Executed by the State of Illinois in 1994 for murdering 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978, serial killer John Wayne Gacy is long gone.
But rumors about the possibility of more Gacy victims live on.
That’s why a retired police detective, a filmmaker, and a veteran journalist are now fighting to reopen the Gacy investigation by searching a property where the notorious serial killer may have buried additional bodies. Their argument is not that anyone in law enforcement needs more murders to solve. Instead, they say, it may be possible to identify the remains of people who disappeared between 1972 and 1978. Those cases remain cold, and Gacy may have been responsible for more killings than anyone wants to admit.
At the heart of their fight is whether noninvasive, ground-penetrating radar can confirm or deny — without a shadow of doubt — the existence of a clandestine grave site. An infrared technician who recently surveyed the Chicago property told me it can’t. “No technology is 100 percent,” he said. But there may be more at play here. Politicians and powerful governmental employees can confirm or deny, too. And, in this case, a sheriff's office may be pushing hard to keep any remaining evidence in the Gacy case underground forever.
Other people's property
Suspicions in the Gacy case focus on a five-unit apartment complex at 6114 W. Miami Ave. in Chicago. For years prior to Gacy’s arrest for murder, he was a maintenance man there. He moved his mother in at one point. The property is about four miles from where most of Gacy’s victims were found buried in shallow graves in the dirt-floor crawlspace beneath his suburban Chicago home.
Since Gacy’s 1978 arrest, residents who lived near W. Miami have told anyone who cares to listen that Gacy's behavior there seemed suspicious in retrospect. One of those people is Bill Dorsch.
A former homicide detective with the Chicago Police Department (CPD), Dorsch lived a few doors away from the property in the mid- to late-’70s.
After Gacy — who later became known as "the Killer Clown," because he would occasionally dress up as "Pogo The Clown" for children's parties — was placed behind bars, Dorsch thought back to their interactions. He remembered, for example, one night in 1975 when he encountered Gacy alone at 3AM, near the W. Miami property. At the time, Gacy was casually holding a spade — a shovel for digging, not moving snow — in his hand.
Without being prompted, Gacy told him, laughing: "Bill, you know me, not enough hours in the day. You get it done when you can."
Only later did Dorsch think to ask a potentially disturbing question: Get what done?
After Gacy was arrested in 1978 and the bodies began piling up, that question emerged loudly to Dorsch. Dorsch made a call to the Cook County Sheriff's Office, the agency overseeing the Gacy investigation.
"I thought, ‘If there’s something there to follow up, they’ll follow up,’" Dorsch told me.
Not holes, trenches
No one in the sheriff's office followed up, and who could blame them?
The Gacy investigation was a long, involved process, to say the least.
When investigators first searched the crawlspace of Gacy’s home in 1978, they suspected they might find the body of one missing teenager. Instead, they found the unthinkable.
"The odor, in that damp and confined area, was almost as unbearable as the thought of what the crawlspace contained," wrote Tim Cahill in Buried Dreams, one of many books eventually written about Gacy and his crimes. "In the northeast corner of the crawlspace under John Gacy’s house, the officers found puddles, all swarming with thin red worms. There, two feet from the north wall, they uncovered what appeared to be a knee bone. The flesh was so desiccated that at first they thought is was blue-jean material."
The dig and subsequent investigation took months. The dismembered remains of teenagers and young men were scattered under the property. More bodies were later found discarded in the Des Plaines River. It’s reasonable to assume that a vague hunch from Bill Dorsch might've gone overlooked while they unearthed the body parts of at least 33 murder victims.
Dorsch was sympathetic to that, so he left it alone.
In 1994, Dorsch retired from CPD detective work after 24 years of service. After some time off, he returned to work as a private investigator.
In a casual conversation among colleagues in 1998, someone asked him a question that many retired cops often hear and think about: "What are the cases that nag at you?"
Dorsch brought up Gacy, the incident in the middle of the night, his suspicions about W. Miami. He talked about conversations he had with neighbors in the intervening years. He mentioned that a neighbor once saw Gacy drag a heavy bag across W. Miami Ave. in the middle of the night. He mentioned that another neighbor had, like he, called police voicing suspicions about the building and heard nothing in return. Other residents told Dorsch that they’d seen Gacy digging trenches — "not holes," Dorsch repeated, "trenches" — in the W. Miami property’s front yard. It was all just a little too much to dismiss, he thought. And Dorsch regretted doing nothing back in 1978.
One colleague at the 1998 meeting worked for the Better Government Association (BGA), a Chicago-based nonprofit watchdog group.
The BGA was interested in investigating the W. Miami property. What would it take to do a search?
One could dig, Dorsch said, but it seemed unlikely that a property owner would agree to have his land dug up without something more than a hunch. So Dorsch did some research.
it was clear to both Dorsch and LaBarca that the Sheriff's Office was not interested in opening any new Gacy cases
He found Ron LaBarca in New Jersey. LaBarca’s company, US Radar, used infrared technology to scan surface areas for buried material. Mostly LaBarca used his scanning tools — particularly a proprietary device called Seeker SPR — to find underground utility lines and forgotten sewage pipes for construction companies looking to build.
But it could also be used to find less identifiable underground "anomalies" in long-packed soil. Such anomalies often lead to buried material and might, in this case, lead to more of John Wayne Gacy’s murder victims.
At the BGA’s behest, LaBarca was on scene at 6114 W. Miami Ave. by October 1998.
LaBarca scanned the premises for hours. Soon, he was convinced that Dorsch’s suspicions were better than a hunch.
"We went out there and found as many as 20 spots that should have been further investigated," LaBarca told me.
Local media caught wind of the story. The BGA lobbied the police to get involved. And it’s not like they could just ignore it.
But it was clear to both Dorsch and LaBarca that the sheriff's office was not interested in opening any new Gacy cases. Members of the media weren’t allowed to be on the same side of the street as where the W. Miami dig took place. Dorsch was told not to show up.
A local resident, Mike Nelson, said the dig didn’t seem genuine. Before it happened, police visited him for suggestions about where to search.
They "had a white tent ... right at the corner [of W. Miami and N. Elston Avenues; the property sits at an intersection] where they were doing their dig," Nelson later said. And it was "over the one spot I told them not to dig."
The sheriff's office found nothing. No new victims. And the W. Miami property again fell into obscurity.
That is, until Alison True heard about it.
Closing a chapter?
As editor of the Windy City’s largest and oldest alternative newsweekly, the Chicago Reader, True received a submission from a local journalism student, Chris Maloney, in 2009, about Dorsch and his mysterious hunch about Gacy and the W. Miami property. True was intrigued. But the story was too long — she couldn’t find space to publish it. Maloney published it himself instead.
In the spring of 2010, after 15 years as editor in chief, True was let go. She was still intrigued. She contacted Dorsch and introduced him to Tracy Ullman, a filmmaker and producer (not the British comedian) who had done some work in crime television. Together, in May 2012, True and Ullman began documenting the developing story on John Wayne Gacy’s Other Victims, a website where she posted articles about evidence Dorsch had collected and new interviews she and Ullman conducted with witnesses.
Dorsch showed them a letter from Ron LaBarca, who was angry at what he perceived as a superficial search at W. Miami. The radar expert wrote that his data, "reveals some pretty compelling evidence that would send any investigation team to the hardware store for shovels."
True and Ullman even recorded an interview with Cook County sheriff Tom Dart, where they confronted him about the evidence he’d seen. He agreed on camera that further investigation was in order.
The contested address, 6114 W. Miami Avenue in Chicago.
To this day, no one knows what’s underground at W. Miami. But True and Ullman hoped to persuade the authorities to do another search. No media blackout, no secret meetings. Just a dig, in full view of the public, to answer, once and for all, whether John Wayne Gacy buried anyone there.
True also hoped the material would get others members of the media interested.
"The more officials feel they’re being scrutinized, the more likely they are to do the right thing," True told me. Dart "must be weighing the political damage against the political benefits of continuing the investigation. If local authorities would rather not see a search at W. Miami, coverage in the media may tip him toward having to do something. No doubt that was what finally made him agree to file for a search warrant."
By January of this year, that warrant had been approved by the Cook County state’s attorney. A sheriff's office spokesman told the Chicago Tribune: "Work at the site is likely weeks or even months away." He said the investigation would be thorough enough to "close a chapter" of the Gacy case.
It seemed as though True’s site had done exactly what it set out to do — but again, things took an odd turn. On March 26th, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed reported that the search had taken place a week earlier, on March 20th.
"It’s over," Sneed 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. The elaborate, sophisticated search for more Gacy victims — conducted by Cook County sheriff Tom Dart’s office, and exclusively reported by Sneed months ago — was for naught."
‘A bone or a skull’
"No technology is 100 percent."
I asked the technician who performed the search how elaborate and sophisticated it had been. His name is Rich Graf, and he runs a St. Louis firm called Infrared Diagnostics, Inc. that does underground land surveys, and also works with the FBI as well as local and state police across the country to locate clandestine grave sites. Their searches aren’t necessarily done to locate bodies, he said, but rather to identify changes in the consistency of soil below the surface.
"If you you dig up a 6-foot by 3-foot pit, and then fill it back up, it doesn't take much for us to see that the soil has been disturbed," he said. "That ground will never be compacted the same way as it was before."
So on March 20th, he and his crew looked for underground anomalies that might indicate grave sites. The FBI provided dogs to sniff soil samples. According to a sheriff’s department spokeswoman, the search lasted "from early afternoon to late evening."
Why that day? It was early spring and freezing: the high temperature was 26 degrees Fahrenheit, the low was 15. But Graf insisted that didn’t matter.
"We were looking for sharp edges underground," he said. "When someone digs a grave, they’re digging in the shape of what a body looks like. We can see that in the disturbed soil. We can characterize the size of what’s down there. We can also see if there’s a bone or a skull underground."
And though Graf wouldn’t say much about the sheriff's department’s investigation, he said he didn’t think there was reason to believe Gacy had dug graves at the W. Miami property.
"I don’t think that’s a grave site," he said.
Ron LaBarca wasn’t so sure. His company and Graf’s do essentially the same kind of ground-penetrating radar scans; the technology both use is state-of-the art and, according to LaBarca, not much different today than it was back in 1998. Both have decades in the business. But when I told LaBarca that Graf used infrared technology to search for "sharp edges" dug underground, he audibly groaned.
"If you really want to know what's underground, you gotta dig."
"That’s a perfect way to do things if you’re looking for a body buried out in the middle of a field, where you have a lot of undisturbed ground," LaBarca said. "But not in this case. The difference is, [Gacy] was digging day and night out there, planting shrubs and trees, constantly moving dirt around."
Not holes, trenches.
The result, LaBarca said, is that "you're not going to find sharp corners. You’ve gotta look for other indications that the soil has been moved in an unusual way."
"Anomalies," he said. "You’re looking for anomalies."
LaBarca stands by his findings in 1998, when he suggested that there were plenty of locations on the W. Miami property that should be dug up. He admitted, however, that it’s tough to do Monday morning quarterbacking. He wasn’t there with Graf, after all. So how can he definitively say Graf didn’t do his job properly?
"I can’t say that," La Barca said. "Maybe he did [do his job properly]. But that’s why I always tell people: ‘the best locator in the world is made by John Deere or Caterpillar.’ If you really want to know what’s underground," he said, "you gotta dig."
Graf doesn’t disagree. Even though his results were the ones that led the sheriff to assert that the investigation at W. Miami was over, Graf said no infrared scan is going to be conclusive without a shred of doubt. "No technology is 100 percent."
So why not just dig it up and be done with it?
The sheriff's office wouldn’t say. Though a spokeswoman emphasized that the search for more Gacy victims will continue — mostly by testing DNA profiles of unidentified Gacy victims — she declined to comment about any future digs at W. Miami. A recent report in the Reader made it sound like the sheriff's office had given up on W. Miami completely. "The sheriff's office’s campaign to find and identify more Gacy victims will go on," the Reader report read — "though not at 6114 W. Miami."
Bill Dorsch has a theory about why a dig likely won’t happen. "This is a reputation ruiner," he said during an interview last week. "No one wants to go back to what happened in 1978. No one wants to revisit that. No one wants to admit that they stopped an investigation before it was finished."
But that hardly seems like reason enough to leave the property at W. Miami without an actual excavation.
"This is a reputation ruiner."
Sheriff Dart put it best in an interview with Ullman and True. Conducted in June 2012, the interview focused on the now-settled issue regarding why the state’s attorney should approve a warrant to search the W. Miami site. The state’s attorney did approve a search warrant. Now Sheriff Dart may as well be speaking to himself.
"The public will want to know if there are bodies there," he told Ullman and True. "Whereas if we were able to do it, we could put this to rest. We could say, ‘Listen, this has been thoroughly examined, there is nothing here.’"