By Judith Valente, Special for USA TODAY
CHICAGO - For more than 30 years, Sherry Marino faithfully placed
flowers and candles at the grave that bore the name of her 14-year-old
son, Michael, identified as one of the victims of notorious serial
killer John Wayne Gacy.
But each time she stood at the grave site,
she felt a nagging suspicion that she had buried some other mother's
son. "It was just a feeling you get when you're a mother. I'd put my
hand on the grave and I'd feel cold. I didn't feel it was Michael in
there," Marino says.
Last fall, Marino obtained a court order to
exhume Michael's body and put her doubts to scientific scrutiny.
Preliminary DNA tests show her mother's instincts were correct: The
remains in the casket weren't Michael's.
"I always knew it. I said
to everyone, you're going to see that I'm right," she said recently in
her first newspaper interview since the DNA results became available.
results pose one more challenge for authorities, who are still trying
to identify some of Gacy's victims nearly two decades after his
execution in 1994. Known as the "Killer Clown" because he often
portrayed a clown at charity events, Gacy was convicted of killing 33
young men or boys in the 1970s.
So if he wasn't one of Gacy's
victims, what happened to Michael, a talented drummer who loved Led
Zeppelin and dreamed of becoming a professional musician? He disappeared
in 1976 and would have been 51 today.
"I'm saying my son is still somewhere out there," Marino says.
was skeptical from the start when authorities took 15 months to
identify Michael as Victim No. 14, even though Marino provided her son's
dental records shortly after Gacy was arrested. The remains were pulled
from a crawl space in Gacy's home in the Chicago suburb of Norwood Park
Township. DNA testing did not exist at the time, and identifications
were made largely through dental records and X-rays.
Some of the
clothing on the body didn't match what Marino remembered her son wearing
on the day he went missing. An entry in the autopsy report also noted
that Michael's collarbone had healed from a previous injury. Marino said
her son had never suffered a broken collarbone.
TEST RESULTS IN DISPUTE
Despite the DNA analysis showing
the remains aren't Michael's, the Cook County Sheriff's Office has so
far refused to accept the test results.
Sheriff's Detective Jason
Moran said Marino's attorneys provided investigators with a "redacted
and incomplete" report on the test which "does not allow for competent
review or conclusion."
The sheriff's office wants a lab it normally uses at the University of North Texas to repeat the test.
sympathize with Mrs. Marino, I really do," said Cook County Sheriff
Thomas Dart. "But a death certificate has been issued in the name of
Michael Marino, and we simply cannot change it without legitimate
evidence from a credible DNA test."
"Mrs. Marino isn't seeking a
government-stamped piece of paper," said Steven Becker, one of her
attorneys. "She is seeking her son."
Dart said that if a second
test confirms that Michael's remains were misidentified, "we will try to
find out whose DNA it is, and what happened to this boy who has been
missing for over 30 years."
Marino last saw Michael on Oct. 24,
1976. "It was a Sunday, at 2 o'clock in the afternoon," she recalls with
precision. "He made me a sandwich and said 'Mom, I'm going to the game
room,'" a popular pinball arcade in a neighborhood where Gacy often
trolled for victims.
Michael and his mother made plans to see a movie together that evening. "Then he kissed me on my cheek and went off," she said.
Michael didn't return home, Marino says, she "went from worried to
frantic." She contacted the police, who told her Michael probably had
run away. "They said it's what teenage boys do. I said, 'You don't know
For more than three years, Marino searched on her own
for Michael, her middle child and only son. She posted his photograph in
storefronts. She even forced her way into well-known drug houses,
fearing Michael may have fallen in with wrong crowd.
push my way through doorways where people were getting high. I would
say, 'I'm looking for my son.'" She spent thousands of dollars to hire
TRAGIC NEWS ARRIVES
dreaded news came in March 1980. Marino says two police officers arrived
at her door and told her that authorities had made "an awfully big
mistake" in treating Michael as a runaway.
Police said Michael had
been identified as one of the bodies discovered months earlier in
Gacy's house. They said the previously unidentified body found lying
next to Michael was that of 16-year-old Kenneth Parker, the friend who
had accompanied Michael to the pinball arcade on the day he went
"I fell to my knees, just passed out," she recalls.
has so far refused to give sheriff's investigators a saliva swab of her
DNA, saying she has lost confidence in the authorities. However, she
says she would be willing to submit another sample to a laboratory not
currently affiliated with the sheriff's department or the Chicago
Edward Pavlik, the orthodontist who headed the team that
identified Gacy victims, says he has no doubt that Michael was murdered
Pavlik said Michael's remains were examined in 1980 by a
team of four forensic odontologists. They used both dental charts and
X-rays of fillings, which carry unique characteristics similar to a
fingerprint, to make the identification. A radiologist examined the
skeletal remains and also concluded they belonged to Michael.
the Marino identification was called into question, three additional
forensic odontologists reviewed the dental records, Pavlik said. Those
experts reached the same conclusion as the original team.
said there is a "remote possibility" Michael's remains were mixed up
with someone else's after the identification was made. "But I don't
think realistically that's what happened."
He said it is possible
that the laboratory that did the analysis for Marino used "faulty"
procedures to procure DNA from the bones in the casket, or else compared
those samples with Marino's DNA "inaccurately."
Marino, now in her late 60s and suffering from several ailments, continues to hope for closure.
like living in limbo continuously," she says. "It's changed me in every
way. I don't trust anyone. I believe very little of what I hear."
she recognizes there is only a remote possibility that Michael is still
alive, she says, "I have hope. I have a lot of hope. I would love to be
able to hold him again."