MAYWOOD, Ill. — It was a painful mystery that had simmered just below the surface for about 40 years, and last month, the family of James Byron Haakenson finally got their answer. As had been long feared, the funny, good-natured 16-year-old they called Jimmy had been a victim of John Wayne Gacy, one of the country’s most notorious serial killers.
But the revelation by Chicago-area law enforcement officials opened up a new set of haunting questions for this family as it imagined his final days, now with just enough certainty to be horrifying.
“How did this 16-year-old kid get to Chicago, and how in the heck did he run into this awful man?” Lorie Sisterman, Jimmy’s older sister, said from her home in North St. Paul.
The story of Jimmy’s identification, decades after his death, is a remarkable quest that spanned the country. It took a curious nephew in Texas with a knack for digging around online, siblings in Minnesota and South Dakota who had never stopped wondering what had happened to their brother, and a sheriff-detective team in Illinois determined to close cold cases.
Originally, Cook County investigators had little to go on but the body of a young man, between 5 feet 5 and 5 feet 10, discovered with dozens of others at Mr. Gacy’s house in 1978. He was known only as Victim No. 24.
One summer day in 1976, Jimmy appeared in the kitchen of the Haakenson house in St. Paul, his brown hair bleached blond. Carrying no backpack or suitcase, he told his family that he was off to Chicago. Jimmy had been known to leave home before, seeking fun and relief from a crowded house with four children, a mother who held as many as three jobs and a frequently absent father who worked as a plumber but also drank heavily. Jimmy had always come back.
“I just said, ‘Why is your mom letting him go to Chicago?’” said Jackie Haakenson, who was then dating Jimmy’s older brother, Donald (they later married). Nobody else in the room seemed to share her worries.
“It was so loose and easy back then, you could just hitchhike and not worry about it,” Ms. Sisterman said. “If he thumbed it all the way to Chicago, we don’t know.”
Word that he had made it there safely came on Aug. 5. Jimmy called home and spoke to his mother, June Haakenson, assuring her that he was fine.
But then weeks passed with no word from him. Ms. Haakenson, a quiet, reserved woman, reported Jimmy missing to the police. In a message dated Sept. 7, 1976, the St. Paul police alerted the Chicago Police Department. “Mother thinks he may be in company of gays in Chicago,” the letter said. Family members said he was seen wearing makeup that summer.
“When he didn’t come back, we knew something had to have gone wrong,” Jackie Haakenson said. “What are the chances he met up with Gacy?”
The Serial Killer
The news out of Norwood Park Township, Ill., in December 1978, was grisly. The police arrested Mr. Gacy, a 38-year-old owner of a construction firm who was known in the neighborhood as a businessman and amateur clown.
A search revealed 29 bodies in or near Gacy’s house, 26 of which were found in the home’s crawl space. Four more were found in the nearby Des Plaines River. Mr. Gacy had abducted and raped some victims, and lured others to his home by promising them construction jobs or sex. Then he killed them, often by strangulation.
Hearing about the murders, Ms. Haakenson thought of her son, who had now been missing for more than two years. “After the story broke, my mom and I had a conversation and said, ‘Well, what if?’” Ms. Sisterman recalled.
Her mother told the St. Paul police, who passed along her theory to officials in Illinois, according to police records. The Cook County police asked for Jimmy’s dental records. For reasons unknown, none were sent.
“What could a woman in the Midwest with three more kids to raise, what could she do?” Ms. Sisterman said.
After that, there would be no more conversation about Jimmy at home. “Every once in a while I would say something about Jimmy,” Ms. Sisterman said. “She just would close her eyes. It was something you didn’t talk about.”
In the house in Sioux Falls, S.D., where Jeff Haakenson grew up, he never saw a picture of his Uncle Jimmy. But when he was a child in the 1980s, his mother, Jackie Haakenson, told him what had happened before Jeff was born.
“John Wayne Gacy got him,” she would say.
Mr. Haakenson often read about true crime, including books about the Gacy killings and the Jeffrey Dahmer murders in Milwaukee. And from the time he was 19 and in the Air Force, he would spend hours searching for his uncle online.
“I could never find him,” Mr. Haakenson, 37, said from Lubbock, Tex. “It just really bothered me that nobody cared, that somebody went missing and it’s like, nobody’s doing anything about it. If it was my brother who went missing, I would be turning over every rock looking for him.”
His mother was the only person who talked about Jimmy. “Time went by, and I kept asking,” Ms. Haakenson said from her home in Sioux Falls. “I would ask Don, ‘Why doesn’t your mom look for him, do something?’ If it was my dog I would look harder.”
Last year while working in Los Angeles, Jeff Haakenson came across a page online from the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. It said the authorities were trying to identify the remaining unknown Gacy victims. Mr. Haakenson filled out a form with his uncle’s name, birth date, last known location. Then he waited.
As a boy growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1980s, Jason Moran would hear about the serial killer from the suburbs who targeted young people. As a seasoned detective in Cook County trying to close Gacy cases, he saw the agony left behind.
“It’s quite devastating to see how much death and pain he has caused for so many people,” he said. “This was a new experience with human pain.”
In 2011, Sheriff Thomas J. Dart announced a new push to close cold cases in Cook County, particularly the Gacy case, which had left eight unidentified victims at the time. Mr. Gacy was executed by lethal injection in 1994.
Sergeant Moran and Sheriff Dart started digging, beginning with the warehouse where boxes and materials on the Gacy case were kept. They gathered everyone they could find who was involved with the original investigation. And they acknowledged the challenges ahead — after decades, many families have long given up on finding their missing relatives.
But DNA evidence was making it easier to link unidentified bodies with names, and DNA was extracted from the bones of the unidentified people who were discovered in a crawl space beneath Mr. Gacy’s house. There was also hope that families who did not want their missing loved ones to be associated with Mr. Gacy back then might come forward now.
After publicizing their quest, hundreds of tips poured in, including from Jeff Haakenson.
From there, the investigation moved swiftly, Sergeant Moran said. Nothing revealed that Jimmy was alive, and his description — a young, unsupervised man in Chicago during the period when Mr. Gacy was killing people — suggested a possible link.
He then asked Donald Haakenson and Ms. Sisterman to submit DNA samples; Jimmy’s parents had both been dead for years.
The results from the lab were convincing enough that Sergeant Moran asked the Haakenson family if family members could meet in person to discuss them.
With family members assembled around Ms. Sisterman’s dining room table in North St. Paul in July, Sergeant Moran broke the news. Shock rippled through the room as the family absorbed it.
“I didn’t want him to be dead, and especially dying the way he did,” Jeff Haakenson said. “But I’m relieved that he’s found, that he’s not missing anymore.”
Ms. Sisterman said she was grateful that her mother was not alive to hear it. “It would have killed her, literally,” she said.
On the wall of his office in Maywood, Sergeant Moran has hung Jimmy’s photo on a poster of the unidentified Gacy victims.
“I got more leads and I’m hopeful,” he said of the victims. “The next six are going to be tough.”