Genealogy data helps authorities identify one of six unidentified victims of John Wayne Gacy

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The man formerly known to investigators as Gacy victim No. 5 finally has a name thanks to advances in DNA testing and analysis.

Genealogy information helped Cook County investigators identify a young North Carolina native as one of the unidentified victims of John Wayne Gacy. Francis Wayne Alexander disappeared between February 1976 and March 1977, according to authorities.

On Monday, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart released Alexander’s identity following a two-year investigation that, with the help of DNA experts, cleared a 43-year-old mystery that continues for five others slain by Chicago’s most notorious serial killer.

Dart made the announcement along with the Gacy lead investigator and members of the nonprofit DNA Doe Project, which helps law enforcement agencies identify bodies through DNA.

Alexander’s body was one of the unidentifiable bodies found in Gacy’s crawl space beneath his former home at 8213 W. Summerdale Ave. in Norwood Park Township.

Authorities didn’t say how they suspect Alexander and Gacy crossed paths but said the victim lived near another one of Gacy’s victims, William Bundy, and that he lived and worked in areas that Gacy was known to prowl for victims.

Alexander “had the misfortune of living in the area where John Wayne Gacy did most of his killing, where he targeted most of his victims,” Dart said. “He also had the misfortune of operating in an area where Gacy targeted specific people and specific groups.”

Alexander’s family never made a missing-person report, thinking he had intentionally estranged himself following the end of his three-month marriage in 1975. “His family thought that he wanted to be just left alone,” Dart told reporters.

Authorities believe Alexander lived in Chicago for at least a year before he disappeared.

Officials compared Alexander’s identification with the kind of DNA testing and comparison that led to the arrest and conviction of Joseph James DeAngelo, the so-called Golden State Killer, in 2018.

One of Alexander’s molars and a piece of his jawbone were sent to a laboratory in 2020 where DNA was extracted, officials said.

“Given the age of this case, the quality of the DNA extract obtained was excellent,” said forensic genealogist Cairenn Fullam-Binder. A high-quality DNA sample “with little bacterial contamination” was sent to another lab for genetic sequencing. A DNA profile was created and compared with other genetic profiles on the GEDmatch genealogy database.

GEDmatch allows members of the public to submit DNA results and compare them to profiles from other genetic testing companies collected on the database.

In just eight hours, DNA Doe investigators identified several of Alexander’s distant relatives on both sides of his family. They then used public records and newspaper archives to identify his family tree and to narrow Alexander down to their likely target. “It really takes a village to solve a case like this,” Fullam-Binder said.

Alexander was 21 or 22 when he died, authorities said. Investigators were able to narrow the time frame for when Alexander was likely killed because of his placement in Gacy’s crawl space. “He was buried underneath an individual that we know pretty precisely when he was murdered,” Dart told reporters. Parking tickets for Alexander also helped authorities determine that he had no “proof of life” after 1976.

After receiving Alexander’s identity, local authorities made contact with his family and took DNA samples for a possible match. Last Friday, Lt. Jason Moran traveled to North Carolina to break the news that the remains matched Alexander.

“They had five generations in one room,” Moran recalled. “They were all waiting to hear the news of their missing son, brother and uncle. It was sensitive ... emotional, but at the end, all of the family agreed ... it’s better to know than not to know.”

Family members did not attend the news conference Monday but released a statement: “Let us start by thanking Sheriff Tom Dart, Lt. Jason Moran, the hardworking officers of the Cook County sheriff’s office and the DNA Doe Project. Without their tireless efforts our family would not have the closure we do now.

“It is hard, even 45 years later, to know the fate of our beloved Wayne. He was killed at the hands of a vile and evil man. Our hearts are heavy, and our sympathies go out to the other victims’ families. Our only comfort is knowing this killer no longer breathes the same air as we do,” the statement said. “We can now lay to rest what happened and move forward by honoring Wayne. We ask that you respect our wishes of privacy as we process this tragedy.”

In December 1978, Gacy, a politically active contractor, confessed to killing dozens of young men and boys. After being provided a map by Gacy, authorities found 29 of his 33 victims in a crawl space beneath his northwest suburban home. Four other victims were dumped from a bridge, but later found.

Monday’s identification leaves five victims unidentified.

Gacy’s yellow brick ranch house was razed in April 1979 and remained a vacant lot until a new home was constructed.

Gacy was executed by lethal injection in 1994 at the old Stateville prison facility.

According to Dart, Alexander’s family hadn’t decided whether to leave his body in the Chicago area or to bring it to North Carolina, adding they were planning a spring trip here.

Margaret Press, co-founder of the 60-volunteer DNA Doe Project said helping identify victims in such cases not only draws public attention to the importance of DNA analysis, it also gives much needed closure to suffering families.

“All of our volunteers, it’s life changing for most of them to be able to return a victim to their family,” Press said following the news conference. “That is the bottom line.”

wlee@chicagotribune.com

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