For several months after the 1978 arrest of John Wayne Gacy, Des Plaines Police Cmdr. Joe Kozenczak's work day began with stacks of phone messages from people wondering if their missing son or brother might have been one of the victims of the infamous serial killer.
"I got a call from England. Calls from Canada ... tons of people. There were droves of calls," recalls Kozenczak, one of the investigators on the case.
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But the calls dwindled, and the names of eight of Gacy's 33 victims were never found.
Now armed with new DNA profiles of those eight, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is asking the public to help identify the unknown victims, all white men in their teens or 20s who disappeared during the 1970s.
"We're hoping to close the book once and for all on John Gacy," Dart said Wednesday.
Dart said advancements in technology since the killer was arrested allowed his office's cold case unit to commission broader DNA profiles of the victims. Now, he needs relatives of the victims to come forward in an attempt to match up the remains. The DNA work was done by the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification.
Dart's office has set up a hotline at (800) 942-1950 and a link at cookcountysheriff.com where anyone whose male family member went missing between 1970 and 1979 can volunteer for DNA testing.
The date range begins with Gacy's release from an Iowa prison in 1970 and ends after his arrest, because Dart believes some of the victims might not have been known to be missing until a year or so after Gacy's capture.
By Wednesday afternoon, police were once again getting calls, with six new leads under investigation, a sheriff's spokesman said.
Investigators will follow up on the leads and will seek DNA samples from potential relatives through the use of a painless swab of the inside of the person's mouth, Dart noted.
Detectives believe the passage of time might 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.
Attorney Terry Sullivan, who prosecuted Gacy, finds it sad that no one has come forward until now but understands why families might not have wanted to face the publicity or taint of having their missing son or brother linked to a homosexual serial killer.
"Or maybe they didn't want to face reality. They'd rather still have hope that the kid was going to show up as an adult, than actually find out that Gacy had him in his basement," Sullivan said.
Kozenczak, who wrote a book about Gacy's case, "The Chicago Killer," agrees that society's lack of acceptance toward homosexuals 30 years ago might have prevented families from coming forward.
"In my mind, there is no question that there are people out there wondering if it's their son or brother or relative and never pursued it, for whatever reason," Kozenczak said.
The crawl space
Gacy was executed for his crimes in 1994, after being convicted 14 years earlier and sentenced to die.
He began killing young men who were between the ages of 14 and 21 in 1972, burying most of their bodies in a crawl space under his home in unincorporated Norwood Park Township near Des Plaines house. He buried some under a concrete slab near a barbecue pit in his backyard. When he ran out of room at the house, he started discarding victims' remains in the Des Plaines River, he told police. Four bodies were pulled from the river, though Gacy always claimed to have dumped five.
The case put the spotlight on missing person cases and ultimately led police departments to create a national database.
A ninth body also might be exhumed soon.
Sherry Marino of Chicago believes the body buried under the name of her 14-year-old son, Michael Marino, actually might be someone else. She won court approval last week to have the body exhumed and DNA tested at her own expense.
Marino said the clothes found on the body did not match what she remembered her son wearing when he disappeared and she wondered why it took three years to match dental records she provided to the body.
The DNA science commissioned by Dart's office has been available for years, but Dart said a recent renewed effort to solve cold cases brought Gacy's unnamed victims to the forefront.
People connected to the case say they, too, are anxious to see if science can provide some answers.
"Perhaps some families will be able to get some peace, but I don't know if it's good peace," Sullivan said.
A renewed effort to find the identities of the eight young men began in April.
Cold case detectives from the sheriff's department initially went to the Cook County morgue to locate jaw bones of the unidentified men. The men's jaw bones had been separated from their bodies because in the late 1970s and early 1980s the best method of identifying bodies was through dental records, Dart said. The men's bodies were buried in graves marked with headstones reading "We Remembered" and the date of burial.
However, when detectives checked at the morgue, they learned the jaw bones had been buried in 2009 in an unmarked pauper's grave at a Homewood cemetery. Investigators had to dig three times to find the marked buckets containing the jaw bones buried beneath other remains, Dart said.
Owen Kilmer, a Cook County government spokesman, said the medical examiner's office approved the burial of the jaw bones because DNA samples had already been taken from them and a noted forensic anthropologist determined that "all forensic options had been exhausted."
However, the bones were still valuable in extracting "nuclear DNA," which shows traits inherited from both mother and father. The previous DNA extracted in 1994 only showed traits from the mother. Kilmer said investigators back then ran the DNA information through a nationwide database to try and match with DNA submitted by family members of missing people. There were no matches.
When investigators tested the unearthed jaw bones, only four of them yielded nuclear DNA, though. So investigators sought exhumation orders for the other four bodies and removed thigh bones to get enough of a sample to yield the necessary DNA results. That work was done last month.
Besides the lab work being done in Texas for free, Dart noted much of the other work was being done pro bono, as well. Officials said the only additional costs of the investigation included travel to and from Texas by an investigator delivering the bones to lab technicians for analysis.
Dart said 25 families received a level of closure in this case that eight didn't. Cost shouldn't factor into the decision to continue investigating.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.