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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