Cook County Investigates Gacy Cold Cases

The Cook County sheriff's office in Illinois has launched a new effort to identify eight unidentified victims of mass murderer John Wayne Gacy. The department wants relatives of men who disappeared between 1970 and 1978 to participate in saliva tests to compare their DNA with that of the victims' bones.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: John Wayne Gacy was one of the country's most notorious serial killers. More than 30 years ago, police discovered the skeletal remains of 33 young men Gacy had murdered in the Chicago area. Most were identified but eight were not. The Cook County Sheriff says their remains have been exhumed.

And as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, he's hoping the mystery of who they are can now be solved.

CHERYL CORLEY: Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart says over the last six months investigators have taken steps to close the books forever on John Wayne Gacy, with an effort to identify the eight victims who remain unknown.

THOMAS DART: These are eight people that deserve more. These are eight individuals who right now are nothing more than just forgotten people that were murdered by one of the most evil persons ever to walk the Earth.

CORLEY: Gacy worked as an amateur clown but was also a prominent businessman. He lured his victims, boys and young men, to his home often promising to hire them for odd jobs. Gacy's victims were killed in the 1970s and most buried in the crawl space under his home. The mass murderer was executed in 1994.

Sheriff Dart says his office was able to get DNA profiles of the eight unidentified victims after his office found jawbones and exhumed them from a pauper's grave. With that DNA evidence, Dart says the mystery of the eight could be solved.

DART: So, any relative who may have had a loved one that during this period of time went missing - that they never heard back from, that there may have been some story of long ago that the family said that he just took off to California and we haven't heard from him anymore - anybody who's had that nagging concern and question in mind, they should come forward.

CORLEY: Those people would undergo saliva tests to compare their DNA with that of the skeletal remains.

Robert Egan, one of the prosecutors who helped convict Gacy, says he thinks the effort to identify those victims is much more than a long shot.

ROBERT EGAN: Because we didn't have computers back then, we didn't have the Internet. Then, either you had dental records or you didn't. But now, with DNA, all it takes is a swab on the inside of the cheek and you've got all the DNA you're going to need to compare against the DNA profiles we have.

CORLEY: Sheriff Dart also believes the passage of time may work in their favor. He says families who may have never reported victims missing because of stigmas associated with Gacy, might now be willing to search.

DART: Whether you're talking about homosexuality as a stigma back then, drug abuse, even alcohol abuse to some level, too, there was a million different hurdles that I believe don't exist right now that would lead people to come forward.

CORLEY: Cook County officials have set up a website and a national hotline for people to contact. Sheriff Dart says they may not be able to identify all eight Gacy victims, but he's confident that his office will finally be able to give some of them back their names.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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