A man whose family thought he had been murdered by serial killer John Wayne Gacy has been found alive and living in Oregon, Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart said Wednesday.
For 35 years, Theodore "Ted" Szal's family thought they had lost him. But this week they learned he actually was alive and had willingly disappeared years ago while going through a divorce.
“I believe Christmas has come early for the Szal family,” Sheriff Dart said. “Being able to tell an 88-year-old father that his son, whose picture he has been carrying around for 34 years in his breast pocket, has been found alive is something special.”
The sheriff's office confirmed that Szal, now 59, is living in Beaverton, Oregon, and left town when he was 24 years old.
"He was not reported missing to authorities because Ted had a history of disengaging from his family for periods of time and then re-engaging," the sheriff's office said.
Szal told The Oregonian that he felt like the "black sheep" of his family and decided to leave town after having a disagreement with them.
“I threw my keys away down the sewer grate so I couldn’t change my mind,” he told the newspaper.
He told the paper he figured his family could find him on the internet if they tried.
Szal's description fit the profile that profile, and the general profile of several of Gacy's victims. And his car had been found abandoned near Chicago's O'Hare Airport, near where the serial killer lived. That led his family to believe he had likely been killed.
Gacy, a part-time party clown, was put to death in 1994 for the killings of 33 boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. "Victim 19" was believed to have been between 17 and 21 years old and between 5-foot-1 and 5-foot-6, investigators said.
Officials were able to find Szal as they embarked on a search to identify him as part of an ongoing effort to identify Gacy's unknown victims. They have been asking anyone who believes to submit DNA samples to see if they match any of the unidentified victims.
So in November, Szal's family gave DNA samples after speaking with the sheriff's office about their missing relative. DNA from Szal's parents were not found to match any of the victims, the sheriff said. So they began a subsequent investigation that led to Szal's discovery in Oregon.
When a detective first spoke to him and told him his family was looking for him "there was a bit of a silence on the phone," according to press release.
"Ted was completely surprised and searched for words," the sheriff's department said. "After talking with the detective for a while, he asked him to relay a message to his dad; he wanted his dad to know that he was still fishing, just the way his dad taught him when he was growing up."
The sheriff's office said that the family is currently working out what may be best way to get in touch with Szal.
“While we are so relieved to have discovered that Ted is alive and well, our thoughts and prayers are also with the families of the victims – both known and yet to be determined – of John Wayne Gacy," his family said in a statement. "We are so thankful to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Detective Jason Moran. The work they are doing is meaningful and important. With the news they were able to bring us, we do ask that our privacy be respected while we sort through the next steps with our family. Thank you."