Tag Archives: cold cases

President signs bill to review civil rights-era cold cases

Racially motivated, civil rights-era killings that are now cold cases will get fresh looks under legislation signed by President Barack Obama.

Obama signed the bill earlier this month. It indefinitely extends a 2007 law that calls for a full accounting of race-based deaths, many of which had been closed for decades. The law was set to expire next year.

The bill is named after Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy killed in 1955 after whistling at a white woman. His killers were acquitted of murder but later admitted their crimes to a reporter and couldn’t be retried.

Many other similar cases were poorly investigated and prosecutions were rare.

The law provides federal resources to local jurisdictions to look into the cases and extends the time span of cases to be considered to Dec. 31, 1979. It will also require the Justice Department and the FBI to consult with civil rights organizations, universities and others who had been gathering evidence on the deaths.

There has so far been one conviction as more than 100 cases from the 1960s and earlier have been reviewed. New racially suspicious deaths have been identified for investigation.

North Carolina GOP Sen. Richard Burr and Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill sponsored the bill in the Senate.

In the House, the bill was negotiated by civil rights icon John Lewis, D-Ga.; John Conyers, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee; and Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin.

Unintended result: John Wayne Gacy probe clears 11 unrelated cold cases

His task was to solve a cruel mystery decades after a serial killer’s death.

Sgt. Jason Moran’s work began in a graveyard, his first stop in his quest to identify the eight unknown victims of John Wayne Gacy. More than 30 years had passed since Gacy had murdered 33 young men and boys.

Investigators now had more sophisticated crime-solving tools, notably DNA, so the Cook County sheriff’s detective was assigned to find out who was buried in eight anonymous graves.

Moran quickly helped a family confirm Gacy killed their brother.

Since then, though, Jason Moran’s search has led him down a totally unexpected path: He’s cleared 11 unrelated cold cases across America. After eliminating these young men as Gacy victims, he’s pored over DNA results, medical and Social Security records, enlisted anthropologists, lab technicians and police in Utah, Colorado, New Jersey and other states — and cracked missing person’s cases that had been dormant for decades.

Most recently, Moran identified a 16-year-old murder victim in San Francisco who’d been buried 36 years ago.

He’s brought comfort to some by proving, through science and dogged research that their missing loved ones are dead.

He’s brought joy to others, finding long-lost brothers and sons still alive.

Marveling at this remarkable detour from the ghastly Gacy trail, Moran says he recently told his boss:

“Is it possible that an evil serial killer has done some good?”

Moran’s work began four years ago after Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart publicly urged anyone who thought a relative was an unidentified Gacy victim to submit to a DNA test.

Moran prioritized about 170 tips from more than 20 states, representing some 80 missing young men.

He focused on those similar in age (14 to 24) and background to Gacy’s victims: Many had troubled families or substance abuse problems. Some were gay. Others had worked construction for Gacy, a building contractor. He was executed in 1994.

Authorities had long ago removed the jaw bones and teeth of the eight unknown victims, hoping for eventual identification. Decades later, they were buried, only to be exhumed in 2011. Moran took them to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, where lab workers developed solid DNA profiles for four victims. For the other four, the entire remains had to be exhumed.

Within weeks, Moran cracked one case.

William Bundy’s mother had suspected Gacy killed her son, but the case was stymied because his dentist had destroyed his patients’ records after retiring.

Three decades later, Bundy’s mother was dead, but his sister and brother provided DNA, resulting in a match to the unknown victim. It wasn’t enough for a firm identification.

Moran then studied the man’s dental records, noticing empty spaces where his upper canine teeth had been removed. Bundy had those same teeth removed, saved them — and his sister kept them all those years.

Case cleared.

Bundy is the only Gacy victim Moran has identified. But he’s helped other families who feared their loved ones died at Gacy’s hands.

In every case involving DNA, Moran told families the results would be entered in CODIS, the federal Combined DNA Index System. If a genetic link emerged, he’d call.

It took almost four years for Willa Wertheimer to get that life-changing call.

In 2011, she’d told Moran about her half-brother, Andre Drath. Their mother died when both were very young.

When the grief-stricken little boy began getting in trouble, his stepfather turned him over to the state. Drath was abused in foster homes. Then one day he disappeared.

“I used to fantasize about finding him,” Wertheimer says. “I just wanted to hold him and tell him I love him and say I’m sorry about everything that had happened.”

Her DNA eliminated any link to Gacy victims, but last fall, a Texas lab worker notified Moran it was associated with an unidentified body found in San Francisco in 1979. That DNA hadn’t been submitted to CODIS until late 2014.

Moran reviewed the San Francisco police and medical examiner’s reports, which showed the man had been shot multiple times. It also disclosed an all-important detail: A tattoo — Andy — on his right shoulder.

Moran found more evidence in files from the Illinois agency that supervised Drath as a state ward — including dental records matching those of the teen buried in Ocean Beach.

It was bittersweet news for Wertheimer.

“I was relieved that he wasn’t hurting,” she says, “but knowing how he died … I felt awful.”

San Francisco police have reactivated their investigation. Moran hopes to soon have Drath’s remains exhumed from a California cemetery.

“I brought her to this point,” he says, “now I’d like to help bring him home.”

___

Jason Moran cradled an urn as he arrived at the North Side home.

It had been 36 years since Edward Beaudion left that house, a 22-year-old heading to a wedding. Now, the detective was delivering his cremated remains to his sister, Ruth Rodriguez, and elderly father, Louis.

DNA and old-fashioned police work brought this mystery to a frustrating end.

The case had a suspect: A petty criminal named Jerry Jackson told police in 1978 that he’d fought with Beaudion in downtown Chicago, dragged his body into a car, then dumped him in a suburban forest preserve, according to Moran.

Jackson was arrested in Caruthersville, Missouri, with the car Beaudion had been driving. It belonged to his sister; she found a bullet inside.

A search of the woods, though, turned up no body. Jackson was convicted only of stealing the car and items inside.

Decades later, Moran started investigating. “I really felt the sadness and desperation in their voices,” he says.

Last year, their DNA was linked to skeletal remains that had recently arrived at the Texas lab. Some kids had spotted a leg bone in the woods where Jackson said he’d dumped Beaudion’s body.

That discovery was in 2008. Unfortunately, the remains sat in the Cook County medical examiner’s office five years before being sent to be tested. Studying the autopsy report, Moran noticed the leg bone contained a surgical screw in one knee. Beaudion had one, too. 

That was enough to confirm his identity — yet that five-year delay thwarted Moran’s bigger plan: While preparing to go to Missouri to arrest Jackson in Beaudion’s death, he discovered: Jackson had recently died.

Still, Moran sensed the family was relieved.

“His father told me when he dies, he’ll have Edward’s ashes in his casket and said, ‘All of three of us will be together in perpetuity.””

Thousands of miles away, a 75-year-old Army vet had his own lingering questions.

Ron Soden contacted Moran about his younger half-brother, Steven, who’d vanished in 1972.

He’d run away during a camping trip organized by the New Jersey orphanage where he lived with his sister, April. Their mother had placed them there.

Steven’s father lived in Chicago. Could he have traveled there looking for him? Moran thought it possible, and teamed with New Jersey State Police to work the case. 

April’s DNA was ultimately linked with skeletal remains found at New Jersey’s Bass River State Forest, about a mile from where Steven was last seen. That discovery was in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2013 — and more DNA tests from another half-brother — that Steven was identified. Hypothermia is suspected as the cause of death.

“We always held out that hope … then all of sudden you find out and it’s not there anymore,” says Ron Soden, who lives in Tacoma, Washington. “To realize he probably died at 17 … it’s just a shame his life had to be that way through no fault of his own.”

These poignant stories, Moran says, motivate him.

“You’ve got these young kids who struggle through their short lives,” he says. “Now they’re anonymous. They don’t have a headstone saying they were ever on this earth. I want them to have some dignity and respect so the world knows they once lived.

“I mean, everybody deserves a name.”

There are happy endings in Moran’s work.

Amazingly, he’s located five living men who’d vanished in the 1970s. “I scold them and say, ‘Why would you do this to a loving family?””

In 2013, Moran reunited Edyth and Robert Hutton — after 41 years.

Edyth had made numerous attempts to find her brother, including mailing about 300 postcards to various Robert, Rob, Bob and Bobby Huttons nationwide. 

A relative who is a private investigator thought he’d located Hutton in Colorado. But when Edyth and her father wrote letters to that address, they were returned as undeliverable. 

In a last-ditch effort she searched NamUs, a website featuring missing and unidentified people, narrowing her list to seven. She contacted the respective law enforcement agencies. One person replied: Jason Moran.

Using Hutton’s vital statistics, Moran thought he’d tracked him to Colorado but when police arrived, the man was gone.

Moran waited several months and when the sheriff’s analysts checked updated databases they found a match in Montana.

“Your brother is alive,” Moran told Hutton’s sister. The siblings re-connected the next day.

“I felt like a hole in my heart had been filled,” she says. 

Her brother, she says, told her he’d gotten involved with drugs, straightened out and returned to the family’s hometown in California but everyone had moved. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Robert Hutton recently moved to Nevada to live near his sister.

“We see each other almost daily,” she says, “and we love it.”

John Wayne Gacy’s blood could solve old murders

Detectives have long wondered what secrets serial killer John Wayne Gacy and other condemned murderers took to the grave when they were executed — particularly whether they had other unknown victims.

Now, in a game of scientific catch-up, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department is trying to find out by entering the killers’ DNA profiles into a national database shared with other law-enforcement agencies. The move is based on an ironic legal distinction: The men were technically listed as homicide victims themselves because they were put to death by the state.

Authorities hope to find DNA matches from blood, semen, hair or skin under victims’ fingernails that link the long-dead killers to the coldest of cold cases. And they want investigators in other states to follow suit and submit the DNA of their own executed inmates or from decades-old crime scenes.

“You just know some of these guys did other murders,” said Jason Moran, the sheriff’s detective leading the effort. He noted that some of the executed killers ranged all over the country before the convictions that put them behind bars for the last time.

The Illinois testing, which began in the summer, is the latest attempt by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to solve the many mysteries still surrounding one of the nation’s most notorious serial killers. Dart’s office recently attempted to identify the last unnamed Gacy victims by exhuming their remains to create modern DNA profiles that could be compared with the DNA of people whose loved ones went missing in the 1970s, when Gacy was killing young men.

That effort, which led to the identification of one additional Gacy victim, led Dart to wonder if the same technology could help answer a question that has been out there for decades: Did Gacy kill anyone besides those young men whose bodies were stashed under his house or tossed in a river?

“He traveled a lot,” Moran said. “Even though we don’t have any information he committed crimes elsewhere, the sheriff asked if you could put it past such an evil person.”

Dart’s office said that it believes this is the first time DNA has been added to the national database for criminals executed before the database was created.

“This has the potential to help bring closure to victims’ families who have gone so long without knowing what happened to their loved ones,” Dart said in a news release.

Receiving permission to use the database posed several challenges for Dart’s detectives.

After unexpectedly finding three vials of Gacy’s blood stored with other Gacy evidence, Moran learned the state would only accept the blood in the crime database if it came from a coroner or medical examiner.

Moran thought he was out of luck. But then the coroner in Will County, outside Chicago, surprised him with this revelation: In his office freezer were blood samples from Gacy and at least three other executed inmates, all of whom had been put to death there in the period after Illinois reinstated the death penalty in the 1970s. The executions were carried out between 1990 and 1999, a year before then-Gov. George Ryan established a moratorium on the death penalty.

So it was the Will County coroner’s office that conducted the autopsies and collected the blood samples.

That was only the first obstacle.

The state sends to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System the profiles of homicide victims no matter when they were killed. But it will only send the profiles of known felons if they were convicted since a new state law was enacted about a decade ago that allowed them to be included, Moran said.

That meant the profile of Gacy, who received a lethal injection in 1994, and the profiles of other executed inmates could not qualify for the database under the felon provision. They could, however, qualify as people who died by homicide.

“They’re homicides because the state intended to take the inmate’s life,” said Patrick O’Neil, the Will County coroner.

Last year, authorities in Florida created a DNA profile from the blood of executed serial killer Ted Bundy in an attempt to link him to other murders. But the law there allows profiles of convicted felons to be uploaded into the database as well as some profiles of people arrested on felony charges.

Florida officials said they don’t know of any law-enforcement agency reaching back into history the way Cook County’s sheriff’s office is.

“We haven’t had any initiative where we are going back to executed offenders and asking for their samples,” said David Coffman, director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s laboratory system. “I think it’s an innovative approach.”

O’Neil said he is looking for blood samples for the rest of the 12 condemned inmates executed between 1977 and 2000. So far, DNA profiles have been completed on the blood of Gacy and two others.

Among the other executed inmates whose blood was submitted for testing was Lloyd Wayne Hampton, a drifter executed in 1998. Hampton’s long list of crimes included some outside the state _ one conviction was for the torture of a woman in California. But shortly before he was put to death, he claimed to have committed additional murders but never provided details.

So far, no computer searches have linked Gacy or the others to other crimes. But Moran and O’Neil suspect there are investigators who are holding aging DNA evidence that could help solve them.

That is what happened during the investigation into the 1993 slayings of seven people at a suburban Chicago restaurant, during which an evidence technician collected and stored a half-eaten chicken dinner as part of the evidence. There was no way to test it for DNA at the time, but when the technology did become available, the dinner was tested and revealed the identity of one of two men ultimately convicted in the slayings.

Moran wants investigators in other states to know that Gacy’s blood is now available for analysis in their unsolved murders. He hopes those jurisdictions will, in turn, submit DNA profiles of their own executed inmates.

“That is part of the DNA system that’s not being tapped into,” he said.