Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=202861
Story Retrieval Date: 3/11/2014 7:01:34 AM CST
Des Plaines Police Department
The remains of seven unknown men lie in wait in a vault in the North Texas University Forensic sciences lab. Each of them, at the time of their deaths, were young men with individual and unique stories. Yet, they all share the same ending: they all somehow ended up underneath the home of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
Late last year, Cook County Sheriff's investigators announced they would renew efforts to identify eight of Gacy’s victims discovered in 1978 in the crawlspace of his Des Plaines home. Since then, only one of the victims who were all sexually assaulted, tortured and asphyxiated, has been positively identified.
“Any time remains are interjected into environmental factors, obtaining a DNA profile is difficult,” said Dixie Peters, a technical leader at University of North Texas Health Center. The forensic and investigative department where Peters works has conducted identification on victims of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime. Now they are working on the Gacy case.
“Most of the time we look at nuclear DNA, which is from the mother and father,” she said. “Or we look at the mitochondrial DNA which passes from mother to the offspring and is better able to survive environmental insults.”
With tissue samples from the exhumed remains, Peters and her team in Texas create a DNA profile of the victim. These profiles have the potential to be matched with the profiles of families who have submitted samples in an effort to locate missing brothers, sons or even fathers who disappeared during Gacy’s time.
In November, Peters and her team successfully identified 19-year-old William George Bundy as one of Gacy’s victims via DNA profiling.
While many families waited for closure, others found new chapters opening.
The families of Harold Lovell and Theodore Szal believed the two were victims of Gacy when they disappeared separately in 1977 at ages 19 and 24 respectively. In a surprising twist, Lovell was found alive in Florida and Szal in Oregon.
“We’re still going through the leads,” Moran said of the investigation’s status. “I’m still setting up family reference swabbing [DNA samples]. They’re both local and across the country. People are calling and sharing their stories and offering information.”
As a result of this new attention, local investigators have begun examining mysteries that still surround the case. One of these is the possibility that Gacy, who owned a contracting company at the time, worked with an accomplice or accomplices.
“That was my theory right from the start,” said Joe Kozenczak, former chief investigator for the Des Plaines Police Department. He was the arresting officer for Gacy in December 1978. “I was privy to a lot of interviews with Gacy’s employees,” he said. “There were two employees that I felt were privy to Gacy’s inside lifestyle. One of these individuals was especially of great interest to me.”
This individual was also the key pieces of the puzzle that helped Kozenczak arrest Gacy. After questioning the Gacy employee for several hours on the whereabouts of last victim, 15-year-old Robert Piest, “he finally looked up and said, you better look under John Gacy’s house,” Kozenczak said. “The hair stood up on the back of my neck.”
But the level of involvement of these accomplices is up for debate.
“I highly doubt there were accomplices other than they dug some trenches [in the crawlspace] and they thought they were doing it for plumbing,” said Sam Amirante, the lawyer who defended Gacy against the state of Illinois during his 1980 trial. “Gacy would have been the first one to tell anybody,” he said.
“I think there’s always been speculation that there have been accomplices all the way since his arrest,” said Chicago lawyer Robert Stephenson. He and his partner Steven Becker, have begun looking into the mystery. “We’ve identified what we believe to be three possible accomplices, and we are certain they were involved to some level. We don’t know if they knew what was going to happen to the victims.”
Stephenson spoke about 19-year-old John Mowery, who disappeared in September 1977. Two witnesses recounted seeing a known associate of Gacy’s present at Mowery’s apartment. The witnesses said the associate kept telling Mowery about a man he should meet, but that the man was going out of town. That night, Mowery disappeared. The next morning, Gacy traveled to Michigan for a job.
The next day the two witnesses returned to Mowery’s apartment to look for their missing friend. In place of him, they found the same suspicious individual.
“The individual began to say, ‘I don’t care where John [Mowery] is,’ and began to drink and smoke and tell these witnesses he knows a place where dead bodies are buried,” he said. The next day the individual disappeared.
Peters said the tests in her lab would probably not provide any information on the accomplice theory, but she remained hopeful about potential identification.
“It’s very satisfying to know that even though you can’t help family members bring their loved ones back, you can have some sort of satisfaction that you helped put a part of the piece of the puzzle together for them,” Peters said.
But for others, the lingering mysteries remain a sign of John Wayne Gacy’s horrifying legacy.
“It was like a Pandora’s box,” said Kozenczak, who believes the victim count is much higher than the official 33. “Gacy saw me as his nemesis and he formed an immediate dislike for me. He was a belligerent personality. He wanted to be in control all the time.”
Amirante knew Gacy even before the arrest and discovery of victims in his home, saying Gacy was an affable and likable guy before his terrifying secret emerged. “He was the world’s greatest con artist. A master manipulator.”
With all the new developments and theories, he said, “he’s still visiting us from the grave.”