Just this October, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office announced they used new technology to help solve an old case involving one of the most infamous serial killers in U.S. history.
The mystery began in 1978, as an evidence technician for the sheriff’s office crouched in the crawl space under John Wayne Gacy’s home in unincorporated Chicago. The technician was searching for the body of a missing 15-year-old boy.
Investigators knew Gacy had gone into the pharmacy where the boy worked part-time. Witnesses heard Gacy offer the boy a job, and the boy told his mother he was going to meet a contractor to discuss possible work. He was never seen again.
After weeks of surveillance, investigators had a warrant to dig. The technician saw small red worms and suspected they were feeding on human remains. He plunged his shovel into the mud and hit an arm bone. In the next 10 days, he uncovered the remains of 28 teenage boys and young men.
Gacy confessed to torturing, sodomizing and murdering 33 young men between 1972 and 1978. He buried most of his victims on his property, but threw five bodies into area rivers. Investigators initially referred to the remains by a number, based on the order in which they were removed from Gacy’s property.
Over the next eight years, investigators used dental records to identity most of the victims, who ranged in age from 14 to 21. Gacy was executed for his crimes in 1994, and the case was closed. But the story wasn’t over. Eight bodies remained unidentified, and some of them hold answers for families who have lost loved ones.
Exhuming and Extracting
In 2011, Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart announced he was reopening the case to use new technology to solve an old crime. For the next 10 years, Detective Lt. Jason Moran led the investigation.
First, they decided to collect a DNA sample from the unidentified victims’ remains — now renumbered one through eight. Moran expected to call the medical examiner’s office, arrange a pick-up time, and then take the remains for testing. Since the late 1970s, the unidentified victims’ lower jaw bones and teeth were contained in separate boxes and stored at the county medical examiner’s office.
Instead, Moran learned the medical examiner’s office had dumped the wooden boxes in a mass grave site in Cook County in 2009. If Moran wanted the remains, he was going to have to oversee an exhumation and dig past many other bodies.
In spring 2011, Moran stood at the site outside of Chicago and called Dart with alarming news. The bodies were supposed to be buried no more than two deep. The excavation unearthed dozens of bodies buried on top of each other — sometimes 16 deep — in cheap, wooden boxes that broke apart when moved. “It was such a disorganized mess,” Dart says.
Eventually, the team was able to locate eight wooden boxes containing the victims’ lower jaw bones and teeth. In June 2011, Moran took the remains to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, where the DNA was extracted. They sent the DNA to a second laboratory for sequencing.
A few months later, Dart held a press conference and asked for DNA samples from families whose sons went missing in Chicago in the 1970s. Families stepped forward and the results seemed promising at first. Within a month, a missing 19-year-old was identified as one of the unknown victims.
Then, the leads dried up for several years. In 2017, two sisters of a Minnesota runaway supplied DNA samples in hopes of learning what happened to their teenage brother. In the 1970s, their family had tried to locate his dental records but they had been destroyed and they had nothing to offer investigators. Decades later, the DNA samples confirmed their suspicion — their brother had been murdered by Gacy at the age of 16.
A New Approach
The next few years were too quiet. No one stepped forward to offer a DNA sample, and six victims remained unidentified.
In 2021, Moran decided to switch strategies. Instead of asking families to come to him, he would use DNA from the victims, look for possible DNA associations, and then identify the families. He reached out to The DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit group of volunteers who partner with law enforcement to identify unknown victims.
Of the remaining six victims, Victim Number Five held promise. The DNA extracted from his molar wasn’t too contaminated with bacteria, and the sequence was clear. “This one had relatively good DNA. It was a relatively high quality whole genome sequencing,” says Harmony Vollmer, one of the lead researchers with The DNA Doe Project.
Vollmer’s team took over the file and uploaded the genetic information to GEDMatch.com, a database where the public can share the results of their ancestry DNA tests in order to access more analytical tools. The team quickly identified a user with associated DNA — likely the victim’s second cousin.
Vollmer’s team then began building a family tree to identify a possible “Doe candidate.” The team worked on a shared document in which they added edits to the family tree as they became available. They used databases such as Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com, and vital records search engines to determine how the family was structured.
Investigative genetic genealogists can hit roadblocks during this process. “There are a lot of different things that can prevent us from solving a Doe [case] quickly,” Vollmer says. “If they are adopted, or they didn’t know their biological father, who they are might not correlate to their DNA.”
If a person was born outside the U.S., Vollmer says it’s harder to find records and build the family tree. Investigators need multiple generations for analysis, and even having grandparents born outside the U.S. can limit options. Endogamy, the custom of only marrying within your community, can also confuse investigators because the DNA among the community is so similar.
The case with Victim Number Five, fortunately, was easier to track. “There were no surprises in [his] tree. His case was pretty straightforward,” Vollmer says.
Proof of Life
Once Vollmer’s team identified their Doe candidate, they passed the file back to Moran. He needed to investigate whether the Doe’s circumstance matched that of Victim Number Five. Investigators believed Victim Number Five died between early 1976 and early 1977 because his remains were buried under a victim whose identity and death date were already confirmed.
Moran conducted interviews, tracked the Doe’s movements in 1976 and 1977 and found “proof of life” with a traffic ticket from January 1976, and then proof of death from income records indicating the Doe earned little in 1976 — likely because he was deceased. Most importantly, Moran learned the Doe lived in a building located in a neighborhood where Gacy operated. It put the young man in Gacy’s crosshairs.
“This is really about human identification,” Moran says. “That has two parts: science and circumstance. You need both. It doesn’t matter if you have someone identified through DNA if the circumstance doesn’t make sense.”
Moran then approached the Doe’s family in North Carolina for DNA samples. The tests confirmed the Doe candidate was indeed Victim Number Five.
Proof of Death
The victim was Francis Wayne Alexander, a young man from North Carolina who briefly lived in Chicago and was never seen again by his family. He was likely 21 when he was murdered.
“We just confirmed [the family’s] worst possible nightmare,” Dart says.
Days before the public announcement, Moran flew down to North Carolina to tell the family first. The victim’s mother was still alive, as were several siblings. For all these years, the family thought that Alexander was still alive.
Prior to his disappearance, Alexander had divorced his wife of only a few months. He also asked his family to send his vital records, including his social security card, to California in preparation for an upcoming move.
The family told Moran they sent the documents but never heard back. When they followed up with the contact in California, no one ever responded. They assumed Alexander had cut them off and they gave up trying to find him. They never even filed a missing person’s report because they didn’t realize he was dead, let alone murdered by a serial killer.
In this unique circumstance, DNA was able to answer a question that the family of the victim did not even know to ask.