CHICAGO (AP) — A mother who has for decades doubted that her 14-year-old son was a victim of serial killer John Wayne Gacy may finally learn the truth after a judge on Thursday granted her request that the body be exhumed for DNA testing.
"I hope for her sake it provides some closure for her," Cook County Associate Judge Rita Novak said, as 67-year-old Sherry Marino, her daughter squeezing her shoulder, dabbed her eyes with a tissue in the front row of the courtroom.
The order, which came almost exactly 35 years to the day Michael Marino disappeared, is the culmination of years of Sherry Marino's efforts to find out whether Gacy killed her son. When the body was identified with dental records more than three years later, Marino did not quite believe it, in large part because the clothes on the remains that were pulled from a crawl space at Gacy's house did not match the clothing she remembers seeing him wear the day he disappeared. Nor did she understand why it took more than three years to identify her son, even though she provided authorities with his dental records shortly after the bodies were discovered and Gacy was arrested.
"She visits the grave faithfully and always asks, 'Is this you, Michael?'" attorney Steven Becker said after the hearing.
Gacy, a building contractor and amateur clown, was convicted of luring 33 young men and boys to his Chicago-area home and strangling them between 1972 and 1978. Most were buried in a crawl space under the home; four others were dumped in rivers. Gacy was sentenced to death for the 12 killings that occurred after Illinois re-enacted the death penalty in 1977. He received sentences of life in prison for the remaining 21 killings. He admitted the crimes before his trial but later denied having killed all but the first victim.
Since his conviction and his execution in 1994, the case has popped up in the news occasionally. It was after one local television report about Gacy several months ago that Marino, who has over the years hired private investigators and attorneys to help her, tried yet again to find an attorney who might help her find evidence that was overlooked during the initial investigation.
That led her to Becker and his partner, Robert Stephenson, whose own search turned up what they say is a discrepancy in dental records. While one chart created for the teen seven months before he disappeared showed a tooth had either been extracted or had not come in yet, a chart recently located by the dentist who examined the body showed a full set of teeth.
They also found that X-rays taken of the body showed a broken right collar bone — a fracture that Sherry Marino told the attorneys she did not remember her son ever suffering. Further, the pathological report indicated that boy may have been part American Indian, and the attorneys said Marino said she knew of no American Indian blood in her family.
The attorneys have acknowledged that there is strong circumstantial evidence that the remains that were identified only as "body 14" are, in fact those of Marino. The most obvious is that in 35 years the teen has never surfaced. Also, the remains were found in Gacy's crawl space next to the remains of a friend of Marino's, who disappeared the same day as Marino.
"The best we can actually say to anyone is it could be (Marino) and it might not be," said Becker after the hearing. "For as many reasons there are to believe it is Michael Marino there are just as many reasons to believe that it isn't."
As for the boy's mother, "She still is hoping her son may be alive, he may not be but now at least she'll know," Becker said.
On Thursday, the attorneys listed all the discrepancies that buttressed their argument that the exhumation requests should be granted.
The judge agreed, saying she saw no reason why she should not grant the order, and pointed to the "great advances in science" that could give Marino a definitive answer.
The attorneys said after the hearing that they hoped the exhumation would happen within a month. They said the exhumation and DNA testing would cost a total of about $10,000. Originally their petition asked that the county pay, but at the hearing the attorneys told the judge they were dropping that request. They explained later that they were confident that they could raise the money from the public and that some funeral directors have already contacted them with offers to help defray some of Marino's costs.
Stephenson said he is confident there will be enough left of the remains to allow for DNA testing, explaining that the autopsy report indicates the body was partially mummified, meaning that the testing will likely provide conclusive results.
Marino left quickly after the hearing, declining to speak to reporters. At the elevator of the courthouse, she spoke to Becker and Stephenson and tearfully hugged them before the elevator door opened and she left.
Becker said later her words were not about whether or not her son was alive and what exactly the DNA testing would reveal but about how after 35 years a judge had taken her side.
"What most pleased her is that (the judge said) she had a right to know," said Becker. "To have that confirmation from the judge, that was the thing that was the most significant to her."