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Korean-born Penn State student 'just vanished' after party

Sunday, December 16, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

STATE COLLEGE -- The investigators who combed Penn State senior Cindy Song's off-campus apartment found the markers of a life in progress.

Cindy Song

There was a letter and resume for a graphic design internship she hoped to land next year. Tickets for a Britney Spears concert, a week away, were hanging from her wall. There was a computer maker's notice confirming the new gear she ordered was on the way.

They found more of Song's life spread across her Web site: a list of tastes that ranged from Van Gogh to Ben & Jerry's. She went in for swimming, running and other activities, abhorred fakes and selfish people, and figured that her strengths included independence, honesty and responsibility.

But in six weeks of hunting for Song herself, investigators have found nothing.

There hasn't been so much as a sighting. Her credit cards and bank accounts have gone untouched.

This Korean-born student just vanished.

Officially, police call it a suspicious disappearance -- a catch-all that covers territory from kidnapping to suicide.

Less officially, lead investigator Detective Brian Sprinkle said last week, it seems likely that the 21-year-old graphic arts major was abducted.

It happened sometime after she returned to her empty apartment from a Halloween night party, maybe as she walked the 200 yards to a 24-hour supermarket to do some late shopping. Likely, she was snatched by somebody who chose the target at random, said Sprinkle, a detective with the Ferguson Township Police Department, just outside State College.

The disappearance is all the more jarring -- to investigators, to friends and to family who came from Korea to hold vigil -- because Song's trail stops cold at her apartment door.

"There are no suspects," Sprinkle said.

"Usually, we have physical evidence," said FBI Special Agent Stephen Collins, working with Sprinkle on the case. "It's surprising that there's no physical evidence. ... It could be a deft abductor."

"As times goes, I keep thinking of Cindy's life-threatening situation, and my family had to cry bitterly," older brother Kiho Song wrote in an e-mail appeal. After coming from Korea, he has watched as investigators prodded the public for leads, got about 15 tips but found only dead ends.

Kiho Song quit school to track the investigation.

His mother, too, came from Korea, then returned home to care for her sick husband.

"There's just no idea what happened. That's what's frustrating," friend Hoo-Yeun Kim, a Penn State student, said.

"This type of thing never happens at Penn State," said Hyung-Jin Lee, a Korean language instructor at Penn State and a conduit to the family. "The fact that she probably was kidnapped is really, really upsetting."

Cindy Song -- her Korean name is Hyun Jung Song -- has been in the United States for seven years, entering on a tourist visa, living with an aunt and uncle in suburban Washington, D.C., then enrolling at Penn State as her visa evolved into a student visa.

"She's very outgoing, open-minded, a very strong person," Kim said.

Her goal, Song offered with a little comic swagger on her Web site, is to be "a famous, popular, rich, talented graphic and fashion designer."

"sad but happy
crying but laughing
ugly but pretty
hungry but ful
hurt but fine
weak but strong
I pretend
and this is me,"

she wrote on her Web site, a verse dated six days before she disappeared.

The night she vanished, Song suited up in a red-hooded coat, a pink top, brown, knee-length boots and a short white skirt with a cottontail fixed to the back. She was supposed to be a rabbit, and she was joining friends for a Halloween party at a downtown State College bar.

From the bar, she and her companions drifted to a downtown apartment.

Between 3:30 and 4 a.m., friend and fellow student Stacy Paik drove Song back to Song's apartment.

"She watched her go up to the apartment but not in the door ... before she drove off," Sprinkle said, but she apparently went in.

Police who went through the place, where she lived alone, saw the trail of a woman who left, expecting to return. The backpack in which she carried a change of clothes to the bar was undisturbed. A cellular phone she had with her that night was there, too. False eyelashes that were part of her getup were left behind.

Only Song and her purse are missing.

Sprinkle describes a possible scenario where, before turning in, Song strolled from the State College Park Apartments where she lived to the all-night Giant supermarket nearby.

"Either someone came to the door and she answered it, or she went to the supermarket ... but we believe that she voluntarily left that apartment. It's when she walked out that door that something happened," Sprinkle said. "At 4 a.m., walking alone, going through a dark area. ... It probably was a crime of opportunity."

Investigators don't know if Song made it to the market; by the time they checked there, surveillance videotapes had been recorded over.

"We were supposed to go out with friends the next night," Kim said.

Song never showed up. Neither would she turn up for her part-time job as a waitress at the Seoul Korean Garden Restaurant in State College. She attended no more classes.

Investigators quizzed friends and relatives, even tracking down one cousin in Philadelphia.

"If it was a friend or family, we'd know by now, at least with the friends and family we know of," Sprinkle said.

With a bit of collegiate bravado, Song's Web site declares that fun is "anything except hard-core drugs." But Collins and Sprinkle say they found no loose ends in her life that would have made her a likely target for anyone.

Nearly three months ago, friends say, Song turned despondent when boyfriend and fellow student Richard Chae decided to move out of both her apartment and her life. But with counseling and medication, the gloom seemed to lift, Song's friends told Sprinkle.

"She was pretty much over things," Kim said. "She wanted to go back out and have fun. She didn't dwell on things."

"She was a very bright, very happy person," said Song Yu, her manager at the Seoul Korean Garden.

Missing-person leaflets are being distributed, and the family, Penn State and the university's alumni association have combined to offer a $27,000 reward.

Search teams covered areas near Song's apartment. Searchers with bloodhounds followed suit. Investigators hunted signs of activity on Song's Penn State Internet link and got a subpoena from a federal grand jury in Williamsport, Lycoming County, to do the same with her America Online account.

So far, it's been for naught. And that has fueled ire among observers.

Penn State's Black Caucus, which joined other student groups in supporting efforts to publicize the case, portrayed Penn State administration as reacting weakly and slowly.

Kiho Song, admittedly baffled by constitutional restraints on police investigations, urged detectives to react more quickly and forcefully.

For now, though, Sprinkle and Collins say the most likely route to a break is a tip.

The probe's hot lines are 814- 237-1172, toll-free at 800-479-0050 or Penn State's tipster Web site,

"We believe somebody saw something, something that was out of place," Sprinkle said.

"We need to jar somebody's memory," said Collins.

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