tv Dateline MSNBC March 17, 2018 11:00pm-12:00am PDT
for me, creativity is about light. it's not about darkness. i wanted to get light to come in so that we could feel the outside and be open to that. so we put some pieces in here. we got the how high is the moon share. we got a big bubble chair from the 60s that you can swing on and sit on. we made it slightly more intimate and more usable. there's a big chair which comes from the austin powers movie. it's the chair of dr. evil, so that gets quite a few selfies put in there at all hours of the day. what's driven me in my career is constant disruption, innovation and creativity. why bother with a kitchen, man? let's create a space for people to come together and eat around this great table. probably one of my favorite pieces. we had it hand made in indonesia
from one piece on the way steven recounted the awful moment when his wife disappeared. >> we were walking vmgt she said go back to the car and she slipped. i didn't see her anymore. >> the rescuer had made it to the base of the cliff, mor than a hundred feet from t to which. he expected to find a woued woman there but he didn't.
i'm >> reporter: he and a rescuer began to walk along the base. finally, 30 feet away the beams landed on something white. it was jody lying motionless next to a tree. >> there was a lot of blood on the tree. the blood was draining down the tree. that's where severe impact took. that's where she really -- >> reporter: jody scharf had not survived the fall. it was clear she had slammed into that tree. as he began to move the body he noticed something else. >> she had the odor of alcoholic beverage that emanated from her body. >> reporter: when you smelled that did you think maybe she had too much to drink and fell? >> that entered my mind, yes. >> reporter: at that moment, stephen scharf was sitting in a room at the police station, waiting for someone to tell him what happened to his wife.
do you remember what's going through your mind at that point? >> how badly is she hurt? where is she? why isn't she calling back to me. >> reporter: that's when an officer walked in and broke the news. jody was gone. >> i don't remember who told me. >> reporter: what was your reaction? >> denial. how could this happen? >> reporter: that question would haunt him and many others. it would take years for the answers to finally come. coming up -- >> he was rubbing his eyes to make it look like he was crying. >> reporter: you thought he was faking tears? >> absolutely. >> reporter: curious behavior puts a husband under the microscope. [ indistinct chatter ] the moment you realize a good backyard party requires a good backyard. at lowe's we have everything you need to create the outdoor space you've always wanted. get 20% off your purchase of two different select scotts products at lowe's.
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>> reporter: it was the worst night of his life. now stephen scharf, in the early morning hours of september 21, 1992, had to tell his 10-year-old son jonathan his mother was dead. >> i said, come on, jonathan. we need to take a walk. i told him and he immediately burst into tears and i cried like a baby. i wasn't ashamed. >> reporter: he remembers his distraught son's reaction, but little else from those dark hours. were you sleeping? were you eating? >> drinking.
>> reporter: you were drinking. >> i'd lost my wife. my son lost his mom. >> reporter: there was plenty of sympathy among family and friends, to be sure, for the man newly widowed with a small child to raise on his own. his wife had died in a freak accident, off a cliff of all places. how could that happen? that's exactly what police who were there the night of jody's death wanted to know, too. >> right away, i got a feeling that there was something definitely wrong. >> reporter: it nagged at the rescuer. why was jody's purse on the ledge just feet below where her husband said she'd fallen. >> where is she? she should be here or part of her should be here. >> reporter: that's the first thing that came to you? >> either she should be here or the pocketbook should be down with her. it wasn't fitting. >> reporter: another thought dawned on him. if jody had tumbled, why hadn't she hit the side of the cliff. there was no blood or hair anywhere on the rocks.
and the location of jody's body seemed off -- way off. >> she was 30 to 40 feet away from us to the north. a person falls off the cliff, usually they go south or right down. should have been right down where i got off the ropes. that's where she should have been. >> reporter: someone else was scratching his head about that night for different reasons. it had to do with stephen's behavior while the search was under way. officer sery was surprised stephen was willing toeave the lookout as rescuers were still looking for jody. did he give any indication, i don't want to leave, my wife could be alive down there? >> not at all. >> reporter: sery said he couldn't believe how willingly scharf got into the car. >> if it was my wife, girlfriend, whoever they would have had to pry me away from the scene. >> reporter: he willingly got into the patrol car?
>> without a word said. >> reporter: stranger still was how calm the husband seemed. when the officer heard stephen describe how his wife had fallen he made a mental note. >> there was no emotion in it. no emotion. like he was reading a script. >> reporter: did it occur to you that he was maybe in shock? >> no. i have seen people who lost loved ones. i have never seen anybody act that way. >> reporter: it was a particular moment later, inside the station house that really caught the officer's attention. >> he asked if he could get a drink from the water fountain. he was looking over his shoulder at me, splashing water into his face and rubbing his eyes to make it look like he was crying. >> reporter: you thought he was faking tears? >> absolutely. absolutely. >> reporter: a death scene where the pieces didn't connect. a husband who appeared nonchalant. from a cop's point of view things were adding up and not in stephen's favor. >> not just one thing.
it was like the totality of the circumstances. everything -- every little thing was clicking in my mind. i'm saying to myself, you know, this isn't right. something's wrong here. >> reporter: gut instinct is one thing, but evidence is quite another. people handle terrible events in different ways. the police are paid to be suspicious. maybe their view of stephen was too jaundiced. there was really nothing to indicate that jody's fall was anything but an accident. a few months later, the ruling was in. the medical examiner concluded the manner of jody scharf's death could not be determined. an accident was as likely as anything else. case closed. or was it? so you didn't think this was a horrible accident? >> no. >> reporter: the suspicions grow. was there a weapon at this romantic rendezvous? >> you have wine, cheese, crackers and a claw hammer.
so you didn't think this was a horrible accident? >> no. >> reporter: there wasn't any smoking gun really. just something dark he thought he could read between the lines in the police notes he reviewed the day after jody's death. >> e he didn't react like somebody who had just lost his wife should have reacted. >> reporter: so the detective moved from the physical evidence to the less tangible clues. he quickly learned from jody's friends that this was a couple not in love, but in crisis. the subject wasn't wine and roses on those cliffs. it was divorce. >> she was going to go through with it, yes. absolutely. >> reporter: jody's long-time friend told detectives that jody had been determined to take her 10-year-old son jonathan and leave her husband. she was convinced stephen had been cheating on her. >> she couldn't prove anything, but women called the house. sometimes they'd call and hang up on her.
>> reporter: in fact, linum learned jody had served her husband divorce papers on september 1992. less than two weeks later, she was dead at the base of the palisades. the timing made him more eager to talk to the widower scharf. there was a sit-down with mr. scharf. he's consented to talk, right? >> yes. >> reporter: two days after his wife's death, stephen was freely answering detectives' questions. yes, he told them. he and his wife were talking divorce as they had sometimes done during their tempestuous marriage. it was true. there were other women. >> he said there was an open marriage. he said he had been with 50 to 60 women. >> reporter: she was okay with it, according to him. >> according to him, yeah. >> reporter: he told detectives she and jody had become unhappy with the free love lifestyle so they came to this romantic,
treacherous spot to recommit to one another. to kiss and make up. >> the spot where they went is not a spot you go to reconcile with anybody. >> reporter: detectives weren't buying the story for another reason. they found something suspicious inside the car. a bag filled with items you would expect for a romantic picnic and one you would not. a hammer. >> you have wine, cheese, crackers, opener -- claw hammer. if red flags were going off, they reached the top of the pole at that point? >> reporter: did you think it was a murder weapon? >> i thought that might have been plan a. he didn't use it so he went to plan b. >> reporter: which he believed was to push or throw jody from the cliff. so detectives asked stephen the obvious. what was a hammer doing in the picnic bag? >> he said he fixed a draw in the kitchen with the hammer. he just forgot to put it back in the garage.
he put it in the bag with the picnic items. it was just convenient. it was a convenient excuse for having the hammer. >> reporter: detectives asked if they could check out the drawer and the rest of stephen's house that night. he agreed. but something potentially far more telling was happening away from the action. >> i said, look, i'm your local police department. >> reporter: ted aaronburg was a local officer told to keep an eye on stephen that night as detectives combed through the house. the officer said he began talking to stephen about what happened to jody when stephen interrupted him. >> he finally looked at me and he goes, you don't believe me. >> reporter: then the officer says he said something that almost knocked him off his feet. >> i said, i believe an accident occurred. i said, was it an accident? he put his head down and he said, no. >> reporter: aaronburg believes that was a stunning confession.
he ran to tell the other detectives, including linum but they had spent hours grilling the man. >> we weren't getting the feeling that a reinterview would have done anything. >> reporter: the detectives still believed they could find solid evidence to implicate stephen, but they didn't. >> we took it as far as we could go. the cause of death was listed as undetermined. so officially it wasn't a homicide. >> reporter: in time, the detectives moved on to other cases. stephen moved on, too. 14 years after his wife's death he remarried. tina said he's been a loving, ideal husband. >> it was like we were two puzzle pieces that were made for each other. each of us complemented and completed the other person. >> reporter: even in this the happy, new life he says he's never forgotten about jody. but he might have been surprised to learn that someone else was thinking of her, too, after all these years.
the county had a new prosecutor and he was eager to revisit old case files. among them a death on the cliffs of the palisades so many years ago. the death of jody. >> there is a renewed push since 2002 to look into the cold cases. >> reporter: marcos covered the case for the record newspaper in new jersey. on one hand he said it didn't seem the prosecutor had reason to pursue the cold case. >> in terms of hard evidence there was nothing new. >> reporter: the prosecutor did have someone new. a famous fame to join the investigation into jody's death. dr. michael bodden, a world renowned forensic pathologist who investigated the deaths of john f. kennedy and john belushi and testified at the trial of o.j. simpson. he was about to turn up the heat on a cold case.
>> dr. bodden reviewed the evidence and determined that it coulnot have been an accidental fall. >> reporter: in december of 2008, detectives paid one more visit to stephen. >> they wouldn't tell me what it was for. i had no idea what this was about. it make sense. >> reporter: 16 years after that fatal night on the cliff, police were back. and stephen was in for a shock. after all these years you thought it was done. >> not until they reached behind and handed me this thing. this arrest warrant. >> reporter: coming up, the case heads into court with a surprise from the stand. >> i'm here for my mother. >> reporter: stephen and jody's only son has some dark secrets to share. >> did you see the abuse? >> i did. turn up your swagger game with one a day men's. ♪ get ready for the wild life
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>> reporter: sometimes it hurts a case. memories fade, evidence is lost, witnesses die. but time can also put evidence in a new light. such was the case in the trial of stephen scharf, accused of killing his wife nearly two decades ago. >> there is no statute of limitations on murder. >> reporter: the prosecutor promised the evidence would tell a story as simple as it was brutal. a husband determined to avoid a costly divorce lured his wife to the edge of a cliff and forced her off it. >> if he has lied he is guilty. >> reporter: the state marshalled familiar facts to tell its story, starting with the crime scene where the prosecutor said the cliffs showed no sign of an accidental tumble. >> no debris, no clothing, no blood, no hair, no tissue. >> reporter: then there was the husband himself. cool and collected in the back of a police car. >> i didn't see any emotion from him at all, sir.
>> reporter: who later confessed, the prosecutor said, to killing his wife. >> then i said, it was an accident? he said, no. >> reporter: but those facts were not where the case ended. accident? he said, no. >> reporter: but those facts were not where the case ended. the prosecutor argued that they set the stage for the real case -- a story told by the victim's friends, family and most importantly, by a star witness. >> my opinion is that the manner of death is homicide. >> reporter: dr. michael bodden, the forensic pathologist, told jurors the crime scene speak of a murder, not an accident. >> if a person falls accidentally, the individual will be, you know, within a couple of feet of the base of the building. >> reporter: that didn't happen in the case of jody scharf. her body landed 50 feet out from the top of the cliff and 30 feet to the north. >> she had to have been propelled from that point. >> reporter: jody had to have been thrown or pushed to her death, he said. and likely from another spot entirely on the cliffs. he wasn't the only expert who saw it that way. >> of the head and chest injuries are not consistent with someone that tumbles down the cliff face. >> reporter: dr. clayton was the bergen county medical examiner who first ruled the circumstances of jody's death could not be determined. now on second look she says the victim's wounds or lack of them
told her something different, something vital. if jody had tumbled innocently down the palisades she would have had broken bones everywhere. she did not. injuries on the back of her body. circumstances of jody's death could not be determined. now on second look she says the victim's wous or lack of them told her something different, something vital. if jody had tumbled innocently down the palisades she would have had broken bones everywhere. she did not. >> there were no visible injuries on the back of her body. >> reporter: why would stephen have killed his wife?
the biggest reason, the prosecutor argued, was that stephen did not want a divorce. he didn't want a custody fight. he didn't want to split assets with jody. and there was yet another motive for stephen, said the prosecutor, a potential payout. >> usaa life insurance company. >> reporter: an insurance representative testified about a $500,000 policy taken out against jody scharf months before her death. payable to a primary beneficiary. >> can you tell us the policy owner? >> stephen f. scharf. >> reporter: jody scharf was worth more dead than alive. her friend marion testifieded that jody feared stephen fight do something violent if she pushed for divorce. even so, marion said, jody was determined to get away from her husband. >> she was going to have divorce papers served on stephen and she was very afraid of it.
>> reporter: yet, was stephen violent enough to kill his wife? an unlikely but powerful witness was about to testify against stephen scharf. >> i'm here for my mother. >> reporter: his own son took the stand against him. now a businessman, jonathan scharf painted his father as an angry, violent man who terrorized his mother. >> did you see tt abuse? >> i did. >> reporter: jonathan scharf said he realized his father had likely killed his mother only after that arrest in 2008. this videotaped interview shows him recalling the dark past for the first time to police. >> she got coffee thrown at her by him. >> reporter: now in court, he had even more to tell about his childhood. like the afternoon he sat cowering in the back seat of a car watching his mother suffer.
>> my mom was driving and my dad was hitting her with the bottom of his fist. i was just begging him to stop doing it. >> reporter: he also remembered the last day of his mother's life. he was 10 and said his mother told his father that she didn't want to go out with him alone. >> she said, if i wanted to go out with you, i wouldn't be divorcing you. >> reporter: where was the proof that stephen planned to kill jody that night? well, there was the hammer in the picnic bag. but there was also testimony from this woman -- one of stephen's old girlfriends. >> i even mentioned to my girlfriend that it was a perfect relationship. >> reporter: terry schofield had been dating stephen months before jody's death. >> did mr. scharf tell you whether or not he was married? >> actually, he said he was not married. >> reporter: she remembered something strange stephen said to her on the beach over that
labor day weekend. >> he was under a lot of stress and the stress would be resolved by the end of september. >> reporter: two weeks later, jody scharf was dead. terry now sees that cryptic statement in a dreadful light. >> i was like, oh, no, the end of september. then the lightbulb went off immediately. >> reporter: it also went off for marion. in perhaps the most chilling testimony of the prosecution's case she told the jury when she heard her friend was gone she immediately remembered something jody said just weeks earlier. >> she said that during this conversati that i had th him, if anything happens to me, you'll know who did it. she said, you'll know it was him. >> reporter: the prosecutor's position was clear. a husband with a motive. the perfect setting. the violent intent to kill his wife. or was there another way of looking at that couple perched
high on those cliffs on a summer night? stephen's new wife says the prosecution has it all wrong. >> my husband is not capable. that's not the man he is. my husband is sweet, kind, loving, considerate. >> reporter: the defense was ready to show how stephen scharf, far from villain, was the real victim in this story. coming up -- >> they destroyed the crime scene area. >> reporter: new questions about the evidence and was there another reason why a son might implicate his dad? >> who does the money go to? >> it goes to me. >> reporter: when "dateline" continues. in terms of treating sensitivity,
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stephen scharf is not guilty! >> reporter: 18 years after the death of his first wife, more than a decade after the investigation stalled, stephen scharf was being called a killer, but his defense attorney argued there was no new evidence, no new eyewitnesses, only new opinions. >> we're talking about the same old facts and circumstances. >> reporter: he said the state was hoping to win a murder conviction by painting his client as a terrible husband. that it couldn't prove he was a killer in 1992 and it couldn't prove it today.
>> my client, stephen scharf, has been wrongfully charged with her death. >> reporter: one reason the prosecutor couldn't prove murder had to do with sloppy police work, the defense attorney said, suggesting it had been like keystone cops on the palisades that fatal night. >> you never photographed the body before you moved it, did you? >> no, sir. >> why didn't they take photographs? they destroyed the crime scene area. >> reporter: they didn't even bother to question potential eyewitnesses, he said. instead, they cleared visitors from the lookout. there might have been someone who saw something or heard somethg. >> there might have been. there's a possibility that might have hpened. >> reporter: if police were so suspicious of his client two nights later, the defense said, why didn't they videotape their interview with him? that way, jurors could have
judged stephen scharf's supposedly odd demeanor for themselves. why didn't you? >> not an interrogation. he wasn't in custody. i don't know. >> reporter: the defense attorney also argued that police misinterpreted what his client said in his home just hours later. >> my client never said this wasn't an accident. >> reporter: as for that hammer police thought was a weapon. >> the hammer was examined by the forensic experts. there was nothing found on that hammer. >> reporter: the defense attorney pressed the medical examiner on her flip-flop. undetermined manner of death in '93. now it was a homicide? really? >> are you trying to say that you're learning from your mistakes on this case? >> you may call them mistakes, sir. i did the best i could in 1992, documenting what i had observed with mrs. scharf. >> reporter: the medical examiner was helpful to the
defense in one critical way though. she determined that jody had been drunk the night she fell off the cliff. jody had a blood alcohol level of .12. that was over the legal limit. >> it would be equivalent to approximately four average-sized drinks -- wine or beer, something like that. >> reporter: a drunken slip and fall argued the defense. to back it up the lawyer had his own heavy hitter. famed forensic pathogi d cyril wecht. he had star-studded investigations as high profile as dr. bodden. only wecht had a totally different take on how jody scharf died. >> i would call this an accidental death. >> reporter: in wecht's version, which he demonstrated with, of all things, a teddy bear, jody fell off the cliff and onto jagged rocks below causing her mortal wounds. her body then catapulted.
>> out goes the body and it hurtles into the air. >> reporter: into the tree canopy which then carried her through the abyss into the distant tree. >> this is what i think happened to explain those injuries of the chest and of the head. >> reporter: but there was another bubble to burst in the prosecution's case. the motive for murder. stephen of scharf wasn't a greedy killer, his attorney said. his client never made a claim on that insurance policy. it was only after the money was turned over to the state, years later, he said, that stephen scharf even bothered to collect. >> would it throw fuel on the fire not to do it? well, i know i look guilty because i am guilty. i better not make the claim. >> damned if you do, damned if you don't. >> reporter: the other alleged motive, divorce, was flimsy as well. jody and stephen had been talking breakup for years.
the divorce papers, just the latest legal salvo in an ongoing marital spat. >> reporter: the prosecutor paints a picture of someone who, frankly, is serious about this divorce. >> no one person ever incad that my client was furious over this divorce. they had talked about divorce for years. maybe she was, you know, saying one thing and not following through. >> reporter: though it is true stephen scharf didn't want a divorce. he said he wanted to give the marriage another chance. as for that former girlfriend, she recounted stephen's mysterious statement before jody's death. >> just give me to the end of september and everything will be okay. a lot of the stress will be gone. >> reporter: the defense attorney said that was stephen's clumsy way of trying to dump his girlfriends. speaking of which, he added,
those other women did not bother jody at all. she was seeing other people herself. >> the person on the bottom half in both of those is who? >> jody scharf. >> reporter: the recordkeeper of a dating service testified that jody's name was on an application. she even checked off the interests she'd like to share with a mate. the attorney offered that as proof of stephen and jody's open marriage. but what really rankled the defense, what had torn at the heart of stephen scharf was the testimony of his son jonathan. >> i rember her showing me her bruises. >> reporter: he painted his father as a brute and possibly a killer. >> i never hit jody. it made me sick to my stomach. >> reporter: the young man wasn't to be believed, said the lawyer. for one thing, when police interviewed jonathan back in 2008, the young man described his dad as a good guy.
>> i think he was -- you know, fairly -- decent, you know -- fairly decent guy. >> reporter: it was only after detectives told him his dad had just been arrested that the son turned on his father. >> she got coffee thrown at her. >> before you found out that your dad was a rested did you lie? >> yes. >> did you lie more than once? >> yes. >> reporter: why would jonathan turn on his father and lie? the confidence lawyer said it was jonathan, not his dad, who was motivated by greed. if stephen scharf was convicted, his son would get all that insurance money. >> who does the money go to? >> it goes to me. >> reporter: in the end, the lawyer called stephen scharf's son a spoiled brat. >> that's some spoiled kid. >> reporter: who was not a credible witness.
in closing the attorney insisted this wasn't a murder case. just a sad story about a woman who tumbled drunkenly to her death. >> this case is an accident. nothing more. nothing less. >> reporter: soon it would be in the hands of a jury. coming up -- >> it was a lightbulb. you couldn't help but think, hmm, that's interesting. >> reporter: the jurors speak and so does the accused. stephen, did you kill your wife, jody? the verdict. so it's an extra 5% off on all this? yep, all this. all this. the moment you realize you can save big, even on the small stuff. you get an extra 5% off everyday on items big or small with your lowe's advantage card. and back pain made it hard to sleep and get up on time. then i found aleve pm.
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>> reporter: 18 years after a night that ended in his wife's death off a cliff, stephen scharf stood accused of murder by the state of new jersey. through it all, one thing he wants you to know is this -- he would never have laid a hand on his beloved jody -- never. stephen, did you kill your wife jody? >> i did not hurt jody. i did not. >> reporter: did you throw her off the palisades --
>> i did not. i did not. i didn't hurt jody. i didn't push her. i didn't cause her to get hurt. i didn't kill my wife. >> reporter: we talked to stephen scharf at the bergen county jail where he was held for more than two years after his rest in 2008 he and his wife tina say they have paid a high price for something he didn't do. >> our daughter is t and a half and has never been held by her father because we don't have contact visits. >> it's not just a tragedy for jody. it's a tragedy for john. it's a tragedy for my wife. for my daughter. and for myself. >> reporter: still, he decided not to take the stand in his own defense. but told "dateline" that what he first said years ago about his wife's death was the truth. >> i wish it didn't happen. wish we had gone to the comedy club. but i -- i'm innocent.
>> reporter: had the jury gotten that same message when they walked into the deliberating room for the first time, some jurors planned to vote not guilty. >> there wasn't enough evidence for me. that's what it was. >> reporter: others were thinking "guilty." >> it was several things. it was no one thing that made up my mind. >> reporter: the jurors went back and forth over the evidence. here's what they came to believe -- that jody was likely drunk and that her husband knew it. if that was the case, why would he let her get so close to the edge of a cliff? >> as the husband, knowing that your wife was drinking, would you bring her there? >> reporter: the jurors deliberated three days before deciding whether stephen scharf should be found guilty or not guilty of a single count of murder. >> on the charge of murder of jody ann scharf your verdict is -- >> guilty.
>> reporter: guilty. later, jurors said what united them was the testimony of jody's friend telling them that jody was terrified of her husband. >> that possibly she was telling everyone if something happens to me it's my husband. >> reporter: it was another woman in stephen's life who swayed the jury. terry schofield recounting what stephen said to her weeks before jody's death, that his stress would soon be over. >> once i heard that, that was something that pushed me towards what we decided in the end. that statement. >> it was the litbulb.en she fi uldn't help but think, hmm, that's interesting. >> reporter: to them, it wasn't jody who slipped but her husband with that menacing statement. they believed it wasn't just a fall from the cliffs. it was a cold-blooded execution. stephen scharf was sentenced to life in prison. he says the jurors condemned him, not on the facts, but for his and jody's tumultuous open marriage.
you think this was a moral judgment on the part of jurors? >> yes. i suppose some people would say, well, he was punished for his moral weakness. but this was a murder trial. >> reporter: for rescuer michael chiefy it's a fitting end to a story that's haunted him since the night on the palisades. >> this has never left me. it's been years. i went back there myself without people knowing it several times because it bothered me. something was wrong. >> reporter: for close friends like marion, the verdict does not remove the sting of the loss. >> i'm angry that he took the life of a beautiful person. that's what bothers me the most. that he would do that and think that he was going to get away with it. he wanted the insurance money. he wanted his son. he'd have whatever he wanted and she would be out of the way. i think that was sad.
-- captions by vitac -- www.vitac.com you have to be aware of your surroundings because you just never know. >> it started with a frightening horror flick from the '80s. >> the movie is we're going to take some women into the woods and then poof, they're going to be hunted down. >> then decades later, something truly frightening. it it was happening for real. a strange vanishing in the forest. >> immediately we knew something was wrong. >> then another. >> your heart just broke. >> sheryl, then meredith. two women missing and two desperatefs to find her. >> she he could be alive and we can't let up.