In the summer of 1976, baby-faced James Byron Haakenson, age 16, took off from his St. Paul, Minnesota, home. That year Taxi Driver was in movie theatres and punk rock was roiling up throughout the cracks in the U.S. Jimmy, as his family called him, had bleached his brown hair blond—throughout the summer family members had seen Jimmy wearing makeup. On this occasion, he walked into the kitchen, and announced to his family he was going to Chicago, over 400 miles away.
Jackie Haakenson, the girlfriend and eventual wife of Jimmy’s older brother Donald, questioned why their mom would let him go without so much as a blink. Other family present did not voice any concern. Jimmy’s mother, June Haakenson, was stretched thin juggling two or three jobs at a time. His father was a plumber, largely absent, and a big drinker. In that era, hitchhiking was not yet fully taboo, and Jimmy had a history of leaving home in search of a good time, like thousands of other young folks hungry for big-city action. Until then, he had always come back home to St. Paul.
“It was so loose and easy back then, you could just hitchhike and not worry about it,” said Lorie Sisterman, Jimmy’s older sister among the four siblings, putting it into a 1976 context of parent-set boundaries. “If he thumbed it all the way to Chicago, we don’t know.”
On August 5, Jimmy called and spoke to his mother to confirm his arrival in Chicago, stating he was fine.
Weeks passed, however, without any further contact from Jimmy. Mrs. Haakenson reported Jimmy missing. The St. Paul police sent a message dated September 7, 1976 to the Chicago Police Department: “Mother thinks he may be in company of gays in Chicago.”
In December 1978, John Wayne Gacy was arrested in Norwood Park Township, IL. At the time, a total of 29 bodies were discovered in or near Gacy’s house. Later four others were found in the Des Plaines River.
For readers lucky enough to have thus far evaded the horrific details of this dark spot in history, the 38-year-old Gacy was the owner of a construction firm and known as an amateur clown who performed at children’s parties. Of the victims found, this bogeyman’s modi operandi included abduction and rape, as well as luring them into his house with the promise of construction jobs or sex. They were mostly killed by strangulation.
When the story broke, Jimmy’s family considered the bleak possibility he was among the victims. Mrs. Haakenson once again contacted the St. Paul police, who floated the idea to the Cook County police in Illinois. From Cook County, there was a request for dental records from the Haakenson family, though none were sent. At that point on, perhaps under a pall of unimaginable grief, the family stopped speaking about Jimmy.
In the 1980s, Jimmy’s nephew Jeff Haakenson was informed by his mother Jackie what probably befell his uncle: “John Wayne Gacy got him.” And so Jeff began reading true crime books, which included reportage on Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer. He joined the Air Force at 19, but used free time to search online for his uncle.
“It just really bothered me that nobody cared, that somebody went missing and it’s like, nobody’s doing anything about it. If it was my brother who went missing, I would be turning over every rock looking for him,” Jeff said, who continued his quest after moving to Lubbock, TX.
His mother Jackie, relocated to Sioux Falls, SD, was the only family member who would talk about Jimmy.
“I would ask Don, ‘Why doesn’t your mom look for him, do something?’ If it was my dog I would look harder.” Jackie said.
The opportunity to look harder arose last year, when Jeff found a bulletin on the Cook County Sheriff’s Department website. As part of a push to close cold cases, the Department was trying to identify eight remaining unknown victims of John Wayne Gacy (who had been executed in 1994). Jeff filled out the form with his uncle’s info.
Sergeant Jason Moran and Sheriff Thomas J. Dart were the detectives in charge of putting the pieces together to finally ID the victims. Countless files and evidence boxes were revisited, as well as anyone involved with the original investigation. Moran, who grew up in 1980s Chicago hearing about the “Killer Clown,” felt the grief rekindled with this effort.
“It’s quite devastating to see how much death and pain he has caused for so many people,” he said. “This was a new experience with human pain.”
When the crimes were being investigated the first time, some families, like the Haakensons, chose not to link their missing children to Gacy. The detectives hoped by posting their request for help some relatives might come forward. DNA evidence offered further hope, as DNA from the bones of unidentified bodies had been obtained.
Jeff Haakenson’s was one of hundreds of tips. Sergeant Moran deduced that Jimmy—an unsupervised teenage male hanging out in Chicago during Gacy’s killing spree—was a likely victim. Therefore he requested DNA samples from Jimmy’s brother Donald (Jeff’s father) and sister Lorie, as their parents were deceased.
Lab results prompted Sergeant Moran to arrange a meeting with the Haakenson family at Lorie’s home in North St. Paul in July. He informed the gathered relatives that DNA matches indicated Jimmy was among Gacy’s victims, giving sad yet profound closure.
“I didn’t want him to be dead, and especially dying the way he did,” Jeff Haakenson said. “But I’m relieved that he’s found, that he’s not missing anymore.”
Jimmy’s photo currently hangs in Sergeant Moran’s office, on a poster, as a symbol of hope in identifying the remaining unknown victims.