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UPATED 10/26/11 6:38 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – For more than two decades, a local family thought their loved one was a victim of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. But this week, he turned up alive and was reunited with his family on Tuesday.
CBS 2’s Kristyn Hartman reports that the family, now living in Alabama, said they have Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to thank for their reunion.
Dart’s office recently exhumed eight unidentified Gacy victims to collect DNA. Then he put out a plea to anyone who thought a loved one died at the serial killer’s hands to come forward and submit DNA samples to compare to the unidentified victims.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Bernie Tafoya reports
Theresa Hasselberg’s family responded. They wanted to know for sure if their brother, Harold Wayne Lovell, was one of the eight victims.
Years ago, they stopped searching for him because a reconstructive sketch of an unidentified Gacy victim looked like him.
But this new push to find out who the eight unknown victims are put detectives and Hasselberg’s family on a path they never imagined. They found Harold Wayne Lovell alive and well in Florida.
They were reunited early Tuesday morning.
“He cried and he cried. As soon as you talk about anything, he’ll just bust out crying, because he’s missed so much.” Theresa Hasselberg said.
Lovell joined CBS 2 by phone Wednesday morning to talk about his reaction to reconnecting with his family.
“It was awesome – a shock; disbelief. I’m still pinching myself,” Lovell said. “I mean, 34 years is a long time.”
Detectives found a record of Lovell in Florida. Hasselberg’s son also found an old mug shot of him.
Lovell, now 53, said he became separated from his family at the age of 19 after his father left and his mother was under too much pressure. He ended up in a series of foster homes.
“I wondered every day. (There wasn’t) day in 34 years that I didn’t think about them; what they were doing, if they were alive,” he said.
CBS 2′s Mike Puccinelli sat down with the sheriff’s detective who helped solve a case that went cold 34 years ago.
It was the spring of 1977 when Lovell, then a teenager, headed to Aurora to try and find work in construction.
But he never returned. That is, until this week, when the family was reunited in a way they never thought possible.
“In this case, his mother was absolutely convinced, she felt he was a victim of John Gacy,” said Sheriff’s Det. Jason Moran.
Lovell disappeared in 1977 and his mother, for the rest of her life, was convinced he met his end at the hands of one of the worst mass murderers of all time.
“The mother passed away, thinking that her son was killed by Gacy,” said Moran.
But in reality, Lovell was living in Florida – unaware that his mom or any other family members had been searching for him for decades.
When Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart went to the public asking for help in identifying the 8 still unidentified Gacy victims, Lovell’s family reached out to investigators.
After some basic police work, Moran found that Lovell was alive.
“I talked to him on the phone and said, ‘Do you know your family is looking for you?’ And Wayne was just very emotional about it. He wasn’t aware,” said Moran.
That led to a speedy reunion with siblings, now living in Alabama.
“To go from not knowing you had a family to knowing you got more than a handful all at once is amazing,” said Lovell.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d find a person who’s been missing for 30-some years,” Dart said.
Lovell said he left home when he was 19 because he felt unwanted. Dart said his mother’s actions say otherwise.
“I’m thankful to the family that I have that they never gave up,” Lovell said. “It’s just good to be home.”
Lovell said he plans to move to the Alabama area to be closer to his family.
They have been catching up on 33 years of lost time, trying to figure out how they lost contact to the degree they did.
“It was about emotional as you can get. I’m still sitting here crying. It’s been 48 hours,” he said. “I saw family I never thought I had. I went from having no family to having more than I can imagine. It’s just all been sweet.”
As for the work to identify the eight unidentified Gacy victims, no luck yet, but sheriff’s police are processing hundreds of leads.