Though Sherry Marino has been visiting a grave that was supposed to contain her son’s remains for more than three decades, she knew in her heart he was not there – that Michael was not, as the authorities told her, body No. 14 from the home of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
On Thursday, Marino’s attorneys announced, DNA testing confirmed what Marino always believed: that the remains she buried were not those of her 14-year-old son, who was last seen with a pal 36 years ago at a hamburger restaurant near Clark Street and Diversey Parkway, where police determined Gacy trolled for victims.
The revelation raises fresh questions about what happened to Michael Marino. But it also raises broader questions about the initial investigation into one of the country’s most prolific serial killers.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has been trying to identify the remains of eight unidentified victims tied to Gacy, as well as to dig in the yard of a Northwest Side apartment building where some suspect Gacy buried additional victims.
Already the work has led to the identification of William Bundy, 19, who disappeared in 1976, as one of Gacy’s previously unidentified victims. Authorities also determined a 22-year-old Peoria man who disappeared in 1978 was not a Gacy victim but died on a Utah mountainside.
Marino’s attorneys, Steven Becker and Robert Stephenson, said the identifications of all Gacy’s victims now are suspect and should be reviewed using DNA.
What’s more, the attorneys said they believe Gacy committed his crimes with accomplices and that a broader investigation is warranted.
“The more we know about the John Wayne Gacy case, we have to realize that we don’t really know anything at all,” Stephenson said in an interview. “To believe that Michael was the only one that was misidentified is far-fetched. We need to take a new look at what happened.”
Frank Bilecki, a spokesman for Dart, said the office wanted to see the lab reports to help evaluate the results. The office was not involved in the exhumation and so has concerns about the chain of custody. But it also recognizes the power of DNA and the potential for the Gacy case to take new turns.
“We opened up this investigation with DNA,” said Bilecki. “But we need to see the reports and verify a lot of different things.”
A contractor, Gacy was tied to 33 murders of young men and boys; 29 bodies were found at Gacy’s Norwood Park Township home, at 8213 W. Summerdale Ave., and four were pulled from the Des Plaines River.
To identify the bodies, which were in varying states of decomposition, authorities used the forensic tools then available – dental records and X-rays.
Marino’s mother said she submitted two sets of dental records as well as X-rays. Orthodontist Edward Pavlik, part of the team of specialists working on the complex investigation, made a match with dental records.
Gacy was executed in 1994.
Although she buried her son and visited his grave once or twice a month, Sherry Marino always doubted the identification, in large part because of discrepancies she discovered in the dental records.
She went to court a year ago seeking to exhume the remains and conduct DNA testing. Her son’s body was exhumed last month, said Becker, and the testing was done at a lab in North Carolina. Altogether, the effort cost about $10,000.
Pavlik, who was skeptical of Sherry Marino’s questions about her son’s identity, said he remains certain that his identification was correct.
“I’m a scientific thinker. I’m telling you that the body and the X-rays given to me as Marino are one and the same without any doubt. I can’t make it any clearer than that,” said Pavlik, who has offices in the south suburbs. “I’d stake my wife and children on this. There’s just no question about it.”
Pavlik theorized that it was possible the remains of the victims somehow got mixed up and that Marino still is one of Gacy’s victims. He also questioned the DNA analysis, saying it was crucial that the private laboratory in North Carolina that conducted the testing was reputable.
“I want to see who did the work,” said Pavlik. “These are things someone else needs to check.”
For Marino, the DNA testing merely confirms what she always knew. Now, her lawyers say, she wants to find her son, who was supposed to come home that afternoon and go to a movie with his mother.
Though the passage of so much time makes the prospect of finding him all the more difficult, Becker and Stephenson said the DNA testing also adds strength to his mother’s commitment to continue searching.
“She’s not surprised,” said Becker. “It’s a classic example of a mother’s intuition. Now she’ll continue to look for her child.”