It’s a question that’s been eluding police, family, and a university community for nearly two decades.
What happened to Cindy Song?
“She vanished,” said Lead Detective, Brian Sprinkle.
18 years later, the question remains. As memories fade, the details surrounding the case have become jumbled.
Everyone who knew Cindy is long gone. Her family is out of the country. The original investigators working the case are now retired.
Even the pictures available of Cindy are minimal; limited to those that were used for her missing poster and on international headlines.
Everything that portrays Cindy, the person, the athlete, the free-spirit, the artist, is contained in old articles and websites on the fringes of the internet.
But still, the question of where she went, or maybe more appropriately, where she could be, is being asked. As Cindy Song’s missing persons case remains one of the most-notorious in central Pennsylvania.
It’s late on a Wednesday night, and the streets of downtown State College are filled with students partying, celebrating Halloween.
Cindy Song, a junior at Penn State, is dressed as a bunny rabbit, and joins friends Stacy Paik and Lisa Kim at Player’s Nite Club, where they drink and dance the night away.
As the night winds down, last call is called and Stacy, Lisa, and Cindy head to Park Hills Apartments where they stop at a friend’s house to play video games.
A couple hours later, Stacy drives Cindy home at the State College Park Apartment complex, grabbing something to eat at the Uni-Mart on the way. She watches Cindy walk towards her apartment before driving off.
“She goes home,” said WTAJ Anchor, John Clay. “Then she just disappeared. There was no more trace of her.”
Cindy was last seen walking up a staircase towards her home. Evidence indicates that she made it inside, dropped some things off, before heading back out. But where was she going? And why?
Cindy’s trail ends at her front door, and the mystery begins.
Hyun-Jong Song, known to most as “Cindy” Song, was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea.
She was known to be open-minded and fiercely independent, but friends say that she was also studious and willing to work hard to achieve her goals.
In order to pursue a better education, Cindy moved to Springfield, Virginia to live with her aunt and uncle at age 15. She received good grades in high school and was an athlete, playing tennis and running track.
She also discovered a passion for the arts, writing on her blog her love for art, film, music, photography, and dancing. By the time she got into Penn State University, Cindy decided to study Integrative Arts for her major.
Old articles found online show that Cindy was thriving in all aspects of university life. According to friends, she was outgoing, attractive, and optimistic — the kind of personality that mixes well with all kinds of people.
It wasn’t long before Cindy was surrounded by close friends. One of them, Richard Chae, became particularly close to Cindy and they fell in love, moving into an off-campus apartment together.
But things didn’t last. Friends say Richard abruptly ended the relationship and moved out of the apartment in September 2001, leaving Cindy heartbroken, in bad shape, but determined to move on.
Cindy soon found a new roommate, Younjoo, also known as Catherine, to move in with and the pair started to bond. She started going to therapy, taking medication and writing about her struggles with relationships, self-love, and mental health.
Things were looking up for Cindy in the weeks before her disappearance. She’d just bought a new computer and Britney Spears concert tickets for the following week, and had turned in an application for a spring graphic design internship. She had a lot to look forward to.
Which is why, when the question came up of whether or not Cindy was involved in her own disappearance, friends remained headstrong that it wasn’t so. After looking closer, investigators agreed.
“We knew that she was planning ahead,” Sprinkle said. “She was looking ahead at different events so for her to just disappear like that would be unusual. The theory is that yes she was abducted and then killed.”
In the afternoon hours of Thursday, November 1, 2001, Cindy Song’s roommate, Catherine, arrives back from an extended trip to visit family in Philadelphia. News reports from the time quote her as saying she’d expected to see Cindy at home, as they planned to catch up before going out with friends the following night.
But Catherine comes to find an empty house, with the door locked from the outside. She figures Cindy went out for a bit and will be back soon.
But two and a half days pass, and Cindy doesn’t show up at home, class, or work.
When she misses her Saturday shift at the Seoul Korean Garden Restaurant, friends decide it’s time to call police.
“Typically with a missing person, you want to be on that right away,” Sprinkle said.
But, because it’s a weekend, patrol officers handle the call, leaving two full days to go by until lead investigator, Brian Sprinkle, got to the case.
“Unfortunately because it wasn’t reported, it didn’t land on my desk until Monday morning,” Sprinkle said.
It isn’t until four days after Cindy goes missing that detectives get the notice that she’s gone.
“So I was already kind of behind the eight ball with that,” Sprinkle said.
They inspect her apartment on the morning of Monday, November 5.
“Nothing looked out of place, but she was just gone,” Sprinkle said.
Investigators found very little inside.
“We were able to find the backpack she had with her, was sitting, well it was under the bed, and we found that the fake eyelashes that she was wearing that night were sitting on the bathroom sink,” Sprinkle said.
But that was it. No purse, wallet, I.D., or keys. Sprinkle, now a retired detective, at the time had very little to start with, so he started talking with family and friends.
“Through our investigation, we started at the inner circle starting with her family and worked our way out,” Sprinkle said.
Including a closer look at the ex-boyfriend, Patrick. Friends say he left Cindy devastated after their breakup just a couple months earlier.
“There wasn’t any indication that he was involved in any way,” Sprinkle said.
And with family members being out of state and country “there was nobody,” Sprinkle said. “We interviewed all her friends, coworkers, and there was nothing to indicate that anybody close to her was involved in this.”
Police then started to lean towards darker possibilities. Perhaps Cindy was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or perhaps someone had been stalking her.
“We thought maybe with it being that the GIANT grocery store was across the street from her apartment complex and it was open 24 hours that maybe there was something she needed that she had to run over there and get,” Sprinkle said.
Friends say that it wasn’t unusual for Cindy to go to the GIANT store at unusual hours, but there was no footage of her there, and no purchases had been made on her credit cards.
“Another theory was that somebody came to the door that she might’ve knew,” Sprinkle said.
But with her door locked on the outside, police say that it was clear that Cindy had the intention of leaving, leaving her being snatched at the doorstep improbable.
A promising lead came in a few days later from someone in Philadelphia, who claimed to have seen a woman matching Cindy’s description yelling for someone to help her as a mysterious man forced her into his car. The woman gave the man’s description to a sketch artist, and a composite was released, but inconsistencies in her story led police to stop pursuing the tip.
“I don’t know if it was a hoax, but it wasn’t Cindy,” Sprinkle said. “We were able to determine that it wasn’t Cindy.”
Eventually, the disappearance of Cindy gained a national audience.
“We were getting leads all over the place, like I got a lead that she was sitting in the audience of the Price is Right,” Sprinkle said.
But none of them proved reliable. Given the abnormalities, police suspected foul play early on in the case. The grim search for a body started within days after Cindy was reported missing.
“We started around the complex,” Sprinkle said. “Obviously the dumpsters, everything around the complex.”
From dumpsters to dog parks. To the woods surrounding Cindy’s apartment. Volunteer rescue workers from around the state came to State College to help police with the search for Cindy’s body.
“We were up in the state police helicopters doing aerial searches, we had volunteer teams doing searches, search and rescue teams doing searches throughout the North Atherton area and unfortunately didn’t find anything,” Sprinkle said.
Cindy’s body was never found and police became agitated.
“It was frustrating,” Sprinkle said. “We had search parties out all the time looking for her in different areas and it was a very frustrating case.”
Within a matter of weeks, Cindy Song’s disappearance received international attention. Being an international student, the case required FBI attention and the Korean Consulate got involved.
Her grieving mother, Bansoon, and brother, Kihoon, had flown in from South Korea to aid the search.
“I wake up everyday thinking, hoping that it’s not real,” Bansoon said, through a translator.
And quickly found fault with the investigation.
“It’s a cultural thing,” Sprinkle said. “I mean, they were upset and frustrated. They didn’t understand how things worked here in the U.S.”
Feeling that police were focusing too much on due process, and too little on finding Cindy, the family hired New York-based attorney, Jin Han, to represent their concerns.
“It is time that a true investigation of this case be commenced,” Han said. “The family of Cindy Song demands that the FBI put adequate personnel on this case.”
Together, and with the support of multiple student organizations, they formed a group called ‘The Coalition for the Search for Cindy Song.’
“If Cindy’s going to be found, we need to create a buzz around here because someone could know some information about what happened to her,” a Penn State student said. “This place should be covered top to bottom with Cindy’s face.”
The group held a press conference in the months following Cindy’s disappearance, accusing police of negligence and racial bias.
“We’d ask all of you to not give up and to continue with the concern,” Han said.
“The bottom line is we’ve done everything in our power that we could in this case,” Sprinkle said in an old interview.
“We had cultural differences,” he said. “We had language barriers. The other issue we had is missing persons cases aren’t crimes so without a crime, you can’t get search warrants, you can’t get court orders.”
Bansoon even took a petition to the governors office in Harrisburg with 15,000 signatures, demanding state police take over the investigation full time.
The Ferguson Township Police Department soon cut off all communication with the family out of frustration.
“It was just heartbreaking that this family had to come all this way across the world to try and find their daughter and there was just nothing that could be done,” Clay said. “There were no clues that the police were finding that they were sharing. They had no idea.”
Before John Clay was WTAJ’s Evening Anchor, he worked as a reporter in the State College bureau and was responsible for reporting on Cindy Song’s disappearance.
“There was no explanation that made any sense as to where she might have gone or who might’ve taken her,” Clay said. “No leads really developed that led anywhere.”
Having been there for every significant moment during the investigation, Clay says that he became involved personally, as he watched her family and the surrounding community cope with Cindy’s loss.
“Just like the police and so many others, I wanted to somehow figure it out,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of the answer.”
And now a father, Clay says he’s been impacted even more by the devastation of the case.
“I mean there’s no question that when you think the worst possible scenario of what could happen to your children, this is it,” Clay said.
Ten months later, in August of 2002, with the case at a standstill, the Penn State Paranormal Research Society requested that Carla Baron, a nationally recognized psychic profiler, come in to aid police in their investigation.
“That just gives you an indication as to how desperate they were for answers, some sort of solution,” Clay said.”They were ready to listen to anyone who might have a clue.”
“The chief asked me if I was willing to entertain this and I was like, absolutely,” Sprinkle said. “I mean, police investigators use people like her all the time.”
“I see a carving on a tree,” Baron said. “There are other instances in this investigation where all of a sudden we’re finding these things. Which is telling me we’re close to finding Cindy. He’s watching me right now, he’s watching to see if I come up with something and I have come up with a lot of things.”
Carla Baron joined me on the phone to talk about this case and the role she played in it.
“Cindy Song was pretty much the first big case that I worked,” Baron said. “Since then, I’ve periodically looked at this case.”
As a psychic profiler, she says she approaches investigations differently than police.
“I focus in on it, and I slow down time and do a 360 degree view of it and I slow time down so I can see the detail,” Baron said. “That’s how I work on crime scenes.”
Carla came to State College to work on the case soon after being contacted, a camera crew working for the TruTV show, ‘Psychic Detectives’, which focuses on how psychics can help police move forward in tough cases, followed. She described what she believes happened to Song.
“When this first came up, I’d seen three to four men that were with Cindy so I knew that she was abducted and I knew it was sexual in nature,” Baron said. “And I’m just seeing her being loaded into this vehicle. Then I see it wasn’t very long before she had crossed over.”
Carla had several more insights that she gave to police during her visit.
“I mean she’s good at what she does, but just unfortunately with us, the information she provided just didn’t turn into any credible leads,” Sprinkle said.
“When the situation came up around Dallas and Hugo Selenski and that who thing, I took a fresh look at it, and he’s involved somehow,” Baron said.
In June 2003, a year and a half after Cindy went missing, Paul Weakly was convicted of burglary in Lazerne County, Pennsylvania. In order to reduce his charges, Weakly agreed to give police information pertaining to Cindy’s case.
His story: Two men, Hugo Selenski and Michael Kerkowski, mistook Cindy for a prostitute the night she went missing. They picked her up from State College and took her to the home of one of the men in Hunlock Creek. That’s where Weakly says they raped her and stuck her in a safe where she died days later.
“As I was covering it, it was the only explanation that could maybe be explained, that maybe this is something that could’ve happened,” Clay said.
Weakly first told police that Kerkowski kept Cindy’s bunny ears as a trophy, and Selenski killed him and his girlfriend, Tammi Fasset in retaliation burying their bodies in his backyard. Later he changed his statement, saying Selenski killed them for drug money. Regardless of why, it was a lead for police, and they started digging.
“So they were digging holes all around his property and to try to find her bones, find anything,” Clay said.
Weakly’s tip led to multiple bodies being found in Selenski’s backyard, including Kerkowski and his girlfriend, but nothing found was Cindy’s.
“It was a big disappointment, but it was the one explanation, one lead, that I thought held any promise but it never developed,” Clay said.
Hugo Selenski was found guilty of murdering Kerkowski and his girlfriend back in 2015. He’s now serving a life sentence in prison, and is still considered a lead suspect in Cindy’s disappearance.
“He was and I would say currently still is a person of interest in this case,” Sprinkle said.
Eighteen years later, every promising clue, lead to a dead end. Leaving those who tried to resolve the case with sadness and remorse.
“It’s not like we all forgot about Cindy,” Baron said. “I never did. I periodically went in and looked.”
“I did feel like the Cindy Song case was one of the most embraced stories in my whole time here in the fact that people were so connected, it was such a sad story,” Clay said. “Seeing her face, knowing this was a student who just up and disappeared, you kinda wondered. This could happen to anyone and why did it happen to her? Was she just the victim of some unfortunate circumstance and I think everyone really related to that.”
“It’s Ferguson Township, we really don’t have cases that get that big,” Sprinkle said. “So it was difficult and it was personal because it was my case and I wanted to find her. Obviously anything I could do to give the family closure meant a lot to me.”