CHICAGO – His task was to solve a cruel mystery decades after a serial killer's death.
Sgt. Jason Moran's work began in a graveyard, his first stop in his quest to identify the eight unknown victims of John Wayne Gacy. More than 30 years had passed since Gacy had murdered 33 young men and boys.
Investigators now had more sophisticated crime-solving tools, notably DNA, so the Cook County sheriff's detective was assigned to find out who was buried in eight anonymous graves.
Moran quickly helped a family confirm Gacy killed their brother.
Since then, though, his search has led him down a totally unexpected path: He's cleared 11 unrelated cold cases across America. After eliminating these young men as Gacy victims, he's pored over DNA results, medical and Social Security records, enlisted anthropologists, lab technicians and police in Utah, Colorado, New Jersey and other states — and cracked missing person's cases that had been dormant for decades.
Most recently, Moran identified a 16-year-old murder victim in San Francisco who'd been buried 36 years ago.
He's brought comfort to some by proving, through science and dogged research that their missing loved ones are dead.
He's brought joy to others, finding long-lost brothers and sons still alive.
Marveling at this remarkable detour from the ghastly Gacy trail, Moran says he recently told his boss:
"Is it possible that an evil serial killer has done some good?"
Moran's work began four years ago after Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart publicly urged anyone who thought a relative was an unidentified Gacy victim to submit to a DNA test.
Moran prioritized about 170 tips from more than 20 states, representing some 80 missing young men.
He focused on those similar in age (14 to 24) and background to Gacy's victims: Many had troubled families or substance abuse problems. Some were gay. Others had worked construction for Gacy, a building contractor. He was executed in 1994.
Authorities had long ago removed the jaw bones and teeth of the eight unknown victims, hoping for eventual identification. Decades later, they were buried, only to be exhumed in 2011. Moran took them to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, where lab workers developed solid DNA profiles for four victims. For the other four, the entire remains had to be exhumed.
Within weeks, Moran cracked one case.
William Bundy's mother had suspected Gacy killed her son, but the case was stymied because his dentist had destroyed his patients' records after retiring.
Three decades later, Bundy's mother was dead, but his sister and brother provided DNA, resulting in a match to the unknown victim. It wasn't enough for a firm identification.
Moran then studied the man's dental records, noticing empty spaces where his upper canine teeth had been removed. Bundy had those same teeth removed, saved them — and his sister kept them all those years.
Bundy is the only Gacy victim Moran has identified. But he's helped other families who feared their loved ones died at Gacy's hands.
In every case involving DNA, Moran told families the results would be entered in CODIS, the federal Combined DNA Index System. If a genetic link emerged, he'd call.
It took almost four years for Willa Wertheimer to get that life-changing call.
In 2011, she'd told Moran about her half-brother, Andre Drath. Their mother died when both were very young.
When the grief-stricken little boy began getting in trouble, his stepfather turned him over to the state. Drath was abused in foster homes. Then one day he disappeared.
"I used to fantasize about finding him," Wertheimer says. "I just wanted to hold him and tell him I love him and say I'm sorry about everything that had happened."
Her DNA eliminated any link to Gacy victims, but last fall, a Texas lab worker notified Moran it was associated with an unidentified body found in San Francisco in 1979. That DNA hadn't been submitted to CODIS until late 2014.
Moran reviewed the San Francisco police and medical examiner's reports, which showed the man had been shot multiple times. It also disclosed an all-important detail: A tattoo — Andy — on his right shoulder.
Moran found more evidence in files from the Illinois agency that supervised Drath as a state ward — including dental records matching those of the teen buried in Ocean Beach.
It was bittersweet news for Wertheimer.
"I was relieved that he wasn't hurting," she says, "but knowing how he died ... I felt awful."
San Francisco police have reactivated their investigation. Moran hopes to soon have Drath's remains exhumed from a California cemetery.
"I brought her to this point," he says, "now I'd like to help bring him home."
Jason Moran cradled an urn as he arrived at the North Side home.
It had been 36 years since Edward Beaudion left that house, a 22-year-old heading to a wedding. Now, the detective was delivering his cremated remains to his sister, Ruth Rodriguez, and elderly father, Louis.
DNA and old-fashioned police work brought this mystery to a frustrating end.
The case had a suspect: A petty criminal named Jerry Jackson told police in 1978 that he'd fought with Beaudion in downtown Chicago, dragged his body into a car, then dumped him in a suburban forest preserve, according to Moran.
Jackson was arrested in Caruthersville, Missouri, with the car Beaudion had been driving. It belonged to his sister; she found a bullet inside.
A search of the woods, though, turned up no body. Jackson was convicted only of stealing the car and items inside.
Decades later, Moran started investigating. "I really felt the sadness and desperation in their voices," he says.
Last year, their DNA was linked to skeletal remains that had recently arrived at the Texas lab. Some kids had spotted a leg bone in the woods where Jackson said he'd dumped Beaudion's body.
That discovery was in 2008. Unfortunately, the remains sat in the Cook County medical examiner's office five years before being sent to be tested. Studying the autopsy report, Moran noticed the leg bone contained a surgical screw in one knee. Beaudion had one, too.
That was enough to confirm his identity — yet that five-year delay thwarted Moran's bigger plan: While preparing to go to Missouri to arrest Jackson in Beaudion's death, he discovered: Jackson had recently died.
Still, Moran sensed the family was relieved.
"His father told me when he dies, he'll have Edward's ashes in his casket and said, 'All of three of us will be together in perpetuity.'"
Thousands of miles away, a 75-year-old Army vet had his own lingering questions.
Ron Soden contacted Moran about his younger half-brother, Steven, who'd vanished in 1972.
He'd run away during a camping trip organized by the New Jersey orphanage where he lived with his sister, April. Their mother had placed them there.
Steven's father lived in Chicago. Could he have traveled there looking for him? Moran thought it possible, and teamed with New Jersey State Police to work the case.
April's DNA was ultimately linked with skeletal remains found at New Jersey's Bass River State Forest, about a mile from where Steven was last seen. That discovery was in 2000, but it wasn't until 2013 — and more DNA tests from another half-brother — that Steven was identified. Hypothermia is suspected as the cause of death.
"We always held out that hope ... then all of sudden you find out and it's not there anymore," says Ron Soden, who lives in Tacoma, Washington. "To realize he probably died at 17 ... it's just a shame his life had to be that way through no fault of his own."
These poignant stories, Moran says, motivate him.
"You've got these young kids who struggle through their short lives," he says. "Now they're anonymous. They don't have a headstone saying they were ever on this earth. I want them to have some dignity and respect so the world knows they once lived.
"I mean, everybody deserves a name."
There are happy endings in Moran's work.
Amazingly, he's located five living men who'd vanished in the 1970s. "I scold them and say, 'Why would you do this to a loving family?'"
In 2013, Moran reunited Edyth and Robert Hutton — after 41 years.
Edyth had made numerous attempts to find her brother, including mailing about 300 postcards to various Robert, Rob, Bob and Bobby Huttons nationwide.
A relative who is a private investigator thought he'd located Hutton in Colorado. But when Edyth and her father wrote letters to that address, they were returned as undeliverable.
In a last-ditch effort she searched NamUs, a website featuring missing and unidentified people, narrowing her list to seven. She contacted the respective law enforcement agencies. One person replied: Jason Moran.
Using Hutton's vital statistics, Moran thought he'd tracked him to Colorado but when police arrived, the man was gone.
Moran waited several months and when the sheriff's analysts checked updated databases they found a match in Montana.
"Your brother is alive," Moran told Hutton's sister. The siblings re-connected the next day.
"I felt like a hole in my heart had been filled," she says.
Her brother, she says, told her he'd gotten involved with drugs, straightened out and returned to the family's hometown in California but everyone had moved. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Robert Hutton recently moved to Nevada to live near his sister.
"We see each other almost daily," she says, "and we love it."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Anyone with tips that might identify the seven remaining Gacy victims can call 708-865-6244 or go to www.cookcountysheriff.org.
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/sharon-cohen