Through it all, the identity of Victim No. 5 eluded authorities.
The Cook County Sheriff’s Office announced Monday that it had identified the skeletal remains found in Gacy’s home nearly 43 years ago. Victim No. 5 now has a name — Francis Wayne Alexander, a young man in his early 20s who was born in North Carolina and lost touch with his family when he struck out to start a new life in New York and then Chicago.
“It is hard, even 45 years later, to know the fate of our beloved Wayne,” his sister Carolyn Sanders, said in a statement relayed by the sheriff’s office.
Gacy killed at least 33 teenage boys and young men in the Chicago area from 1972 to 1978, when law enforcement searched his Norwood Park home, the sheriff’s office said in a news release. Investigators said Gacy killed Alexander between early 1976 and early 1977 when the North Carolina man was 21 or 22. He’d been in the Chicago area for about a year and had the bad luck of both living near Gacy and frequenting areas the killer used as his hunting ground, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said.
Gacy was convicted in 1980 of murdering 33 people, ranging from ages 14 to 21. He was executed in 1994.
Dart reopened the investigation in 2011 to identify the eight unknown Gacy victims. Since then, his investigators have identified three of them, including Alexander. The other two were James Haakenson and William Bundy.
“These unidentified young men brutally murdered by this vicious serial killer deserve dignity and that includes knowing their names,” Dart said in a statement.
Determining Victim No. 5’s name required advances in genetic technology and research that have only developed in recent years. Those have led, most notably, to the 2018 arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. — the infamous Golden State Killer — who pleaded guilty last year to murdering 13 people in the 1970s and admitted to committing multiple rapes and burglaries around that time.
In 2019, Cook County investigators started working with the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit staffed by volunteers who use genetic information to find relatives of unidentified victims. Together, law enforcement and genetic researchers decided Victim No. 5 was the most promising target for identification because of the amount and quality of the genetic material available.
The nonprofit compared his DNA profile to those on two genealogy websites to find possible relatives and got a hit tied to Alexander’s second cousin, which led them to a set of shared great grandparents born in the 19th century, Kevin Lord, DNA Doe Project’s director of lab and agency logistics, told The Washington Post. Researchers then worked from those great grandparents, eliminating descendants who were alive or whose death they could account for. Ultimately, they zeroed in on Alexander.
“This really is ... game-changing technology,” Lord told The Post, adding that “it’s really been able to bring a lot of answers to families.”
“There’s still often family out there wondering what happened to their family member,” Lord added. “And so even if we, in a lot of our cases, we can’t provide full answers about who killed them, or what happened or how they met their demise, we can at least give that Jane Doe and John Doe their name back, we can return them to their family member, and we can make sure that they’re laid [to] rest properly.”
Researchers relayed their hypothesis that Alexander was Victim No. 5 to the sheriff’s office, and law enforcement investigators took over with traditional police work, like going through public documents, autopsy reports and financial records, according to the sheriff’s office news release. A traffic ticket issued on Jan. 5, 1976, was the last sign they could find of Alexander, and financial records showed he’d earned little money that year, suggesting he might not have worked a full 12 months.
“Sheriff’s Police found there is no other proof of life for Alexander after this time,” according to the release.
Authorities collected and tested DNA samples from his mother and half brother to confirm what they suspected: Alexander was Victim No. 5.
“I’m ecstatic we were able to bring out some closure,” Dart said at a Monday news conference.
Investigators will keep trying to figure out who the five other Gacy victims are and they’re asking anyone who thinks their relative might be one of them to contact the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.
Alexander’s family never filed a missing person’s report, Dart said. When they lost touch, they figured he’d started a new life and didn’t want to be in contact, the sheriff added. Still, they loved him, and although news of his murder saddened them, they were relieved to finally know what happened and where he was.
In their statement, Alexander’s family members concluded by asking for privacy, thanking people and signing off. They didn’t do it the traditional way, however, with signatures or names.
They identified themselves only as a mother, sisters and brothers who now have closure.