Mystery of missing college student
Cindy Song was set to graduate from Penn State University in a few short months.
She was studious, having moved from South Korea to America when she was 15, in order to further her schooling.
Therefore, she didn't usually go out midweek. October 31, 2001 was an exception, however, being Halloween.
Song put together a bunny costume, complete with bunny ears, a pink top, and a white tennis skirt with a makeshift tail attached, and went with two female friends to Players Nite Club, a nearby spot popular with college students.
The club was hosting a Halloween party, and Song and her friends drank and danced until 2am, when they went back to a house to play video games, before she was dropped home two hours later.
Her friend watched her walk towards her apartment complex, then drove off. This was the last time Song was seen alive.
Being a college student, Song had a busy schedule, with a packed class load, and two part-time jobs. It was common for her friends not to see each other for a few days at a time, as they studied, worked, partied and otherwise kept occupied. Song also lived off campus.
When she didn't show up for one of her jobs, and then couldn't be called, her friends began to worry. On the weekend, three days after she was dropped at home in the early hours, they called the police.
The police searched her residence, but saw no signs of a struggle or of forced entry. They found false eyelashes she'd worn on Halloween in the bathroom; the bunny costume was nowhere to be seen.
Her keys and her purse, credit cards and driver's license were missing, however her mobile phone was left behind. Phone records show she hadn't made nor received any calls since arriving home at 4am.
Police speculated that Song had ducked to a nearby 24-hour store, and - not planning to be gone for too long, and it being the middle of the night - had left her phone behind. This would prove to be a fatal mistake.
Police investigated several theories regarding Song's disappearance.
After reading her diary, in which she writes of experimentations with ecstasy and marijuana, they began to believe that drugs could be a factor - however friends stressed these were just regular college experiences, and investigators tended to agree.
Focus shifted soon after to Song's mental state at the time. Song had previously been living with her boyfriend and had suffered through a severe breakup a month prior to her disappearance. Her family speculated that she may have taken her own life or simply ran off due to this, but friends again refuted this, stating that she had started therapy and begun to take medication to deal with this heartbreak. Song wasn't the type of person to simply up and leave without letting anyone know, they stressed.
At any rate, a few clues located inside her apartment suggest she was planning to stick around: a Britney Spears ticket for a concert in the next week, as well as a receipt for a computer which was to be delivered in a few days.
She was also said to have been in high spirits the night of her disappearance.
Although outward appearances can be deceiving, and suicidal thoughts can take hold in mere minutes, any suggestion she planned to take her own life was quickly shut down in favour of the more likely scenario - that some predator happened upon Song walking alone in the dead of night, intoxicated and without means of contact, and took advantage of her vulnerable state.
DEAD END LEADS AND IN-FIGHTING
A curious lead soon presented itself. A female witness claimed to have seen a woman matching Song's appearance a few days later in a Chinatown district in Philadelphia, some 320km from Penn State. The woman was yelling for help as a man attempted to force her into a vehicle.
When the witness attempted to intervene, she was chased off by the man who told her to mind her own business.
The distance from Penn State alone meant police were dubious as to whether this was Song, but the witness soon proved to be unreliable, changing the details of her story multiple times upon further questioning. This was yet another dead end.
Song's family flew in from Seoul, and quickly got on the wrong side of investigators. They were allowed access to her apartment, and much to police chagrin, cleaned up, possibly destroying evidence in the process. Song's family quickly formed an action group with Penn State students and various community groups: the Coalition for the Search for Cindy Song.
On January 31, three months after Song's disappearance, the coalition held a press conference in which they fiercely criticised the Ferguson Township Police Department for not doing enough to solve the case.
They compared the case to that of a local 13-year-old white girl, who had gone missing on New Year's Day, pointing out that over 50 FBI agents were tasked with finding the 13-year-old, while Song's case was initially manned by a single investigator, and only extended to a team of six state police after public pressure from Penn State's Black Caucus and the Korean Undergraduate Student's Association.
In a seeming retaliation, the police stopped contacting the family, a decision lead investigator Detective Brian Sprinkle claimed was done "for Cindy's sake in the case and not the family," adding "we pretty much cut them off."
One route the police did take was consulting a Californian psychic after being approached by the Penn State Paranormal Research Society. "She's given us a lot of information, but nothing that has been helpful at this time," admitted Sprinkle, who believed nonetheless her visions "may turn into something down the road."
The case was featured on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries towards the end of 2002, which led to renewed public interest in the case, and a whole slew of unsubstantiated leads.
Then, in 2003, came the biggest breakthrough yet.
A SERIAL KILLER IS ACCUSED
A police informant claimed that career criminal Hugo Selenski murdered Song, with the help of Michael Kerkowski, a pharmacist who also ran an illegal drug ring.
Paul Weakley claimed that the pair saw Song walking in her costume, mistook her for a prostitute, and took her back to Selenski's place, where she was imprisoned in a vault, assaulted numerous times over the course of a few days, and left to die. Police swarmed on Selenski's house, and made a grisly discovery: the charred remains of at least five bodies. This tip-off had led police to a serial killer, and a mass graveyard.
By the time Selenski's yard was properly excavated, the number of bodies had risen to 12. Song's body was not among those found in the yard. However, the bodies of Michael Kerkowski and his girlfriend Tammy Fassett, both of whom were assumed to have been on the run, were found among the remains. Selenski's lawyers refuted he had any knowledge of Cindy Song, providing witness statements that proved he was hundreds of miles from the assumed site of Song's abduction. His alibi seemed watertight.
This is where Weakley's story quickly fell apart. He quickly claimed that Selenski murdered Kerkowski and his girlfriend Tammy Fassett because he had kept Song's bunny-ears as a souvenir of the murder, which angered Selenski. It soon became apparent that the killing was motivated by money: $60,000 that Kerkowski had hidden in his house. Weakley later admitted to participating in the murders of Kerkowski and Fassett, disclosing that he had also received a cut of the money for tipping Selenski off about the stash.
Investigators soon turned their attentions towards their informant. A search of his computer found that he had downloaded numerous articles about Song, and police reasoned he may have been studying the details of her murder in order to offer false evidence to the police in exchange for a reduced sentence. A more chilling theory also arose: perhaps Weakley was the actual murderer, keeping press clippings as a souvenir, and using his knowledge of Selenski's mass graveyard as a convenient red herring for his own actions.
Weakley was serving a life sentence, and faced the death penalty. He had many reasons to lie about the circumstances of Song's disappearance. Nevertheless, without any evidence, Weakley's involvement in the murder of Song was also discounted.
THE CASE GROWS COLDER
This month marks 17 years since Song disappeared into the night.
Paul Weakley and Hugo Selenski are both serving life sentences for unrelated murders, and everyone close to Song at the time of her disappearance has been ruled out as a suspect. The sighting in Philadelphia has long been discounted, as have suggestions she took her own life, or ran away. Media interest in the case has dwindled to nothing, while the case remains open, with a frustrating lack of leads.
There is no body, no physical evidence, no witnesses, and no active suspects.
Meanwhile, 21 binders, filled with information on Cindy Song's short life and her tragic disappearance sit in the office of Ferguson Township Police Detective Brian Sprinkle, slowly gathering dust.
- Nathan Jolly is a Sydney-based writer who specialises in pop culture, music history, true crime and true romance. Continue the conversation @nathanjolly