Vito Marzullo and Gacy: the biggest open secret in Chicago history?

Vito Marzullo in a 1982 Chicago Tribune photo auctioned on eBay

Vito Marzullo in a 1982 Chicago Tribune photo auctioned on eBay

Private detective Bill Dorsch has uncovered evidence that the number of people John Wayne Gacy murdered is more than 33. He’s pinpointed at least one likely location for burials, and he’s gathered witnesses, affidavits, and testimony and turned them over to law enforcement.

One problem he had getting people to pay attention to his theory is that no one could understand why the authorities would bother with a coverup.

But when you look at the Gacy situation through the prism of Chicago politics, the choices made during his arrests and interrogations begin to make sense.

Gacy, a contractor living on the city’s northwest side, often detained his victims Bughouse Square and in Boystown by impersonating a police officer. During the early and mid 1970s he was accused of a series of violent crimes and–possibly because he was a precinct captain with friends in politics, possibly because the crimes were homosexual in nature–was always released by police.

When Gacy abducted a young man from the northwest suburb of Des Plaines, the suburban police looking for him crossed into Chicago and stumbled on Gacy and his troubled history.

There were several young men living with Gacy on and off through the 70s, and the one who answered the door when the Des Plaines police knocked turned out to be related to one of the most powerful political figures in Chicago.

He and another kid, David Cram, were brought in for questioning. They both revealed information about the scene at Gacy’s house, and about the crawlspace under it, where Gacy had placed the bodies of his victims.

In recent interviews with three law enforcement officials present at the time, Dorsch’s colleague Tracy Ullman was told that the mother of one of the young men arrived at the Des Plaines police station where he was being interviewed and announced something along the lines of “I am the daughter of Vito Marzullo and I’m here to take my son home.” She demanded that the questioning end, saying a lawyer was on the way.

This scene was reported exactly the same way in Killer Clown, the book on the case by Gacy prosecutor Terry Sullivan, but Sullivan doesn’t name Marzullo or his grandson

Next, the attorney who showed up to represent Marzullo’s grandson was none other than Ed Hanrahan, the former Cook County state’s attorney.

The Des Plaines police let the two young men go. But not before they admitted to having dug holes under Gacy’s house, to having spread lime around to suppress the smell, and to having brought young men back to Gacy’s house for work or parties.

According to documents Bill Dorsch obtained from the Des Plaines police department after filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act, when Gacy was questioned by the police about whether the two young men knew what was buried in those holes, Gacy said they never spoke about it, “but if they didn’t know what was down there they were fucking stupid.”

Cram committed suicide in 2001. The other has been arrested for violent crimes over the years, most recently in 2001 in an FBI probe of mafia- and union-related incidents involving movie theaters around the country. He now lives in a northwest suburb of Chicago.

In a 1978 documentary on Marzullo by Media Burn Archives’ Tom Weinberg, political reformer and alderman Leon Despres describes the Chicago Democratic Machine as being composed of 35,000 people who make a living off politics. In a voiceover, historian Milton Rakove says that politics at the ward level “is not about issues. It’s about garbage cans, street holes, can you get someone a job. . . . For them politics is basically taking care of people, doing favors for people, getting a job themselves out of it, so they can make a living themselves.”

One remarkable sequence shows Marzullo sitting in his ward office, dispensing favors as constituents approach one at a time to ask for help with asphalt, pothole fixes, and city jobs.

In Boss, the iconic Chicago columnist Mike Royko describes Marzullo like this:

A short, erect, tough, and likable man, he has had a Republican opponent only once in four elections to the City Council. Marzullo has about four hundred patronage jobs given to him by the Democratic Central Committee to fill. . . . Marzullo can tick off the jobs he fills:

“I got an assistant state’s attorney, and I got an assistant attorney general, I got an electrical inspector at twelve thousand dollars a year, and I got street inspectors and surveyors, and a county highway inspector. I got an adminis­trative assistant to the zoning board and some people in the secretary of state’s office. I got fifty-nine precinct captains and they all got assistants, and they all got good jobs. The lawyers I got in jobs don’t have to work precincts, but they have to come to my ward office and give free legal advice to the people in the ward.”

Service and favors, the staples of the precinct captain and his ward boss.

Even before Gacy was arrested for murder, several other young men accused him of kidnapping and abuse. Their complaints received little sympathy from the police. As one high-ranking member of the police told Ullman and me recently, “It was just one butt fucker’s word against another’s.”

In March 1978 one badly wounded but determined survivor, Jeffrey Rignall, told police he’d been kidnapped, subdued with chloroform, and brutally raped by Gacy, and that another man had been present. Police refused to investigate, but later Rignall rented a car and, using details he remembered as he’d floated in and out of consciousness, tracked down Gacy on his own. Then he returned to the police and made the positive ID. Gacy was charged with misdemeanor battery but released on bail.

Cook Country Sheriff Tom Dart has submitted Gacy DNA to a national database in hopes of establishing a connection to murders in other states. More important, though with less fanfare, he has pledged to investigate the property at Miami and Elston on Chicago’s northwest side where Gacy worked as a handyman. What he means by “investigate” remains to be seen.

Bill Dorsch found witnesses who established good reasons to believe there are bodies buried there. A previous investigation of the property in 1998 was suspiciously brief.

This time around, the families of people who disappeared in the 1970s, whose names are on record, deserve a thorough search.

About Alison

Chicagoan, journalist

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