Report: search at Miami short and shallow

DartIn January 2013 it seemed that suspicions about Gacy victims at 6114 W. Miami might finally be laid to rest, one way or another.

Private investigator and former Chicago homicide detective Bill Dorsch had presented Cook County sheriff Tom Dart with compelling new evidence that Gacy, who was executed in 1994, may have buried additional victims at a small apartment building on Chicago’s northwest side where he worked as a caretaker. Then Dorsch’s colleague Tracy Ullman discovered a “hot list,” which forensic investigators were using after Gacy’s arrest in December 1978. The list showed the names of missing persons whom investigators considered extremely likely to have been victims. Some of those boys were never found, and now it seemed possible that they might have been buried at 6114 W. Miami.

Dart agreed in the spring of 2012 that the evidence demanded a closer look at the property. He applied for a search warrant and finally got it at the beginning of this year. He said he’d wait for the spring thaw to do his investigation.

But what happened next raised even more questions than it answered. At the end of March, as the winter waned, Dorsch wrote an open letter to Chicago police officers suggesting they keep an eye on the place, and the letter was published on this website. Mere hours later,  Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed announced that she’d been personally informed that the search had already been completed–in secret.

Dart had gone to the building about a week earlier, taking FBI dogs and a radar scanning expert from Saint Louis. Dart had decided not to notify his constituents or their representatives in the press. Media requests for an official report were denied.

Ullman left messages for the radar expert but he didn’t return her calls. The FBI said to talk to the sheriff. And the sheriff said: Case closed.

You don’t have to be an expert

Dorsch said this tactic was exactly what he’d expected. But he knew the sheriff would have to issue a report. He filed a request with the sheriff’s office, asking for the report under the Freedom of Information Act. It took about five months for the report to show up–or approximately four months longer than the law says it should have.

Here’s the report, and here’s what, to a nonexpert reader, it reveals:

  • In addition to Dart, the search team included (1) personnel from the sheriff’s police, (2) Special Agent Doug Seccombe and a team from the FBI’s Chicago office, (3) three dogs and their handlers from the FBI’s Quantico office, and (4) Rich Graf, a private contractor who uses radar and thermal imaging to look for changes that might indicate human interference in the soil.
  • The troops assembled in the parking lot at a golf course near the property, then headed for 6114 W. Miami.
  • One of the dogs examined the lawn in front of the building (there is no backyard) for a total of one minute. That’s where, according to multiple witnesses, Gacy dug large, deep trenches. One of the witnesses said he and his friends would jump down into them to “play army.”
  • Another dog spent one minute sniffing the surface of the asphalt driveway, a parking area big enough for two or three vehicles. That’s the place where a witness told Dorsch he saw two men standing together in a large hole about six feet deep. They were allegedly resurfacing the driveway.
  • And a third dog sniffed the surfaces of the sidewalk and laundry room for five minutes.
  • In each of these cases, the report says, the dog “did not indicate for the presence of human decomposition.” It also says that one of the dogs’ handlers said he was “satisfied there are no bodies buried” at the site.

The dogs used are described as “victim recovery canines.” This Slate article explains how such dogs work and suggests that their findings shouldn’t be considered conclusive. Dorsch spoke to a cadaver dog trainer who said the appropriate dogs for this case would be “historical recovery dogs,” which specialize in long-buried remains, but it’s not possible to determine from the report if the dogs used here were specialists.

Ron LaBarca, who conducted a radar scan of the property in 1998, has made his living for decades working for law enforcement and corporate clients to identify anomalies underground that could represent anything from utility lines to gravesites. He’s careful to say that technology doesn’t identify the source of the anomalies, it only shows that they exist. In 1998 he found more than a dozen instances of “non-naturally occurring changes in the soil structure” here, and marked several as “prime areas for further investigation.”

Rich Graf’s work for Dart in March is documented in the report, which shows that he:

  • scanned the concrete pad beneath back porches for 17 minutes and found no anomalies.
  • scanned the sidewalk behind the house for 11 minutes and found an anomaly, which the team, in discussion with the owner, determined was caused by the replacement of a sewage pipe.
  • scanned the parking area for 14 minutes and found one anomaly. The team made four 20-inch deep holes one inch in diameter through the asphalt and one of the dogs was brought back to sniff them. According to his handler, the dog’s response didn’t indicate the presence of human remains in those holes.
  • scanned the lawn for ten minutes and found no anomalies.

He then spent ten minutes on a ladder examining the yard with thermal imaging equipment, which detects energy and moisture on the surface of whatever’s being scanned.

Then a few members of the team eyeballed the basement, where a resident had described hearing Gacy working late into the night. They said that based on their observation of the concrete floor, they were of the opinion that it had never been replaced.

They also noted that Gacy had once billed the building owner for concrete work at the building and noted that there was no record of him having billed for concrete work in the basement.

But let’s ask an expert

Dorsch, who lived around the corner from the Miami property and knew Gacy as the handyman there, became suspicious about the building as soon as Gacy was arrested in December 1978. Though various people’s attempts to report Gacy’s strange behavior there were ignored, Dorsch began collecting evidence. The Better Government Association got interested in 1998, prompting them to bring LaBarca in from New Jersey to scan the same property. LaBarca made his study, which led to an investigation by the Chicago Police.

What the police hoped would come out of that search is open to interpretation. The witness who’d played in Gacy’s trenches says he watched in astonishment as the police prepared to work at the front corner of the triangular yard, “the one spot I told them not to dig.” That’s the only place they worked.

That search was secret too. The work was conducted under a tent and the media and dozens of onlookers were forced to remain across the street, a wide thoroughfare, from which vantage point they could see nothing except the officer who emerged from the tent and declared that the investigation was over. No remains had been discovered.

LaBarca was not allowed to assist or even watch, so he headed for the airport in disgust.

Tracy Ullman sent LaBarca a copy of the report on the March 2013 operation. He declined to comment on it directly, but he described his own methods in great detail, including exactly how he’d deal with a property of that size. He explained how he’d roll his radar scanner across the lawn and driveway, making multiple passes back and forth, north-south and east-west, to establish a grid pattern small enough to capture any disturbances made by a person digging holes. LaBarca says:

“When we go to a site like this, we do (and did) a one-foot grid because we didn’t know what we were looking for,” LaBarca says. “Yes, bodies were part of the equation but evidence was another probability. The logic was that if someone were to dig a hole to bury a knife or gun or article of clothing, the smallest the disturbance caused by that hand-dug hole would be is approximately one foot. To further ensure the probability of detecting such an excavation, we [also] do a grid in the x and y axis. So now do the math on the real dimensions of that property and decide for yourself if enough time was spent radaring.”

In addition to radar scanning, Dart’s technician Rich Graf used a thermal imaging camera, which this vendor says registers surface temperature differences. Graf wouldn’t take Ullman’s call so she couldn’t ask him if he was looking for heat and emissions from long-decomposed remains on the surface of the yard, but Graf himself admitted to a reporter at the Verge that the only way to determine for sure if there were human remains present would be to do an actual excavation.

Dart wants to use DNA to try to identify potential Gacy victims around the country, but he says his work is finished at 6114 W. Miami. News outlets, both national and local, continue to report on the story as he feeds it to them. Some even make statements for which there is no factual support, e.g., this station: “Sheriff Dart brought in the FBI and internationally renowned experts,” and  “The search in March was comprehensive.” But at least they got exclusive video for their trouble.

Meanwhile, questions about the missing boys on the hot list, who investigators considered extremely likely to be Gacy victims at the time of his arrest, go unanswered, as do questions about Gacy’s associates.

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