When Harold Wayne Lovell didn't return from a construction job 33 years ago, his family feared he was dead. His mother, the late Kathy Lovell, believed her son, then 19, was a victim of notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
This week, Lovell turned up very much alive.
It was just two weeks ago that Cook County Sheriff's detectives renewed efforts to identify eight unknown Gacy victims, and Lovell's younger sister, Theresa Hasselberg, contacted police. But by the time the family called, investigators were already very familiar with his case.
“He was high on the list,” said Sheriff Tom Dart. “If not one, two, or three, in someone’s mind, of the most likely person that was one of the eight down in the crawl space.”
As Sheriff’s detectives began their renewed search, they quickly learned there had been recent activity by Lovell in Florida. It was about that time that the family came across a booking photo of a Harold Wayne Lovell, 53, from South Florida. It was him.
"I almost gave up hope in the late 90s," said Lovell's brother, Tim, 48. "I dreamed about it. I've only had maybe a one percent inkling that I'd ever, ever see my brother again, and here we are. It's just amazing."
Lovell said he left home because of a "family situation." He took a train to Florida because he "couldn't stay around the house any longer."
Reunited with his siblings in Alabama this week, Lovell said Wednesday he had no idea his family thought he was dead. But before he left Chicago, Lovell said he did meet Gacy.
"I did some yard work for him," Lovell said. "A few times, he actually tried to get me into the house, but I wouldn't go. And thank God that I didn't."
Lovell was headed to work there the day he left. His mother begged him not to go, he said, but he needed the money to fix his broken down car so he left.
Kathy Lovell told NBCChicago in 1994 and again in 1998 she feared her son was dead and that Gacy was behind his murder. She recognized items which belonged to her son, in crime scene photos taken from the Gacy home.
Lovell said those items were indeed his, but insisted he had no idea why Gacy had them in his possession.
His brother Tim Lovell gives credit to the Cook County Sheriff's Department for reuniting the family with Lovell. Sheriff Tom Dart publically asked families this month to submit DNA if they had male relatives that disappeared in the 70s.
Lead investigator Jason Moran says he knows some families of missing persons are still hesitant to come forward, because of the stigma associated with Gacy.
“I hope they’re not deterred, because this is an example of them coming forward and having a happy ending.”
That's when Hasselberg's son did the internet search after years of trying everything to find Lovell's social security number.
On Tuesday, Lovell reunited with his family at his sister's Alabama home.
"It was a good time yesterday," said Harry Hasselberg, Lovell's brother-in-law. "A real good time. We didn't want it to end. But everybody had to go to work today."
Dart said for his office it is a bittersweet moment. Everyone, he says, is happy to have given the family such good news. But in the midst of the celebrations, he said they know there is one person who is not able to take part.
“It’s heartbreaking, because the mother never gave up,” Dart said. “We would love to have been able to talk with his mom before she died and said, ‘your worst dreams about him being a victim of this monster? It didn’t happen! He’s alive, and we found him.’”
For Lovell, he's glad to be back.
"It's very emotional, it still is," Lovell said. "It's been two days, and I'm still crying."