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.

Something stinks

dognoseSheriff Dart announced last week that he’d investigated 6114 W. Miami–the property that Bill Dorsch identified as the likely location for additional victims of John Wayne Gacy–and found nothing.

Gacy was the caretaker at the building for several years, and after he married a woman with two daughters he moved his mother into the ground-floor apartment there.

Dart was acting on evidence Dorsch hand-delivered to sheriff’s investigators and on interviews with witnesses that Dorsch arranged. Dart has continually asserted publicly that he’s been working to reexamine the evidence in the Gacy case in hopes of identifying additional victims, producing “closure” for their families, and putting various other mysteries to rest. But it’s taken more than a year for him to act at Miami-Elston, and now that he has, he’s raising more questions than he’s answering.

In January, after Dart finally obtained a search warrant for the property, he said he’d be waiting till the ground thawed to do a search.

On February 25, Fox News reported that Dart said it would be “several months before they start taking a closer look at the location . . . as the grounds are still frozen.” When they do, Dart said, “They’ll start by taking soil samples from a few feet down and then cadaver dogs will be used to see if the samples contain evidence of human remains.”

Spring was approaching, and even though Dart had promised members of different news organizations that they would be notified when he intended to start–and that they would be allowed to film the proceedings–Dorsch was concerned that Dart might keep things quiet. So Dorsch wrote an open letter to Chicago police officers asking them to keep an eye on the property. The following day the post on this site was linked on Second City Cop, a blog popular among police officers, and hundreds of its readers clicked over here to read the letter.

That same afternoon, Michael Sneed, who’s often first with news from the sheriff, reported in the Chicago Sun-Times that Dart had already conducted a search. She said it had taken place a week before. “It’s over,” Sneed announced.

The day she cited would have been a strange day to perform a search. It had been particularly chilly, even for March in Chicago. The temperature was well below freezing and the wind chill made it feel another 20 degrees colder. If you were waiting for the ground to thaw, you’d still have been waiting.

News organizations all over the country have published news as this case has unfolded (with varying degrees of accuracy), and many of them reported Sneed’s news. But none cited any other source other than Sneed herself.

No one of mentioned the timing, the extreme cold, the failure to alert the press, or the lack of transparency for such a high-profile investigation.

At least two reporters employed by two different large media concerns called Dart to ask how Sneed had got the news, and Dart’s office claimed it had been leaked to her by a spokesperson from the Cook County state’s attorney. Those reporters had little choice but to wait for news when Dart released his test results, which he said he would do in the coming weeks.

Then AP’s Don Babwin published an interview with Dart on April 12. And once again, a single report by a hand-picked outlet was republished widely, nationally, without anyone asking Dart the obvious questions about his secrecy.

Dart’s spokesman said that two sniffer dogs brought in for the job had been less than excited by core samples taken from the ground at Miami and Elston. One report said that “sheriff’s police, the FBI and Infrared Diagnostics, Inc.” had participated in the search.

Babwin jumped to even more conclusions than the sheriff had: “If serial killer John Wayne Gacy murdered more young men in the 1970s than the 33 whose bodies he stashed under his house or tossed in a river, detectives now know one thing for sure: He didn’t bury any at his mother’s residence.”

Babwin’s AP story was accompanied in some versions by a photo that was misleading at best: an unlabeled aerial shot of the brief investigation in 1998 that also proved “fruitless.” [Update: A caption for the outdated photo has been added.]

Other versions of Babwin’s story ran with a picture taken late last year when Dart announced that he planned to submit Gacy’s DNA to a national database. Maybe those outlets liked that picture for this story because it looked sciencey. And because no one had actually interviewed Dart this time around.

And yet a third image used elsewhere was also taken in 1998, when Dorsch’s efforts led to ground-scanning radar experts being brought in to inspect the property at Miami-Elston. Their report shows multiple anomalies in the ground suggesting the possibility of corpses. Though that data led to the scheduling of a search, people in the media, and even public officials including Dart, have begun over the past year to refer to that investigation as “shoddy” or otherwise incomplete.

But without transparency how does the public know the current inspection was bona fide?

It was recently revealed that it took a grieving mother seven years to get the perpetrator to court after her son died from a punch outside a Rush Street bar. It may have been relevant that the perpetrator was Mayor Daley’s nephew.

Special treatment  has been accorded to the clouted recently and forever.

Since Dart didn’t invite anyone to watch his alleged inspection of Miami-Elston, and he didn’t even hold a press conference to discuss his alleged results, he hasn’t received any questions in a public forum.

Questions like these:

  • Why did you decide to inspect when the ground was still frozen?
  • What time of day were you there?
  • How long did it take?
  • How many samples were taken?
  • Where exactly were they taken from?
  • How do those areas square with areas pointed out by eyewitnesses and the previous radar scans?
  • What further tests do you plan to do on the samples and/or the property?
  • Who is Infrared Diagnostics, Inc. and will you release their images?

Dart himself made the case that there might be bodies there in his search warrant application. Dart may be strongly motivated not to find anything. Reporters are among the only people who can make sure the search doesn’t end here.

Politicians’ public statements raise doubts about sincerity



The Cook County’s sheriff and state’s attorney are both on record agreeing that the property at Miami and Elston deserves investigation.

But after Michael Sneed revealed on a recent Friday night that State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez had approved Sheriff Tom Dart’s search warrant application, the sheriff’s communications director Frank Bilecki told the Chicago Tribune that “being able to close a chapter of it at this property would be nice.”

There’s more from Dart’s office: “‘We’re not going in with backhoes and the whole nine yards,’ Bilecki said. ‘We don’t expect to be there more than a day.”

If there are human remains in that yard, it will take more than a day to deal with them. Despite seeming to agree that there’s compelling reason to explore the property, Dart sounds confident he won’t find anything.

If you recall, the same property was examined briefly in 1998, but the search was inconclusive. The president of the ground-scanning radar company, Ron LaBarca, who had personally scanned the property and found anomalies demanding a closer look, sent private investigator Bill Dorsch an angry letter afterward decrying the city’s methods.

The recent Trib story continues: “The work will be relatively non-invasive, Bilecki said. Investigators will use devices that scan the ground for anomalies, he said. If any are found, a small hole will be drilled in the ground at that spot, and cadaver dogs will then sniff that spot, he said.”

How small? As we know from previous scans of the yard there are considerable anomalies in the way the ground has settled in the yard. Will a small core sample hit the remains? And as Bill Dorsch says, “Whose dogs?”

Bilecki also said it would be a while before any investigation would take place, telling the Trib “the sheriff’s office will have to enlist the help of the FBI and private companies to search the property.”

But private investigator Bill Dorsch, who independently collected all the evidence Dart is now working with, says the FBI already has all the technology required to scan and test the property.

And Dorsch personally spoke with the FBI weeks ago. He hand-delivered to them the same materials he had previously given to the sheriff: affidavits, videotaped interviews, and other documents. So it shouldn’t be too hard to persuade them to help out.

There are videotaped interviews with eyewitnesses who saw Gacy at the property digging holes, making strange noises in the basement in the middle of the night, and carrying a shovel in the middle of the night.

Another eyewitness is still angry that in 1998 the police dug in the one spot he told them not to bother: because during the time Gacy was involved with the property, there had been an evergreen there.

Is Alvarez too political to consider search warrant application?

Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez

Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez

Rob Wildeboer reports on WBEZ that attorneys for victims of police torture under Jon Burge–and other officers who remain unprosecuted–say that Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez is unfit to review these cases. Now a class action petition has been filed seeking new evidentiary hearings in torture cases.

This who’s who, created by John Conroy at the Chicago Reader when I was editor in chief there, outlines who knew what when about the scandal. Implicated officials include former mayor Richard M. Daley, and former state’s attorneys Jack O’Malley and Richard Devine.

Though Alvarez wasn’t elected to the office of state’s attorney till 2008, she held multiple prestigious appointments, including chief of staff, under Devine, while the office was aware of the torture.

The same issues of conflict arise with Alvarez in the case of still-buried victims of John Wayne Gacy and the way the original prosecution was handled by the state’s attorney.

Evidence will show (stay tuned) why local officials would have wanted to resolve the 1978 serial murder case quickly and quietly. It may seem absurd to suggest that there was any chance of maintaining quiet around 33 known murders, but somehow quiet was achieved. The facts are emerging nevertheless.

One of the many interesting things about the case is the possibility that there are victims who haven’t been found yet, whose families and loved ones would no doubt like to know of their whereabouts. Multiple witnesses (video clips in earlier posts here) report activity by Gacy that points strongly to the presence of burials at Miami and Elston, at the building on the northwest side where Gacy was a caretaker.

Alvarez’s champion Devine was the SA in 1998 when a Better Government Association probe led to a brief investigation of the Miami-Elston site. There’s ample reason to believe that dig was dispatched quickly and was never intended to produce results.

Sheriff Tom Dart has finally been persuaded to file an application for a warrant to search that property. And yet it sits unaddressed on Alvarez’s desk. Perhaps Alvarez isn’t the best person to ask for action in the case.

It languishes while the weather gets colder and the ground gets harder.

Video: Sheriff Tom Dart agrees to search for additional Gacy victims

Cook County sheriff Tom Dart responds to evidence that there may be additional victims of John Wayne Gacy at Miami and Elston.

In the spring of 2011, former Chicago Police detective Bill Dorsch told Sheriff Tom Dart that he has long suspected there might be additional victims of John Wayne Gacy buried at a building at Miami and Elston. But there were other loose ends in the case as well. Eight of Gacy’s known victims had never been identified, for example, and Dart turned his attention there. Now DNA could tie them to relatives and produce results for those still-grieving families.

So the sheriff began the process of exhuming those remains from several local cemeteries.

The project to identify the eight was announced, and more than a hundred families across the country submitted DNA in hopes of finding young men who had disappeared in the 1970s.

The University of North Texas was enlisted to help with the DNA, and as forensic pathologist Dr. Arthur Eisenberg told ABC News, “It’s not so much that it was a high-profile serial killer, but the fact is these families have gone this long without knowing.”

Eisenberg says the pool was narrowed to around three dozen families whose DNA would be analyzed and compared to the unidentified remains. And in November 2011, one of the victims was positively identified as William Bundy, whose Chicago-area family had long suspected he had died at Gacy’s hands.

Some of the same families who submitted DNA also contacted Bill Dorsch, as stories had been showing up  in local and national news media about his work. That same news coverage is what finally prompted Dart to apply this spring for a search warrant that would allow an excavation at the private property at 6114 W. Miami.

His application had to be approved by Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez, and she turned him down, citing a lack of evidence to justify a search.

We wanted to know how Dart planned to respond, considering how much evidence Dorsch has made available to him.

As you can see in this video, Dart agrees that a dig is clearly the way to go: that people still looking for their missing loved ones deserve to know once and for all who is or isn’t buried at Miami and Elston. These people have been waiting for information for more than three tortuous decades.