After Ted Szal ran out on his family near Chicago 35 years ago, he had no idea his relatives feared he had been killed by notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
Szal's family learned this week that their missing relative is alive in a suburb of Portland, Ore.
"My family thought I was dead. That hurt when I heard that," the 59-year-old carpenter told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "There's a difference between being murdered and running away, and I basically just ran away."
Szal was 24 when he parked his car at Chicago's O'Hare airport in 1977, threw his keys down a sewer grate and got on a plane to Colorado Springs. He abandoned his relatives after the turmoil of a divorce and a bitter family feud.
He intended to never look back, Szal said. But it wasn't that easy. Holidays and birthdays were tough, and his wife pleaded with him to reconnect, he said, but he was too stubborn to make the phone call.
"I threw the keys away and I threw my life away 35 years ago," Szal said.
"I missed them a lot, course I did. But I'm also stubborn. I made up my mind," he said.
Newly liberated from his life in Chicago, Szal "wandered around the mountains for a while" in 1977. Low on money and unable to find work, he moved to California before migrating to Oregon to help build a new shopping mall in Springfield. When the crew moved on to a new project in Indiana, Szal stayed behind with the mountains and rivers he'd come to love.
Szal hasn't spoken with his relatives yet. It's overwhelming, he said, and he needs to digest the news. He told police they could give his address to relatives, and they'll start with letters.
Szal's older sister contacted the Cook County sheriff's office in October when authorities asked for tips that might help them identify eight unknown Gacy victims whose bodies were recently exhumed. The sheriff's office issued a public plea for families of young men who disappeared in the 1970s to submit DNA samples for comparison with the victims' remains.
Investigators exhumed the remains earlier this year, hoping that the passage of time and advancement of technology would work in their favor. They established a hotline and a website for people to file reports.
Twisted, bizarre killings
Gacy is remembered as one of history's most bizarre killers, largely because of his work as an amateur clown. He 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.
The building contractor 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.
Gacy was executed in 1994.
Investigators said Gacy lived near O'Hare. As a young white man who worked in construction and disappeared from the airport in 1977, Szal fit Gacy's victim profile, investigators said.
Authorities used a computer database to find Szal living in Beaverton, Ore., and a local police officer visited his apartment Monday to confirm his identity. Cook County officials say his relatives were told Tuesday that he is alive.
"Being able to tell an 88-year-old father that his son, whose picture he has been carrying around for 34 years in his breast pocket, has been found alive is something special," Sheriff Thomas Dart said in a statement.
Reached by phone, Szal's father said he didn't feel well and declined to comment. Szal said he was pleased to learn his parents are still alive.
Even before his name was publicly linked to the serial killer, Szal had taken an interest in the Gacy case and had even read some books about it. He can understand why some would suspect connections to his disappearance, he said, but it never occurred him.
A carpenter, Szal is now working on starting a building maintenance business. Finally reconnecting — facing his emotions and his feelings of betrayal — feels like a "horrible weight" has been lifted, he said.
"We've had some tough Christmases just because it's hard not to be depressed," Szal said. "So this year there's a little light shining on us now."