Rafael Tovar made a fateful decision upon leaving college in the 1960s and moving on from his hometown of Crystal City, Texas, to follow a girl to Chicago, a path that would ultimately place him at the center of one of the most infamous serial murder cases in history as a detective for the City of Des Plaines Police Department several years later.
Tovar still conducts presentations on the investigation, conviction and execution of John Wayne Gacy, who confessed to killing 33 young men and boys, burying 29 under his house in Norwood Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. Most recently, Tovar was featured in a Netflix documentary “Confessions of a Killer.”
“After moving to Chicago (from Crystal City), I worked for the airlines for a couple of years,” Tovar said. “I was told that Des Plaines was looking for a Spanish-speaking police officer and I decided to check it out.”
Tovar said he went to the department and spoke with the sergeant on duty at the time, who informed him he had missed the application deadline by one day.
“I thanked him and turned around and started to walk off,” Tovar said. “All of a sudden, I heard someone behind me yelling ‘Sir, Sir.’ I stopped and was approached by a lieutenant who asked me if I was looking to apply. I told him that I was looking to apply, but understood I had missed the deadline.”
Tovar said the lieutenant asked if he was Spanish and if he was a citizen of the United States.
“I told him I was a fourth generation Texan,” Tovar said. “Then he asked me if I had a high school education and I told him I completed four years of college.”
Tovar said the lieutenant asked to speak to him outside, at which time Tovar was informed that they would make an exception for him and would allow him to apply, test and be enrolled in the police academy for certification.
“This was all within about five days,” Tovar said. “They told me Monday to be in Springfield at the University of Illinois, that’s where they had the police adademy.”
Tovar said he was required to bring his own gun to the academy, but he didn’t have a gun or the money to purchase one.
“The captain took off his belt and handed me his gun to use,” Tovar said. “I had the feeling they really wanted me at this point.”
Tovar went on to complete training, become a patrol officer and eventually a narcotics detective, participating in joint operations with federal agencies such as the Drug Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigations and was the first Spanish-speaking officer for the department.
After many years on the job, Tovar had many accomplishments under his belt, including extensive training with the DEA in December of 1978.
“I had taken a leave of absence to attend the DEA National Academy and had just returned and was assigned as a detective for the department, working violent crimes and cold cases,” Tovar said.
While on duty, Tovar became involved in a missing person investigation involving 15-year-old Robert Piest, a local resident.
“Robert Piest was working at this pharmacy and John Gacy came in and he had a contract to remodel all the Less-On Drug Stores, and that was a Less-On franchise,” Tovar said. “Gacy was talking to the manager of the drug store and the young man (Piest) heard Gacy talking about wanting to hire young men for his construction company.”
Tovar said Gacy stated he was willing to pay a high rate of pay, which was more than Piest was making at the drug store at the time.
“Piest was trying to save money to buy a Jeep,” Tovar said. “His mother was there to pick him up from work. It was her birthday and she was going to pick him up, take him home and they were going to have a big dinner.”
Tovar said Piest told his mother he was going to talk to Gacy about a job and instructed her to go home, which was less than a quarter mile away, and he would call when he was ready for her to come get him.
“He approached Gacy and Gacy told him he had to fill out an application, but he didn’t have any with him,” Tovar said. “Gacy then told Piest he had applications at his home and it’s not far from here and that’s how he got him to his house.”
Tovar said Piest’s family filed a “Missing Person” report on Dec. 11, 1978, when the boy never called or returned home.
“The parents came in the next morning to see what we had done with the missing persons report,” Tovar said.
Tovar said the report had only been filed a few hours before, so not much had been done at the time.
“So, I went upstairs to the records division and got all the reports and brought them down and gave the lieutenant the reports, so he could talk to the family,” Tovar said. “Then, I started running criminal history checks on the people listed in the report. The patrolman had done a great job, he had gone back to the drug store and got names of everyone who had been there and Gacy’s name was included.”
Tovar said when he ran the criminal history on Gacy, it was revealed that Gacy had spent time in prison for sodomy of a child in Waterloo, Iowa.
“So, he became a person of interest real quick,” Tovar said.
Gacy was convicted on the sodomy charge, involving a 15-year-old boy, in 1968. He was sentenced to 10 years, but served only 18 months before returning to Illinois.
Tovar said in the 1970s, missing persons reports on teenagers was not taken as seriously as they are today, because most of the time, the teen was not missing, but rather out with friends.
“I’ve always said in my lectures that Gacy’s mistake was that he picked a good kid in the end,” Tovar said. “His (Piest’s) family cared about him and he cared about his family. A lot of the others were street kids, prostitutes and runaways, so there was never any uproar that they were missing and a lot of them were not even reported missing.”
Tovar said after identifying Gacy as a person of interest in the Piest missing person case, detectives immediately went to talk with Gacy.
“It was the next evening after Piest was reported missing,” Tovar said.
Tovar said while other detectives went to Gacy’s home to interrogate him, he remained at the station working the computer to get more background information on Gacy and other potential suspects.
Tovar said detectives reported that Gacy explained he didn’t have time to visit with police, as he was on his way to a family event.
“He (Gacy) told the detectives that they ‘didn’t have respect for the dead,’ because he was supposed to be going to his uncle’s wake or something,” Tovar said. “Which is ironic that he would say that while he is standing over 29 bodies buried under his house.”
Tovar said Gacy told Des Plaines police detectives that he would come to the station after the wake, but police decided to assign a surveillance team to follow Gacy.
“So, they left one car to watch him. He had three vehicles, a pickup truck with a plow on it, a van for his work and a car,” Tovar said. “They had seen him arrive in a van, but the way the parking was, once he went behind the van you couldn’t see anything. When the van left, they followed the van, thinking Gacy was in the van. Eventually, they caught up to him at a light and noticed it was one of his workers that had been in the house driving it. They went back and Gacy had already left in the car. That’s when he had Robert Piest in the trunk of the car and he took him out and dumped him in the river.”
While officers missed the opportunity to catch Gacy with the body of the missing 15-year-old, Tovar said he deemed it as a positive occurrence.
“If they had stopped him and checked the car, they would have found the young man and that would have been the end of it,” Tovar said. “Why would we have looked any further? So, in a sense that worked in our favor.”
Tovar said Gacy did show up to the Des Plaines Police station that evening, but detectives had already gone for the evening.
“He was all muddy and dirty,” Tovar said. “So, what we decided to do was to conduct a covert surveillance on him.”
Tovar said Gacy ultimately recognized he was being followed.
“I told them to just get in his back pocket and bug the hell out of him and see what he does,” Tovar said. “If he goes in a bar, follow him. If he goes in a restaurant, follow him.”
Which is what detectives did.
Tovar said Gacy was a smart and charismatic guy, who then started engaging and trying to befriend the officers tailing him, even inviting them into his house.
“With information we got from those incidents, we were able to get a search warrant signed for his house,” Tovar said. “Again, we’re still looking for evidence on one person.”
Tovar said he and other detectives executed the search warrant on Gacy’s house.
“We went in and we even looked in the crawl space, but there were no graves. Nothing was disturbed. We did find a ton of other things,” Tovar said. “We found a ton of jewelry that didn’t belong to him. We found some sex toys and books about gay people and some driver licenses that didn’t belong to him. We found a class ring from a kid that we were able to identify later, but nothing that would tie him to Rob Piest, except for one piece.”
According to Tovar, a young lady who was working at the pharmacy with Piest that day had borrowed Piest’s jacket, because it was very cold and while wearing the jacket, sent off some film to be developed and put the receipt for the film in the pocket of Piest’s jacket.
That receipt was found in the trash at Gacy’s home, Tovar said.
Tovar said police continued to aggressively surveil Gacy.
“Eventually, he cracked,” Tovar said. “He went to his lawyer, who was in the process of preparing a court order to keep us from following him. He goes to his lawyer, downs a half-a-bottle of liquor in there, and tells his lawyer that he’s been a ‘bad boy’ and he’s killed over 30 people.”
Tovar said Gacy’s lawyer was aware that police were following his client and “ran outside” and told officers not to let Gacy leave.
“Gacy did leave so they (police) started following him again and he was going crazy, driving like a mad man. He drove by the cemetery where his father was buried and eventually he stopped at a gas station and gave a kid some marijuana. The kid said he didn’t want it and gave it to his boss, who called police.”
Tovar told the police who were following Gacy to arrest him for the offense.
“I told them to get him (Gacy) off the street,” Tovar said. “The law says ‘with or without compensation,’ so giving someone marijuana is the same as selling it.”
Tovar said Gacy was arrested and brought into custody.
“Since the beginning, we had done more investigation and found more people missing that had ties to him, so we were able to get a second search warrant,” Tovar said. “This time when we went in, we started digging (in the crawl space).”
Tovar said he was on scene for the execution of the search warrant and coordinated with county officials, as Gacy’s house was not located inside the city limits.
“It was our search warrant, but they were handling the jurisdiction,” Tovar said. “I was assigned as the laison with the county when we first started digging. The first thing we found was a left femur. We know it’s not Robert Piest, because he’s only been gone 10 days. The guy digs down further and find a second left femur. Nobody has two left femurs, so we dug further and found a third one. Now we know we have three bodies.”
Tovar said they stopped the operation and called state officials to the scene and began a continued excavation of Gacy’s crawl space area the next day.
Eventually, they would find remains of 26 individuals buried in the crawl space.
Tovar said there were a total 29 bodies buried at Gacy’s house, with three being disposed of underneath other parts of the house.
“When we found the bodies, we went to talk to him,” Tovar said. “Gacy was the type of guy that if he knew you knew something or were going to find out, he would be totally honest with you. But, if he didn’t think you knew or could find out, he would play games with you.”
After informing Gacy of the bodies that had been discovered, Gacy said something Tovar will never forget.
“If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be laughable. He said ‘I’ll tell you exactly where all the bodies are, just make sure you don’t dirty up my carpets as you bring them out’,” Tovar said. “So, he drew us a map. The map was so accurate, he only made one mistake on it.”
Tovar said his team continued to excavate bodies from the Gacy home for close to a month.
“It was a very dirty, nasty, smelly, stinky job,” Tovar said. “You pretty much had to use your hands. At that time, there was no DNA for identification, so we had to rely on dental charts or X-rays, so you couldn’t dig with a spade or a shovel, because you might put a dent in a bone or chip the mouth and break the teeth.”
Tovar said the site of Gacy’s house became a magnet for news media and curious onlookers, with remains being carried out of the home each day.
Tovar said the excavation efforts were meticulous, with multiple teams checking dirt removed from the crawl space for the presence of bones or physical remains.
“Once he knew we had everything, Gacy confessed. He told us how he got the kids, how he killed them and everything else,” Tovar said.
When remains were recovered, Tovar said his next job was to try to identify the remains by dental records.
Using names of reportedly missing teen boys and men, Tovar said they had to try to locate dentists who had records of these missing individuals.
Still yet, the body of Piest had not been found, so they approached Gacy again, who admitted to dumping the young boy’s body, along with four others, in the Des Plaines River.
While transporting Gacy to the county jail in Chicago, Tovar said he attempted to get more information about potential unknown killings.
“I’m still convinced that there’s more bodies out there,” Tovar said. “On the day that he was transfered from our local lockup to the county jail, myself and two other detectives drove him there. I asked him, flat out … I said ‘John, how many people did you really kill?’”
Tovar said he understood Gacy’s ego and method of operation, so he played to it.
“He said you guys know about 30-something, but 45 sounds like a good number,” Tovar said. “I knew he had an ego, so I told him that was a lot and would put him in the Top 10 at least, hoping he would give in, but he didn’t bite on that one. So, I asked him where they were and he told me ‘You’re the detectives’ and that’s all he said.”
Tovar said he believes that Gacy was telling the truth about the additional killings and highlighted the fact that serial killers strike on a schedule, which Gacy did.
“There was a space of time when Gacy was working out of town,” Tovar said. “I don’t think he stopped killing during that time. We sent letters and messages to every agency in that area at the time where he was working, but we never got too much cooperation.”
Tovar stayed with the case throughout the trial, where Gacy was convicted in March of 1980 of 33 sex-related murders committed between 1972-78 and was sentenced to the death penalty and was executed on May 10, 1984.
“I stayed with the case from Day 1, until the execution,” Tovar said.
Tovar said he, along with other detectives and Des Plaines officers and prosecutors, attended the execution of Gacy.
“We all went to dinner and then went to the site of the execution. We didn’t go inside and watch, we stayed outside,” Tovar said. “We waited until they came out and told us he had died.”
While he said Gacy’s death brought some closure, he will not feel the job is complete until all of the victims are identified.
“We have remains of five victims that have not yet been identified,” Tovar said. “Until they are, I will not have complete closure from this case.”
Tovar said they worked very hard to bring some answers to the families.
“We found one guy that had been missing for 40 years,” Tovar said. “He just didn’t want anything to do with his family, but at least we found him and his family knew he wasn’t one of the victims.”
After 39 years, two months and eight days on the job as a Des Plaines police officer, Tovar said the Gacy case has brought the most notoriety to his career, but the thing he is most proud of has nothing to do with Gacy.
In 1971, Tovar arrived on a medical emergency scene, where a man was trying to drive his pregnant wife to the hospital, but could not get his car started, but the baby was coming anyway.
Tovar helped deliver the baby.
“I stayed in touch with the family and the little girl,” Tovar said. “I was her Godfather and walked her down the aisle at her wedding, because her father had passed away. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
Tovar retired as the longest serving police officer with the Des Plaines Police Department in 2009. After his wife, Lynn, also a police officer, retired, Tovar returned to Texas and the couple now live in Kerrville, where Tovar appreciates the quiet and serenity he enjoys from his hilltop home.