If reporters don’t pay attention, no one will

When it comes to history and how it’s reported in the news, do you want to know what really happened or do you want to know what public officials want to tell you?

Anyone can make mistakes, and I don’t mean to pick on Associated Press reporter Don Babwin, but his January 12 piece on Sheriff Tom Dart’s announcement that he intends to take a look at the property at Miami and Elston is a case in point. The story was reposted from  Long Island to Lubbock to Vancouver. With such wide distribution, any errors in it threaten to become “fact.” And similar errors have shown up in many other reports.

As will become very clear, government officials have their own reasons to want certain facts of this case obscured. And media scrutiny of them has been less than enthusiastic over the years. We don’t need to contribute to the confusion. Let’s get a few things straight.

AP reports, “Detectives who have long wondered if John Wayne Gacy killed others besides the 33 young men he was convicted of murdering may soon get to search for bodies underneath an apartment complex where his late mother once lived.”

Sheriff Tom Dart says he’ll test core samples from the yard of the five-unit building (not a “complex”) where witnesses saw Gacy inexplicably digging large trenches, but no one has mentioned digging “underneath” it. However, the basement work area and the apartment next to it, where Gacy’s mother lived during some of the time he was burying bodies at his own home, should be of very special interest.

More important, there are plenty of people who wonder if Gacy committed additional undisclosed murders, but private investigator and retired homicide detective Bill Dorsch seems to be the only one who has “long wondered.” He’s been trying to get officials to respond to compelling evidence for 15 years. If “detectives” are claiming that they, too, have “long wondered,” why did it take Dart’s investigators a year to get back to Dorsch after he presented them with the names of witnesses who had testimony about Gacy’s behavior?

AP says “Dart has been pushing [state’s attorney Anita] Alvarez’s office for months to sign off on the warrant, but [county spokesman Frank] Bilecki said the sheriff’s office was asked for more evidence.”

Dart may say he’s been pushing, or the reporter may be assuming he has, as the application was first submitted in March 2012. But that was a year after Dorsch gave them crucial information and the names of witnesses who could supply testimony. And when that application was denied on the basis of insufficient evidence, Dorsch obligingly gave them more. The sheriff’s investigators could have discovered the same things Dorsch did, but they don’t appear to have tried. Dart then submitted Dorsch’s signed affidavits and videotaped interviews along with an updated warrant application. He didn’t receive approval for the search from Alvarez until November. I guess he could have been pushing for it, but if he were it probably wouldn’t have taken four months: a search warrant application like that could have been turned around in a few hours.

AP: “Dart’s office then found records showing that Gacy, a contractor, had done handyman work at the complex.”

Dart’s office didn’t need records. The witnesses Dorsch turned up have long maintained that he replaced the blacktop in the driveway for no apparent reason, that he dug large holes in the yard, and that he made loud noises in the basement late at night. The same data led to an investigation at the site in 1998. That search, unfortunately, was far from thorough. And that’s putting it mildly.

AP says Dart’s office “located witnesses whose sworn affidavits raised intriguing questions about Gacy’s activities there.”

After Bill Dorsch tracked down the witnesses, interviewed them, got them on tape, got signed affidavits from them, and turned it all over to Dart’s office, Dart’s investigators asked Dorsch if he could supply contact information for them. I guess that’s what they mean by “located.”

AP: “Bilecki said that investigators would bring in high-tech thermal imaging devices that detect underground anomalies indicating something may have been buried.”

Dart may want to do some new imaging, but he already has the report filed by Ron LaBarca, who was brought here from New Jersey in 1998 to use “high-tech thermal imaging devices” to “detect underground anomalies.” Which he did.

AP: “The apartment complex was searched in 1998, and more than a dozen underground anomalies were located, but for whatever reason, not all of those sites were investigated further, Bilecki said.”

The building was not searched in 1998. After extreme pressure brought about by the Better Government Association, after it heard Dorsch’s evidence, the Chicago Police did agree to investigate. But “for whatever reason,” LaBarca was hustled out of town before the action started. Police set up a tent in one corner of the yard, the one spot a witness now says he told them not to bother with, as there’d been no hole there. The press was kept at bay across the street, while investigators went to work in the tent. We’ll probably never know what went on under that tent, but after a few hours the “investigation” was billed as a failure and the circus moved out of town.

LaBarca was furious. He wrote a scathing letter to Bill Dorsch, complaining of his treatment and criticizing the police–and offering to help Dorsch with any further investigation.

AP: Gacy’s case has remained in the headlines thanks largely to Dart, who has been trying to identify the remains of still unknown victims and who has voiced questions about whether there may be victims whose remains either haven’t been found or haven’t been linked to one of the most notorious serial killers in American history.

It’s in the headlines thanks to Dart’s recent activities, no question there. For years Bill Dorsch has been trying mightily to capture the attention of the media and law enforcement, including the FBI, in hopes of locating victims’ remains and reuniting them with grieving families. Now that Dart is finally responding to the evidence Dorsch collected, perhaps we’ll finally see some results.