Private detective Bill Dorsch, working at the behest of no one and nothing besides his conscience and his curiosity, has uncovered strong evidence that the number of people John Wayne Gacy murdered doesn’t stop at 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.
The most infuriating thing about his quest has been his growing realization that local authorities had the same evidence all along.
Why? Everyone I talk to about this case wants to know why they’d sit on it. Why they’d torture the families of missing persons by not seeking their remains. Why all the secrets?
Was there a massive coverup to protect John Wayne Gacy from blame for additional murders? Not exactly. More likely a series of bad decisions created a mess that no one wants to deal with 35 years later. Each bad decision was covered by another. Then Bill Dorsch started poking at holes in the case, and doors started slamming and the silence increased.
It turns out the biggest secret isn’t a secret at all. And the answers to those questions have to do with the nature of institutions–and how their primary purpose is to sustain themselves. In this case, the simple answer comes down to one word: Clout.
It all started when Gacy, a contractor living on the city’s northwest side, regularly picked up young men at 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 released by police after questioning.
It continued when police from the northwest suburb of Des Plaines, searching for a missing teenager, crossed into Chicago and stumbled on Gacy and his troubled history.
Gacy turned out to have several young people who worked for him living in his house, and things got really messy when one of them turned out to be the grandson of one of the most powerful political figures in Chicago.
Two young men were brought in with Gacy for questioning. They revealed information about the scene at Gacy’s house, and about the crawlspace under it, where Gacy had placed the bodies of his victims.
Three law enforcement officials present at the time told Tracy Ullman 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.
The attorney who showed up to represent Marzullo’s grandson was none other than Ed Hanrahan, former Cook County state’s attorney.
The Des Plaines police let the grandson and the other young man 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 bringing other young men back to Gacy’s house for work or parties.
According to documents Bill Dorsch obtained from the Des Plaines police department 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.”
One of the two committed suicide in 2001. The other, Marzullo’s grandson, 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.
To understand how this relationship could have had such a dire influence on the execution of justice in Chicago, it helps to understand a little about local politics.
In a 1978 documentary on Marzullo by Media Burn Archives’ Tom Weinberg, reformist 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 as constituents approach one at a time asking him to dispense favors: asphalt, pothole fixes, and jobs.
In Boss, Mike Royko gets to the nitty gritty on Vito Marzullo:
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.
When you look at the Gacy situation through the prism of Chicago politics and patronage, the choices made during his arrests and interrogations begin to make sense.
Even before Gacy was arrested for murder, young men came forward reporting that he’d abused them. Their complaints received little sympathy from the police. In March 1978 one badly wounded but determined survivor, Jeffrey Rignall, told police he’d been kidnapped and brutally raped and that another man had been present during the rape. He said police refused to investigate, calling the charges his word against the other guy’s in “just another butt fuck.” 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 police and made the positive ID. Gacy was charged with battery but released on bail to commit even more murders.
We are in genuine danger if our legal institutions are allowed to obscure crimes to achieve political ends. Thanks to the tireless reporting of former Chicago Reader staffer John Conroy, police in Chicago are known to have tortured innocent people into confessing to offenses they didn’t commit. Why? So police could clear and close the cases, taking them off the books. The coverup of these crimes went all the way up the chain of command.
Politicians can be similarly focused on expediency in achieving their own primary goal: reelection. No matter how lofty an elected official’s intentions may be, if his crusades involve blowing the whistle on his predecessors and supporters, chances are he won’t be in office for long.
In this climate it takes genuine courage to pursue the truth.
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.
This time around, the families of people who disappeared in the 1970s, whose names are on record, deserve a thorough search.