John Wayne Gacy was executed in 1994 for the murders of 33 young men and boys, but he hasn’t gone away. Gacy made headlines 17 months ago when DNA testing led to the identification of one of his eight victims who’d remained nameless. He made more headlines last year when Tom Dart, sheriff of Cook County, added Gacy’s DNA to a national database to see if it might link him to other murders. There may be victims we know nothing about, Dart reasoned.
Damn right there are, Bill Dorsch, a retired Chicago homicide detective, has been saying for more than 15 years. Dorsch believes he knows where they are. In addition to the 28 bodies found in a crawl space under Gacy’s Norwood Park home, the body buried under his garage, and the four others pulled from the Des Plaines River, Dorsch thinks an untold number are buried in the yard of an apartment building at Miami and Elston in Chicago. That’s where Gacy was caretaker in the mid-70s while his mother lived on-site in a garden apartment.
Michael Sneed covered Gacy for the Chicago Tribune after his arrest in 1978. Now she’s writing about him again for the Sun-Times—specifically about Dart’s campaign to find more victims. Then there’s Terry Sullivan, who prosecuted Gacy and later wrote a book about him, Killer Clown. Sullivan’s about to come out with a new edition of that book “updated with the latest DNA findings.” But the ultimate evidence of Gacy’s unabated notoriety is the website now dedicated to him: johnwaynegacynews.com.
Launched last May to advocate for Dorsch and rouse the media, the site is maintained by Alison True, who was editor of the Reader from 1994 to 2010. The Reader has nothing to do with True’s site, but she’s made it central to her credibility. The site notes that under True the Reader “won numerous local and national journalism awards” and that she “supervised its decades-long series covering the use of torture by the Chicago Police Department.”
True’s site describes how Dorsch lived near the apartment building and spotted Gacy out on the grounds late one night, shovel in hand. It introduces witnesses Dorsch rounded up who support his theory—such as Mike Nelson, who as a teenager in the mid-70s lived across the street, who used to give Gacy a hand keeping up the property, and who recalls a couple of long “trenches” three to four feet deep that mysteriously appeared in the property’s triangular front yard. Nelson recollects that a few weeks later the trenches disappeared overnight; they’d been filled in and bushes planted. When Chicago police, at Dorsch’s urging, did some digging in the yard in 1998, Nelson says they dug exactly where he’d told them not to look. True reports that Dorsch considers the 1998 search a joke and anticipated Dart’s search being no better.
True even offers an explanation for the authorities’ supposed reluctance to genuinely search the apartment site. “The simple answer comes down to one word: Clout,” she wrote this February.
“I was quite shocked to find out they had done it without any sources calling to let me know.”
Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed, on the sheriff’s office’s recent search for Gacy victims at a Chicago apartment complex
At one point, she said, the Des Plaines police brought Gacy in for questioning along with two young men who worked for him. The young men were telling the police what they knew about bringing young men to Gacy’s house for parties and about digging holes under his house when the mother of one of them swept into the Des Plaines police station and demanded an end to the questioning. The mother, True reported, identified herself as the daughter of Vito Marzullo, a powerful Chicago alderman. The attorney she brought with her was Ed Hanrahan, former state’s attorney of Cook County. The two boys went home. They were never charged.
True found in this intriguing but sketchy episode (mentioned in Sullivan’s book) parallels with police torture as it was laid out in Reader articles published on her watch. “We are in genuine danger if our legal institutions are allowed to obscure crimes to achieve political ends,” True wrote.
There’s been less media interest in Dorsch’s theory than True hoped, but a few journalists, including Sneed, have kept an eye on developments. It took months for State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to sign off on Dart’s warrant allowing him to search the 6114 W. Miami site, but on February 14 Sneed published an “exclusive” that began, “It’s a thumbs up!”
And on March 26 Sneed had another scoop. “It’s over,” she wrote. “There was no Geraldo moment. The search for victims of mass murderer John Wayne Gacy in the Northwest Side apartment building where Gacy’s mother once lived turned up squat … nothing.”
As someone who knows both True and Sneed well, I don’t follow these developments dispassionately, especially when their reporting puts them at cross-purposes. True took her time reacting to Sneed’s news that Dart had satisfactorily completed his search, but she by no means folded her tent. In an April 15 post she referenced a letter she’d posted on March 25 from Dorsch to Chicago cops urging them to keep an eye on 6114 W. Miami in case Dart decided to drop by and give it a once-over. “You’ll never guess what happened next!” True went on. The very next day, she said, Sneed reported “that Dart had already conducted a search.” And sure enough, he’d done it “in secret.” True wondered, “Without transparency what confidence can any of us have that the current inspection was bona fide?”
Sneed won’t say who her sources were, but if Dart were as transparent as she thinks he should have been, she wouldn’t have found out about the dig only after it happened. “I was quite shocked to find out they had done it without any sources calling to let me know,” Sneed told me. “Now there was nobody to attest to it.”
On April 10, WGN TV’s Larry Potash, another Chicago journalist who’s kept an eye on the story, invited Gacy prosecutor Sullivan and three detectives from Cook County and Des Plaines to come on the air and talk about Dart’s search. “I think they made a big mistake by not allowing the media to cover it,” Sullivan replied. “It was done the wrong way. There is no transparency.”
Potash gingerly raised the clout theory. “There was a guy who worked with Gacy, had keys to his place, he matched the description given by one of Gacy’s survivors, witnesses said he talked about bodies being buried,” Potash said. “Why was he not indicted? He still lives in the Chicago area, by the way.” This presumably was Marzullo’s grandson, though Potash didn’t get specific.
Said Sullivan: “Simply put, he wasn’t charged because we didn’t have the evidence to charge him.”
“Do you think there was political interference in that regard?”
“We didn’t spot any political interference whatever,” Sullivan responded.
Did Dart, as Sullivan and True and Sneed seem to agree, do his search “the wrong way”?
“We have been nothing but transparent,” said Dart’s media guy, Frank Bilecki. “I’m not aware of many law enforcement agencies that will call out the media when searching an area.” He told me that back in ’98 when the CPD did its search, the news media showed up, “people were coming in for artifacts,” and adjacent property was “essentially destroyed.” Dart didn’t want that happening again.
According to Bilecki, Dart’s search was thorough, professional, and lasted more than five hours. Infrared Diagnostics, a Saint Louis firm that frequently works with the FBI, was there with its ground-penetrating radar, and the FBI had a team of springer spaniels supposedly capable of detecting traces of bodies buried for 150 years.
Preliminary results were negative, said Bilecki, but as soon as the “final report” was in Dart fully intended to notify the media.
But Sneed already was notified!
“The source for the Sneed column was not the sheriff’s office,” said Bilecki.
I ran by him another hypothesis I’d heard: that Dart spent months trying to wrangle a warrant from Anita Alvarez, who thought the idea of digging for bodies at Miami and Elston was ridiculous—and that when Dart finally got his warrant and did his dig and it turned up nothing, he was too embarrassed to say so.
“Zero! Zero embarrassment for that!” Bilecki insisted. “For people to believe that or say that is completely inaccurate. That property needed to be searched properly, and it was.”
The sheriff’s office’s campaign to find and identify more Gacy victims will go on—though not at 6114 W. Miami. “This whole investigation has taken so many twists and turns,” Bilecki said. “We definitely don’t try to predict what we’re going to find.”
Correction:This story has been updated to correctly the reflect the location of John Wayne Gacy’s home: Norwood Park.