It is not uncommon to see the body of a drowned person when you work on a riverboat. But death is what it is, and you always feel sad from these experiences. We had no way of knowing at the time of viewing that this body we were seeing was not a drowned person.
We were shifting barges from shore to the dock, one mile below Smith Highway Bridge, mile 277.9 Illinois Waterway. I was the captain on this vessel and was off watch and sleeping when I was awakened by a deckhand, and he said, the pilot needs you in the pilothouse.
I immediately dressed and headed for the pilothouse. Upon arrival there, the pilot told me that a naked body had surfaced alongside the boat. I went outside and looked down and saw the body, and it was being blown away from the vessel by a strong surface wind out into shallow water. It was wintertime, and a considerable amount of floating ice was in the water. Our work boat was too small to try and recover the body in such icy conditions.
I told the pilot to keep the searchlight on the body, as it was starting to get dark. I then called Dresden Island Lock, which was just 5 miles below our position, and asked them to call the sheriff’s office and report our finding. We were told that a fire and rescue boat would be immediately dispatched to our location.
It was only a short time and the rescue boat arrived at our position. We still had our searchlight on the body, so they were able to make a quick rescue of the body.
We had no way of knowing at that time that this was not the body of a drowning, but that of a murdered victim. We later heard that the body was that of the last victim of John Wayne Gacy, the notorious killer of 28 young boys in the Chicago area. He had thrown the body from the Smith Highway Bridge, just 1 mile north of where we were working, and it had drifted down to that area. Our dock was just a couple hundred feet above the bridge.
This boy was the one that connected Gacy to his terrible crimes. The boy had been with his mother shopping and he told her that he had to leave as he had a job-offer meeting, with a man named John Gacy. This was what gave the police information that led to the ending of John Wayne Gacy’s crime spree. Twenty-seven other bodies were found buried under Gacy’s house.
This was a widespread story in the newspapers and on national TV. Some reading this will remember.
Gacy was convicted of these crimes and was given the death sentence. It was suspected that he had murdered more, but that was not proven. He was sent to Menard Prison near Chester, Illinois, and remained there for 12 years. He was finally sent to Stateville Prison near Joliet, Illinois, where he was put to death by lethal injection.
Many times over the years after that, I was at that dock, and I always thought about the Gacy incident that happened in that immediate area.
Charles F. Burdick is a lifelong resident of Grand Tower. After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Navy and then went on to a 42-year Maritime career including 35 years as Master Pilot. He has been retired for 23 years and enjoys local history and writing poetry.