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Two enduring mysteries were solved simultaneously this week when Illinois investigators looking into the John Wayne Gacy murders unexpectedly learned the identity of a man missing for three decades whose remains were found on Utah's Mount Olympus in 2010.
Since 1978, Daniel Noe's parents had wondered what happened to their 22-year-old son after he disappeared while hitchhiking to his Illinois home from a summer job in Washington state. What they did know was that Noe vanished during the time that Gacy murdered at least 33 people. The possibility that Noe may have been one of them lingered in some family members' minds for years.
On Monday, Noe's family learned he had not been killed by Gacy but had died on a mountainside in Utah.
Twenty-nine of Gacy's victims, mostly young men he picked up in neighborhoods in Cook County, Ill., were found buried on his property in 1978. But eight bodies remained unidentified for decades. No one knew how far from Washington Noe had gone before he disappeared, but his family figured that if he had made it back to Illinois, he likely would have passed through the area where Gacy was known to troll for victims.
In 2010, the Cook County Sheriff's Office began using DNA technology in an effort to identify the eight remaining bodies found on Gacy's property. Anyone whose family members were reported missing between 1972 and 1978 in the Cook County area was welcome to submit DNA to the office so investigators could compare it to samples from the unidentified victims. So far, Cook County's efforts to bring closure to those cases have led to the positive identification of one of the eight victims.
The possibility that Noe could have been among Gacy's victims prompted his parents to provide a DNA sample in May. Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart said Thursday that Noe had planned to travel along Interstate 80 to Chicago, which would have taken him through neighborhoods Gacy was known to haunt.
"His path led him through where Gacy was grabbing people," Dart said.
But when an investigator called Raymond Noe about his son, the news surprised him.
"He said he had something about Utah," Raymond Noe said Thursday in an interview from his Washington, Ill., home. "I didn't know what that meant."
It turned out that Daniel Noe died on Utah's Mount Olympus while on his way home from Washington. Dart said in an interview Thursday that when the Noes' DNA samples were compared with DNA databases around the country, a possible match was found with a sample from some mysterious human remains found by hunters on Mount Olympus in 2010.
"Everybody was caught truly taken aback by this," Dart said.
Unified Police Detective Levi Hughes said that after the bones were found, UPD sent the remains to North Texas University to extract a DNA sample and see if any known samples matched. Nothing came up. The remains had been stored at the state Medical Examiner's Office in Salt Lake City ever since. It wasn't until police in Illinois entered Daniel's parents' DNA into the system that the match was finally established.
Hughes said Noe's remains are very weathered after remaining on the mountain for 32 years. It likely will be impossible to determine exactly how he died.
"To be honest, I don't know how we'd ever discover that at this point," he said.
Dart said there was evidence that Noe's wrist may have been broken, which could indicate a fall. But he agreed an exact cause of death probably won't ever be known. Tragic as the news was, Dart said he was relieved to tell the family that their son, an avid cyclist and outdoors lover, seemed to have died doing something he enjoyed and not at the hands of a killer.
Raymond Noe said that at some point, he and his wife had accepted that their son was probably dead, and the shock of it had come and gone. What he feels now is relief.
"They say it's really nice country out there," he said. "That's what he liked."
Noe's remains will be sent to his family, and a funeral is planned for Tuesday. He will be buried in a family plot in Peoria, Ill.