It has been 34 years since Ted Szal walked out on his Glen Ellyn life and disappeared. For more than three decades his family believed Szal was dead.
And worst of all, they feared he was a victim of John Gacy, Chicago’s most notorious serial killer.
Except he wasn’t dead. He was very much alive. And this Christmas, Szal’s family has that very unexpected gift to celebrate.
“I didn’t know my family thought I was dead,” Szal said from his Beaverton Oregon home. “That’s kind of a tough pill to swallow.”
Szal’s family contacted the Cook County Sheriff’s Police after learning of efforts to put names with Gacy’s seven remaining unidentified victims. Investigators said the facts of the then-24 year old Szal’s disappearance seemed to fit the Gacy pattern. But DNA samples taken from the missing man’s parents turned up negative.
Detective Jason Moran says it was a bittersweet moment, especially after he spoke with Szal’s father Ted, who is now 87.
"He showed me a picture of his son that he keeps in his top breast pocket," Moran said. "He’s kept it there for the last 34 years."
Moran could have stopped right there. After all, his assignment is to put names with the unidentified skeletons which were unearthed from Gacy’s house. Szal’s test came up negative. Case closed.
But Moran didn’t stop. He kept working and ran the boy’s name and vital statistics through the system. He searched the internet, and used databases which didn’t exist in 1977.
And he found Szal, now 59, working as a carpenter, in suburban Portland.
“He was alive in Oregon,” Moran said. “He didn’t have a lot of words. He couldn’t believe that his family was looking for him after 34 years.”
“It blew my mind, totally blew my world,” Szal said. “I didn’t know anything until police called me Monday night!”
Szal admits that he simply vanished. There were family issues. A troubled marriage, coupled with a belief that his mother had assisted his wife in getting an abortion.
“I didn’t have too much money. I didn’t have a job. So I drove to the airport, threw my keys down a sewer drain so I wouldn’t change my mind and got on an airplane. That was 35 years ago.”
Thirty five years without a single word to his family. Szal travelled first to Colorado Springs, then California, and finally to Oregon, where he settled down and eventually remarried. He admits that the memory of his family had haunted him, especially on holidays.
“Christmas has been hard. But this year, Christmas is going to be different.”
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who relaunched the Gacy investigation two months ago, says he knew there was a chance they would end up clearing some long dormant missing persons cases. But he adds that he has learned things he never expected.
“There are a lot of people hiding in plain sight,” Dart said. “And for a myriad of reasons, for family reasons, they’ve chosen not to be found.”
Police are all too familiar with the terrible responsibility of bringing bad news to families. It is part of the job. And Dart says he was fully prepared for the possibility that his office would have to tell the Szal family that their worst fears had been realized; that their missing son was a John Gacy victim.
“We’re saying, he wasn’t. And we found him. And he’s alive! I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
This is the second such discovery. In late October, Harold Wayne Lovell was found alive after he didn't return from a construction job 33 years ago.
Anyone with addition information about the remaining unidentified victims is asked to call the Sheriff’s office at 1-800-942-1950 or www.CookCountySheriff.com.