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tv   Dateline  MSNBC  August 29, 2021 1:00am-2:00am PDT

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in the hair of this, i made two birds in there. by the time i got done with it, you know, we all loved it. and it's kind of just, kind of bonded like, hey, this is part of lisa now. >> 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. >> said you guys made some good looking kids. >> oh, they sure did. >> on the eve of her son's 5th birthday she vanished. >> the whole time we're talking about where is she, what
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happened. >> when the woman disappears, we know police will have questions for the man in her life. in this case, that wonlt be so simple. there was the estranged husband who admitted to an argument that once landed her in jail. >> she came at me, i grabbed her by the arms, then she called the police. >> then, there was the former colleague with a crush. >> and there was a third man. former colleague with a crush. >> cliff shared with friends that he had found the love of his life. >> so, you have three potential suspect. >> yeah it's a tangle. >> could investigators unravel it. >> we're asking ourselves what this means. >> would her family ever find justice. >> just 17 years of built up emotion, you know? hello, and
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welcome to "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. 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." >> 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. >> his mother, sandi johnson was outgoing, energetic, and an awesome mom. >> those kids were everything to her. >> so why wasn't she there to
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sing happy birthday to her son. >> all they knew was she just disappeared into thin air. >> she should have seen you get married, she should have seen you go into the military and become a police officer one day. >> it's the toughest thing i've ever had to deal with. >> it was heartbreaking and baffling. >> it was a true mystery as to what happened to sandi. >> that true mystery, what happened to the vibrant young mom who vanished from a seattle 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, the weather was
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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 to do list as long as her arm. >> she was going to run and do all her errands that day to get ready for her son's birthday party the next day. >> vicky fulkerson was a friend of sandi's. they bonded in the hospital after their sons were born on the same day. sandi was a little younger than vicky, a tiny woman with a huge zest for life. >> i loved being around sandi. seemed like she really cared about people. >> no one knew that better than sandi's cousins, gina boone, they all grew up together. >> sandi is action action, move, go, do do, talkative laugh, always. she's a mile a minute. >> and beautiful. >> gorgeous. >> tiny little thing. >> tiny. >> she wore like a 00. >> she modeled even. >> she did some modeling, actually. i remember she did some kind of a bridal thing at one time. >> that friday, sandi took the
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day off from her job at a car dealership to prepare for the party. sandi's husband greg says she was always a mom first. >> everything was about the kids. so, 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. she liked it. >> 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 right afterthat. i'll probably see you after 4:00. talk to you later. >> but 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. >> around 4:30 or 5:00, i started calling her. you're not here yet, sandi. it just wasn't like her, and i was feeling frustrated. >> the hours went by, and still
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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 we started hospitals, the police. we were just on the phones. we were worried. >> vicky and her husband kept sandi's kids at her home that night. >> did you sleep at all that night? >> probably not much. i don't remember. it's a fog, unreal, where she, what happened to her. >> 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. >> meanwhile, greg johnson was looking around his home. there was nothing to indicate that sandi left in a hurry and somehow forgot to tell anyone, as strange as that would be. >> all of her stuff was there. called police, called family, my sister, i probably called her father. >> were you in a full on panic
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at this point or still, you like maybe she ended up going out with some friends. >> no, i was pretty worried. just the circumstances that were at the house, i knew there was trouble or something not right. >> 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 all 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 in the afternoon. >> 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 like normal. greg was crying like crazy, he had glasses on, he was trying to hide it. but there were tears. >> do you remember anything
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about that day, your 5th birthday? >> unfortunately, i don't. you know. >> but sean johnson knows that was the day his life changed forever, the day the awful questions started. why isn't my mom around, why would this happen, you know. >> 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 -- that first break finding sandi's car, gives policehope, but a second clue will throw them for a loop. >> we're asking ourselves, how does this come together, what does this mean. >> when "dateline" continues. u to sell your car. whether it's a year old or a few years old. we wanna buy your car. so go to carvana and enter your license plate answer a few questions.
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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. >> there's a chance she's gone. >> she's gone. >> i figured if someone had her, that's it. from the perspective of law enforcement when you find sandi's car abandoned with the keys and her cell phone inside.
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>> at least it gave us an area to focus upon. the vehicle was located in southwestern king county. >> the cops noted an unusual detail, the driver's seat was pushed back. sandi. >> 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 very focused on why was this vehicle located here, why was her wallet found across
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town. >> 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. >> was it baffling to the whole police department what happened to sandi? >> yeah, her disappearance became a priority the with sheriff's office right away. >> sandi's friends and family put up flyers and joined searched parties in the greater seattle area, but there was one notable exception. >> were you participating in the search. >> not too much? >> why not? >> i just couldn't do that. i just pretty much stayed around the house with the kids and family. >> did anyone question that? why isn't he out looking for her? >> they never questioned me. maybe amongst themselves, i don't know. >> 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
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is looking at those people that are closest to the person that is missing. you have to. so it made perfect sense to focus on the husband early on. >> 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. >> 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. >> you seem like you might be a little more low key. >> i am. >> was she a good complement to you? a good fit? >> i think so, yeah. >> in late 1990, the couple got married. sean was born in 1991, daughter katie followed. for the next few years, the couple's life was hectic, but
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happy. bit in early 1996, 4 months before sandi disappeared, they hit a rough patch. greg moved out of the house. greg told 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 we'd seen a marriage counselor, and we were working on some stuff, and i think it was getting, you know, better. >> you wanted to get back together? >> yeah, i wasn't against that at all. >> but law enforcement developed a very different portrait of the marriage, and the chances for reconciliation. kristin richardson, and carla prosecuted the case for king county. >> they were talking about divorce. they had gotten to the point, and it was sort of assumed that they would be divorced, so that was pretty recent before this had happened, within the month before that that decision had been made. >> and then investigators discovered something else that troubled them. >> law enforcement learned that they had argued only the day
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before she'd gone missing. there was a big argument witnessed by other people at her place of work, so that, too, focused some attention on her estranged husband. >> the argument was over money, which was a frequent point of dispute for them. she had trouble. he had trouble. sort of meeting their bills. >> 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 you did it, you know, accusing me of killing my wife. told my sister that, you know, greg did it. >> the usual suspect was starting to look like the right guy. >> coming up -- >> she called me at the time,
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it's getting really bad. it's to a point and i'm just afraid. >> when "dateline" continues. my hygienist cleans with a round head. so does my oral-b my hygienist personalizes my cleaning. so does my oral-b oral-b delivers the wow of a professional clean feel every day.
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well, would ya look at that! it was an accident. i was— speaking of accidents, we accidentally left you off the insurance policy during enrollment, and you're not covered. not even a little bit? mm-mmm. no insurance. no. when employees can't enter and manage their own benefits enrollment information, it can be a real pain. not even— nope! with paycom, employees enter and manage their own hr data in a single, easy-to-use software. visit paycom.com and schedule a demo today. we did it again. verizon has been named america's most reliable network by rootmetrics. and our customers rated us #1 for network quality in america according to j.d. power. number one in reliability, 16 times in a row. most awarded for network quality, 27 times in a row. proving once again that nobody builds networks like verizon. that's why we're building 5g right, that's why there's only one best network. >> sandi johnson was missing.
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police believe she had been killed and they were zeroing in on her estranged husband greg. his world had turned upside down. >> life changed fast. i mean, and i can tell you stories of, i come home from work, and there's three or four tv stations in front of your house,
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ready to do the 5:00 news. >> the more investigators talked to sandi's family and friends about the couple's on the rocks marriage, the more suspicion of greg. sandi had confided in her cousin gina that living with greg had become very difficult. >> she called me one time and just like, it's, you know, 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 got to do what you got to do. >> the evidence wasn't just anecdotal, a large argument between the couple more than a year before sandi went missing ended with police responding and greg spending a night in jail. >> how bad did it get? >> how i got in jail, you mean? well, she came at me, and i
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grabbed her by the arms, sat her down. i didn't hit her or nothing, and then she called the police because she had -- there was marks on her arms. anytime there's a domestic dispute, cops are called, somebody goes to jail, and i'm the one who 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. but -- >> do you have a number or. >> 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 man. polygraph they gave greg just days after sandi vanished was key. >> they 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 was 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.
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>> the police actually said you failed the polygraph. >> i'm sure they did. >> so, you're disputing that. >> i am. it was inconclusive results on the polygraph. >> 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 carlstorm. >> greg had not done well on a polygraph test. the lawyer said you need to stop talking to police right now, and so he did. >> must have been a big red flag for police. >> yes, i think it was. i think whenever someone flunks a polly -- polygraph test, police get suspicious and want to go at that person harder. >> greg may have lawyered up, but the detectives used the polygraph tests to turn up the pressure. >> they told your sister you failed a polygraph test.
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>> lots of people in town were turning in that direction. after the weeks sandi went missing, her dear friend vicky fulkerson thought greg was somehow involved. >> the police said things to me that think maybe he did. >> what did they tell you that made you suspect greg. he didn't pass test, people at a work party had heard them fighting, just enough, could he have done it? >> cops were starting to think so, especially when they considered the domestic incident that put greg in jail, that argument 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 suspect in this? >> yeah. >> were there some family members convinced greg must have done this? >> i think if you were pretty,
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you got to put the blame on someone. >> how was sandi'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, 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. >> 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 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 -- >> 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?
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>> cliff looked to be doing everything he could to present himself as a caring and concerned friend. we'd found out that that was not the real cliff reed. >> when "dateline" continues. with frontline, you and your pet can go anywhere... ♪♪ no matter how you define it. frontline®. here. there. everywhere.
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brett is recalling over 150,000 pounds of uncovered and he passed out it's like prosciutto and salami. the u.s. department of agriculture food safety inspection service made the announcement. the meats may be linked to a salmonella outbreak in baltimore's. india says it administered over 10 million covid vaccine doses in one day. this given over 600 dollar shots in total. it hopes to have its entire adult population covered by december. now back to dateline. t >> welcome back to "dateline."
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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." >> 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 that point in time. >> investigators discovered that the recently separated sandi had a friend named jeff kane she kept secret from her estranged husband. she was supposed to meet cane for lunch the day after she disappeared.
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cops soon learned there had been more than lunch on the menu. after work on that friday, sandi it popped by kane'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 kane 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. >> he was worried about that, and he tried to get ahold of her and couldn't get ahold of her. tried to find her. he finally went over to her house and left a note on the door because he was worried because she had not shown up for lunch. >> he was one of the last people to have spoken to her on that friday. she had spoken to him more recently than her husband. >> when they interviewed sandi's friend, they grew more suspicious. it turned out cane
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hadn't been totally candid with them about the nature. >> he initally held back that they had had a romantic or sexual relationship. that came out a little bit later. it was suspicious to police that he wasn't up front from the beginning. >> why did he hold back? >> maybe he was concerned, in general, she was a married woman, he didn't want that to get out. >> as they had with greg, cops put kane on polygraph machine. he passed the test and offered an alibi. cops told him he could go home for now. when they laid out the time line, detectives discovered jeff kane wasn't the only man sandi was supposed to meet. there was another guy, a former coworker named cliff reed who had befriended sandi. sandi planned to stop by reed's home to pick up a present for her son the day before his birthday party. cliff reed told cops she never turned up. husband greg knew reed from when he had visited the house. >> i think the first time i met him, he was going to fix my car
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for me. and then he stayed for dinner. >> what did you think of him? >> he seemed like a nice guy. >> on the face of it, greg's appraisal of sandi's coworker seemed right. sandi and cliff reed 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 cliff reed was someone at work that would listen to what she had to say, would offer support. >> and he actually helped her financially, so he was there for her? >> cliff was there. he had given a loan to sandi of about $1,800 at some point prior to her disappearance. >> despite his apparent generosity, there was something about cliff the coworker the cops weren't buying. >> cliff looked to be doing everything he could to present
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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. >> in fact, reed had a troubling history with women. >> cliff didn't like women at all. cliff 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 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. >> 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. as the investigation dragged on, greg now a single parent, was
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trying to get on with his life, working at boeing and raising his two kids. >> did you think sandi was dead in your heart. >> yeah. >> you accepted that? >> yeah. >> how hard was that? >> it was hard. >> as months and then years passed, sandi's friends and family struggled to keep her in the public's memory. her good friend, seana barker took the lead. >> we tried to keep the story alive. every year the news media could come on the anniversary of her disappearance and talk to us and ask us, and i tried to talk and keep the story in the news media. >> just before sean's 10th birthday, 5 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 sean grew up there, greg and his son talked about sandi.
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did you have a lot of questions? >> yeah, why isn't my mom around, who did it, why would this happen. >> detectives in washington state had no answers. 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. >> it was. >> i'm sure 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, sandi would be found. and the hope was that when that happened there would be some type of evidence that the assist us in putting this case together. >> 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. which one of them is lying? >> the neighbor saw her car, recognized her car parked outside his house.
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thinking of like she's got to -- she's going to return sooner or later, you know, she has to, you know, 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 revealed it was sandi. >> i was in the 7th grade. i just remember coming home from school, and asking my dad, you know, why is there, you know, reporters trying to talk to us or whatever. my dad explained to us that they had found her remains. >> finally, sandi'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. >> how were you received at sandi's funeral? were some people angry you were there? >> i think there were some
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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 stayed with, you know, and hung out with. i don't have time for those people that were against me. >> 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, and so little left that there was absolutely no way to tell what killed her. we could not say why sandi johnson died and that's because she was so well hidden for so long.
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>> where sandi's remains were recovered added another piece to the investigative puzzle. it fit the m. o. of the notorious green river killer, gary ridgway, he murdered scores of women in washington, and disposed of some of them in the area of where sandi's bones were found. ridgway's victims were almost all believed to be prostitutes, and now king county cops had to make sure there wasn't something they had missed earlier about sandi. >> 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. sandi 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 kane. they came away convinced he had nothing
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to do with sandi's death. jeff kane 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'd 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. that left sandi's friend from work, cliff reed, cold case detective jim allen now retired decided to see if he could find some physical evidence tying cliff reed to the death of sandi johnson. it turned out the passage of time in the case gave police new tools. >> forensics had changed over the years, so there was the potential of testing a lot of things that had not -- wouldn't have been able to be tested
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back then for dna specifically. >> they went back to where cliff reed had lived in 1996. all these years later, and tore the place apart. they found what looked to them like a bloodstain under the carpet. could it be something? >> we took all the carpet from his room. >> they 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. >> this sort of analysis churned slowly. in 2006, cold case detectives began working with prosecutors, kristin richardson, and carla. >> 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 up. >> for instance, sandi had taken that friday, april 26th off work to get ready for
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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 had last seen her two weeks before. >> 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. >> that was troubling to police. but more incriminating was this, that same neighbor said he saw cliff reed driving sandi's car away from the apartment that day. and that grocery store lot where sandi's car was found, it 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'd gone out for some air. >> this was very much out of character in speaking with the people that know cliff best. cliff reed was not the kind of
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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 sandi's disappearance to clean his apartment top to bottom. >> after she disappeared, he vacuumed the entire house, rented a carpet cleaner, cleaned the house, got rid of the vacuum bag. >> it turns out cliff reed had a bitter history with two exwives and police learned about allegations of a violent episode cliff reed had with an escort he hired two months. >> cliff reed 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 to the cops investigating sandi johnson's death. >> we realized, could this similar scenario have played
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out at cliff's residence with sandi johnson being the victim. >> and the motive? police say they found one, cliff reed was obsessed with sandi johnson. >> cliff shared with friends that he had found the love of his life. >> reed's friends used words like enthralled, head over heels, to describe to detectives reed's feelings about sandi. he said he was going to marry sandi and had bought a bigger car to haul her kids around in, trouble was the feelings apparently weren't mutual. >> she had 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 sandi had told a coworker, 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 with her life? >> i think that sandi was probably the first attractive
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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. >> and 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 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--â 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. >> feel just this rush of just, you know, hot blood. it was tough. >> when "dateline" continues.
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report fever, stiff muscles, or confusion, which may mean a life-threatening reaction, or uncontrollable muscle movements, which may be permanent. side effects may not appear for several weeks. high cholesterol and weight gain, and high blood sugar, which can lead to coma or death, may occur. movement dysfunction, sleepiness, and stomach issues are common side effects. and you can pay as little as $0 if eligible for your first 2 prescriptions. when bipolar i overwhelms, >> investigators had been vraylar helps smooth the ups and downs. building their case against cliff reed and now it was decision time for prosecutors kristin richardson and carla carlstrom. in 2012, 16 years after sandi johnson vanished, police had plenty of
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circumstantial evidence, but years of forensic testing still could not link him to sandi's death. >> it came back zero. >> how frustrating is that? >> very. it would have been nice to have some dna. that would have been nice. but we had tried everything that we could! the prosecutors faced a tough choice, charge cliff reed murder and risk losing a potentially unwinnable case or leave sandi's case unresolved, which had happened before. in the late 90s, cliff reed had been briefly charged with sandi's murder, but prosecutors back then thought the case was just too thin to go forward. >> the question always has to be, is there any chance the case is going to improve if we wait. in this case, there was absolutely nothing left to be done. so no, 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 reed's lies, a neighbor who saw
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him driving her car, a witness who saw reed cleaning his house the day after 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 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. >> i got a call from her, just blew me away, you know. >> must have just flared things up for you again, emotionally. >> like reopening a cut. and then rubbing salt in it, you know. >> 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 that cliff managed to succeed? one crucial point. and that is that he hid sandi's body, and we had no way to
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prove how she died. >> without that proof of how she died, it would be hard to say cliff reed had intended to kill sandi. for the defendant, there was also a risk that a jury would find the prosecutor's circumstancial case convincing. >> there was a real chance of being murder in the second-degree degree. >> the ageing reed made his choice. >> how do you want to plead? >> guilty. >> they made a deal. cliff reed 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 sandi disappeared, second when her
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remains were found, and third when charges were filed, the case was stirred up all again. >> please rise. the court is now in session. >> 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? >> i mean, all i feel just this rush of hot blood. it was just -- it was tough. it was tough. >> cliff reed 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.
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>> cliff reed's plea wasn't just any plea. it was an alford plea, meaning he would not be required to admit to killing sandi. in fact, when he had the chance to speak, cliff reed said something that outraged the family. >> sandi was a very good friend to me. she was one of the nicest people i've ever known and i certainly did not kill sandi. >> do you feel like cliff reed got away with murder? >> yes. >> absolutely. absolutely. >> but sandi's family doesn't blame the prosecutors. >> i think they took on a big undertaking, and i mean, i'm thankful. >> i believe they did more than their job, those two. >> the good news for sandi is the world knows cliff reed killed her. she did not abandon her children. she did not go missing. she killed her and put her in the woods and that is worth something to know that and say that. >> while justice for sandi may not look quite like what anyone imagined, her family is taking solace in the beautiful person sandi was and the reflection they see of her in her children. your dad says that he sees your mom in you and in your sister. do you think she would be proud
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of you and what you've accomplished? >> i think she would. >> that's all for this edition of "dateline. " i'm craig melvin. thank you for watching. a corporate executive time for romans, and her three daughters -- >> she was the best mom -- >> than, she disappeared. dozens join t

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