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tv   Dateline  MSNBC  October 18, 2020 2:00am-3:00am PDT

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some accomplishment at that. >> i feel that maybe she can rest in peace. she died such a history ink death that she deserved to die in peace. >> that's all for "dateline." thank you for watching. i'm craig melvin. >> and i'm natalie morales. >> and this is "dateline." everyone says that you and your sister were your mom's life. >> yeah. amazing person. committed to family. committed to my sister and i. and then five years later, gone. she was a gorgeous girl, a model who became a mom. >> you guys made some good looking kids. >> they sure did. >> reporter: on the eve of her son's 5th birthday, she vanished. >> the whole time we're all trying to talk without the kids hearing us about where is she,
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what happened. >> when a woman disappears, we know police will have questions for the man in her life. in this case, that wouldn't be so simple. there was the estranged husband who admitted to an argument that once landed him in jail. >> she came at me, and i grabbed her by the arms. then she called the police. >> then there was the vet boyfriend who wasn't telling all these knew. >> it was suspicious to police that he wasn't up front about that from the beginning. >> and there was a third man. the former colleague with a crush. >> cliff shared with friends that he had found the love of his life. >> so you have three potential suspects. >> yeah. it's a tangle. >> could investigators unravel it? >> we're asking ourselves what does this mean. >> would her family ever find justice? >> this was 17 years of built-up emotion. hello, and welcome to
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"dateli "dateline." they say good things come in small packages. sandi johnson's family and friends would agree. the young mom was petite, pretty, and devoted to her two kids. though when she went missing, police wondered if sandi's home life was as happy as it seemed. they quickly uncovered a web of romantic relationships and a dark mystery that would take years to solve. here's andrea canning with "the disappearance of sandi johnson." >> reporter: it's a celebration no mother would ever want to miss. a child's 5th birthday. but suddenly, she was gone. out of his life. >> there's nothing that anybody could really do to fix that or repair that missing part. >> reporter: his mother, sandi johnson, was outgoing, energetic, and an awesome mom. >> those kids were everything to
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her. >> reporter: so why wasn't she there to sing "happy birthday" to her son? >> all they knew was she disappeared into thin air. >> reporter: she should have seen you get married, go into the merl and become a police officer one day. >> it's a -- toughest day to deal with. >> reporter: it was heartbreaking and baffling. >> it was a true mystery as to what happened to sandi. >> reporter: that true mystery, what happened to the vibrant young mom who vanished from a agricultur suburb endured for years. those who loved sandi johnson, those who longed for her return waited almost two decades for answers. and a slice of justice. the story starts in april, 1996. april 26th to be precise. a friday in the seattle area.
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the weather was doing what it does in this part of the world, clouding up and spritzing rain. that day, sandi johnson, a 28-year-old wife and mother, had a two-do list as long as her arm. >> she was going run and do all her errands that day to get ready for her son's birthday party the next day. >> reporter: vicky was a good friend of sandi's. they bonded in the hospital after their sons ethiboth premature, were -- sons, both pre- mar mature, were borne on the same day. sandi was younger than vicky, a tiny woman with a huge zest for life. >> i loved being around sandi. seemed like she really cared about people. >> reporter: no one knew that better than her cousins, gina and nancy. they grew up together. >> sandi is action, action, move, go, do, do, talkative, laugh, always. she's a mile a minute. >> reporter: and beautiful. >> gorgeous. >> reporter: >> tiny little thing. >> she wore like a 00. >> reporter: she modeled each? >> she did some modeling. i remember she did some kind of a bridal thing at one time.
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>> reporter: that friday, sandi took the day off from her job at a car dealership to prepare for the party. her husband said she was always a mom first. >> everything was about the kids. you know, so everything revolved around the kids. >> reporter: 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. >> reporter: sandi had a plan -- the kids would spend the day with vicky while she zipped around town. that morning, she left vicky a message on her phone. >> pick up the birthday cake after 3:00 today, and i'll be down after. that i'll probably see you around 4:00ish. see you later, bye-bye. >> reporter: 4:00 came and went, and no sandi. vicky's hands were full with her kids and sandi's. at first she wasn't too concerned. >> maybe around 4:30 or 5:00, i started calling her. i thought you're not here yet, sandi. it just wasn't like her. i was feeling frustrated.
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>> reporter: the hours went by, and still no sandi. vicky'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 -- you know, we started hospitals, the police. we were just on the phones. we were worried. >> reporter: vicky and her husband kept sandi's kids at their home that night. did you sleep at all that night? >> no -- probably not much. i don't remember. it's a fog. it's unreal. where is she? what could have happened to her. >> reporter: the next morning, still -- >> no sandi. had to get up and get ready to go to the birthday party. just told sean, it's okay, you know, your mom will be there. >> reporter: meanwhile, greg johnson was looking around his home. there was nothing to indicate that sandi had left in a hurry and somehow forgot to tell anyone. as strange as that would be. >> all her stuff was there. called the police. called, you know, family, my sister, i think i probably called her father.
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>> reporter: were you in a full-on panic or like, you know, maybe she ended up going out with friends or -- >> no. i was pretty worried. just the circumstances at the house, i knew there was trouble or something not right. >> reporter: the birthday party for sean went ahead on saturday. there was a cake and some presents, but no sandi. the adults huddled and whispered. >> the whole time we're trying to talk without the kids hearing us about where is she, what happened? >> i think we made a second call to the police department. and you know, the afternoon. >> reporter: did you think, okay, we've got this party, sandi will show up for the party? >> that was our hope. >> we all tried to proceed as normal. craig was crying like crazy, just -- you know, he glasses on, he was trying to hide it. but you know, there were tears. >> reporter: do you remember anything about that day? your 5th birthday? >> unfortunately, i don't.
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you know. >> reporter: sean johnson knows that was the day his life changed forever. the day the awful questions started. >> why is isn't my mom around, why would this happen, you know. >> reporter: they were the very questions the police would start asking, too, because that same night they were called to a seattle supermarket. store employees had noticed an abandoned vehicle in the parking lot. it was sandi johnson's car. her keys were in it, so was her cell phone. but there was no sign of sandi. coming up, the first break finding sandi's car gives police hope. but a second clue will throw them for a loop. >> we're asking ourselves how does this come together. what does this mean? mean? look at this human trying to get in shape. you know what he will get? muscle pain. give up, the couch is calling. i say, it's me, the couch, i'm calling. pain says you can't. advil says you can.
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hours after sandi johnson was reported missing, the police made a disturbing discovery. sandi's car, a ford escort station wagon like this one, was found in the parking lot of a seattle grocery store. the doors were unlocked, the keys were in the ignition. sandi's cell phone was lying on the seat, but sandi herself was nowhere to be found. cousins gina and nancy. >> when they found sandi's car, did you go from thinking, okay, she's micing, maybe we'll find her, to -- >> she's gone -- >> reporter: she's gone. >> she's gone.
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>> oh, i figured if someone had her, that's it. >> reporter: captain scott strathy, since retired, was a detective for the king county sheriff's department in 1996. it must have extremely alarming from the perspective of law enforcement when you find sandi's car abandoned with the keys and her cell phone inside. >> at least it gave us an area to focus upon. the vehicle was located in southwestern king county. >> reporter: the cops noted an unusual detail -- the driver's seat was pushed back. sandi, who was tiny, drove with the seat in the forward position, as close to the steering wheel as possible. then, just as they were processing the car, the cops got another break. sandi's wallet was located lying in the parking lot of a hardware store. oddly enough, it was miles from her car. they were puzzled. >> we're asking ourselves, how
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does this come together, what does this mean. >> reporter: and what does it tell you when you find a car and a wallet and no sandi? >> well, sandi clearly had been taken away from her vehicle in some manner. and at that point, we were -- we were very focused on why was this vehicle located here. why was her wallet found across town. >> reporter: to detectives, it all added up to foul play. >> it was a very strange and compelling case. a mother of two small children essentially just dropped off the radar screen. >> reporter: was it baffling to the whole police department what happened to sandi? >> yeah. her disappearance became a priority with the sheriff's office right away. >> reporter: sandi's friends and family put up flyers and joined search parties in the greater seattle area. but there was one notable exception. were you participating in the search? >> not too much. >> reporter: why not? >> you know, i just couldn't do
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that. you know -- i just pretty much stayed around the house with the kids and family. >> reporter: did anyone question that, why isn't he looking for her? >> never questioned me. maybe amongst themselves, i don't know. >> reporter: but detectives were already taking a good, long look at sandi johnson's husband, digging for details about the state of the couple's marriage. >> the first thing you're doing is looking at those people that are closest to the important that is missing. you have to. so it made perfect sense to focus on the husband early on. >> reporter: it always seems like the spouse. >> in this particular case, we really didn't know the dynamics of what had happened in their marriage. i mean, it's up to us to find out what are the details. >> reporter: detectives learned that sandi met greg at a hockey game in 1990. she pursued him, and he fell fast. >> she had a lot of energy. a lot of spunk. >> reporter: you seem like you might be more low key. >> i am. >> reporter: was she a good
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complement to you -- >> i think so. >> reporter: in late 1990, sandi got pregnant and the couple married. sean was born in 1991, daughter katie followed. for the next few years, the couple's life was hectic but happy. in early 1996, four months before sandi disappeared, the marriage hit a rough patch. greg moved out of the house. friends told the police there were money pressures among other things. what went wrong with the relationship? >> i think she said she couldn't talk to me or communicate with me, and you know, we'd seen a marriage counselor, and we were working on some stuff. and i think it was getting, you know, better. >> reporter: you wanted to get back together. >> yeah. i wasn't against that at all. >> reporter: but law enforcement developed a very different portrait of the marriage and the chances for reconciliation. kristin richardson and carla carlstrom prosecuted the case
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for king county. >> they were talking about divorce. they'd gotten to the point, and it was assume wanted that they would be the divorced. so that was pretty recent before this had happened within the month before that that decision had been made. >> reporter: and then investigators discovered something else that troubled them. >> law enforcement learned that they had august,ed only the day -- they had argued only the day before they'd gone missing. there was a big argument witnessed by people at her place of work. that, too, focused attention on her estranged husband. >> money was a point of dispute for them. she had trouble. he had trouble. sort of meeting their bills. >> reporter: investigators' questions were mounting. they had a couple with money problems, a troubled marriage, a husband who didn't search for his wife, and fought with her the day before she disappeared. it was time to sit down with greg johnson. how did they treat you in that first encounter? the police? >> yeah. they were like, you know, you
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did it, you know, accusing me of killing my wife. told my sister that greg did it. >> reporter: the usual suspect was starting to look like the right guy. coming up -- >> she called one tlilike it's getting really bad. ke it's getting really bad
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sandi johnson was missing. police believe she'd been killed, and they were zeroing in on her estranged husband greg. his world had turned upside down. >> life changed fast. i mean, i could tell you stories
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-- you know, come home from work, and there's three or four tv stations in front of your house ready to do the 5:00 news. >> reporter: the more investigators talked to sandi's family and friends about the couple's on-the-rocks marriage, the more suspicious they became of greg. sandi had can fided if her cousin gina that living with greg had gotten difficult. >> she called one time and said, it's getting really bad. it's to a point, and i'm afraid and -- i tried to get more information out of her, but she said, i can't talk about it. i just -- i said, you got do what you got to doment. >> reporter: the evidence wasn't just anecdotal. a loud argument between the couple more than a year before sandi went missing had ended with police responding and greg spending a night in jail. how bad did it get? >> how i got in jail? she came at me, i grabbed her by the arms and sat her down.
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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 who went to jail. >> reporter: 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. >> reporter: how much was it? >> it wasn't that much. >> reporter: do you have a number, or -- >> i know what it was. i'm not going to say. but it was -- it was a substantial amount of money, yeah. >> reporter: investigators were more and more convinced they had their man. polygraph they gave greg just days after sandi vanished was key. >> asked me if i would be willing to take a polygraph just to clear my name or whatever. i said sure, i had nothing to hide. what i know is that the polygraph was inconclusive.
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so i guess at that point they thought it was me. they probably thought it was me before the polygraph. >> reporter: the police actually say you failed the polygraph test. >> yeah. i'm sure they did. >> reporter: so you're disputing that. >> i am. it was -- yeah. it was inconclusive results on the polygraph. >> reporter: cops felt he failed it, and the results made them even more certain they were on the right track. king county prosecuting attorneys kristin richardson and carla carlstrom. >> he had not done well on the point of view gra polygra polygraph and they wanted him to take another. >> it must have a big red flag for police. >> i think whenever someone flunks a polygraph test, police get concerned, suspicious, and often want to go at that person harder and find out why. >> reporter: greg may have lawyered up, but detectives used those polygraph results to turn up the pressure. they told your sister you failed the polygraph test?
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>> yes. >> reporter: why? >> i guess they wanted to turn her against me. >> reporter: lots of people in town were turning in that direction. in those first dark weeks after sandi went missing, her dear friend, vicky, started to think greg was somehow involved. >> the police came to me and said certain things that would lead you to think that maybe he did it. >> reporter: what did they tell you that made you start to suspect greg? >> he didn't pass the test. that there was -- there was people that -- the work heart had heard them fighting. just enough that it's like could he have done it? >> reporter: cops were starting to think so, especially when they consider the domestic incident that put greg in jail. that argument at the dealership the night before sandi 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 -- >> reporter: were there family members convinced greg must have done this? >> i think a few were pretty,
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you know, got to put the blame on someone. 100%. >> reporter: how was sandi's family looking at you? >> was a bunch that thought that i was the -- person. >> reporter: and you're telling everyone, "i didn't do this." >> right. >> reporter: and there are people who are not bleaching you. >> yeah. you know, and i get the fact that it's -- you know, 90% of the time it's the husband or the boyfriend. i get that. but it wasn't this time. >> reporter: did you feel in this case that you were target number one? >> oh, yeah. i was the only target. >> reporter: but greg johnson was wrong about that. clue by clue, investigators were uncovering secrets of sandi's, things her estranged husband didn't know that would provide them intriguing new suspects. >> detectives discover what sandi's been hiding -- a man named jeff. did he also have a secret? coming up --
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>> that was suspicious to police that he wasn't up front about that from the beginning. >> and then, a former colleague of sandi's. was he hiding something, too? >> cliff looked to be doing everything he could to present himself as a caring and concerned friend. we found out that that was not the real cliff reed. when we started carvana, they told us that selling cars 100% online wouldn't work. but we went to work. building an experience that lets you shop over 17,000 cars from home. creating a coast to coast network to deliver your car as soon as tomorrow. recruiting an army of customer advocates to make your experience incredible. and putting you in control of the whole thing with powerful technology. that's why we've become the nation's
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hello, i'm dara brown. here's what's happening -- a coronavirus case increase set records in at least secretaryve states. nbc news's tally shows colorado, new mexico, north dakota, and west virginia all set records friday in the number of new cases of the virus. denver's mayor announced a tougher mask mandate and a limit on gatherings in unregulated settings to no more than five people. idaho's governor says his states has failed to meet the criteria for a full reopening. now back to "dateline."
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welcome back. i'm craig melvin. sandi johnson was missing, and detectives had been looking into her estranged husband, greg. the couple's crumbling marriage and money problems pointed to a possible motive. but as investigators retraced sandi's steps in the hours before she vanished, they discovered a stunning secret and an entirely new person of interest. here again is andrea canning with the disappearance of sandi johnson. >> reporter: the search for the person responsible for the disappearance of sandi johnson from a seattle suburb was widening. >> we had to look at everyone close to sandi at this point in time. >> reporter: investigators discovered that the recently separated sandi had a friend named jeff cane she kept secret from her estranged husband.
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she was supposed to meet cane for lunch the day after she disappeared. cops soon learned there had been more than lunch on the menu. after work on that friday, sandi 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. >> reporter: that revelation made cane the last person known to have seen sandi alive. cops brought him in for questioning. according to prosecutors, he was alarmed after he learned sandi was missing. >> she was worried about that, and he tried to get healed of her and couldn't get healed of her. tried to find her. he finally went to her house and left a note on the door because he was worried because she had not shown up for lunch. >> and was one of the last known people to have spoken to her on that friday. i think she had spoken to him more recently than she had spoken to her husband. >> reporter: when detectives re-interviewed sandy's friend, they grew more suspicious.
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it turned out cane hadn't been totally candid about the nature of his relationship with sandi. >> he initially held back that they had had a romantic or sexual relationship, they came out later which also was a little bit suspicious to police that he wasn't up-front from the beginning. >> reporter: why did he hold back? >> not i don't. perhaps he was concerned about just in general she was a married woman, he didn't want that to get out. >> reporter: as they had with husband, greg, cops put crane on a polygraph machine. he passed the test and offered an alibi. cops told him he could go home for now. when they further laid out their timeline of sandi's last days, detectives discovered jeff cane wasn't the only man sandi was supposed to meet. there was another guy, a former co-worker, named cliff reed, who had befriended sandi. sandi planned to stop by reed's home to pick up ape prese prese her son the day before his birthday party. reed told cops she never turned up. husband greg knew reed from when
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he had visited the house. >> i not the first time i met him he was going to fix my car. he stayed for dinner. >> reporter: what it ydid you t? >> he seemed like a nice guy. >> reporter: on the phase of it, his appraisal seemed right. detectives said they were drawn together by mutual need. did sandi see cliff as someone she could lean on for help? >> being a single mom at the time? >> i think sandi was going through a traumatic time in her life. she was separated from her husband, had some financial challenges. and i cliff reed was someone at work that would listen to what she had to say, would offer support. >> reporter: he actually helped her financially. so he was there for her. >> cliff was -- was there. he'd given a loan to sandi of about $1,800 at some point prior to her disappearance. >> reporter: despite his apparent generosity, there was
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something about cliff the co-worker cops weren't buying. >> cliff looked to be doing everything he could to present himself to sandi as a normal and caring and concerned friend. we clearly found out as we looked closer into cliff reed that that was not the real cliff reed. >> reporter: in fact, reed had a troubling history with women. >> cliff didn't like women at all. he was a misogynist. and cliff had very bad names for women that he felt had done him wrong. and basically from what we could tell, just had a sort of generalized hatred for the female person apart from being sort of self-centered and narcissistic. he constantly thought that women were doing him wrong. >> reporter: but none of that was against the law. cops had no reason to hold him. weeks went by without an arrest, and all detectives had was a trio of suspects.
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as the investigation dragged on, greg, now a single parent, was trying to get on his life working at boeing and raising his two kids. did you think sandi was dead? >> yeah. >> reporter: in your heart? you accepted that? >> yeah. >> reporter: how hard was that? >> it was hard. >> reporter: as months and then years passed, sandi's friends and family struggled to keep her in the public's memory. her good friend, shawna barker, took the lead. >> we tried to keep the story alive every year, the news media would come on the anniversary of her disappearance and try to talk to us and ask us. and you know, i tried to talk and keep the story in the news media. >> reporter: just before sean's tenth birthday, five years after his mother vanished, greg moved to 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 sean grew up there, greg and his son talked a lot about
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sandi. did you have a lot of questions? >> yeah. i mean, why isn't my mom around, who did it, like why? you know, why would this happen? >> reporter: 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 growing colder by the day. i'm sure you must have felt that way. >> absolutely. >> reporter: 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, someday, sandi 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. >> reporter: they were about to get their wish. coming up, all the men in sandi's life claimed they didn't see her the day she disappeared.
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don't settle for silver #1 for diabetic dry skin* #1 for psoriasis symptom relief* and #1 for eczema symptom relief* gold bond champion your skin it's hard to let go of hope. sean johnson could barely
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remember his mother. yet he never stopped imagining her coming back into his life. >> as far as being there, thinking of like -- why she's -- she's going to return sooner or later. she has to, you know, walk through the door. >> reporter: 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 revealed it was sandi. >> i was in the seventh grade. i remember coming home and asking my dad, you know, why is there reporters trying to talk to us. my dad explained that they had found her remains. >> reporter: finally sandy's family had the cold comfort of a funeral. greg brought his kids 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 sandi's death.
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how were you received at sandi's funeral? were some people angry you were there? >> i think there were some people that still didn't like -- didn't like me. you know, family members that didn't like me. the people that were behind me in the beginning, those are the ones that i -- i stayed with, you know, and hung out with. i didn't have time for those people that were against me. >> reporter: among the mourners at sandi's service that day were detectives from the cold case squad. the discovery of her bones had jump-started their investigation, and cops were taking a cold, hard look at everything and everyone all over again. the coroner did an autopsy. investigators hoped they'd find something that would point them in the direction of sandi's killer or at least tell them how she died, but no luck. >> there was so much decomposition that we could not
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say why sandi johnson died, and that's because she was so well hidden for so long. >> reporter: where sandi's remains were recovered added another piece to the investigation ative puzzle. it fit the mo 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 sandi's bones were found. >> i do -- >> reporter: ridgeway's victims were almost all believed to be prostitutes. now king county cops had to make sure there wasn't something they'd missed earlier about sandi. was it ever posed to her family, did she ever engage in prostitution? a hard question -- >> i believe that someone, a detective asked her mom that, and it was not well received, as you can imagine. sandi was not a prostitute. and that would be heart ripping to hear a question like that even though it had to be asked. >> reporter: police then ruled out the green river killer.
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detectives circled back to the secret boyfriend, jeff cane. they came away convinced he had nothing to do with sandi'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 sandi 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. >> reporter: that left sandi's friend from work, cliff reed. cold case detective jim allen, now retired, decided to see if he could find physical evidence tying cliff reed to the death of sandi johnson. it turned out that passage of time in the case gave police new
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tools. >> freeziorensics had changed o the years. there was the potential of testing things that wouldn't have been able to be tested back then for dna specifically. >> reporter: they went back to where cliff reed had lived in 1996. all these year later, they tore the place apart. they found what looked like a blood stain under the carpet. could it be something? >> we took all the carpet from his room. >> reporter: they still had sandi's teal green ford wagon. they ripped that apart, too. >> we researched her car and collected some more evidence and had that tested to see if we could find anything. roy this sort of analysis turned slowly. in 2006, cold case detectives began working with prosecutors kristin richardson and carla carlstrom. investigators dug deeper into reed's story. >> they were learning more and more and more about cliff's lies and sort of his relationship with sandi and some specifics about that day that didn't add
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up. >> reporter: for instance, sandi had taken that friday off work to get ready for sean's birthday. among her errands, she told friends she was picking up a birthday present for sean from cliff reed. >> cliff reed never acknowledged that sandi was to come to his house that day or had ever come to his house that day. >> he said he'd last seen her two weeks before. >> reporter: what's more, cliff reed's neighbor told police sandi must have been there that day. >> the neighbor saw her car, recognized her car parked outside his house. >> reporter: that was troubling to police. but more incriminating was this -- the neighbor said he saw reed driving sandi's car away from the apartment that day, and that grocery store lot where sandi'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 she disappeared. cliff told detectives he'd gone
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out for air. >> this was very much out of character in speaking with the people that know cliff best. cliff reed was not the kind of person that would just willy-nilly go out for a walk. >> reporter: they were very suspicious of this fact -- cliff, who was notoriously messy, chose the day after sandi's disappearance to clean his apartment top to bottom. >> after she disappeared, he vacuumed the entire house. he rented a carpet cleaner, cleaned the house. he got rid of the vacuum bag. >> reporter: it turns out that cliff reed had a bitter history with two ex-wives, and police had learned about allegations of a violent episode cliff reed had with an escort he'd hired two months before sandi went missing. >> cliff reed was on top of her, strangling her, threatening to shoot her, groping her underneath her clothing. >> reporter: that case never went anywhere, but it raised red flags for the cops looking into sandi johnson's death. >> at that point we realized, my
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goodness, could a similar scenario have played out at cliff's residents with sandi johnson -- residents with sandi johnson being the victim. >> reporter: motive the -- cliff reed was obsessed with sandi johnson. >> cliff shared with friends that he had found the love of his life. >> reporter: reed's friends used words like enthralled, head over heels, to describe to detectives reed's people toings abofeeling. he said he was going to marry sandi and bought a bigger call to had haul her kids around in. trouble was, the feelings weren't mutual. >> they had expressed that her frustration was growing, that he wanted more than she wanted. and it was never going to be that. >> reporter: it was just the day before she went missing that sandi had told a co-worker reed had become a problem, and he needed to understand that she was not interested. police wondered whether sandi 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
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with her life? >> i think that sandi was probably the first attractive female that had ever been nice to him. and that's what did her in. he created this fantasy world around her because she was nice to him. >> when wised up and called it off and said nothing is going to happen, he killed her. >> reporter: for police, the pieces seemed to be falling into place in the investigation into sandi johnson's death, even as they waited for the forensic results to come back. meanwhile, her friends and family kept faith. eventually there would be justice for sandi. 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. >> you just feel this rush.
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investigators had been building their case against cliff reed. and now, it was decision times for prosecutors kristen richardson and carla. in 2012, 16 years after sandi johns soson advantagvanished, p
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circumstantial evidence, but years of testing could not link him to sandi's death. >> it came back zero. >> how frustrating was that? >> very. it would have been nice to have some dna. >> reporter: the prosecutors faced a tough choice, charge cliff reed with murder or leave sandi's case unresolved, which as it turned out, had happened before. back in the '90s, cliff reed was briefly charged with sandi's murder. but prosecutors back then thought the case was too thin to go forward. >> the question has to be, is there any chance the case is going to improve if we wait. and in this case, there was nothing left to be done. no. it was not going to improve. it was now or never. >> reporter: they chose now. >> we try hard cases. we're successful at it. >> reporter: after all, they did have reed's lies. a neighbor who saw him driving
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her car, a witness who saw reed cleaning his house aftthe day ar sandi disappeared. and most importantly, his obsession with her. cliff reed was arrested in montana. he was extradited to washington state and charged with second-degree murder. sean, who last had seen his mother when he was 5, was grown up. a medic in the army, when he heard from one of his mom's friends. >> i got a call from her. just blew me away. >> reporter: must have flared things up for you. >> like reopening a cut. and rubbing salt in it. >> reporter: 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, was cliff managed to succeed in one crucial point, and that is
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that he hid sandi's body. we had no way to prove how she died. >> reporter: without that proof of how she died, it would be hard to say that cliff reed had intended to kill sandi. for the defendant, there was the risk that a juror would find the circumstantial evidence case convin convincing. >> cliff reed knew he was facing a real chance of being convicted of murder in the second-degree, which can carry 20 years. >> reporter: prosecutors put a plea bargain on the table. and reed made his choice. >> how do you want to plead? >> guilty. >> reporter: they made a deal. cliff reed pleaded guilty not to murder, but to manslaughter. >> the good thing about a plea, 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 sandi disappeared. second, when her remains were
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found. and third, when charges were filed, the case was stirred up all again. >> please rise. >> reporter: on april 11th, 2014, sandi's family was in court to see cliff reed sentenced. what was it like for you seeing him in that courtroom? >> you feel this rush of hot blood. it was tough. it was tough. >> reporter: cliff reed got less than four years in prison, as mandated by washington law. how do you feel about that? the fact he's doing time but it's not a lot. >> not a lot. the guy killed my mom. everybody knows it. >> reporter: cliff reed's plea, wasn't just any plea. it was an alfred plea, meaning he would not be required to admit to killing sandi. in fact, when he had a chance to speak, cliff reed said something that outraged the family. >> sandi was a very good friend
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to me. she was one of the nicest people i had ever known and i certainly did not kill sandi. >> reporter: do you feel that cliff reed got away with murder? >> yes. absolutely. >> reporter: but sandi'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 those two. >> the good news for sandi, the world knows cliff reed killed her. she did not abandon her children. she did not go missing. he killed her and put her in the woods. that's something to know that and say that. >> while justice for sandi, may not look like what anyone imagined, her family is taking solace in the beauty that sandi was. and the reflection of her in her children. your dad says he sees your mom in you and in your sister.
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do you think she would be proud of you and what you accomplished? >> i think she would. >> that's all for this edition of "dateline." i'm craig melvin. thank you for watching. ♪ first up on msnbc, battleground state swing. both candidates hitting key parts of the country, as the final debate looms. we're tracking the latest just 16 days out. the battle of michigan. governor whitmer blasts the president over his latest rally roar remarks. new strategy. how one of america's biggest retailers plans to reinvent the holiday sale season in light of covid-19. comic relief, "saturday night live" takes on this week's dueling town halls with some interesting twists.

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