On a May day in 1977, Harold Wayne Lovell left his home on South Pulaski Road for Aurora to try to land a construction job. At 19, he was tall and thin with long sandy blond hair framing a full mouth and broad nose. He preferred to be called Wayne.

Then he vanished.

For years, Lovell’s family believed he was a victim of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. A younger sister, Theresa Hasselberg, a nurse in Alabama, kept newspaper clips about Gacy. A brother, Tim Lovell, read books about Gacy and theorized that Wayne and Gacy crossed paths while Gacy did construction work at a fast-food restaurant in Aurora.

Two weeks ago, they contacted the Cook County sheriff’s office, which has reopened the Gacy case in an effort to identify eight long-unidentified victims, so they could submit a genetic profile for testing.

But instead of finding the sad connection to Gacy that they always thought existed, they found something that shattered their expectations, brought a large measure of relief and raised a host of questions: a police booking photo online that showed their brother was alive, although sometimes in trouble with police, in South Florida.

Before dawn Tuesday, the family was reunited, with Wayne Lovell getting off a Greyhound bus and stepping into the embrace of his sister and brother, an unexpected yet happy ending to their lengthy quest.

“I’ve gone from having nothing to having all this,” Wayne Lovell said in an interview. “It’s awesome.”

Since Cook County sheriff’s officials said two weeks ago that they had unearthed skeletal remains of those eight unidentified victims earlier this year, families who lived for decades with painful mysteries have come forward to see whether, with the help of advances in science, they might finally know what happened to their son, brother or cousin.

For some families, the possibility of a link to Gacy has burned within them for decades, pushing them to study the serial killer and try to determine if their loved one might somehow have crossed paths with Gacy.

For others, the possibility Gacy is the answer to a decades-old question is new, strange and even a little unwelcome. Their loved ones disappeared, never to be heard from again, yet they never allowed themselves to imagine that they could become part of such a dark and violent story with the serial murderer at its center.

With only eight unidentified bodies, most of the families who come forward will find themselves where they started, with desperate questions about how a loved one walked out the door one day and never came home. The only new information they may get is that a loved one was not a victim of Gacy.

According to Sheriff Tom Dart, more than 120 families have emailed the sheriff’s department or called a hotline to learn if they qualify for the testing that could link them to the DNA of one of those unidentified victims.

Approximately 70 of them, Dart said, are “right in our target zone, agewise and locationwise.” That is, their missing family member fits the profile of most of Gacy’s victims: between 14 and 21 or so when last seen, and either living or working where Gacy was known to meet his victims. Seven families have been swabbed to obtain DNA samples, and four more are being readied; the samples will be sent to researchers in Texas doing the genetic testing. Results are expected in two or three weeks.

“Some cases, you’re shaking your head saying, ‘This is really good,’” the sheriff said in a recent interview.

Gacy was convicted of the murders of 33 young men and boys in the 1970s, all but one of them strangled, many of them found in the crawl space of his Norwood Park Township home. He was executed by lethal injection in 1994.

Wayne Lovell said he left home because he was at odds with his mother.

“I never felt wanted at home, so I left,” he said.

He soon made his way to Florida and has been there for more than a quarter-century, working in the shipyards, doing lawn work and painting, even working with horses. He has had minor trouble with the law, he said. Once, he came back to Chicago to look for his mother, but she was gone. She died in 2001.

Theresa Hasselberg said her brother looks old, not unexpected after all the years. But she said she was happy to have him home. It was not the ending she anticipated — she feared the worst — but it was welcome.

“After all these years,” she said, “he’s home.”

by Steve Mills as published in The Chicago Tribune