Mount Prospect teen's 1976 disappearance still haunts family, cop, reporter
Forty years ago today, 14-year-old Barbara Glueckert left her Mount Prospect home after telling her mom she and a friend wanted to go to a party down the block.
"I can still remember it as if it were yesterday," her brother Bob Glueckert, then 15, says. "I remember her walking out the door. Going right out on the front porch. She said, 'We'll be back by midnight.'"
She did not.
"Then it was 1 a.m., then 2 a.m. Mom was pretty concerned," Bob says. "She kept asking us, 'Should I call the police? What should I do?'
"In the wee hours of the morning, my mom was just beside herself. Neighbors. Lots of neighbors coming in. They just arrived; I don't know why. I remember sitting in a chair next to the door, just playing doorman, opening the door as people came in and out of the house."
Gerry Wyatt, then 22, lived across the street. Her mom and Glueckert's mom were best friends. Wyatt and her mother came over and stayed with the Glueckerts until, finally, Wyatt bluntly told them, "Call the police."
"We had no idea how much our lives would change from that moment," Bob says.
Someone might know
The ripple effects of Barbara Glueckert's 1976 disappearance remain unabated by time.
Bob Glueckert is 55. For four decades, his family -- parents Robert and Gail Glueckert and brother Mark -- has searched for answers. For closure. For peace.
"If there's a purpose for this interview, it's to reach that one person out there who might know something," he says of his decision to talk to a journalist once more. "Maybe they can provide an answer. That's why this story is worth telling again."
He sits in the training room at the Mount Prospect Police Department. To his right sits his former neighbor, Gerry Wyatt.
To his left sits Mount Prospect Police Training Officer Mike Nelson, 54, who has continued the search for Barbara since joining the force in 1989. Nelson grew up two blocks from the Glueckert home on Russell Street. He attended St. Raymond Catholic School with Barbara. He last saw her registering for Prospect High School two days before she disappeared.
For him, it's personal.
I am there as well, as I was 40 years ago when I had just become a 23-year-old crime reporter for the not-yet-daily Herald newspaper. Ralph Doney, then Mount Prospect's police chief, summoned me to his office. He gave me a photo of the missing girl, plus an artist's rendering of the man last seen with her.
I filed my first news report that night. For several intense months, I shadowed the Mount Prospect detectives: Sgt. Patrick Hallihan. Jack Gniot. Bob Gibson. Bob Barone. Ray Rhode. Dick Pascoe.
Every night, the detectives would close their office door and pore over the day's clues in sessions that stretched into morning. I would fall asleep wedged in the doorway with my head under the knob. When they opened the door, I'd wake up and ask questions.
These cops put in grueling hours, hunting down the flimsiest of leads. It took a toll on them all, physically and emotionally. Only later did I realize how much it had affected me as well.
I remained, for reasons I cannot explain, dogged by the mystery of her disappearance -- even though I left the crime beat 38 years ago.
'I put her in the ground'
Based on interviews with witnesses and Barbara's friend, police pieced together what happened that night.
On Saturday, Aug. 21, 1976, Barbara Glueckert was walking home from St. Raymond de Penafort Church around 5:30 p.m. when a man pulled up in a Buick Electra and asked her if she'd like to go to a party in Des Plaines.
Barbara gave him her phone number. The man called her later and arranged to meet Barbara and a friend outside Jake's Pizza on Northwest Highway. The friend told her parents she would be going to a sleepover at Barbara's house. Barbara told her mother they would be at a party down the block.
At Jake's, they met the man, who identified himself as "Tom Edwards." He asked them if they'd like to go to a rock concert on a farm (near Huntley) instead of a party in Des Plaines.
They said yes.
While driving west on I-90, the girls grew alarmed by how creepy the man seemed and by the things he said. Once they arrived at the concert, Barbara wanted to hear the music. Her friend met a boyfriend. The girls split up.
Blind Billy Nelson and the Cold Winds Blues Band opened the show, followed by The Bloody Marys.
As midnight approached, Barbara's friend found "Tom Edwards" and asked if he had seen Barbara.
He told her Barbara had gone home with someone else. Would she like him to take her home? She said no and found another ride.
She didn't realize she'd been lied to until later.
Police soon tagged Thomas Urlacher, the 24-year-old Algonquin man who drove the girls to the concert, as their chief suspect in Barbara's disappearance. He had used the name Tom Edwards because he liked WLS Rock Radio personality Tommy Edwards of Larry Lujack's "Animal Stories" fame.
Urlacher had a record of sexually assaulting young girls, most of whom declined to press charges, leaving him free to commit more assaults.
Authorities issued a warrant for Urlacher's arrest on charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor for giving alcohol to Barbara's friend. That's all the police had on him.
But Urlacher had already fled the suburbs on a 1973 Suzuki motorcycle he bought from a friend for $200. He stopped in San Francisco and used as an alias the name in a wallet he'd found in an Elgin parking lot in 1975.
On Dec. 20 and 21, Urlacher wrote a 33-page letter to a friend in the Kane County town of Wasco. In it, he wrote, "I put that girl in the ground ... Now I am going to go to jail for murder."
Urlacher never sent the letter. He placed it in a closet.
One night while walking home, Urlacher spotted two squad cars outside his apartment and panicked, even though the squad cars had nothing to do with him. He called a friend named Vince and told him to find that letter and burn it.
Instead, Vince read it. And instantly took it to the San Francisco authorities. They arrested Urlacher. Two Mount Prospect detectives flew to San Francisco to extradite Urlacher to Cook County.
Meanwhile, the search for Barbara, or her body, shifted into frenzied overdrive.
Authorities interviewed hundreds of people. Fifty scuba divers from nine suburban fire departments scoured lakes and quarries. Sixty-five Green Berets from an Arlington Heights unit searched Kane County for a makeshift grave.
Mount Prospect police enlisted helicopters, thermograph machines (capable of detecting heat from buried bodies), grand juries, bloodhounds, archaeologists, excavators and even clairvoyants to find something. Anything.
But nothing came of it.
Assistant State's Attorney Terry Sullivan surprised everyone on March 16, 1977, when he dropped the delinquency charge against Urlacher. He feared prosecuting Urlacher on a minor offense might create "serious legal issues" should murder charges be brought later.
For 27 years, Urlacher avoided prosecution for murder, though the Glueckerts won a civil wrongful death case against him. He remained the only person who knew what happened to Barbara.
Then, in April 2004, drug dealers shot and killed Urlacher in Pueblo, Colorado, during what police called a drug deal gone bad. The cold case suddenly became an arctic one.
Perhaps to everyone but Mike Nelson.
'I can't let it go'
Nelson believes a section of land in St. Charles Township has to be the place where Urlacher disposed of the body. He thinks Urlacher planned it carefully.
"He knew about the spot," Nelson says. "I know he knew about the spot. I know that! I know it! When you read that letter over and over every night. When you read the police reports about other things he had done to other women before, it starts to paint a picture, a pattern emerges."
Nelson won't identify the location, saying he wants to protect the landowners. He believes new technology soon will provide a way to scan the area for a grave. He has already spent several years digging up suspicious locations with backhoes and bulldozers.
"You start thinking, another five feet. Another ten feet," he says. "You get overwhelmed that there is no way to do this (search) with the technology that we have today, unless you strip 6 inches at a time off the entire area. It's not possible."
During an interview 10 years ago, Nelson admitted to being slightly obsessed with the case.
"I can't let it go," he said. "Not even for a while."
"To go over and over this, it does affect you," Nelson says. "You have nightmares."
Bob Glueckert agrees.
"It's like a dream, swirling, swirling, and it touches me again," he says. "When I was younger, in my 20s, I could cry myself out pretty damn quick. I had to. I was carrying too many other people. As I got older, it got harder and harder to pull out of the dream.
"It would be a blessing to a lot of different people to see closure on this once and for all, and for me personally. Maybe the dream would stop."
No one has forgotten
For a long time, Bob thought people had forgotten his sister.
Then, in 2006, the Daily Herald published a story marking the 30th anniversary of Barbara's disappearance.
"Nobody has forgotten about her!" Bob says, citing how the story prompted people to approach him, express condolences and share stories and tears. "There are still so many people, and so many lives, that she touched in such a short amount of time."
He remembers how hard his mom had taken the disappearance.
"She was the parent on watch," he says. "My father was gone on a business trip to California. She had let two young kids go off to a party. They weren't honest about what they were doing. Like so many stupid kids, they went off to do something different. And they didn't come home. My mom always carried the guilt that she was the parent on watch."
Bob also struggles with guilt.
"I have a hard time remembering the good things about Barbara," he says. "She was only 14 years old when she went. And we were not the best of friends. She was 12 months behind me. We were like brutal enemies. We were constantly arguing, you know?
"But there were good times. I look back on photos today, and I see family vacations. But there was so much tough stuff that went on after that."
The "tough stuff" included hateful phone calls from strangers who would blame the parents for what happened, and an alleged psychic who re-enacted Barbara's last moments, slowly choking himself while shouting "I can't breathe!" in front of her dad Robert Glueckert, who later related the experience to his family.
If any good came out of Barbara's disappearance, it might be how Bob raised his own children.
"I tell my kids 'I love you' every day," Bob says. His son, 28, is a police officer near Kansas City, Missouri. His daughter, 26, lives in Philadelphia.
"You gotta remember to say what you want to say now, because there's no guarantee there will be a tomorrow for you to say it."
Wyatt interjects, calling her former neighbor a "good soul. Bob spends his life worrying about how other people feel and how to make their lives better," she says.
Bob marvels that his parents remained married for the rest of their lives. His mother died in 2007. His father died in 2014.
"I'm proud of my mom and dad today," Bob says. "No. 1, they stayed together. That was a huge, huge challenge. No. 2, they kept their door open. They didn't hunker down and hide from the world. They stayed in their Mount Prospect house for another 10 years. They kept the same phone number."
Even with the venomous crank calls?
"He (Dad) never even wanted to change that number in the hope that someday, someone would call," Bob says. "If she (Barbara) wanted to call home, it would still be our number."
"Once the person responsible for Barbara's death was gone, people said, 'That's it,'" Nelson says. "No, that's not it. The Glueckerts wanted to have their daughter back. They told me that. They wanted to all be buried together. It's been disappointing for me not to do that for them. All I'm trying to do is right this wrong."
If nothing else, the investigation has taught Nelson that he can indeed depend upon the kindness of strangers.
"All I've ever had to do was tell the story," Nelson says, "and people will do whatever I ask them to do. If I needed a bulldozer, I just tell the story and it's, 'OK, Mike, whatever you need!' It's another take-away about people being unbelievably caring and loving."
As for me, Barbara's disappearance influenced how I treated my own two daughters. I cannot forget a hot, sunny August afternoon when a sudden explosion of empathy for Robert Glueckert gripped me while I was mowing the lawn. Then I realized it might be because my eldest had just turned 14 a few weeks earlier.
Although I've gone from covering real cops and robbers to covering fake ones as a movie critic, to this day I cannot sit through a missing persons drama without remembering Barbara Glueckert.
Brian DePalma's "Black Dahlia" hit particularly hard, especially when L.A. cop Bucky Bleichert mutters, "Nothing stays buried forever. Nothing."
I hope he's right.
Because Barbara's story, like a good movie, deserves a proper ending.
Anyone with information about Barbara Glueckert's disappearance should contact Detective Mike Nelson at (847) 870-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org.