Authorities exhume bones of 8 unidentified Gacy victims

CHICAGO — More than 30 years after a collection of skeletal remains was found beneath John Wayne Gacy’s house, detectives have secretly exhumed bones of eight young men who were never identified in hopes of answering a final question: Who were they?

This undated photo provided by the Cook County Sheriff's Department shows victims remains of serial killer John Wayne Gacy being exhumed by authorities. The Cook County Sheriff's Department last spring secretly exhumed the bones of the 8 victims who were never identified in the hopes that scientific tests that were not around between 1972 and 1978 when Gacy killed his 33 victims will make identification possible.

This undated photo provided by the Cook County Sheriff's Department shows victims remains of serial killer John Wayne Gacy being exhumed by authorities. The Cook County Sheriff's Department last spring secretly exhumed the bones of the 8 victims who were never identified in the hopes that scientific tests that were not around between 1972 and 1978 when Gacy killed his 33 victims will make identification possible.

CHICAGO — More than 30 years after a collection of skeletal remains was found beneath John Wayne Gacy’s house, detectives have secretly exhumed bones of eight young men who were never identified in hopes of answering a final question: Who were they?

The Cook County Sheriff’s Department says DNA testing could solve the last mystery associated with one of the nation’s worst serial killers, and authorities on Wednesday asked for the public’s help in determining the victims’ names.

Investigators are urging relatives of anyone who disappeared between 1970 and Gacy’s 1978 arrest — and who is still unaccounted for — to undergo saliva tests to compare their DNA with that of the skeletal remains.

Detectives believe the passage of time might actually work in their favour. Some families who never reported the victims missing and never searched for them could be willing to do so now, a generation after Gacy’s homosexuality and pattern of preying on vulnerable teens were splashed across newspapers all over the world.

“I’m hoping the stigma has lessened, that people can put family disagreements and biases against sexual orientation (and) drug use behind them to give these victims a name,” Detective Jason Moran said.

Added Sheriff Tom Dart: “There are a million different reasons why someone hasn’t come forward. Maybe they thought their son ran off to work in an oil field in Canada, who knows?”

Authorities also hope to hear from people who came forward back in the 1970s, convinced that their loved ones were buried under Gacy’s house but without any dental records or other evidence to confirm it.

In other cases, some potential Gacy victims who had been reported missing were later mistakenly recorded as being found after police received tips that they supposedly were sighted.

So “people may have been told the person they were looking for was located, when in fact they weren’t,” the sheriff said.

The department is prepared to hear from thousands of people from across the country.

Gacy, who is remembered as one of history’s most bizarre killers largely because of his work as an amateur clown, was convicted of murdering 33 young men, sometimes luring them to his Chicago-area home for sex by impersonating a police officer or promising them construction work. He stabbed one and strangled the others between 1972 and 1978. Most were buried in a crawl space under his home. Four others were dumped in a river.

He was executed in 1994, but the anguish caused by his crimes still resounds today.

Just days ago, a judge granted a request to exhume one victim whose mother doubted the medical examiner’s conclusion that her son was found under Gacy’s house. Dart said other families have the same need for certainty.

Asked about the price of the effort, Dart said the lab is doing the analysis for free, and the costs will not be exorbitant. To not take advantage of the DNA technology would be “somewhat immoral,” he said.

“Here are eight people who had futures, who could have done so much for society (and) instead this evil monster destroyed them. And we’re really going to just sit here and say, ’You know, they’re forgotten, let’s keep them forgotten’? he said at a news conference. ”Talk about the final insult.“

The plan began unfolding earlier in the year, when detectives were trying to identify some human bones found scattered at a forest preserve. They started reviewing other cases of unidentified remains, which led them back to Gacy.

“I completely forgot or didn’t know there were all these unidentifieds,” Dart said.

It was not a cold case in the traditional sense. Gacy admitted to the slayings and was convicted by a jury. But Moran and others knew if they had the victims’ bones, they could conduct genetic tests that would have seemed like science fiction in the 1970s, when forensic identification depended almost entirely on fingerprints and dental records.

After autopsies on the unidentified victims, pathologists in the 1970s removed their upper and lower jaws and their teeth to preserve as evidence in case science progressed to the point they could be useful or if dental records surfaced.

Detectives found out that those jaws had been stored for many years at the county’s medical examiner’s office. But when investigators arrived, they learned the remains had been buried in a paupers’ grave in 2009.

“They kept them for 30 years, and then they got rid of them,” Moran said.

After obtaining a court order, they dug up a wooden box containing eight smaller containers shaped like buckets, each holding a victim’s jaw bones and teeth.

Back in June, Moran flew with them to a lab in Texas.

“They were my carry-on,” he said.

Weeks later, the lab called. The good news was that there was enough material in four of the containers to provide what is called a nuclear DNA profile, meaning that if a parent, sibling or even cousins came forward, scientists could determine whether the DNA matched.

But with the other four containers, there was less usable material. That meant investigators had to dig up four of the victims. Detectives found them in four separate cemeteries and removed their femurs and vertebrae for analysis.

At a meeting last week, the men who investigated and prosecuted Gacy reminded the sheriff that many victims were already lost when Gacy found them.

“I can almost guarantee you that one or two of these kids were wards of the state,” said retired Detective Phil Bettiker. “I don’t think anybody cared about them.”

Most were 17 or 18 years old and had been “through God knows how many foster homes and were basically on their own.”

Dart doubts that all eight victims will be identified. But he is confident the office will be able to give some back their names.

“I’d be shocked if we don’t get a handful,” he said. “The technology is so precise.”

For more information, the sheriff’s department is asking people to go to www.cookcountysheriff.com or call 1-800-942-1950.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Artist Delree Dumont has painted an Indigenous mural at St. Joseph High School. (Contributed photo)
Indigenous mural painted on Red Deer high school walls

A new Indigenous mural now sits on the walls of St. Joseph… Continue reading

Red Deer College (Contributed photo)
RDC tuitions to go up 7%

Tuition increase the maximum allowed under provincial rules

This unicorn was stolen from the small community of Delia, northeast of Drumheller on Friday and was recovered, with its bronze horn broken off, on Saturday. RCMP are looking for information on the suspects.
(Photo from RCMP)
Unicorn statue stolen from Delia recovered

Statue found with horn broken off in field about 15 km from Delia

(Advocate file photo)
Lacombe man whose manslaughter sentence was rejected by judge has new lawyer

Judge rejected proposed seven-year sentence for manslaughter in connection with 2019 homicide

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference at Rideau cottage in Ottawa, on Friday, March 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Liberals to release federal budget with eye on managing crisis, post-pandemic growth

OTTAWA — The federal government will this afternoon unveil its spending plans… Continue reading

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Red Deer clinical research centre participating in plant-based COVID-19 vaccine trial

A Red Deer research centre has been selected to participate in the… Continue reading

University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams is photographed in the stands during the Greater Victoria Invitational at CARSA Performance Gym at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, November 29, 2019. The University of Victoria says Williams has resigned effective immediately. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
University of Victoria women’s rowing coach resigns by mutual agreement

VICTORIA — The University of Victoria says the head coach of its… Continue reading

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley announces proposed new legislation to protect Alberta’s mountains and watershed from coal mining at a news conference in Calgary on Monday, March 15, 2021. A group of 35 scientists from the University of Alberta are urging the provincial government to rethink its plans for expanding coal-mining in the Rocky Mountains. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Alberta scientists urge adoption of bill that would protect against coal mining

EDMONTON — Some 35 scientists from the University of Alberta are urging… Continue reading

A driver shows identification to an Ottawa police officer as a checkpoint as vehicles enter the province from Quebec Monday April 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Quebec and Ontario impose travel restrictions to slow surging virus variants

Ontario and Quebec imposed new interprovincial travel restrictions on Monday amid growing… Continue reading

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was in Red Deer on Friday to provide an update on the province's COVID-19 response in schools.
Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
LaGrange: Feedback needed to refine curriculum

As the Minister of Education my role has been guided by a… Continue reading

In this Feb. 24, 2020, photo, the Olympics rings are reflected on the window of a hotel restaurant as a server with a mask sets up a table, in the Odaiba section of Tokyo. The vaccine rollout in Japan has been very slow with less than 1% vaccinated. This of course is spilling over to concerns about the postponed Tokyo Olympics that open in just over three months.(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
Will Japanese Olympians be vaccinated ahead of the public?

TOKYO — The vaccine rollout in Japan has been very slow with… Continue reading

PSG's Kylian Mbappe, right, greets Bayern's Lucas Hernandez at the end of the Champions League, second leg, quarterfinal soccer match between Paris Saint Germain and Bayern Munich at the Parc des Princes stadium, in Paris, France, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
PSG, Bayern the big names missing from Super League plan

DÜSSELDORF, Germany — The plan for the new Super League soccer competition… Continue reading

In this image released by Paramount Pictures, Marion Cotillard, left, and Brad Pitt appear in a scene from "Allied." (Daniel Smith/Paramount Pictures via AP)
Leo Carax’s ‘Annette’ to open Cannes Film Festival

Leo Carax’s “Annette,” starring Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver, will open the… Continue reading

From left, Producer Doug Mitchell, actor Chris Hemsworth and director George Miller attend at a press conference to announce the new "Mad Max" film at Fox Studios Australia in Sydney, Monday, April 19, 2021. (Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via AP)
‘Mad Max’ prequel shot in Outback to be released in 2023

SYDNEY, Australia — A prequel to the “Mad Max” movie franchise starring… Continue reading

Most Read