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 of one of the nation's worst serial killers, and authorities planned Wednesday to ask 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 favor. 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?"
After so many years, the relatives could be anywhere, so the sheriff's department is setting up a phone bank to field calls 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's remains were found under Gacy's house. Dart said other families have the same need for certainty.
"They were young men with futures, who at some point had families that cared about their kid," he said. Until the dead are identified, "it's like they didn't even exist."
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, smiling.
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 or 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. One had not even been reported missing when his body was found floating in the Des Plaines River.
"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 of them were 17 or 18 years old and had been "through God knows how many foster homes and were basically on their own."
At the same time, they recalled, other people repeatedly insisted their loved ones were among Gacy's victims, but no evidence ever came to light confirming it.
"It's very conceivable that a kid in his teens didn't have dental records," said Robert Egan, one of the prosecutors who helped convict Gacy. "There could have been parents who would have loved to have brought in dental records but they didn't have any."
Dart doubts that all eight victims will be identified. But he is confident that the office will finally be able to give some of them back their names.
"I'd be shocked if we don't get a handful," he said. "The technology is so precise."