Public records that aren’t

Russel.Nelson.headshotIn December 2013 Bill Dorsch submitted the latest in a long series of requests under the Freedom of Information Act that he’s filed for information about the Gacy investigation. He asked the Cook County state’s attorney’s office for the missing persons report on Russell Nelson, and any “investigative reports, letters, or correspondence between Robert Young and any investigators of the Chicago Police Department or the Cook County Sheriff’s Department during their investigation into the disappearance and death of Russell Nelson.”

FOIA is the federal law that gives citizens access to public records unless the records are shown to be exempt for some specific reason. One reason for a denial, for an example, might be that they’re part of an ongoing prosecution.

In January 2014 Dorsch received a response from the state’s attorney’s FOIA officer, Paul Castiglione, who said no records would be forthcoming and inviting Dorsch to submit his request to the police and the sheriff’s office instead. He also informed Dorsch, as he had to do by law, that he had the right to appeal the decision. The reason Castiglione said, was that according to an appellate judgment delivered in Kendall County in 2013, “The SAO is not a ‘public body’ subject to FOIA.”

In other words, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, which is funded entirely by taxpayers to conduct legal business on behalf of the citizens of Cook County, asserted that it didn’t have to show the citizens of Cook County any records of that business.

Denials and appeals serve a double whammy to the public good: they cause delays and create financial burdens for the requesters, and they drive up the expense to tax payers in the form of fees to the attorneys fighting requests, suits, and appeals.

Try, Try Again

Dorsch didn’t need the advice. He had already submitted requests to the police and the sheriff. The police responded to Dorsch’s letter by saying they hadn’t handled the Gacy investigation and therefore had no documents. That seemed unlikely, since most of Gacy’s victims went missing in Chicago. But Dorsch would have to appeal to get a hold of them.

The sheriff’s office said Dorsch’s request would demand too much time and effort  to fulfill. And besides which, they said, their current investigation, prompted by pressure exerted on Sheriff Tom Dart by Dorsch’s discoveries, was focusing on unidentified victims–they claimed they didn’t have anything on known victims anyway.

Dorsch finds this last claim particularly absurd: the Cook County sheriff’s office has had all the records relating to Gacy since the day it kicked the Des Plaines police off the case. Gacy was arrested on December 21, 1978, and on December 22 the CCSO took over. The CCSO is and has always been the repository of all records in the case.

On May 22, 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the appellate court’s ruling in Kendall County, so state’s attorneys are once again subject to FOIA requests. But not everyone has the resources to file requests and lawsuits and take their case all the way to the state supreme court, if not farther if need be, so unfortunately if a public official doesn’t want you to see something chances are still pretty good you won’t.

In the meantime, Tracy Ullman filed a different FOIA request with the Cook County state’s attorney. In April she asked for the missing persons report and other investigation records pertaining to Russell Nelson and Robert Young.

First the SAO suggested that she confer with the sheriff’s office instead. When she protested the SAO assured her that it would look for the records but said it wasn’t clear yet if the office would be able to produce them.

Who Knows What?

Even when public officials appear to be complying with a FOIA request, they can manipulate the results. They can hold back certain documents and redact details from the ones they do turn over.

“They know more than you do, and they know you don’t know what you don’t know,” says Dorsch. “So they can make sure you still don’t know it.”

On the other hand, it helps if they don’t know what you know.

Dorsch has taken another legal step available to him: he requested that Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office review his FOIA requests and the unsatisfactory responses from the county officials.

Photo courtesy The Pine Knot, Cloquet, Minnesota

“The Hot List”: Does it name more Gacy victims?

Kenneth Parker, who was allegedly found with the remains of the body now known to have been misidentified as Michael Marino

Kenneth Parker, whose remains were supposed to have been found with the body of Michael Marino. DNA tests prove that Marino was  misidentified. The chaos that was the Gacy investigation suggests other problematic identifications as well as other possible locations of victims.

After the 1978 arrest of John Wayne Gacy, and the horrific contents of his crawlspace were revealed, the Des Plaines police began examining missing-persons files, looking for potential matches for the remains of dozens of bodies they found there. Some of them had been missing for years. Gacy’s first known victim was murdered in 1972.

Could these missing kids have been Gacy victims too?

As the lists of possible victims grew, a profile of the type of person Gacy had targeted began to form. Some names were annotated with comments like “unlikely match.” Others belonged to women, who were also unlikely victims. Some were crossed off because they weren’t considered relevant.

In January 1979 more than 100 potential victims’ names were on lists circulating between the Des Plaines police and the sheriff’s department, which soon took over the investigation.

The name of Kenny Parker is on two of those lists. Parker, who was 16, disappeared with his friend 14-year-old Michael Marino, and two bodies found together in Gacy’s crawlspace were identified as theirs. But last fall, after privately contracting for DNA testing, Marino’s mother, Sherry, received the news that her son had been misidentified: the gravesite she’s been visiting all these years held someone else’s remains.

Was Parker misidentified too? There are reasons to wonder.

The bodies brought in from Gacy’s home were often buried two or three deep, those performing the autopsies, including Cook County medical examiner Robert Stein, forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, and orthodontist Edward Pavlik, were dealing in many cases with mingled remains.

The autopsy report for the remains attributed to Kenny Parker has a list of names as well. Clyde Snow, now one of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists, told Ullman that those seven names were considered the “hot list,” or boys who seemed extremely likely to have been Gacy victims because their desperate mothers and fathers were so insistent that they were.

Seven names.

Ullman took the seven names on the autopsy report, all last names only:


and cross-checked them against the missing-persons lists. She came up with the following matches:

(1) Bathgate is probably a match for “George Battgate,” or more likely, George Bathgate

(2) Bowman matches up with “William Bowman

(3) Joye matches “Mike Joye

(4) Kulpinski matches “Steven Kulpinski

(5) Lambert matches “Dwight Lambert

(6) Meyers is probably “Joseph Myers,” or more likely, Joseph Meyers

(7) Pearce was the only name she hasn’t been able to cross-reference.

Snow had marked six of the seven “excluded,” but the name Meyers is followed by the remark “Not Excluded.”

Snow, who’s based in Norman, Oklahoma, now as in 1978, when he traveled here to work on the case, was concerned when Ullman reminded him that Joseph Meyers hadn’t been excluded. He plans to go back into his own files to see what else he can discover about that name.

Who was Joseph Meyers? What happened to him and the other six on the hot list? Where are they now?

Here’s a possibility.

After years of investigation retired Chicago homicide detective Bill Dorsch has come to believe that the property at 6114 W. Elston could very well be the resting place of additional victims of Gacy. His work attracted the interest of the Better Government Association in 1998, which led to a search now widely, even officially, characterized as “shoddy.”

Somehow, despite massive media attention, that was the end of it. Until Dorsch and then Cook County sheriff Tom Dart got it going again.

In 2011, after being prompted by Dorsch’s findings, Dart turned his attention to the eight known but never identified victims.

In 2011 more than 100 families submitted the names of missing persons who might be those victims. One family, that of William Bundy, learned that he had in fact been murdered by Gacy, something they’d long suspected and finally knew for certain.

Seven of the original eight remain unidentified. And including the remains attributed to Marino, the number’s back up to at least eight.

And what of the more than 100 other families who told Dart they still think their sons might have been victims?

Dorsch thought they might be bured at 6114 W. Miami. In the spring of 2012, on the strength of Dorsch’s material, Cook County sheriff Tom Dart agreed it was a possibility as well. He announced that he was requesting a search warrant. In January 2013, after an unexplained delay, he got it and confirmed that he’d be conducting a search when the ground thawed.

But things didn’t proceed the way you might expect.

Last August Bill Dorsch filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act asking for names of the family members who’d volunteered to participate in Dart’s DNA testing. Dorsch was hoping he’d be able to connect some dots using those names.

The sheriff turned him down.

Then in March, while Dorsch and members of the media waiting to hear when Dart would investigate at Miami, Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed announced that Dart had already done the search. He had examined it in secret on a very cold day. Using technology that wouldn’t be much use 35 years after the murders and under frigid conditions, Dart proclaimed the case closed. Even some of his own colleagues considered his testing faulty and his actions ill-advised.

Unless public pressure comes to bear, or some higher authority intervenes, Dart still holds the cards: he has the names of the missing, he has the authority to perform an actual investigation, and he claims to want to identify anonymous victims.

Maybe, as the Chicago police told a witness in 1978, he “don’t want no more bodies.”