Photograph by Andrew A. Nelles for BuzzFeed News

The Gacy Files

Thirty-five years after Chicago’s infamous “killer clown” was convicted for murdering 33 men, eight of John Wayne Gacy’s victims remained unidentified. Jason Moran, Cook County’s one-man cold case unit, has made it his mission to find those names, exposing what has been called our criminal justice system’s “silent mass disaster.”

One day in the fall of 2010, a detective named Jason Moran found himself in a fluorescent-lit storage room in suburban Chicago, sifting through Cook County’s cold case files. Moran, who is 38, has a pale complexion and a banker’s polished appearance; he had been a detective with the sheriff’s office for seven years at that point. He specialized in missing persons and death investigations, and he was there because of an order from his boss, Sheriff Tom Dart: He wanted Moran to find, and resurrect, potentially solvable cases. As the detective picked through the two dozen or so cream-colored steel file cabinets, a typed label attached to one stood out: “GACY 1978.”

Detective Jason Moran Photograph by Andrew A. Nelles for BuzzFeed News

Moran is from the Southwest Side of Chicago, and like everyone else who grew up in the city in the final decades of the 20th century, he knew the contours of the John Wayne Gacy story. Gacy was the plump, gregarious businessman who was a clown in his off-hours and who, 35 years ago, was convicted of killing 33 people; in 1994, he was executed, though theories have persisted of an even higher victim count.

All of Gacy’s victims were young white men. Many were gay, some worked for his construction business, and most were doused in acid and lime and buried in a dirt and gravel crawl space beneath his brick ranch house near O’Hare International Airport. Gacy became known as the “Killer Clown,” one of America’s most fear-inspiring serial killers — so casually brutal, so terrifyingly prolific.

John Wayne Gacy in 1978 AP Photo

Still, Moran didn’t know why Gacy had his own five-drawer cabinet. As he began poking through the files, he found bagged evidence from Gacy’s house — some weed, a bottle of pills, a starter pistol. He found dental records and radiological scans, search warrant reports and three-decades-old typewritten letters to families of possible victims. Then, Moran came upon some startling documents. They were from the medical examiner’s office, and they provided details of the remains discovered in Gacy’s crawl space. “I was able to count that there were eight unidentified victims,” Moran recalls.

He thought he must have missed something — maybe he had an incomplete report. Maybe he’d read something wrong. How could it be that over three decades later, no one knew the identities of one-quarter of Gacy’s victims? Moran tracked down some of the original investigators, but they didn’t know any more than he did. So he told Dart, and before long, the sheriff was standing before a cluster of television cameras in his downtown office, making a peculiar appeal: If your relative went missing sometime — anytime — between 1970 and 1979, contact his office. Share your story; if it fits the profile, submit your DNA. The disappeared didn’t have to be from Chicago — they could be from anywhere in the United States.

Sheriff Tom Dart Photograph by Andrew A. Nelles for BuzzFeed News

This was a rare experiment. Shows like Cold Case and Cold Justice may have embedded the phrase in the pop lexicon, but few American police departments even have formal rules about how to conduct cold case investigations, according to a 2011 study by the Rand Center on Quality Policing. Even fewer have detectives dedicated to tracking down documents, evidence, and witnesses that are, in law enforcement terms, practically antiquities. It’s not hard to see why. The Rand researchers found that just one in five cases are cleared and far fewer produce arrests.

But this wasn’t just about the daunting prospect of clearing a backlog of cases that had gone unsolved for over 30 years. Dart, a former prosecutor with wavy gray hair, brightly colored woven bracelets wrapped around his wrist (gifts from his daughters), and a “social justice type-bent,” as he puts it, wanted to make a point. “Across the country,” he tells me, “how missing persons are dealt with is horrible.”

In 2007, the National Institute of Justice called it part of a “silent mass disaster.” Crime labs across the country were sitting on tens of thousands of sets of human remains without entering them into an FBI database — a crucial way of matching the missing with the unidentified. Often, those remains were buried without first collecting DNA. Perhaps nowhere symbolized that disaster more than Chicago, where alarming discoveries surfaced again and again as Moran, who became the one-man cold case unit running the Gacy investigation, got underway.

Yet the sheriff and his detective were hardly prepared for what happened next: Moran unraveled decades-old mysteries from Illinois to Utah, from New Jersey to Florida. He found people alive. He found them dead. Always, there was a compelling theory to trace them back to Gacy’s brick ranch house and the graveyard beneath it.

Photograph by Andrew A. Nelles for BuzzFeed News

Jason Moran’s office is about a dozen miles west of downtown Chicago, on the first floor of the sheriff’s police headquarters, just down the hall from two side-by-side, wood-framed photographs — Gacy as a grinning clown, Gacy as a stone-faced suspect.

Moran’s career with the sheriff’s office began in 1999, when he landed a job as a corrections officer at the county jail. Back then, he didn’t care about being a detective, and he definitely didn’t care about cold case work. He just wanted to be a police officer. He was 22, and though he didn’t come from a family of cops — his mother was a homemaker and his father did marble and granite restoration — it was a natural fit: He’d grown up in a neighborhood of police and firefighters, and in college he studied sociology with an emphasis on law and society. He eventually became a patrol officer, then, in 2004, a detective handling rapes, robberies, and death investigations.

Moran’s first big cold case arrived in 2006. Two years before, human remains had been discovered in a forest preserve a couple of dozen miles south of Chicago. Nothing was known about them, so Moran sent a single bone to the FBI. The remains, Moran was told, belonged to a 49-year-old petty thief and heroin addict named Glenn Serratt. Moran tracked down the man’s relatives and a girlfriend, and he learned that Serratt hadn’t abandoned his kids, as the children had always suspected; he’d actually gone to the woods one day in September 2004 with a kid’s tent, some canned food, a battery-operated television, and a plan to kick heroin cold turkey with no one around. A few months later, his remains were found a few hundred yards from the campsite.

Moran never could figure out what happened to Serratt. Maybe he brought one last shot of heroin along, and that was what killed him. Maybe it was something else. But there were no signs of trauma, and either way, Moran was able to tell Serratt’s kids why he’d gone out to the woods. “They were relieved,” he recalls. “It gave them a little bit of closure.”

It was the department’s first DNA case, and Sheriff Dart was impressed. Soon, Moran was handling cold cases full-time, and it wasn’t long before he’d become the department’s “X-Files” detective, Moran says, someone practiced in the specialized fields of osteology, facial reconstruction, and grave exhumations, the guy who ends up with the department’s most unusual cases — even if they’re not homicides or missing persons. He’s been called to cemeteries to investigate what appears to be occult-related ritual sacrifice: Someone’s found a headless goat, a headless rooster, and a pair of panties stuffed with pennies. “Right away they think of me,” he says. “I’ve carved out this niche.” (These cases remain unsolved.)

It’s a strange reputation, but it’s one, in Moran’s view, that’s balanced by the cases like Glenn Serratt’s; to Moran, the death investigation is the most important thing a police officer does. “It’s so final,” he says. “Once you miss something, sometimes it can never be fixed.” And when the investigator is searching for clues that are three or four decades old? That requires an unyielding patience and an almost torturous attention to detail. It requires a willingness to search for witnesses who could be dead and documents that might seem impossible to find. It requires a comfort level with the probability that you will fail. “To be able to do those things well,” Moran tells me, “means you’re a good detective.”

In other words, Moran has become his department’s man of history. When I ask if this can feel jarring amid the violence that has gripped some of the towns and suburbs where his office operates — a small city called Harvey has a violent crime rate more than five times that of the worst Chicago neighborhood, and in a village called Ford Heights, population 2,800, there were two double murders during one weekend last November — Moran seemed a little annoyed, as if he or his boss has had to justify their cold case work one too many times. (After searching an area in 2013 believed to contain more Gacy victims and finding nothing, a Cook County commissioner said, “At some point we need to look at the cost and benefits of this and perhaps spend this money on current crime and current victims.”)

But Moran lays out the logic anyway: If the police spend countless dollars and man-hours trying to solve the murder of one hardened criminal by another, shouldn’t cold cases receive at least a sliver of that courtesy? “What’s the cutoff to stop looking for a homicide victim’s killer?” he asks. “When does someone not deserve justice anymore?”

Photograph by Andrew A. Nelles for BuzzFeed News

Not long after solving the Serratt case in 2010, Moran found the steel cabinet containing the Gacy files. From there, one of his first stops was the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office, an ominous-looking place just west of the Loop. He was looking for biological evidence, and on the first floor of the ME’s office, inside a climate-controlled room, he expected to find eight sections of eight jawbones. They were from Gacy’s unidentified victims, who were mourned by funeral directors and a few cops in a quiet ceremony on June 12, 1981. Before they were buried beneath eight plain headstones at eight different cemeteries — to avoid creating a tourist attraction — their jawbones had been removed. Should an investigator need them at some point in the future, the thinking went, they’d know where to find them.

When Moran arrived at the ME’s office, however, the bones were gone. Six months before, he found out, they’d been placed in a plain wood box, loaded into a U-Haul box truck and driven 29 miles south, to a cemetery called Homewood Memorial Gardens. There, the coffin was taken to the top of a hill near the cemetery line and covered in dirt. The hill, which was roughly three stories tall and a football field long, was the burial ground for Cook County’s forgotten, and surrounding that wood box, there were approximately three decades’ worth of coffins containing the county’s indigent, unclaimed, and unidentified.

Cook County Sheriff’s Department, shows wooden coffins stacked in a mass grave at Homewood Memorial Gardens cemetery in Homewood, Ill. Cook County Sheriff's Department / AP Photo

Moran knew Homewood well. In the summer of 2009, a visitor there stumbled on a still-decomposing human head; it came from a grave so shallow a coyote dug it up. Moran was assigned to investigate, and what he found was “appalling,” as the sheriff later put it to a local reporter. Some of the coffins contained human remains; others were filled with a macabre assortment of infant corpses, medical waste, organs, and animal bones — “mixed tissue,” as the boxes were euphemistically labeled. At one point, he asked the ME’s office why it was mixing infants with animals. “They said, ‘Well, we didn’t want to put animal bones in the dumpster,’” he recalls.

No DNA samples were collected before the remains were placed in the back of a U-Haul and delivered for burial, 24 leaky boxes at a time, and no one at the ME’s office kept track of where anything was once it got to Homewood. If a detective investigating a cold case needed an old biological sample, he’d just have to get a backhoe and keep his fingers crossed. Within a couple of years, Moran’s investigation yielded a series of reforms — DNA samples are now required, for instance, and bodies can no longer be stacked — but as the detective stood there processing the news about the eight jaw bones, he knew what it meant: He’d be the guy with the crossed fingers.

Sheriff Tom Dart speaks during a press conference in Chicago, Oct. 12, 2011, about the renewed effort to identify eight unidentified victims of John Wayne Gacy Paul Beaty / AP Photo

Authorities exhume buckets containing jaw bones and teeth of Gacy’s eight unidentified victims. Cook County Sheriff's Department

Roughly six months after discovering the Gacy cabinet in the sheriff’s cold case room, Moran arrived at Homewood. It was a hot summer morning in 2011, and he was accompanied by a team of detectives, an evidence technician, and a few cemetery workers. With a cooler full of water, a canopy for shade, and a backhoe, they ascended a dirt and gravel ramp at the west end of the hill. Using a crude measuring system that involved a large dead tree, headstones, and a fair amount of guesswork, the cemetery workers theorized where the jawbones might be found. At approximately 3 p.m., on the third dig of the day, buried beneath a box of indigent children, they found the eight bones.

In the end, though, the DNA was so old or damaged that Moran had to exhume four of the unidentified bodies from their graves; by October, he’d collected eight suitable DNA profiles and set up a call center at one of the sheriff’s suburban offices. Downtown, Dart held a press conference.

Sheriff Tom Dart speaks at the Oct. 12, 2011 press conference. Paul Beaty / AP Photo

“These were eight young men who had futures,” Dart told the assembled reporters. “These are eight people that deserve more.” Beside the dark wood lectern were large posters with the blank, black-and-white outlines of eight perfectly oval heads atop eight sets of smoothly rounded shoulders. Below each outline were a few lines of text containing what little information the authorities knew: Victim No. 5 was between 22 and 32. Victim 21 was between 5 feet 8 inches and 6 feet tall. Victim 24 disappeared between June 13 and Aug. 6, 1976, an oddly precise detail known only because the body was found in Gacy’s crawl space, beneath a high school student named Rick Johnston who disappeared one August night after attending a show at the Aragon Ballroom, a concert venue where Gacy was known to prowl. Johnston was a high school student, and that fall, he was to begin his senior year.

Moran wasn’t sure what, if anything, the investigation would find. “I’d have to believe there wasn’t a person in the country that didn’t hear about this evil man killing all these boys,” he says. “If you were missing a son or a brother at that time in 1979, 1980, ‘81, you would’ve heard about it, you would’ve come forward.” But then, he adds, what if you were an orphan — what if there was no one to report you missing? What if you were gay and your family was homophobic? The media, after all, had taken to calling Gacy “the homo murderer.” What if that kept people from coming forward? Maybe, Moran hypothesized, the attitudes of the older generations had receded. Maybe three decades gone by would yield new clues.

The phone calls and emails were immediate. Some came from serial killer buffs who just wanted to talk about Gacy — about his clown suit, for instance, or about his artwork, which he made in prison before his execution. (One of Gacy’s oil paintings, titled “Pogo the Clown,” is listed at Dark Vomit’s True Crime Museum and Prison Art Gallery for $3,500.) To these inquires, Moran was repulsed. “I’m not interested in Gacy,” he tells me in his office one day. “I hate Gacy.”

Moran emphasizes this by removing a thick manila folder from beneath his desk; scrawled across it are Gacy’s initials. All of his emails, all of his correspondence, “they all say ‘JWG,’” Moran says. “I don’t want to bring attention to his name.” This might seem a bit odd; attention, after all, was what the sheriff’s office was seeking to generate new leads. To Moran, though, this case was never really about Gacy. It was about solving the eight cases and providing closure, of course, but it was also about Homewood and the ME’s office, and America’s “silent mass disaster,” he tells me, quoting the National Institute of Justice report. “That is the story,” he says.

Others who dialed Moran’s office wanted to talk about the time they were walking down the street on the North Side of Chicago in 1976 and a guy in a black sedan pulled up, asking if they wanted a ride. This, of course, was how Gacy operated. He attached spotlights to his car, as if he were a police officer, and he had a supply of badges and a set of handcuffs. Once, in the winter of 1977, Gacy used this routine on a 19-year-old, whom he pretended to arrest, then brought to his home, where he tortured and repeatedly raped the young man; in the morning, Gacy dropped him off at work. As described in a prosecutor’s minute-by-minute accounting of Gacy’s arrest and conviction, Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders, when the man went to the police, Gacy countered with a chilling explanation: Sure, they’d been together that night. But it was consensual. The state’s attorney in the case declined to file charges.

All these years later, Moran says, the men on the other end of the line were still haunted by the time they almost got in Gacy’s black sedan.

Then, there were the elderly parents and siblings, the people whose brothers or sons worked construction or were gay in a less-than-open-minded home. Eventually, Moran amassed a database of 160 tips representing nearly 100 missing people. One of the first names to cross his desk was William Bundy.

Photograph by Andrew A. Nelles for BuzzFeed News

The tip came from a machine operator named Greg Charlton who’d been close with Bundy when they were growing up in the ‘60s on Chicago’s North Side. As Charlton remembers it, Bundy was fearless, the kid who’d paddle clear across Montrose Harbor, dodging boats along the way, to reach the rope swing on the other side. And he was tiny. This, along with his unusual basketball-playing style, earned him his nickname. “We called him Bill Bundy the Weasel,” Charlton recalls.

A photograph of Bundy from his 1972-73 High School Identification card.

By their early teens, Charlton says, swimming and basketball had been swapped for Boone’s Farm, pills, and girls. But Charlton and Bundy were still regulars at Montrose Harbor. By then, it was a place to cop whatever drugs they wanted, and the police mostly let them be. Once, Charlton remembers Bundy showing up at the harbor in a car. There was a guy driving, an older man, and it was odd, because he’d never seen Bundy in a car before. Now, 30-some years later, Charlton can’t remember the make, the model, or anything else about it, but he’s certain who was driving. “I have a picture in my head, and it was Gacy,” he says.

Charlton eventually left the neighborhood for a couple of years to live with his mom, and when he returned, he saw Bundy on the street one day. He’d grown his hair long, and he was wearing a brown leather jacket. “I see him with a wad of money,” he says. “I said, ‘Where’d you get all that money?’ He goes, ‘I’ve been working construction.’” That was the last time they saw each other. Later, from Bundy’s sister, Charlton learned that he’d gone missing. It was the fall of 1976, and Bundy was 19.

When Charlton heard about Gacy’s arrest in the winter of 1978, he considered that Bundy might be among the victims. But he never knew that so many remained unidentified — that is, not until the fall of 2011. At roughly the same time that Charlton called the Cook County Sheriff, so did Bundy’s sister, Laura O’Leary, who told Moran how her brother had gone to a party and never come home, and how her family reported him missing but heard nothing, and how they’d contacted the medical examiner’s office after Gacy’s arrest, and how the ME wanted dental records that didn’t exist. “They said, ‘You’re out of luck — there’s no other way to identify a skeleton,’” Moran recalls O’Leary telling her. (O’Leary didn’t respond to interview requests.) All these years later, O’Leary was trying again: She wanted to submit her DNA, Moran says, because she was certain Gacy had killed her brother.

Bundy was the right age. He was white. He was working construction. He lived on the North Side, and, like Rick Johnston, he hung around the Aragon. So Moran met O’Leary at her home and collected a DNA swab. A month later, a letter arrived: There was, it read, an “association with victim number 19.” “That’s all we knew him as,” Moran says. But the link was weak, and though there was other circumstantial evidence to connect the two, it wasn’t enough.

Sheriff Tom Dart with Laura O’Leary, sister of William Bundy after a news conference in Chicago, Nov. 29, 2011. Paul Beaty / AP Photo

So Moran returned to O’Leary, and asked if there was anything else that might identify her brother. She still had his wallet, which contained a high school ID card, but that was it. Then she remembered — she’d found a couple of his canine teeth. Her brother had needed braces, which the family couldn’t afford so his two upper canines were pulled. It was a technique, Moran says, known as the “poor man’s braces.” Bundy kept them because they were big and sharp and cool-looking, and O’Leary held on to them too. Moran discovered that, like Bundy, victim No. 19 was missing both of his upper canines — a feature present in just 2% of the population.

On Nov. 29, just weeks after his initial public appeal, the sheriff held a news conference. The blank, black-and-white outlines were back, but now, one of them was filled in with a blown-up photo from William Bundy’s high school ID; with thick dark hair and bushy eyebrows, he stared into the camera, expressionless. Above the image was a brief line of bold red text: “IDENTIFIED.”

For O’Leary, who spoke at the news conference, the event marked a “terribly sad day.” But, she added, “it is also a day that provides closure.”

Photograph by Andrew A. Nelles for BuzzFeed News

The case of Edward Beaudion was another one to turn up in Moran’s investigation almost immediately. The tip came from Beaudion’s sister, a woman named Ruth Rodriguez, who told the detective about how her brother borrowed her olive-green Chevy Nova one night in the summer of 1978, then vanished; he’d never been seen or heard from again. Last July, I visit Rodriguez at her two-story brick townhouse on Chicago’s Northwest Side, the same house that’s belonged to her family for decades and that her brother was living in when he disappeared.

As we speak, Rodriguez, who is 63, hunches over her father’s dining room table, carefully thumbing through a collection of photographs of Beaudion. Outside, it’s a bright summer morning, and sunlight is pouring through thin, leaf-patterned curtains, illuminating flecks of gray that arch around Rodriguez’s temples. Underneath the laminated pages, her brother remains as young as ever — a dapper, olive-skinned boy with horn-rimmed glasses and slicked-to-the-side black hair; an awkward grammar school kid with a white corsage and a shiny gray suit preparing for his first dance; a beaming young man with his red-dressed prom date lounging on his lap, her arm draped over his shoulder. “He always wore a suit and tie, even when he was a kid,” Rodriguez says.

Edward Beaudion’s prom photo. Courtesy of the Beaudion Family, photograph by Andrew Nelles for BuzzFeed News

She tells me about the last time she saw him: It was a Saturday in July, not long after Beaudion graduated from Loyola University and was hired for a grammar school teaching job. A friend was getting married in the suburbs, and he wanted to borrow Rodriguez’s car. After the 20-mile drive back to the city and a late-night trip to the International House of Pancakes, he was gone.

By Sunday, the family heard nothing. Beaudion’s mother, Adla, dialed a friend who her son once dated and who he’d gone to the wedding with the night before. But all she could say was that they left around midnight and dropped by IHOP on the way back. Rodriguez and her father drove to the closest police precinct, where they tried — and failed — to file a missing persons report. “They told my dad, ‘He’s probably sleeping in a hotel somewhere with another girl,’” Rodriguez recalls.

In the weeks that followed, the police found the missing Nova: It had been stolen and driven to Missouri. But there was no sign of Beaudion. The family posted fliers with a large photo and a phone number, and they assembled an altar at the two-story brick house — a framed photograph surrounded by candles. “They were still holding vigil,” recalls Carol Langrehr, the onetime girlfriend who accompanied Beaudion to the wedding that night. Eventually, the family entertained the darkest of scenarios — that Beaudion may have been murdered by Gacy.

The family supplied the Cook County Sheriff’s Office with scans of Edward’s knee, which he’d injured playing basketball, and which, at the time of his disappearance, contained a distinct mark — an orthopedic screw. The X-rays were examined, but the response was ambiguous. “The police came back and said, ‘Well, he’s not excluded as a victim, but it’s inconclusive,’” Moran tells me.

The Beaudions were consumed by the most awful uncertainty: Had Gacy killed Edward? If he hadn’t, why had the police been so noncommittal? Or was he alive — lost, perhaps, and suffering from amnesia? Rodriguez always believed the latter. The psychics, after all, always told her the same thing — one day Edward would come home. A medium in Texas, a man who went by the name Mighty Red, even said it would be on Christmas.

As much as Rodriguez wanted to believe it, when a cousin told her that the Gacy case was being reopened, she didn’t hesitate. “I thought, What the hell?” she recalls. “What have we got to lose?

A couple of days later, Moran drove to the Beaudions’ brick home. Some of the obvious connections weren’t there with Edward: He wasn’t working construction when he went missing, and as far as his family knew, he wasn’t gay. But he was a young, light-skinned man who lived on Chicago’s North Side, not far from the Aragon. The timeline fit — he vanished in the months before the killer’s arrest — and the ME had never ruled him out. They talked, and Moran collected a DNA swab.

The samples were sent to a lab at the University of North Texas, and about a month and a half later, the results came back: Beaudion had not been found in Gacy’s underground graveyard. This provided some measure of comfort to Rodriguez, Moran recalls. But her brother was still missing.

More than a year went by, until the winter of 2014, when Moran got a letter from the DNA lab. Finally, there were answers — and there was a story for Moran to work with. It was a strange and outrage-inducing one, one that Rodriguez was already familiar with, at least in part, and one that, again involved the medical examiner’s office.

The story begins in the years after Beaudion went missing, when a detective dropped by Rodriguez’s home with Edward’s case file. He wanted her to have it. He didn’t tell her why, and she didn’t ask, but as she combed through it, she was astonished. The same man who admitted stealing her olive-green Nova confessed to murdering her brother. The man’s name was Jerry Jackson, and he was from Caruthersville, Missouri, a speck of a town several hours south of Chicago, on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Shortly afterward, Jackson was questioned by police, and he initially denied having anything to do with the murder. Eventually, though, he claimed that Beaudion propositioned him on a downtown street the night he went missing in 1978. Insulted, Jackson punched Beaudion once; he crumpled to the ground, and Jackson loaded his body into the back of the Nova and sped south, to a forest preserve just off an interstate in the Cook County hinterlands. There, Jackson said, he left him.

Yet when the police accompanied Jackson to the preserve, he couldn’t find Beaudion, and neither could they. So he was never charged with murder. (Moran isn’t sure why this was; most likely, he says, it’s because there was no additional evidence to corroborate Jackson’s confession.) So Rodriguez was left wondering: Was it really Jackson who killed her brother? If so, why didn’t the police charge him for it?

Then, in the spring of 2008, a teenage boy and his two sisters were wandering through Black Partridge Woods, a forest preserve 30 miles southwest of Chicago, when they found an old shoe and a pair of tattered pants with a bone jutting out from one of the legs. Among them was a tibia with an orthopedic screw. “That skeleton was found exactly where Jerry Jackson said it was,” Moran says.

The authorities transported the remains to the medical examiner’s office and there, inside a cardboard box, they sat for five years. It wasn’t until the aftermath of the scandal at Homewood, when Moran developed a new set of protocols for handling unidentified remains, and the cardboard box was sent to the University of North Texas, that a match was made. And so it was that 35 years after Jerry Jackson confessed to killing Beaudion that Moran prepared to charge him with homicide. But as the detective planned his trip to Caruthersville, he received another letter, this time from the Missouri Bureau of Vital Statistics: Just six months before, Jackson had died of heart problems.

Ruth Rodriguez and her father Louis Beaudion hold a photo of Edward Beaudion in Edward’s former bedroom in Chicago, January 23, 2015. Photograph by Andrew A. Nelles for BuzzFeed News

For Rodriguez, it was a riptide of emotion. Often, she found herself returning to a single haunting image — her brother, alone, in the dark, maybe still alive, suffering, pleading for help. She was angry. She wanted to confront Jackson. But that, of course, was impossible. “You can’t do nothing,” she says. And yet, she finally knew where her brother had been all those years; she finally had his ashes, and her family could finally mourn.

Last July, relatives from Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee made the trek to Chicago, as did Beaudion’s old girlfriend, Carol Langrehr, who now lives in Arizona, for a funeral at Immaculate Heart of Mary, the church Edward once attended. So did college and choir friends, and his old priest. “It was,” Rodriguez says, “a beautiful tribute.”

Des Plaines Police Department

Back at his office, with the Gacy investigation at full tilt, Moran also heard from retired cops. They’d worked on the case back in the ‘70s, and they lived out of state now, but there was an unanswered question that haunted them all these years: What happened to the shaggy-haired guy from the ID found in Gacy’s garage? “That’s one of your unidentified,” Moran recalls them saying. It wasn’t that the find was unusual — Gacy seemed to collect IDs from the young men who ended up at his home. But those men had all been found — alive. The man in the card they were calling about, a Merchant Marine ID from Florida, had not. All Moran needed to do, they suggested, was track down a relative and collect a DNA sample.

The ID was easy to find — it was in the Gacy file, attached to a photocopy of the card. So Moran sat down at his computer and pulled up a database to search for living relatives. He typed in the man’s name, and someone with the same date of birth appeared on the screen. He was living in Vallejo, 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. In the summer of 2012, Moran dialed the local police and asked for help on a missing persons case. A uniformed officer was dispatched to a last known address; if he was there, Moran told the police officer, put him on the phone.

He was, and the officer promptly handed over his cell.

This would become a routine for Moran, one that happened repeatedly since Dart reopened the case. He’d get tips from a desperate mother or brother about a sibling or son who vanished decades ago. Moran would type a name into a database, find an address, call the police. From Tampa Bay to Las Vegas, he would find the disappeared alive, startled and with tales to tell of familial and personal woe: an abortion that divided a family; one too many arguments with mom; growing up gay in Wisconsin in the ‘70s.

He even found the missing son of a woman named Kathy Lovell, who’d been the subject of NBC reports because she claimed that her son’s jewelry — a silver necklace with a turquoise arrowhead — had been found at Gacy’s home and photographed by investigators. To her, this seemed like a clear indication that Gacy murdered her boy, yet the authorities, she told an NBC reporter, seemed uninterested in finding his body. When Moran followed up on the lead, he discovered that Lovell’s son had been living on Florida’s Gulf Coast for years, apparently unaware that his mother believed he’d been tortured and murdered.

Each time, Moran would ask if they wanted to reconnect with their families. Each time, they would say yes. It wasn’t traditional police work, but Moran didn’t mind playing family mediator. But he’s a father, and every time he hung up the phone, he was floored. “How could they let their parents suffer all these years?” he says.

But the man in Vallejo was different. He didn’t have a story of long-standing discord. Over the phone, Moran identified himself, then asked, “‘Why is your ID found in John Gacy’s house and you’re still breathing?’ He says, ‘Well, it’s a crazy story. You probably won’t believe me.’”

The man asked Moran not to identify him, so I’ll call him Bill. Bill is from Chicago, and he told Moran that in the late 1970s he was living in Clearwater, a beach town on Florida’s gulf coast. He was a small-time dealer then, and one day a man approached him, asking for a little weed and a little company. So the pair went for a drive; then, Bill told Moran, the man driving the car pulled a gun. “He thinks he’s being robbed of his money and drugs,” Moran says.

As Bill prepared to toss his wallet and a bag of pot, the man in the driver’s seat scanned his surroundings. In that brief moment, Bill told Moran, he flung his wallet and leapt from the passenger side door. Then, he ran. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when he got a call from his sister in Chicago, that he realized who the would-be stickup man actually was. “He turns on the TV, watches the news, and it’s John Gacy,” Moran says. “He says, ‘That’s the guy who approached me in Clearwater.’”

Moran was dubious. Gacy hadn’t been known to kill outside Chicago, nor was he known to use a gun. He killed his first victim in 1972 with a kitchen knife. The rest he’d strangled to death or asphyxiated.

Remains are removed from Gacy’s home in Des Plaines, Illinois, Dec. 23, 1978. AP Photo

Over the phone, Bill was surprised and embarrassed to hear from a detective all these years later. But he didn’t seem evasive. He seemed credible. Still, Moran thought he might be lying — that he’d been to Gacy’s house, but he didn’t want to admit that for any number of reasons. “I said, ‘I’m looking for honesty,’” Moran recalls. ‘“The stigma with drug use and homosexuality [is] different nowadays. If you were there and you left your ID, please tell me. ‘Cause what you’re telling me is, John Gacy may have been trying to rape and kill other men in other parts of the country, and if you’re making that statement, that’s a big deal.’”

Bill assured Moran that he was telling the truth.

There were a couple of reasons to at least consider the story. During the excavation of Gacy’s house, investigators discovered an odd-caliber revolver encased in concrete. Why would Gacy have buried it if it hadn’t been used in a crime? Gacy was also a prolific traveler — he bounced around some 26 states — and a studious record keeper. With the assistance of a team of interns and FBI crime analysts, Moran sorted through thousands of receipts, assembling places and dates and times in a spreadsheet, essentially mapping out Gacy’s movements around the U.S. He then compared those details with open homicides, missing persons, and cases of unidentified dead that matched Gacy’s victim profiles. Now, he’s in the process of investigating seven of those cases. Moran has found no evidence, however, of a trip to Clearwater.

In the three and a half years since the Gacy investigation was reopened, the identification of William Bundy remains a singular event; the other seven cases remain open. Moran’s tip line has slowed to a trickle, but he still gets a couple of calls every month, and he has a few dozen leads that he hasn’t even evaluated. Plus, there are roughly 20 tips that he’s waiting for additional information on — a Social Security number, for instance, or a birth certificate. Moran calls this his “record retention” problem. It may sound bureaucratic, but without a foundation, even the most dogged detective will get nowhere.

After speaking for several hours one day in August, I ask Moran if he thinks he’ll solve any of the remaining Gacy cases. He takes a deep breath. “If I can get one more…” he says, trailing off. We’re sitting in Moran’s office, a small, sunlit room he’s still moving into, and on the floor against the far wall is the framed front page of the Chicago Sun-Times featuring an enlarged photo of Bundy. Nearby, there’s a poster board with images from the cases he’s more optimistic about, the ones that have nothing to do with Gacy. In addition to Beaudion, Moran solved the disappearance of an orphan who vanished in South Jersey in 1972, as well as a Northwestern student who disappeared six years later; his remains were found on a mountaintop in Utah.

As we talk, all I can think of are the varied and sometimes profound obstacles with cases like these. I think of Jerry Jackson and the medical examiner’s office. I think of Homewood Memorial and Bundy’s two canine teeth. I think of record retention.

I think of one of the phone calls to Moran’s office, and the woman on the other end of the line telling him about her cousin, about how he’d gone missing a few years before Gacy’s arrest, and how she thought there might some connection. She provided Moran with a bare-bones sketch: The cousin’s parents had died, and he eventually ended up living in a motel. One day, the cousin’s aunt — the caller’s mother — went to visit. His things were there, but he was gone, and he was never heard from again. “This was on the North Side of Chicago and he was doing labor work,” Moran recalls her saying. In other words: He fits. He could be one of those seven black-and-white sketches.

And yet, there were two essential pieces missing. The cousin didn’t go by his birth name. And the caller, concerned as she may have been, had no idea what it was. Nor did she know when he was born. And to even begin an investigation, you need to prove that someone actually existed, that they’re more than a long-lost character in a haunting bit of family lore.

“That,” Moran says, “is the struggle.”

Cook County Sheriff's Department / AP Photo

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