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CNN Special Reports
The Curious Case Of The Killer Clown. Aired 8-9p ET
Aired December 22, 2018 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[20:00:14] ANNOUNCER: The following is a CNN Special Report.
JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He is one of the most brutal serial killers in American history.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He acted as if, you know, catch me if you can."
CASAREZ: Executed for murdering 33 young men and boys.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These were sexually motivated crimes. He would rape these boys prior to killing them.
CASAREZ: You had never seen anything like this in your career.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nobody had.
CASAREZ: Thirty years later, eight victims are still unidentified.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the grave of victim number ten.
CASAREZ: Cold case detectives are searching for answers.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any relative who may have had a loved one that during this period of time went missing, they should come forward.
CASAREZ: And the investigation is still taking new and unexpected turns.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I knew he was telling the truth. But my mind wouldn't accept it.
CASAREZ: Raising questions and revealing answers to dozens of unsolved mysteries.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Families of long-term missing persons. They live in a cruel limbo.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I always thought that someday I would get a phone call and it would be from Steve.
CASAREZ: Tonight, a CNN Special Report. "The curious case of the killer clown."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The '70s was a unique time period in this country.
CASAREZ: Jason Moran is a detective sergeant with the cook county sheriff's office.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The loose culture, the drugs, the sex, and rock and roll, the I'm going to stick my thumb in the air and we are going to go to the beach every day. Young people being gone from home days at a time before returning. So I definitely think the culture of the culture of the '70s lent itself to these type of activities.
CASAREZ: In the summer of 1976, 16-year-old Jimmy Haakenson walked into the kitchen of his family's home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and announced he was going to Chicago.
LAURIE SISTERMAN, JIMMY HAAKENSON'S SISTER: I think back then there was -- I mean, it was a whole different lifestyle.
CASAREZ: Lorie Sisterman is Jimmy's older sister.
SISTERMAN: He would take off and he would go to visit friends for two or three days at a time, you know. And my mom would come home and he would be gone, you know, which sounds like not good, but it would be just -- you know, we weren't afraid.
CASAREZ: Lorie remembers there was little supervision at home.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The father wasn't in the picture. And their mother worked multiple jobs to support the family. Four children. And as a result, you know, the kids sometimes had to care for themselves. And it sounded like Jimmy was struggling a little bit. A young man, teenager, trying to learn about himself.
CASAREZ: A phone call from Jimmy on August 5th reassured Lorie and her mother that he would be back soon.
SISTERMAN: He called and got ahold of my mom and said, I'm in Chicago, and I'm good, I'm fine, you know. You know, I will be back, you know, whatever the conversation was.
CASAREZ: But this time, days turned into weeks and Jimmy didn't come back.
SISTERMAN: I just know that mom was very nervous and very scared about Jimmy.
CASAREZ: So that stands out to you?
SISTERMAN: Yes. Yes. He was -- I mean, he would take off now and then. But he would always come back. You know, this time he wasn't coming back.
CASAREZ: In September, Mrs. Haakenson reported Jimmy missing to the St. Paul police. And authorities in Chicago were alerted.
That must have been a horrible time.
SISTERMAN: Yes, right.
CASAREZ: She must have been beside herself.
SISTERMAN: Yes, she was. She was. And well, anyway, so she filed that and waited. And nothing happened.
CASAREZ: Because Jimmy left home on his own, police never search for him.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was a sign of the times. Teenagers were doing this in the '70s. So the fact that Jimmy chose to leave did not mean there was going to be some sort of, you know, manhunt for missing person Jimmy.
SISTERMAN: And so then, my mom and I and a coworker of hers from her job, here day job, we drove to Chicago on a weekend to try and find him.
CASAREZ: What was that like for your mother?
SISTERMAN: Well, she was very anxious. You know, like hoping to pull a needle out of a haystack, and like there's Jimmy on the street corner, you know, grab him, you know, Jimmy, you know, grab him, and come home, you know. But, you know, that was wishful thinking, you know.
CASAREZ: There were no signs or clues. Jimmy Haakenson had vanished without a trace.
Over the next two years, at least a dozen more teenaged boys and young men also went missing in the same Chicago area. All white males between the ages of 14 and 24, all with slight builds and an average weight for their height. Unlike with Jimmy Haakenson, their cases all turned cold, until December 11th, 1978.
15-year-old high school honor student Robert Piest (ph) had just gotten off work at Nissan pharmacy in Des Plaines, Illinois.
[20:15:45] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was his mother's birthday. And his mother came to pick him up because he couldn't drive, to take him home, to cut the birthday cake with his older brother and sister and you know, there is dad.
CASAREZ: Greg Bedoe was an investigator with the Cook County state attorney's office.
GREG BEDOE, COOK COUNTY INVESTIGATOR: And Robert Piest told his mother, I will be right back. I want to talk to this contractor about a summer job. Anyway, he grabbed his coat and went out the door.
CASAREZ: Moments later, Robert was nowhere to be found.
BEDOE: His mother panicked, was looking outside, and went and get the rest of the family and they searched everything and they couldn't find. And they even had the family dogs up there, you know, trying to find him.
CASAREZ: The Piest knew something was wrong.
Rob Piest was a nice kid from his nice family. It was his mother's birthday, are you kidding me? He is not going to run away on his mother's birthday, you know. It is just -- none of that made sense.
CASAREZ: His parents went straight to the Des Plaines police department.
ROBERT EGAN, FORMER PROSECUTOR, COOK COUNTY: They notified the police at about 11:00.
CASAREZ: Robert Egan was a prosecutor for Cook County.
EGAN: And this is it was explained to them that for a kid who is gone under those circumstances, they usually wait until the next morning.
BEDOE: Of course mom then starts asking questions, who's this contractor, finds out the name, Gacy, John Gacy had been in the store earlier in the day.
CASAREZ: So the next day they realize we have got to take this seriously and they started to investigate. What was the first thing they did?
EGAN: They went to Gacy's house. And he is essentially said, yes, I was at the drugstore and I don't remember talking to Robert Piest. I didn't know Robert Piest. I talk to a lot of kids wherever I go to see if they want summer jobs. And I may have said something but I don't remember directing it to Robert Piest. They said, OK, and looked around the house, just casually, and couldn't find anything interesting, and they left. They left and went back to the station. They did a very normal thing with a suspect, they ran his criminal record.
CASAREZ: Gacy's record revealed a troubling past. He had served prison time for sodomy in Iowa involving a teenaged boy.
EGAN: We had a kid who is missing. This guy has done time for sodomy. Those are clues that pretty much scream for attention.
CASAREZ: Detectives were alarmed. Who exactly was John Gacy? And where was Robert?
When we come back, police question Gacy's employees.
BEDOE: We interviewed these kids. They were talked to no one who worked for him who would gone missing. What was all that about?
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) [20:11:58] CASAREZ (voice-over): Two days after Robert Piest's disappearance, detectives arrived at Gacy's home at 8213 Somerdale with a search warrant.
EGAN: They went throughout the house and they found some really interesting stuff. Up in the attic, they found a pair of handcuffs.
CASAREZ: The book of Illinois statutes.
EGAN: Oh, yes.
CASAREZ: Describe that.
EGAN: We thought that was kind of interesting, the book of Illinois statutes, I wonder what he was doing with this. And there was a piece of yellow paper that had been torn off and put in the statues as the bookmark. It had to do with multiple crimes against sexual victims.
CASAREZ: Right. So sexual predators.
EGAN: Sexual predators.
BEDOE: There were miscellaneous pieces of identification. A high school class ring, temporary driver's licenses, that had no connection with Robert Piest or Gacy. In other words, who are these people, where did this stuff come from? Jewelry, cufflinks. I mean, you know, just none of it made sense.
CASAREZ: But there were no signs of Robert Piest.
EGAN: Police were very suspicious, obviously, of Gacy at that point but they didn't have any evidence.
BEDOE: I interviewed him the night of the first search warrant. And then we started pinpointing, did you talk to Robert Piest in the store? Did you have any contact with him? No, I don't know who you are talking about. He denied it all. We couldn't charge him. We had nothing, you know. We had a missing 15-year-old boy, you know. What were we going to charge him with?
CASAREZ: Instead police put Gacy under 24-hour surveillance.
BEDOE: When he was being surveilled by the police department, I mean, just his demeanor, his attitude, I mean, was just infuriating. We knew he was dirty for something. And he acted as if, you know, catch me if you can.
CASAREZ: Gacy bought the officers dinner and drinks and told stories trying to convince them he was an upstanding citizen.
EGAN: He was a precinct captain. He was a democratic precinct captain in that particular ward.
CASAREZ: And he also was at times a clown.
EGAN: Pogo the clown, as a matter of fact, was his name. He used to go out on weekends and entertain kids.
BEDOE: He has a picture on his wall standing next to Rosalyn Carter. To hear him tell it, he was a really important guy.
CASAREZ: But he also made disturbing statements to the surveillance team. What did he say?
EGAN: A clown can get away with murder.
CASAREZ: That's a bizarre statement.
EGAN: Not unless you are a murderer and you want to play with your victim.
CASAREZ: Still, Gacy acted as if he had nothing to hide. Even inviting the officers into his home.
EGAN: Gacy came out and said, look, it's really cold out here. Do you guys want to come in for some coffee? They said, sure. And they went. And one of the detectives said, listen, can I use your bathroom? Well, Gacy said, sure, help yourself. And he went back in the bathroom and he kicked that and he said the smell came up from the ventilation system which was underneath the floor, that he said, I smelled decomposing flesh.
[20:15:17] BEDOE: He smells what he believed was similar, something similar to what he would smell at the county morgue. Anybody that's been to the morgue would know what that smell is. It's something you don't really forget.
CASAREZ: Detectives were alarmed. But they still needed evidence to build a case. While the surveillance team watched Gacy's every move, investigators questioned his employees.
BEDOE: When we were interviewing these kids, they would talk about somebody who had worked for him who had gone missing. Well, what was all that about? Well, I don't know, the police came by and they asked me questions and Gacy said he didn't know anything about it, the kid picked up his last paycheck and that was the last anybody saw of him. There was a couple of like that, a couple of young guys that disappeared that worked for him.
CASAREZ: Young guys like 17-year-old Gregory Godzik who had gone missing exactly two years earlier. And 18-year-old John (INAUDIBLE) who was last seen having an argument with Gacy over money.
BEDOE: Never seen them alive again. No bodies were recovered. They vanished from the face of the earth. Where are they? Where did they go?
CASAREZ: Investigators also learned the class ring they found in Gacy's home belonged to 19-year-old John Zik (ph) who had been missing since January 20th, 1977.
BEDOE: He just vanished. Parents, you know, filled out a missing persons report with the Chicago police department. His car vanished. His class ring was gone. There was a TV missing from John Zik's apartment. It ends up, when they did the first search warrant, they took photographs of everything. And one of the photographs was of Gacy's bedroom. Here is a small TV sitting on the dresser that was very similar to what was in the missing person's report.
CASAREZ: And there was more. One of Gacy's employees revealed disturbing details about Gacy's orders to dig trenches in his crawl space to help manage a drainage problem.
BEDOE: He says, I was in a crawl space digging a trench at Gacy's direction. And Gacy told me to dig it from where the sump pump was to the wall and then go down to the wall, like a right hand turn. So being a kid, he says, why should I go this 90-degree turn, I'll do it diagonal. And Gacy came down and got all bent out of shape, screaming, hollering, swearing at him, I told you, goddamn it, I told you to dig over here, not over there. And he really got mad.
CASAREZ: Mad because he didn't want nearby piles of dirt disrupted.
BEDOE: And then I started thinking, whoa, that in conjunction with the digging, with the piles of dirt, these kids that were never seen or heard from again, where are they? Well, is it possible, is it possible? That they are in the crawl space? This is what goes through your mind. You know, you start to think, is he responsible for five, six murders?
CASAREZ: Detectives imagined the worst. And they needed to get back inside Gacy's house and into the crawl space.
When we come back.
You had never seen anything like this in your career?
EGAN: Who had? No, nobody had.
CASAREZ: And then --
SISTERMAN: We heard it on the news. And I just said, mom, we need to do something.
[20:22:31] CASAREZ (voice-over): It was four days before Christmas in 1978 when Cook County investigators entered John Gacy's house with a second search warrant and they headed straight for the crawl space.
BEDOE: Dan Gutly (ph) was the guy who went down there. He took a shovel with him. It was just a matter of five minutes. And he yells back up through the hole. I got some bones down here.
EGAN: I remember it was like it was yesterday. He said, pardon me, oh, shit. We said, what's wrong? He said, I got another rib cage down here. And we all stood there and looked at each other and went, wow.
CASAREZ: Later that night, at the Des Plaines police station, Gacy gave a shocking confession.
BEDOE: He said, we are going to clear up like about 30 homicide which I thought was a lot of BS, I'll be honest with you.
CASAREZ: But Gacy kept talking.
BEDOE: His attorneys are there, and somebody said, who was the first one? He said, well, he explained that the first one was in 1972. This is 1978. I mean, now you have got, yes. Now, you got a serial killer on your hands.
CASAREZ: Gacy described a gruesome killing spree where he handcuffed his victims, then strangled them until they stopped breathing. A technique he demonstrated on assistant state's attorney Larry Finder.
EGAN: And he reaches into his pocket and takes out his rosary. He said to Larry, put your harm in here. And Larry just kind of naturally flinched. And he said, relax, Larry, I'm not going to kill you. So Larry put his arm in. And Gacy demonstrated on Larry's wrist how he used the rope to kill these kids.
CASAREZ: These young men, they suffered before they died.
JASON MORAN, DETECTIVE SERGEANT, COOK COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: Yes, it was a -- it was very brutal. These were sexually motivated crimes. He would rape these boys prior to killing them.
CASAREZ: Boys including his missing employees John Butkovitch and Gregory Godzik. The owner of the class ring, John Zik and Robert Piest.
[20:25:02] EGAN: He then started drawing where we would find bodies. And he drew a square. And he said, this is north. He drew a front door. Then he drew about ten feet away from that, he drew a trap door which was the trap door access to the crawl space. So you will find, you know, the four bodies here, two on top of two under the door, you will find three next to each other, under the kitchen you will find five, three and then two next to them. Damaging piece of evidence.
CASAREZ: Pretty accurate.
EGAN: Oh, God, was it ever.
CASAREZ: After running out of room in his crawl space, he said he dumped the rest of the victims in the Des Plaines River.
EGAN: He had taken the police out to the scene on the bridge. And he said, this is where I threw Robert Piest.
CASAREZ: For weeks the scene outside Gacy's suburban Chicago home was grim. Families with missing brothers and sons watched in panic as crime scene technicians pulled the remains of 29 boys and young men from the crawl space, backyard, and from under the concrete in his garage.
You had never seen anything like this in your career.
EGAN: Who had? No, nobody had. Not at all.
CASAREZ: Four hundred miles away in St. Paul, Minnesota, Lorie Sisterman was anxious.
SISTERMAN: We heard it on the news. And I just said, mom, we need to do something.
CASAREZ: Lorie wondered about her younger brother Jimmy. When Jimmy left home two years earlier, they knew he had made it to Chicago. But he never came back.
SISTERMAN: This man was found in Chicago, arrested, and Jimmy was in Chicago. I mean, the odds, you know like, oh, my.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They went to the police department in St. Paul where they made the missing persons report and said, could you find out if our missing loved one is one of these victims that are being carried out of this evil man's home?
CASAREZ: At the time of Gacy's arrest, the main way to identify the victims was dental records which the Haakensons didn't have so their case turned cold once again.
SISTERMAN: As a mom, I can't imagine what my mom was going through, you know. And, you know, she had four children, and one of them was missing. My heart just hurts for my mom.
CASAREZ: One year later, Gacy was convicted of more murders than anyone in U.S. history at the time, and sentenced to death. It was enclosure for dozens of families. But many of the victims were still unidentified. Buried across Chicago cemeteries with the grave stone, we remembered.
TOM DART, COOK COUNTY SHERIFF: Things sort of just went cold. There was no callousness by anyone in the investigation. Everyone just knew there's nothing we can do at this point.
CASAREZ: Tom Dart is the sheriff for Cook County.
DART: And so then people -- some went on with their lives. But for most people, they never really went on with their lives. They always wondered.
CASAREZ: When we come back.
So you get a phone call from Jimmy Haakenson's nephew out of the blue.
MASON: Yes. He says that his uncle has been missing for 35 or more years and he would like to learn if his missing Uncle Jimmy Haakenson was one of Gacy's unidentified victims.
(END VIDEOTAPE) (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
[20:30:53] JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thirty years after John Gacy's arrest, and nearly 20 years since his execution, Cook County investigators exhumed the remains of eight of his victims to collect DNA.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the grave of victim number 10.
CASAREZ: Victim number 10 was one of eight young men murdered by Gacy who were never identified.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All of the unidentified victims have the same markers, these, "We remembered" with the date of internment. Sometimes it helps to see it visually, you know, that this person doesn't have a name on their headstone, and that potentially there's a family out there looking for their missing loved one.
CASAREZ: Since 2011, Sergeant Jason Moran has been investigating to try to identify these young men.
DETECTIVE SERGEANT JASON MORAN, COOK COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: When the sheriff and I talked about reopening this case, we couldn't think of any victim that more deserved a second chance at identification. You know, these people were robbed of their lives at a young age by an evil man. And even in death, they don't have the dignity of having a name.
CASAREZ: And Moran has spent hours with families whose loved ones have been missing for decades.
MORAN: They're some of the saddest people that you want to talk to. And the reason is because they live in a cruel limbo. They don't want to think that their missing loved one is dead because then it's like they're giving up hope. But they struggle with things like, what do I do with my missing loved one's belongings, especially after 10, 20, 30, 40years?
If you throw their belongings away, it's like you're throwing them away.
CASAREZ: Moran hoped advances in technology and DNA testing would solve the decades-long mystery and bring peace to grieving families.
[20:35:59] MORAN: We had the best DNA profiles that we were going to get from these unidentified victims. So now, we needed the family members. Family members of missing persons that were willing to contribute their DNA profile to have it compared to these victims.
TOM DART, COOK COUNTY SHERIFF: Thanks, everyone, for coming.
CASAREZ: In October 2011, Cook County sheriff, Tom Dart, made a public appeal for families to come forward.
DART: We're looking for family members who think that one of their loved ones is a victim here. Any relative who may have had a loved one that during this period of time went missing. Anybody who's had that nagging concern and question, they should come forward.
MORAN: We gave criteria because we knew who Gacy's victims were. Males, white, a certain age. We knew Gacy's first victim was murdered in 1972 and that he was arrested on December 21st, 1978. So we were looking for that time period.
CASAREZ: Leads poured in from across the country. And within weeks, they had a match.
DART: Because of all of this work, victim number 19 is never going to be known by a number anymore. Victim 19 was William George Bundy.
MORAN: We accomplished what we set out to do. We were able to provide that family with answers as to where their missing loved one had been all of those years.
CASAREZ: And what's that like, to tell a family?
MORAN: Well, it's not easy. You know, in my job, and detective work overall, being successful sometimes causes other people pain. And to have to tell them that not only is their missing loved one dead but they were murdered by an infamous serial killer, is difficult to do. It's painful to hear.
CASAREZ: For six years after that first identification, Sergeant Moran's work yielded no positive results.
MORAN: There's some of these missing persons, I would have bet a week's salary that they were one of the unidentified victims. They fit the victim profile so well. But not only are they not one of the unidentified victims, but they're still missing. That is sometimes frustrating.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In the back of my mind, I would wonder, where is Jimmy?
CASAREZ: Then in 2016, Jimmy Haakenson's sister Lorie Sisterman learned of the reopened Gacy investigation.
So you had a nephew in Texas that decades later decided wanted to know answers.
LORIE SISTERMAN, JIMMY HAAKENSON'S SISTER: Right, yes. For literally 10 years or more, you know, he has been in the computer looking, searching sites and stuff.
CASAREZ: So you get a phone call from Jimmy Haakenson's nephew.
CASAREZ: Out of the blue.
CASAREZ: What did he say? MORAN: He says that his uncle has been missing for 35 or more years, and he would like to learn if his missing uncle Jimmy Haakenson was one of Gacy's unidentified victims.
CASAREZ: Moran learned Jimmy disappeared in Chicago in 1976. Right in the middle of Gacy's killing spree. Now, he needed DNA samples from Jimmy's family.
SISTERMAN: A local police officer came to my house and swabbed my cheek several times. And they sent that off.
CASAREZ: Finally, after 40 years, Lorie was just weeks away from learning what happened to her brother.
Coming up. So you get a call from Detective Moran.
SISTERMAN: He called me and said, "I'd like to get together with your family."
MORAN: I didn't even have to knock. They were waiting. They saw me pull up. They were on pins and needles.
[20:40:24] CASAREZ: In the summer of 2017, DNA from Jimmy Haakenson's family arrived here at the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas. Scientists analyzed the samples to determine if there was a link to one of the unidentified Gacy victims.
More than 40 years after Jimmy's disappearance, they had their answer.
You get a call from Moran.
SISTERMAN: Right. Like he called me and said, Lorie, I'd like to get together with your family. Is there a place where we could get together?
CASAREZ: Moran traveled to St. Paul to meet with Lorie and other members of the family. So you're at the door and you're ringing the doorbell or knocking on the door. What was that like?
MORAN: I didn't even have to knock. They were waiting. They saw me pull up. And they were on pins and needles.
SISTERMAN: He introduced himself and shook everybody's hand. And then he sat down.
MORAN: I talked about the circumstances in the case. And then told them that I was sorry to report that their missing brother and uncle was murdered by John Gacy.
SISTERMAN: We all just sat there, just stunned. People were crying. My brother and I, we did not cry. I think we were both in a state of shock. I knew he was telling the truth, but my mind wouldn't accept it.
CASAREZ: Moran brought pictures of the cemetery where Jimmy was buried.
[20:45:01] MORAN: I knew seeing those things would help them visually understand where Jimmy had been for all of these years.
SISTERMAN: And that's when I lost it, because it really is true. My brother and I were -- we were crying then, because we didn't realize Jimmy's in there, in that picture that they showed us. You know, an unknown. It just had a date on there. "We remembered." It wasn't his name or anything like that, obviously. So, yes, that was -- that was hard.
CASAREZ: Unable to provide the Haakenson family with all the answers to their questions about Jimmy's death, Sergeant Moran tried to help the family find closure.
You arranged a memorial service for Jimmy.
CASAREZ: My guess is that's not always done by cold case investigators when they solve a case. Why was it important to you?
MORAN: I just felt obligated to really close this part of their lives out for them in that way. And that's what these services sort of do.
SISTERMAN: It was so nice. Yes, we got as many people as we could get together, family-wise, you know, people, and we flew in from different areas of the country and we had a memorial.
CASAREZ: Sheriff Tom Dart and Sergeant Moran were also there.
MORAN: We were in this with them. We reopened this case and we told the family what happened to their missing loved one. And I think by being there, we showed that we were there to support them, to memorialize their loved one's graves.
DART: I didn't know what to expect when I was out at the cemetery that day. And just watch the family and how they interacted, it just drove home to me just how much it meant to them. And it reinforced to us that we have to do more. We have to keep this thing going.
CASAREZ: Sheriff Dart and Sergeant Moran have continued to search for answers. But there have been constant challenges. There are six more victims remaining with no name. And Moran doesn't know if he will ever solve those cases.
MORAN: There's a reason why these victims weren't identified the first time around. It's like any cold case. You know, there's a reason why these cases are not solved.
CASAREZ: But the investigation took an unexpected turn. Moran received a lead from Ron Soden who suspected his much younger half- brother Steven may have fallen victim to Gacy back in 1972.
MORAN: So Ron called and he told me that Steven and his younger sister April, that their mother put them in an orphanage in New Jersey. And he explained that the orphanage was having an overnight campground activity.
RON SODEN, STEVEN SODEN'S BROTHER: They were on a camping trip at a state park down in central New Jersey, they called it the Pine Barrens. So it's a very remote area. And he ran away.
MORAN: Steven tells his sister, April, I'm going to take off, you know, I want out of this orphanage. She says, I want to come with you. He says no. I'm going to go -- you're too young. I'm going to go. I'll find a place for us. And when I do, I'll come and get you.
CASAREZ: But it was the last time April ever saw her brother.
MORAN: I thought it was possible, maybe he was going to go to Chicago to search for his biological father. But when he got to Chicago, John Gacy may have been waiting for him. He was a perfect candidate.
CASAREZ: Questions lingered for years. Where was Steven Soden? And did john Gacy get him?
[20:50:04] SODEN: This is Steven and April.
CASAREZ: When Steven Soden ran away from a New Jersey orphanage and left his little sister behind, she thought he would come back for her.
SODEN: Steven tells his sister April, I'm going to get out of here, go find us a home and then you'll come with me and I'll take care of you.
CASAREZ: But Steven never came. Months later, her older half-brother Ron did. Ron had been serving in Vietnam when Steven went missing and his disappearance tortured him for years.
SODEN: We always thought, I always thought someday, around the holidaying, that I would get a phone call and it would be from Steven. But it didn't happen.
CASAREZ: Ron spent years searching for him.
SODEN: I contacted the Salvation Army. I heard that they would help with the search. I contacted them several times. No results there. I would look in the directories for the name Steven Soden and find phone numbers and call. Anytime I saw anything in the newspaper, heard anything on the news about anything pertaining to a missing boy or missing boys, I would make contact there. I made contact with a forensic anthropologist down in Texas one time.
CASAREZ: Then in 2011, Ron learned about the cold case investigation to identify unnamed victims of John Gacy and reached out to Sergeant Moran.
MORAN: I learned from Ron that Steven and April's biological father was from Chicago. And I liked that fact. I thought he was an ideal candidate to be a victim of John Gacy. He was the right age. He was in an orphanage. And the sheriff and I and others, we had often spoke about some of these unidentified victims maybe being wards of the state and that's why no one came forward to claim them or to identify them.
[20:55:07] SODEN: Detective Moran asked me if we would do DNA test. So I contacted my sisters and we did the DNA test and sent it in.
CASAREZ: But the Soden's DNA did not match any of the identified Gacy victims.
SODEN: That was, I think, a relief because I didn't want to think of him as being dead.
CASAREZ: Ron still wanted answers and Sergeant Moran could not let the case go. So he entered the Soden's DNA into a national database hoping one day he could solve the mystery.
Surprisingly there was a hit.
MORAN: The DNA was associated with some found remains in a New Jersey forest. Within a mile of that orphanage campground. So because of the circumstances and because of the DNA, we were able to say that missing person Steven Soden was the remains that were found in the woods.
CASAREZ: When you heard those words --
SODEN: Oh, boy. I don't know. It was hard. You're always hoping for the best.
CASAREZ: Because you thought he was alive.
SODEN: Yes. And so this was after 40 years of all that hope. And then finding that out, yes.
MORAN: You know, I don't like talking about, you know, that always the human side of doing this work. But, you know, I can't help but think and feel about Steven. It was a tough story.
CASAREZ: It is a case Sergeant Moran never anticipated solving when his investigation began to name the eight unidentified Gacy victims. And as it turns out, there have been at least a dozen more cases just like Steven Soden's.
MORAN: The unusual thing is I've been able to identify more non-Gacy victims than Gacy victims through this. Only two of the eight unidentified victims are -- we know who they are.
CASAREZ: Out of the 170 leads, he has received about missing persons during his work on the Gacy case, the majority remain unsolved.
What do you do when a lead is not related to Gacy but it's a missing person?
MORAN: I will pursue it until it's resolved in some way. They're either a Gacy victim, they're not a Gacy victim but they've been either murdered by someone else or died of other causes. Some -- in this case, I have found five of these missing persons alive after 35 years. But some aren't resolved. I cannot find the person dead. I can't find them alive.
CASAREZ: Sergeant Moran says cold case work from missing persons is an underserved field in law enforcement across the country.
MORAN: The rapes, robberies and murders that occur today take precedent over someone that went missing 50 years ago.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today, we add another level of healing to our wounds.
CASAREZ: But Moran is determined to do something about it.
MORAN: When you're working with these families, you become close with them sometimes. Professional, but close. You know, you can't help but look at your own humanity to a certain extent. Most policemen have children and how would you want your children to be treated if something tragic like this happened?
CASAREZ: His boss, Sheriff Dart, couldn't agree more.
DART: I look at those faces of those families that we've dealt with and found out there is nothing in this planet that has meant more to them than to bringing that closure.
And as someone like myself who has young children, I can't conceive of what those people have gone through. I don't know how they live day- to-day with that event occurring in their life.
And from a law enforcement standpoint, oh, my God. This is what we're supposed to do. This is sort of our job.
CASAREZ: Does it haunt you when you can't find the answers?
MORAN: I don't say it haunts me, but it does occupy my space.
This type of job, you don't go home at 5:00 and, you know, see you tomorrow. You know, there's many times where I sit up thinking or feeling something about the cases I'm involved in. You try not to, but it's really a -- it's no end. You can't stop it sometimes.
CASAREZ: Sergeant Moran spends months and sometimes years on these cases. It is painstaking work. And the odds of solving even a single case are stacked against him.
But Moran knows that if he is not searching for answers, it is likely no one else will.