By Chicago Tribune
For most of the 34 years Harold Wayne Lovell was missing, his family thought he was another victim of one of America’s most notorious serial killers.
But two weeks ago, after the Cook County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Office reopened the case of John Wayne Gacy to try to identify eight victims through skeletal remains, a relative of Lovell’s spotted a Florida police mug shot that turned the family’s world upside down.
The man who disappeared when he was 19 did not die by the hand of the so-called Killer Clown after all. Instead, he was working busboy jobs in South Beach, partying in Fort Lauderdale, and making another life for himself far from his troubled home near Chicago.
“I never stopped thinking about my mom or my brothers and my sisters,” Lovell, now 53, said from rural Alabama on Wednesday, during an emotional family reunion.
“I feel bad that they had to go through life thinking that I’d been killed like that,” he said. “I feel terrible. But I was a teenager, and who didn’t want to go to Fort Lauderdale, where it’s nice, sunny and hot?”
Lovell left his home in Aurora, Ill., in May 1977, telling his relatives he was off to look for a construction job. Instead he made his way to Florida, and for the next three years worked a series of odd jobs in hotels and restaurants.
When he never came back, a younger sister, Theresa Hasselberg, along with his brother Tim, became convinced that their brother — who goes by Wayne — had crossed paths with the serial killer. Gacy had done construction work at a Aurora fast-food restaurant about that time.
They kept scrapbooks about the grisly killings, and shuddered at the realization that Wayne fit perfectly the profile of many of Gacy’s victims: boys between the ages of 14 and 21.
Gacy was convicted of the murders of 33 young men and boys in the 1970s. Most were strangled, and many were found buried in the crawl space of his suburban home.
When Gacy was put to death in 1994, Lovell’s siblings figured their hopes of ever finding out what happened to Wayne had died as well.
“I always had that inkling of hope he was alive,” said Tim Lovell, who was just 14 when Wayne disappeared. “I would say, ‘God, let me see my brother one more time.'”
With the reopening of the Gacy case, Tim Lovell and other relatives fully expected that genetic tests performed on the unidentified remains would confirm their long-held fears.
And they were not alone. When Illinois authorities announced plans to try to ID the remains, more than 120 families emailed the sheriff’s department or called a hotline to see if they qualified for testing that could link them to the DNA of one of those unnamed victims.
Of those, about 70 are possible, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. Seven families have submitted DNA samples, and four more are being readied, he said.
Results are expected in two or three weeks.
But before Lovell’s relatives could be tested, a nephew began an Internet search and found the website Mugshots.com. And there, under the name of Harold Wayne Lovell, was a Hillsborough County booking photo of a man who looked just like Uncle Tim.
Wayne had been arrested in 2006 on a marijuana possession charge.
After a few telephone calls and a 10-hour bus trip from Tampa, where he has been living, to Dothan, Ala., Wayne Lovell was reunited with two of his three siblings early Tuesday.
Between media interviews, he has told the family his story. He left home because he didn’t feel wanted. He worked at the Fontainebleau Hotel, swam in the ocean in Fort Lauderdale. He met a girl from Wisconsin on South Beach, followed her back to the Midwest and got married.
He lived in Wisconsin for several years, he said, and when he and his wife split up, he returned to Florida, this time to the West Coast. Lovell said he has two daughters, ages 30 and 28, whom he has not seen since they were small.
Once, Lovell said, he returned to Chicago to look for his mother, but she was gone. She died in 2001.
“This has all been so emotional,” said Lovell. “I need to get some work and be part of the family again. And I need to rest. There is 33 years of catching up to do and you can’t do it in two days.”
Tim Lovell, 48, said he is thrilled to have his big brother back, and has invited him to stay in Alabama and join him in his small construction business.
“All those years, I thought for sure Gacy got him,” said Tim Lovell. “I thought for sure he was dead and gone.
“I imagine there are other families out there who have felt the way we have all those years. But maybe your loved ones out there are alive. Don’t quit looking.”