It took 10 years, but with the help of a missing persons Web site and DNA technology, Maryland police detective Bob Nichols has found the body of Cynthia Vanderbeek, a popular boat show vendor who went missing in 1995.
Police have charged Vanderbeek’s husband, Steve, who worked beside her in the booth at boat shows, with the killing. She was 47 years old at the time of the murder.
Nichols, a Montgomery County, Md., investigator, says the break in the case came when he saw the reconstructed facial features of a badly decomposed “Jane Doe” — an unidentified body — on the missing persons Web site (www.doenetwork.org) last October.
“I was flipping through it,” he says, when he came across a familiar-looking face in the Pennsylvania missing-persons file. “I thought it could be her,” he says.
The body had been discovered in 1995 just off an interstate highway in a secluded, mountainous area of Fulton County, Pa. It had remained unidentified since.
Nichols says Vanderbeek, who was called “Cindy” by her boat show colleagues, was last seen at a show in Portland, Maine, in March 1995. She was supposed to have visited her sister Sandy DiFranco in Germantown, Md., later that month.
“I had just had a baby in January and she was going to be the baby’s godmother,” DiFranco said at the time. “She was thrilled and wanted to see the baby.”
Cindy never followed through on that visit, but her husband did.
DiFranco said Steve told her Cindy had gone on to a show in Wisconsin by herself to earn $1,000. But Nichols says the husband told him Vanderbeek had walked out on him after the Maine show.
After coming across the Pennsylvania missing-persons report last October, Nichols was able to confirm the identity of the familiar-looking Jane Doe by matching DNA material from the body with a sample taken from Vanderbeek’s mother.
No one had thought previously that the decomposed body might be that of Vanderbeek, because investigators had estimated the age of the dead woman to have been in the late-teens-to-30s range. Vanderbeek was 47 when she disappeared.
Steve Vanderbeek, who had lived in Davie, Fla., with his wife, stopped working boat shows after his wife’s disappearance, Nichols says. He became a handyman, moving to Missouri, then to upstate New York and Ramsey, N.J., where police arrested him in mid-June. He was extradited to Fulton County, where Pennsylvania authorities have charged him with homicide.
Nichols says the arrest after all those years was not the most rewarding aspect of the case for him. “The most gratifying thing was to give some closure to the family, who didn’t know what happened to their daughter and sister,” he says.
Vanderbeek’s sister and mother couldn’t find a police department to pursue the missing-persons case because there was no evidence a crime had been committed, let alone where it had been committed.
Sympathetic to their plight, Nichols started investigating because the sister lived in Montgomery County. Once on the case, he was hooked.
“I became real close to the family,” he says. “I saw their frustrations; I had my frustrations. We suspected from the get-go this was foul play. We suspected from the get-go Steve had something to do with it.”
As he moved into new cases, Nichols took the Vanderbeek files with him — either piling them on his desk or at his feet, where he could pull a file and try to dredge up a new lead whenever he had a few minutes.
“I knew that if I didn’t stay with it, the case would get archived and the family would have no place to turn,” he says.
Vanderbeek — remembered by boat show colleagues as petite blonde, brown-eyed with a bright, energetic personality — sold nautical sportswear at shows. She shared the booth with Steve, who sometimes sold boat-cleaning products and other items. The Vanderbeeks had been working shows together for five years, often on the East and Gulf coasts and around the Great Lakes.