Lead investigator in John Wayne Gacy serial-killing case dies
The Des Plaines police detective credited with leading the investigation that captured serial killer John Wayne Gacy has died.
Joe Kozenczak, 75, died Wednesday at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. He was the former Des Plaines police chief and worked for the department for 27 years before his retirement in 1989.
But it was as the chief investigator on the Gacy case that Kozenczak was catapulted into the spotlight. The 1978 case began with the disappearance of Des Plaines teen Robert Piest and ended with the arrest of Gacy and the gruesome discovery of 33 bodies of boys and young men he had tortured and killed.
Kozenczak's wife, Karen, a longtime city of Des Plaines employee before her retirement in 2013, said his interest in police work began as a young boy and was strengthened by his experiences as a military police officer in Korea.
From the beginning of his career through his post-retirement years as a private investigator, Kozenczak believed continuing education was the way he could and did get better at his job, his wife said.
But it was his own natural aptitude for police work that helped him excel, particularly on the Gacy case, she said.
"Good policemen just have innate abilities, and he was one of those," Karen Kozenczak said. "He was a great friend, soul mate, husband, father and someone dedicated to the pursuit of justice."
Though Joe Kozenczak hadn't been feeling well for a while, it was only during the past two weeks that his health took a serious turn for the worse, Karen said.
Despite being on opposite sides during Gacy's prosecution and trial, defense attorney Sam Amirante on Thursday said the police work that Kozenczak led was "remarkable."
"I've always had a great deal of respect for Joe Kozenczak and that whole investigation team," Amirante said. "It was a tough, tough situation for all of us at that time."
Amirante added that Kozenczak took a strong personal interest in the case, coordinating the surveillance of Gacy while he was a suspect in Piest's disappearance and even enlisting the help of a psychic -- though the latter played little role in the case.
"He was one of the good guys," Amirante said of Kozenczak. "He was a good cop."
The city of Des Plaines also offered its own condolences Thursday on the passing of such an important figure in its history.
Kozenczak was named Des Plaines police chief in 1985. That presented a whole new set of challenges and opportunities to grow, his wife said.
"He was a man of conviction and believed the decisions he made as chief were right," she said. "He was always looking out for the best for the department and the best for Des Plaines."
Kozenczak's work on the Gacy case resulted in him being honored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He frequently lectured nationally and internationally on investigative procedures developed during the Gacy case.
Kozenczak's work on the case was the subject of a book, "The Chicago Killer," he wrote with his wife, Karen, and the North American television miniseries "To Catch A Killer." He also wrote many articles on the case and a variety of other police topics.
Kozenczak is survived by his wife, four children, two grandchildren and numerous nieces, nephews, cousins and in-laws.
A memorial gathering will be held at 9 a.m. Friday, May 22, at The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, on the Maryville Campus, 1170 N. River Road, Des Plaines. A memorial Mass will follow at 10 a.m.
Memorial donations can be made to St. Jude Hospital, 501 St. Jude Place, Memphis, Tennessee 38105-9959, or Covenant House, Times Square Station, P.O. Box 731, New York, New York 10108-0900.
For more information, call G.L. Hills Funeral Home at (847) 699-9003.