The Secrets in Gacy Victims’ Jaws

A year ago the documentary series based on the investigative work by Tracy and me began airing on Peacock, the streamer NBC had recently launched (free to Xfinity subscribers). One reason I took down most of the previous posts on this site is that we hoped it would help us sell our idea: producers are more interested if your work isn’t already on public view. And yes, selling it enabled us to make money for the first time on the ten years’ worth of reporting we’d done for free, but more important, it also allowed us to tell our story to a much larger audience, possibly influencing how things will ultimately pan out. Anyway, much of the series, Devil in Disguise, which was also broadcast on other NBC channels, is dedicated to a previously unseen jailhouse interview with Gacy. But director Rod Blackhurst did a beautiful job of tying Gacy’s reflexive mendaciousness to even bigger mysteries in the case being perpetrated by public officials. I show up toward the end to describe why we’ve been doing this work for so long. (Because truth matters.)

Here’s what else is going on.

You may already know that DNA tests have shown that Sherry Marino isn’t related to victim number 14, the murder victim whose remains were identified in 1980 as her son, Michael. Cook County sheriff Tom Dart has refused to accept those DNA test results, insisting that they’re untrustworthy and implying that she’s nuts. Now Dart’s position may force him to acknowledge a different problem–possibly a big one–with the chain of custody of evidence in the original case.

In a motion filed with the Cook County Circuit Court in People v. Gacy on January 5, Marino asserts that back in the 1970s and 80s, when investigators were trying to identify Gacy’s 33 known victims, they severed and retained the victims’ jawbones. Genetic testing was only a twinkle in law enforcement’s eye back then, but they must have known that the jaws were the best site on the body from which to collect DNA. Maybe they hoped that as the technology developed further the bones would become useful.

According to Marino’s motion, hanging onto the jaws constituted a failure to follow laws governing “property return.”

Sherry Marino

Today Marino’s attorney, Stephen Becker, told the court that if Dart, who wasn’t involved in the original case, believes victim 14 is Michael Marino, then Sherry Marino is entitled to the return of that victim’s jawbones. The judge gave the county a month to supply a written response to her request.

If you’ve heard anything about Gacy in the last few years, it’s probably been in connection with the latter-day Gacy investigation that Dart launched in 2011. Gacy was arrested in 1978 and charged with the murders of 33 boys and young men after the remains of most of them were discovered in the crawlspace beneath his ranch house on Chicago’s northwest side. Dental records and X rays helped establish who many of the victims were, but when Gacy was executed in 1994, the names of eight of them were still unknown. Then, in 2011, Sheriff Dart announced that he, along with his right-hand man on the project, Cook County sheriff’s police lieutenant Jason Moran, had recently learned about the eight unknowns and wanted to begin a new hunt for their names.

If you’re paying closer attention to Gacy news, you may know that Sherry Marino, a Chicago woman who lives in Uptown, started her own Gacy investigation around the same time Dart began his.

From the beginning, Marino’s goal was the opposite of Dart’s. She had an identification, but she though it was incorrect. Her son, Michael, was 14 in 1976 when he and his friend Kenny Parker, 16, didn’t come home for dinner. She went to the police but, unsatisfied by their response, she searched for Michael herself, posting flyers all over the city and even venturing into dangerous buildings and shooting galleries just in case he’d gotten into drugs. After Gacy’s arrest she, like so many other parents of missing boys, submitted Michael’s dental records to the investigation, but in 1979, both she and the Parkers were told that their sons had been ruled out as victims. She kept looking.

Then, just after Gacy’s conviction, she heard from the investigators again. They said they’d excluded Michael and Kenny in error: they now believed the two boys were the pair of victims found together in the crawlspace.

Marino found this flip-flop strange—and of course she was desperate to believe her son was still alive. But she had no choice other than to take them at their word. She buried the remains of the boy they said was Michael and put his name on the gravestone. But she stayed in her apartment and left Michael’s room intact, just in case. For the next three decades she visited the grave, praying and wondering. She was still wondering when, in 2011, she met Becker, a criminal defense attorney with extensive experience in cases involving DNA. He found her doubts compelling enough that he agreed to help her pro bono. (Their journey is covered at length in this excellent article by Tori Telfer. Please disregard the sheriff’s baseless attacks against yours truly in the comments!)

Becker and Marino got a court order to reopen the grave. Even though the grounds for the exumation involved an official error, however, Cook County prosecutors succeeded in arguing that Marino should pay for the operation herself. Her savings and a gofundme raised the thousands of dollars they needed to cover it. When the casket was finally opened, the team Becker had assembled was startled to discover that the remains were not complete: The victim’s skull was there but the bones that comprise the jaw—the mandible and maxilla—were missing.

Becker recalled that in 2012 Lieutenant Moran had told him that they’d discovered the victims’ jawbones buried in buckets at Homewood Memorial Gardens. (This may have come to light during the scandal that arose after revelations about illegal mass graves there.) Moran later insisted that they only had the jaw bones from the eight unidentifieds, but if Becker’s original impression was correct, and they’d found them all, then Marino’s could be retrieved.

In the end Marino’s technician was able to scrape together enough material to send to the lab, and when the results came back, they confirmed Marino’s theory: the DNA said she and the victim were not related. But if the sheriff isn’t satisfied with those results, perhaps testing on DNA taken from the victim’s jaw will induce him to add that victim to the list of unidentified victims.

Marino still doesn’t know what happened to Michael, but there’s one thing that could help: her DNA can be entered into NAMUS, the national missing persons database. Whether he’s dead or alive, if Michael’s DNA has made its way there, too, at least she’ll know something. But entries to NAMUS can only come from the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in the case: in Gacy that’s Cook County sheriff’s office. And for reasons he has yet to fully explain, Sheriff Dart won’t accept Marino’s proof and therefore won’t reopen the investigation into that victim’s identity.

As for the other eight unidentifieds, the sheriff’s office was able to obtain usable DNA from four of the jaws, which he admits to being in possession of, and then exhumed the remains of the other four to take DNA from their skulls. Since then, Dart has announced the identities of three of the eight victims. None of their relatives were terribly surprised to hear what had happened to their children, brothers, and cousins. But they all said it was a huge relief to know for sure.

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A new doc series based on our investigation drops March 25

The investigation Tracy Ullman and I have been working on since the fall of 2011, when we met retired homicide detective William Dorsch, served as the basis for a new documentary series airing on Peacock TV beginning March 25, 2021.

Rod Blackhurst, who also produced the documentary Amanda Knox, serves as executive producer on the series, as does Tracy Ullman. I’m credited as an executive consultant. The series includes interviews with journalists and former police officers who were present at the time of Gacy’s arrest in 1978. But its focus is the problems we’ve raised as well as evidence discovered by Dorsch, us, and attorney Stephen Becker, working on behalf of the mother of an alleged victim. The series also addresses the question of whether or not some of Gacy’s employees knew about or even participated in the murders, the misidentification of at least one of Gacy’s victims, and the Cook County sheriff’s mysterious refusal to acknowledge this evidence or to thoroughly investigate other locations where Gacy may have buried victims.

If you were following along here when I was posting updates to the investigation, you know that’s only the tip of the iceberg. For the whole megillah, you’ll have to wait for my book.

The effects of the tragic kidnapping and murders of 33 boys in Chicago in the 1970s rippled through devastated families across the country, but they concentrated particularly hard on the city’s northwest side, where Tracy and I both lived with our respective families when we began working together. As things progressed, we were struck not only by the number of victims’ friends and family members who were hurt by these crimes, but by how many of them were our own acquaintances and neighbors.

The story everyone knows about John Wayne Gacy-the saga of his arrest and trial, the horrific fates of his victims, has been written mainly by law enforcement and the prosecutors who got Gacy convicted.

Now there’s a rewrite, one that incorporates the testimony of witnesses whose tips fell on deaf ears, family members who were ignored by the Chicago Police, and scientific evidence that indicates the possible presence of victims in new uninvestigated locations.

The new story contradicts the public record in significant ways, and we fear this is not an accident.

FAQ: the investigation so far

What is this site and where are the posts I’ve read here before?

This is the home of an investigation by Alison True and Tracy Ullman begun in October 2011. Posts have been taken down while we work on bringing attention to the case through other platforms.

Who’s John Wayne Gacy?

He was a Chicagoan with a small construction company and one of the world’s most prolific serial killers. He was suspected in the disappearance of a suburban teenager in 1978 and arrested, whereupon the police found the remains of dozens of victims in the crawlspace under his house. By the time Gacy was executed in 1994, 25 victims had been identified and the remains of 8 others were interred without ID.

Why is he called the “Killer Clown”?

People often say that Gacy lured victims dressed as a clown, but this is false. He occasionally dressed as a clown for parties, but he kidnapped victims other ways: by offering them construction work or inviting them to party with him, and also by plucking them off the street while posing as an undercover police officer.

Were there witnesses to the crimes?

While they were trailing him, police followed him into a bar and overheard what seemed to be a discussion about disposing of bodies. Before and after the arrest, several young men of his acquaintance were questioned by police, while others may have taken off. One survivor said at least one other person was involved when he was kidnapped and brutally attacked.

No one else was ever charged, nor given plea deals for immunity.

So what’s up with that place at Miami and Elston?

In the mid 1970s Gacy had a maintence contract there, and for a time his mother occupied one of the five apartments. After his arrest, several neighbors of that building called police saying they might have witnessed Gacy burying victims without realizing it.

Wasn’t that place investigated recently?

That depends on how you define “investigated.” In 1998, after a ground-scanning-radar company found anomalies in the yard, the Chicago police obtained a search warrant and expressed a strong conviction that they’d find human remains there. In the event, though, investigators ignored diagrams drawn by the witnesses and kept their operations restricted to a small tent set up in a different place in the yard.

In response to our inquiries, and our proffered witness interviews and new evidence, Cook County sheriff Tom Dart made a new search of the property in the spring of 2013. Dart later announced that the site was clean, but when pressed, his expert admitted that the search would not have been thorough enough to produce any solid conclusions.

Though he has stated that he is committed to tying up the loose ends in the case, Dart has not explained why he doesn’t want to excavate the site. His refusal raises questions about why he insists on preserving the dubious conclusions of the original, 1978 investigation.

How so?

Much has been made of Dart’s announced intention to use modern technology to try to bring closure to the families of the victims who weren’t identified at the time of Gacy’s arrest.

Dart invited people to submit profiles of potential victims, and said he heard from more than 100. He said his office narrowed the field to 30 or so based on their similarity to the profiles of Gacy’s known victims, and their relatives were invited to submit DNA. Since then two victims have been identified.

What about all those other families whose victim profiles seemed likely?

At the time of Gacy’s arrest witnesses reported suspicions about multiple other locations in Chicago, including but not limited to the house on Miami, The sheriff has not shown any interest in investigating them. He does, however, readily admit that Gacy traveled frequently for work and may well have murdered boys elsewhere.

Anything else going on?

Sherry Marino’s son, Michael, was identified in 1980, along with his friend Kenny Parker, as a Gacy victim, but she was supsicious of the news. After we began publicizing problems with the case, criminal defense attorney Stephen Becker petitioned the court on her behalf for permission to exhume the purported remains of her son. Over the county’s objections, she prevailed, and subsequent tests proved that her DNA did not match that of the victim. There was speculation that Michael’s and Kenny Parker’s remains had mingled and their identities had gotten switched. So she obtained permission, fighting Cook County in court once again, to exhume Parker’s remains. There was no match between her DNA and that of the second victim either. So for certain, neither victim is her son, and it’s possible, considering the circumstances, that the friend was misidentified as well.

The sheriff doesn’t accept her legitimate test results, nor does he acknowledge that he now has at least one, maybe two, and possibly even more additional victims to contend with.

Victims’ families deserve the truth

Since 2011 Tracy Ullman, and I have been trying to determine why the official Gacy story contradicts so much available evidence. Gacy was accused of 33 murders, but we have reason to believe there are multiple sites with additional victims and that the story behind the murders is a lot more complicated than the official lone-wolf narrative.

The reaction of law enforcement–including the Cook County sheriff’s office, the Chicago Police Department, and the FBI–suggests that the oversights were not accidental and that in fact officials are actively attempting to maintain the integrity of the original case, as flawed as it clearly was.

Among the threads we’ve developed over the past decade are:

  • Proof that the forensic anthropologist on the case identified other likely victims
  • An official reinvestigation of a site that may contain Gacy victims
  • Proof that that search was flawed and inconclusive
  • Proof that at least one Gacy victim was misidentified
  • The identification of additional likely sites of burials

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of people who still believe that someone they love was kidnapped and murdered by John Wayne Gacy. Many cling to the hope of one day discovering what happened. Their hopes were raised when Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart pledged to use DNA testing to match the victims with their families. In the past ten years he has identified two three out of eight sets of remains. But the six five that remain are not the only Gacy victims whose stories have never been told. The mother of one identified victim has proved that her son was misidentified, but so far the sheriff has refused to acknowledge her legitimate test results and add that victim to his list of unidentifieds.

If you are one of the many people whose life was affected by this tragedy, and you’d like to contact me, please be in touch. Requests for privacy will be honored.