After 40 years, investigators used DNA to identify one of seven unnamed victims of 1970s serial killer John Wayne Gacy. James Byron Haakenson, previously known only as “Victim #24,” was 16 years old when he ran away from his Minnesota home in 1976. On August 5 of that year, he called home to let his mother know that he was in Chicago, and soon disappeared without a trace. His mother always suspected that Gacy had a hand in her son’s disappearance.
Haakenson is the second of Gacy’s unnamed victims to be identified since 2011, when Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart reopened the investigation hoping that DNA testing could help pinpoint the remaining victims. Dart had the bodies of the eight victims exhumed, and asked for DNA samples from any family who had a young man go missing in the 1970s. The first to be identified was 19-year-old William Bundy, who had disappeared in October of 1976.
A nephew of Haakenson, who’d never met his uncle but was always aware of his unsolved disappearance, discovered Dart’s search online in March of this year. He persuaded his father and aunt, Lorie Sisterman, (Haakenson’s brother and sister) to submit samples for testing. They received an immediate hit.
“We know where my brother is,” Sisterman told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “We know what happened to him…This man was a horrible monster, and my brother somehow ran into him. Somehow, on the bus, or on a street corner, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Although Gacy had served a stint in prison for sexually assaulting a teenaged boy, neighbors knew him as the guy who hosted block parties, volunteered in local politics, and even performed as a clown at local children’s birthday parties. As it turned out, he was hiding a horrifying secret–one that not even his wife suspected.
Over a six-year period starting in 1972, “the Killer Clown,” as Gacy was known, raped and murdered 33 teenage boys and young men. The killing spree came to an end in December of 1978, when a 15-year-old boy who had last been seen with Gacy went missing (the boy had been hoping to work for Gacy’s construction business). Police obtained a search warrant for Gacy’s suburban Chicago home, and ended up finding a lot more than just the missing boy. The bodies of 29 boys and teenagers–in various states of decomposition–were found in a 4-foot crawl space beneath the house.
Haakenson’s remains were found in a makeshift grave at Gacy’s house, stacked with two other young men whom police believed were killed around the same time. One was identified as Rick Johnstone, a 17-year-old who’d gone missing after attending a concert on August 6, 1976. The other remains unidentified, known only as “Victim #26.”
When Gacy’s arrest made national news, Haakenson’s mother suspected her son might be among the victims. She traveled to Chicago to talk to investigators, but the remains were in such a state of decay that investigators were unable to identify it using dental records–the method of the day. She passed away two decades later, never knowing what happened to her son.
“I’m glad my mom is already gone, so she didn’t have to find out the awful things that happened to her son, but then she went to her grave not knowing where her son was,” said Sisterman.