Why do we remember the dead? For one thing, so we don’t forget.
But also, so we can finally name them.
Last summer, my phone lit up with news reports that authorities in Des Plaines had taken some major forensic steps in re-creating facial images of two of the six victims of prolific serial killer John Wayne Gacy who have yet to be identified.
Forty years ago Friday, Gacy was arrested for reasonable cause of murder.
Ten days before his arrest, on Dec. 11, 1978, Gacy murdered 15-year-old Robert Piest and threw him into the Des Plaines River. But when Gacy was initially questioned by authorities, he denied ever speaking to the boy.
My mom, Kim Byers, was one of the last people to see Rob on the night he disappeared. She told detectives that Rob had gone out behind the pharmacy where they both worked to speak with Gacy about a summer job. She never saw her friend again.
Police had trouble establishing probable cause to conduct a search of Gacy’s home, at 8213 W. Summerdale Ave., to look for Rob, which made sense. Gacy could talk his way out of anything.
But this all changed when detectives found a film receipt in Gacy’s wastebasket with my mom’s name on it. She had slid it into Rob’s parka, which she had been wearing that night at the pharmacy before returning the jacket to him when he left with Gacy. She later told me that she’d never saved a film receipt before and wonders what made her put that one in Rob’s parka pocket.
The receipt would give authorities reason to obtain an official search warrant, where the real work would begin.
Inside Gacy’s house, police noticed an odd smell coming from below the floorboards. It would turn out not to be a sewage problem, as Gacy suggested, but rather the smell of decomposing bodies. All boys. Stacked like crayons. Boys who’d had their lives cut short by Gacy.
As a culture, we celebrate anniversaries because they remind us about what once was. This 40-year anniversary is about commemorating the 33 victims. But it is also about our need to name the final six of them. Over the summer, I was pleased to learn that detectives were still working on the Gacy case. But in six months, none of the unnamed victims has been identified, as Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart hoped.
However, there has been progress. In 2011, Jason Moran, a Cook County sheriff’s detective who has devoted much time to closing the final cold cases connected to Gacy, helped identify 19-year-old William George Bundy and 16-year-old James Byron Haakenson.
The boys who had spent more than 30 years being referred to as “John Doe” finally got their names back.
So why does this matter?
It matters because as a culture, we are quick to remember murderers, when we should be focusing on the victims. Think about the last mass shootings we’ve had. How many shooters can you name, compared to the names of their victims?
In that December of 1978, over a week that included Christmas, the bodies of 27 boys were found under Gacy’s home. Two more were found later on the property. The remaining four were dumped from nearby bridges, some found in the Des Plaines River.
Today, we pay our respects to both the identified and the unidentified boys:
Timothy Jack McCoy, Victim No. 28, John Butkovitch, Victim No. 5, Darrell Samson, Samuel Stapleton, Randall Reffett, Michael Bonnin, William Carroll, Victim No. 26, James Haakenson, Victim No. 13, Victim No. 21, Rick Johnston, William George Bundy, Michael Marino, Kenneth Parker, Gregory Godzik, John Szyc, Jon Prestidge, Victim No. 10, Matthew Bowman, Robert Gilroy, John Mowery, Russell Nelson, Robert Winch, Tommy Boling, David Talsma, William Kindred, Timothy O’Rourke, Frank Landingin, James Mazzara, Robert Piest.
In an interview last summer, Moran said, “The life of the person that was just murdered is no more or less important than a murder victim from 30 years ago.”
And that is why we should continue to not let this case slip away. Even when a boy gets his name back, he doesn’t get his life back. Remembering him? That’s all up to us.
Courtney Lund O’Neil is a writer from San Diego. This was written for the Chicago Tribune.