to me or communicate with me. we had seen a marriage counselor. we were working on some stuff. i think it was getting better. >> you wanted to get back together. >> law enforcement had a different port rate of the marriage. prosecutors with king county.
>> it was assumed they would be divorced. that was recent before this happened within the month before that was the decision was made. >> law enforcement learned they argued the day before she had gone missing. people at her place of work, that too focused attention on her esstranged husband. she had trouble. he had trouble meeting their bills. >> questions were mounting. they had a couple with money problemmed, troubled marriage, a husband who didn't search for his wife and fought with her the day before. it was time to sit down with greg johnson. >> how did they treat you that first encounter? >> they were like, you know, you did it.
accusing me of killing my wife. told my sister that greg did it. >> the usual suspect was looking like the right guy. >> coming up greg and sandy's marriage turns out it was more trouble than most people knew. >> she said it is getting bad to a point i am afraid. >> a new development rocks the case. >> when date line continues. just said, it's getting really bad. it's to a point i'm afraid. >> and a new development rocks the case. >> it must have been a big red flag for police. >> yes, i think it was. >> when "dateline" continues. "i think we can" to "look what we've done." ryobi one+. the one system that delivers more. available only one place. the home depot. now pick up a lithium-ion drill
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>> sandy johnson was missing. police believed she had been killed and zeroing in on her east stranged husband greg. es, you know, coming home from work and there's three or four tv stations in front of your house, ready to do the 5:00 news. >> the more investigators talked to sandy's family and friends about the couple's on the rock marriage, the more suspicious they became of greg. >> she called me one time and just said, it's -- you know, it's getting really bad.
it's to a point and i'm just afraid and i tried to get more information out of her, but she just said, i can't talk about it. i just -- i said you've got to do what you've got to do. >> the evidence wasn't just anecdotal. a loud argument between the couple more than a year before sandy went missing ended with police responding and greg spending a night in jail. >> how bad did it get? >> well, she came at it and i grabbed her by the arms and sat her down. i didn't hit her or nothing. then she called the police and -- because she had -- there was marks on her arms. any time there's a domestic dispute, cops are called, somebody goes to jail. so i'm the one that went to jail. >> investigators found the domestic violence incident troubling. and when they looked for a possible motive, they found one of the classics -- money. >> were you able to collect a life insurance policy? >> i did, yes. >> how much was it?
>> it wasn't that much. >> do you have a number? >> i know what it was. i'm not going to say. but it was a substantial amount of money. yeah. >> investigators were more and more convinced they had their name. the polygraph they gave greg just days after sandy vanished was key. >> they asked if i would be willing to take a polygraph to clear my name. i said sure, i had nothing to hide. what i know is that the polygraph was inconclusive, so i guess at that point they thought it was me. they probably thought it was me before the polygraph. >> the police say you failed the polygraph test. >> yeah, i'm sure they did. >> so you're disputing that? >> i am. it was inconclusive results on the polygraph. >> cops felt they failed it and made them more certain they were on the right track.
>> greg had not done well on a polygraph test, so they asked if he would take another test. he called a lawyer. the lawyer said you need to stop talking to the police right now, so he did. >> must have been a big red flag for police. >> i think whenever one flunks a polygraph test, police get suspicious and often want to go at that person harder and find out why. >> greg may have lawyered up, but detectives used the polygraph results to apply pressure. >> they told your sister you failed? >> yes. >> why? >> i guess they wanted to turn her against me. >> lots of people in town were turning in that direction. in those first dark weeks, her dear friend vickie started to think greg was somehow involved. >> the police came to me and said certain things would lead you to think maybe he did it. >> what did they tell you that made you start to suspect greg? >> he didn't pass the test. that there was people at the
work party heard them fighting. just enough like, could he have done it? >> cops were starting to think so, especially when they considered the domestic incident that put greg in jail, the argument at the dealership the night before sandy disappeared and the possible money motive. >> given the history with greg, was the family immediately looking to greg as a possible -- >> uh-huh, yes. >> -- suspect in this? >> yeah. >> were some family members convinced greg must have done this? >> i think a few were -- you know, got to put the blame on someone. >> how was sandy's family looking at you? >> there was a bunch that thought i was the person. >> and you're telling everyone, i didn't do this. >> right. >> and there are people who just are not believing you? >> yeah. you know, i get the fact that it's -- 90% of the time it's the husband or the boyfriend. i get that.
but it wasn't this time. >> did you feel in this case that you were target number one? >> oh, yeah. i was the only target. >> but greg johnson was wrong about that. clue by clue, investigators were uncovering secrets of sandy's. things her estranged husband didn't know that would provide them intriguing new suspects. coming up, detectives discover what sandy's within hiding. a man named jeff. did he also have a secret? >> that was suspicious to police that he wasn't up front about that from the beginning. >> then a former colleague of sandy's. was he hiding something, too? >> cliff looked to be doing everything he could to present himself as a caring and concerned friend. himself as a caring and concerned friend. we ffeel great on your skin?ot n
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the search for the person responsible for the disappearance of sandy johnson from a seattle suburb was widening. cops had her husband greg in their cross hairs from the start. but as they dug deeper into sandy's last days, they found other people they needed to check out. >> we had to look at everyone close to sandy at that point in time. >> investigators discovered that the recently separated sandy had a friend named jeff cane she kept secret from her estranged husband. she was supposed to meet him for lunch the day after she disappeared. comes soon learn there had been more than lunch on the menu.
after work on that friday, sandy had popped by cane's house to touch up her tan. >> she was there the night before she went missing. she had used the tanning bed, i believe. and they were going to contact each other by phone the following morning. >> that revelation made cane the last person known to have seen sandy alive. cops brought him in for questioning. according to prosecutors, he was alarmed after he learned sandy was missing. >> he was worried about that and tried to get ahold of her and tried to find her. so he went to her house and left a note on her door because he was worried. >> in fact, i think she had spoken to him more recently than she had spoke on the her husband. >> it turned out cane hadn't been totally candid with the police about the nature of his relationship with sandy. >> he initially held back that they ever had a romantic or sexual relationship.
that came out later, which also was a little suspicious to police that he wasn't upfront about that from the beginning. >> why did he hold back on that? >> i don't know. perhaps he was concerned about in general she was a married woman. >> as they had with husband greg, comes put cane on a po polygraph temachine. he past the test. but detectives discover there was another guy, a former co-worker named cliff reid, who had befriended sandy. sandy planned to stop by reid's home to pick up a present for her son the day before his birthday party. cliff reid told cops she never turned up. husband greg knew reid from when he visited the house. >> the first time i met him, he was going to fix my car for me. then he stayed for dipper. >> what did you think of him? >> he seemed like a nice guy.
>> on the face of it, greg's appraisal of sandy's co-worker was right. did sandy see cliffs a one she could lean or for help, being a single mom at the time? >> i think sandy was going through a traumatic time in her life. she was separated from her husband. had some financial challenges. she needed someone to listen to somewhat she had to say, would offer support. >> and he helped her financially. so he was there for her. >> cliff was there, he had given a loan to sandy of about $1800 at some point prior to her disappearance. >> despite his apparent generosity, there was something cops weren't buying. >> cliff looked to be doing everything he could to present himself to sandy as a normal and
caring and concerned friend. we clearly found out as we looked closer in to cliff reid that that was not the real cliff reid. >> in fact, reid had a troubling history with women. >> cliff didn't like women at all. he was a massagenist and cliff had very bad names for women he felt had done him wrong and basically what from he could tell had a generalized hatred for the female person. apart from being self-centered and narcissistic, he constantly thought women was doing him wrong. >> but none of that was against the law. weeks went by without an arrest, and all detectives had was a trio of suspects. as the investigation dragged on, greg, now a single parent, was trying to get on with his life, working at boeing and raising his two kids.
did you think sandy was dead? in your heart? >> yeah. >> you accepted that? >> yeah. >> how hard was that? >> it was hard. >> as months and then years past, sandy's friends and family struggled to keep her in the public's memory. her good friend, shauna, took the lead. >> we tried to keep the story alive. every year the news media would come on the anniversary of her disappearance and talk to us and ask us. i tried to talk and keep the story in the news media. >> just before shawn's 10th birthday, five years after his mother vanished, greg moved the family to las vegas. he had had enough of the seattle area, and wanted a fresh start without a cloud of suspicion hanging over him. as shawn grew up there, greg and his son talked a lot about sandy. >> did you have a lot of questions? >> yeah, i mean, why is my mother gone, who did it, and why? why would this happen? >> and detectives back in
washington state had no answers for him. with no body, no new leads and no new suspects, the investigation was dead in the water. the case must have been growing colder by the day. i'm sure -- >> it was. >> you must have felt that way. >> absolutely. >> did you at some point feel like we've kind of got to give up on this until something comes our way? >> yeah. on the other hand, we knew somewhere, some day, sandy would be found. and the hope was that when that happened, there would be some type of evidence that would assist us in putting this case together. >> they were about to get their wish. coming up, all the men in see her the day she disappeared. which one of them is lying? >> the neighbor saw her car, recognized her car parked outside his house. >> when "dateline" continues. eet
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it's hard to let go of hope. shawn johnson could barely remember his mother. yet he never stopped imagining her coming back into his life. >> i just remember thinking like, like she's going to return sooner or later. she has to walk through that door. >> but it was not to be. one august day in 2004, a highway worker in rural washington noticed something
strange just off the road. it was a shallow grave. investigators recovered skeletal remains. dental records reveal it was sandy. >> i was in the 7th grade. i just remember coming home from school asking my dad why are reporters trying to talk to us. my dad explained to us they found her remains. >> finally, sandy's family had the cold comfort of a funeral. greg brought his kid's back to washington for the service. it was a difficult day for everyone, especially greg. there were some at that funeral who still wondered if he had a role in sandy's death. how were you received at sandy's funeral. were some people angry you were there? >> i think there were some people that didn't like me. family members that didn't like me. the people that were behind me in the beginning, those are the ones that i stayed with and hung out with. i didn't have time for those people that were against me.
>> among the mourners at sandy's service that day were detectives from the cold case squad. the discovery of her bones jump-started the investigate shun and cops were taking a cold, hard look at everything, and everyone. all over again. the coroner did an autopsy. investigators hoped they would find something that would point them in the direction of sandy's killer. or at least tell them how she died. but no luck. >> there was so much decomposition and so little left, that there was no way to tell what killed her. we could not say why sandy johnson died. that's because she was so well hidden for so long. >> where sandy's remains were recovered added another piece to the investigative puzzle. it fit the m.o. of the notorious green river killer, gary ridgeway. he murdered scores of women in washington and disposed of some of them in the area where sandy's bones were found. >> i do.
>> ridgeway's victims were almost all believed to be prostitutes. now king county cops had to make sure there wasn't something they had missed earlier about sandy. was it ever posed to her family, did she ever engage in prostitution? a hard question, but -- >> i believe that someone, a detective asked her mom that, and it was not well received as you can imagine. sandy was not a prostitute, and that would be heart ripping to hear a question like that. even though it had to be asked. >> police then ruled out the green river killer. detectives circled back to the secret boyfriend, jeff cane. they came away convinced he had nothing to do with sandy's death. jeff cane was cleared. as for husband greg, who had done so many things that raised suspicion early on, ultimately, he had an alibi that checked out. he clocked in and out of his job at boeing the day sandy went missing. colleagues had seen him there
and after work he was with friends who vouched for him. finally, greg johnson was off the list. how well do you remember that moment where the police came to see you and said, you're not a suspect anymore? >> i remember it very well. it was a relief. it was a good day for me. it really was. >> that left sandy's friend from work, cliff reid. detective jim allen decided if he could find physical evidence tying cliff reid to the death of sandy johnson. it turned out passage of time in the pace gave police new tools. >> forensics changed over the year, so there was the potential of testing a lot of things that couldn't have been able to be tested back then for dna specifically. >> they went back to where cliff reid lived in 1996. all these years later, and tore the place apart. they found what looked to them like a blood stain under the
carpet. >> we took all the carpet from his room. >> they still had sandy's green wagon. that ripped that apart, too. >> we searched her car and collected more evidence and had that tested. >> this sort of analysis churned slowly. in 2006, detectives began working with prosecutors kristen and carla. investigators dug deeper into cliff reid's story. >> they were learning more and more and more about cliff's lies and sort of his relationship with sandy and some specifics about that day that didn't add up. >> for instance, sandy had taken that friday, april 26 off work to get ready for shawn's birthday. among her errands, she told friends she was picking up a birthday present for shawn from cliff reid. >> cliff reid never acknowledged that sandy was to come to his house that day. >> he said he had last seen her two weeks before.
>> what's more, cliff reid's neighbor told police sandy must have been there that day. >> the neighbor saw her car, recognized her car parked outside his house. >> that was troubling to police. but more incriminating was this. that same neighbor said he saw cliff reid driving sandy's car away from the apartment that day. and that grocery store lot where sandy's car was found was within walking distance of cliff's apartment just over a mile away. and cliff's neighbors remembered him walking home from the direction of the store the day she disappeared. cliff told detectives he had gone out for some air. >> this was very much out of character in speaking with the people that know cliff best. cliff reid was not the kind of person that would just willy-nilly go out for a walk. >> and they were very suspicious of this fact. cliff, who was notoriously messy, chose the day after sandy's disappearance to clean his apartment top to bottom.
>> after he disappeared, he rented a carpet cleaner, cleaned the house. she got rid of the vacuum bag. >> it turns out that cliff reid had a bitter history with two ex-wives, and police have learned about allegations of a violent episode cliff reid had with an escort he had hired two months before sandy went missing. >> cliff reid was on top of her, strangling her, threatening to shoot her, groping her underneath her clothing. >> that case never went anywhere, but raised red flags for cops looking into sandy johnson's death. >> at that point we realized could this similar scenario have played out at cliff's residence with sandy johnson being the victim? >> and the motive? police say they found one. cliff reid was obsessed with sandy johnson. >> cliff shared with friends that he had found the love of his life. >> reid's friends used words like enthralled, head over heels to describe to detectives reid's
feelings about sandy. he said he was going to marry sandy and had even bought a bigger car to haul her kids around in. the trouble was, the feelings apparently weren't mutual. >> she expressed to at least one of her friends that her frustration was growing that he wanted more than she wanted and it was never going to be that. >> it was just the day before she went missing that sandy had told a co-worker reid had become a problem, and he needed to understand that she was not interested. police wondered whether sandy had chosen that morning when she went to cliff's house to get that gift to set him straight. and if so, had she paid for it with her life. >> i think sandy was probably the first attractive female that had ever been nice to him. and that's what did her in. she created this fantasy world around her because she was nice to him. >> when she finally wised up and called it off and said nothing is going to happen, he killed her. >> for police, the pieces seemed to be falling into place into
the investigation of sandy johnson's death. even as they waited for the forensic results to come back. meanwhile, her friends and family kept faith that eventually there would be justice for sandy. did you start to feel again that maybe this isn't going to happen? >> i was hopeful. all i can say is i was hopeful. coming up, just as this case finally gets going, a major speed bump. >> how frustrating was that? >> very. >> and then for this family that's been through so much, a heart stopping moment. >> all i could feel is this rush of hot blood. it was tough. or chronic idiopathic constipation.
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sandy's death. >> it came back zero. >> how frustrating was that? >> very. it would have been nice to have some dna. that would have been nice. >> we had tried everything that we could. >> the prosecutors faced a tough choice. charge cliff reid with murder and risk losing a potentially unwinnable case or leave sandy's case unresolved, which as it turns out happened before. in the late '90s, cliff reid had been charged briefly with sandy johnson's murder but prosecutors thought the case was too thin. >> there was absolutely nothing left to be done, so it was not going to improve. it was now or never. >> they chose now. >> we try hard cases and we're successful at it. >> after all, they did have reid's lies. a neighbor who saw him driving her car. a witness who saw reid cleaning
his house the day after sandy disappeared. and most importantly, his obsession with her. cliff reid was arrested in montana. he was extradited to washington state and charged with second degree murder. shawn, who had last seen his mother when he was just 5, was now grown up, a medic in the army, when he heard the news from one of his mom's friends. >> blew me away. it's like reopening like a cut and rubbing salt in it. >> going to trial was a roll of the dice for both sides. prosecutors would have to win a difficult case with no forensic evidence. >> the biggest problem we had is cliff managed to succeed in one crucial point, and that is that he hid sandy's body. we had no way to prove how she died.
>> without that proof of how she died, it would be hard to say cliff reid had intended to kill sandy. for the defendant, there was also a risk that a jury would find the prosecutor's circumstantial case convincing. >> cliff reid and his attorney knew he was facing a real chance of being convicted of murder in the second degree, which can carry up to 20 years. >> so earlier this year, prosecutors put a plea bargain on the table. reid, now 60 years old, made his choice. >> how do you plead today? >> guilty. >> they made a deal. cliff reid pleaded guilty, not to murder, but to manslaughter. >> the good thing about a plea is that it avoids not only the risk of losing a trial or a hung jury, but the appeal and everything that drags on forever. and this family had to deal with this loss three times. first when sandy disappeared. second when her remains were found. and third when charges were
filed, the case was stirred up all again. >> please rise. court is now in session. >> in april, sandy's family was in court to see cliff reid sentenced. >> what was it like for you seeing him in that courtroom? >> i mean, i felt this rush of, you know, hot blood. it was tough. it was tough. >> cliff reid got less than four years in prison as mandated by washington law. >> how do you feel about that? the fact that he's doing time but it's not a lot. >> it's not a whole lot. the guy killed my mom, you know? everybody knows it. >> cliff reid's plea wasn't just any plea, it was an offered plea, meaning he would not be required to admit to killing sandy. in fact, when he had the chance to speak, cliff reid said something that outraged the family. >> sandy was a very good friend to me. she was one of the nicest people
i've ever known, and i certainly did not kill sandy. >> do you feel like cliff reid got away with murder? >> e yes, absolutely. absolutely. >> but sandy's family doesn't blame the prosecutors. >> i think they took on a big undertaking and i'm thankful. i believe they did more than their job. >> the good news for sandy is the world knows cliff reid killed her. she did not abandon her children. she did not go missing. he killed her and put her in the woods. that is worth something to know that and say that. >> 18 years ago, sandy johnson missed her son's fifth birthday. now shawn is 23 and married. he got some of his mom's looks but also her heart. he'll leave the military in under a month and he wants s s become a detective. it took so many years to finally
get cliff reid. is that going to motivate you to be a great cop? >> it is. i wouldn't want anything to, you know, happen to cause so much pain to anybody else. >> justice for sandy may not look quite like anyone imagined. her family is taking solace in the beautiful person sandy was. and the reflection they see of her in her children. >> your dad says he sees your mom in you, and in your sister. >> just 17 years of built-up emotion. >> i know. >> 18 now. >> do you think she would be proud of you and what you've accomplished? >> i think she would. >> that's all for this edition of "dateline." we'll see you again on sunday at 7:00, 6:00 central. and i'll see you tomorrow on "today."
i'm lester holt. for all of us at nbc news, good night. . - papa haydn's all set with the cake, by the way. - and you have the playlist for the reception? - yep, that's done. and the place cards are ready. they just need to be picked up. - oh. i'll do that. - no, i got it. - wow. you're doing all that? - full-service maid of honor. - there'd be no wedding without juliette. - wait a minute, what about the groom? don't you need me? - oh, for certain things. - guys have it easy. all nick has to do is-- is not lose the ring and make a speech. - what ring? what speech? yeah, yeah, i got the ring. - and what about the toast? - it's getting there. - it better be there by saturday. - saturday. this saturday? nobody gets me. trubel, dinner! - yeah, no, we get you. trubel, come on! we're hungry! we wanna eat! - i'll get her. - no, you sit. i've got it.
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