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HAMMOND — Joseph Andrew Spisak's mother still holds out hope her 11-year-old boy, who went missing from his Hessville neighborhood on a cold Sunday morning in 1974, is still alive.

Monica Spisak, a 76-year-old mother of five imagines her first-born — who long cherished a childhood scrapbook of his favorite athletes — may have grown up to be a TV or radio sports announcer.

The family said it is unlikely Joseph enlisted in the military, like his father or two of his brothers did — because there would be a trace. A paper trail.

Darker theories haunt the Spisak family.

Was he kidnapped? Did he die at the hands of a serial killer? After all, when Joseph vanished, serial killer and rapist John Wayne Gacy was at the height of his six-year killing binge, known for burying his victims beneath his Norwood Park home.

A few months after he went missing, the family, desperate for answers, sent dental and medical records out West when an unidentified child's body was found.

Later, those same records were sent to the Cook County coroner after nearly 30 bodies of young men and boys were found buried under Gacy’s home.

Nothing came of either theory.

‘We haven’t given up hope’

Speculating on the could-have-beens for too long, though, is heart-wrenching. So Monica and her remaining children — Thomas, 55; Steven, 53; Elsa, 50; and David, 37 — are left waiting.

“We never heard anything. We always sit and pray,” Monica said Friday in her Hammond home.

Maybe the phone will ring one day, and the person on the other line will offer a clue to Joseph’s whereabouts. 

"There’s no trace of him. That’s why we haven’t given up hope,” Elsa, Joseph’s only sister, said.

Sunday marked the 45th anniversary of the day Joseph went missing, and detectives appear no closer to solving the case.

Detective Adam Clark, a 17-year veteran on Hammond’s police force, said Joseph delivered newspapers on his usual paper route and attended Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church just a few blocks from his Hessville home on Jan. 27, 1974.

“You just don’t see a case like this very often. Usually, the person’s found. In this case, Joseph went missing and that was it. He’s gone,” Clark said.

Clark said he is working with experts to create an age-progression composite of what he might look like today, in hopes that may turn up new leads.

‘He didn’t show up’

Monica said she and her late husband, Donald Spisak, had one unspoken household rule as they raised their children together in the 1970s.

“You didn’t have to be there for breakfast. You didn’t have to be there for lunch. But supper, you had to be here. When he didn’t show up, that’s when we started making calls,” Monica recalled.

That same night, Hammond police officers searched the family’s home in the 7000 block of McCook to rule out Joseph was hiding in his own home or had fallen asleep somewhere. In the days and weeks to follow, search parties combed the neighborhoods for the young boy.

"When I went to bed that night, I sort of knew he wasn't coming back. Had an eerie feeling," Steven said. 

Friends reported last seeing the 4-foot-tall, 65-pound boy walking near the Catholic cemetery along Kennedy Avenue near the Norfolk and Western railroad tracks. Other reports put the boy on the tracks, walking southeast near the Hessville Cemetery at 169th and Arizona.

“(Donald) was always out walking out by the railroad tracks looking for him,” Monica said.

There were rumors Joseph ran away. But brothers Thomas and Steven said that’s impossible. The three were close-knit, shared a bedroom together and surely would have heard his plans.

Clark agrees.

“There were all these rumors he was talking about running away. But he’s 11. How far could he get?” Clark said. “We’re talking 1974. It’s the middle of winter. He has nothing with him. All of his belongings are at home."

Family turned to psychics

Among the dozens of letters Monica held onto from neighbors, strangers and even psychics, is one Feb. 22, 1974, letter from Jeane Dixon, a well-known psychic and columnist who was consulted about the case. 

"Regrettably, from the information in your letter, I have been unable to pick up any vibrations, which means it is not possible to get anything psychically at this time. I am so sorry and shall keep trying," Dixon wrote.

In the letter, Dixon also noted she was returning the $10 check the family sent to her. 

Some letters, like one from a Hessville mother who offered the family prayers, has comforted Monica over the years. Others were anonymous attempts to offer obscure tips about his whereabouts. 

One unsigned letter urged the family to check out an old restaurant near 169th and Arizona. 

"There is a small window broken out, and children have gone in there — I phone the police to check there, but I wonder if they actually went inside and checked ..." the letter trails on. 

Monica said she doesn't know why she held onto the letters all these years. 

"I don't know. They're something to do with Joe, I guess," she said. 

Clearing the family name

For years, the family had to deal with rumors circulating at school and in the neighborhood that somehow the family — their father in particular — was involved in his disappearance.

Donald died in 2006 after a yearslong battle with congestive heart failure and other illnesses.

“People said Joseph was buried under the garage. Well, that garage wasn’t built until five years after he disappeared. My poor father had to go to his death with this,” Steven said. “We want to clear his name.”

As the rumors lingered, Clark — the lead detective on the case since 2012 — said he contacted Indiana State Police in 2017 to inquire about the agency’s ground-penetrating radar technology.

After gaining access from the current homeowner, who was eager to help, Clark said law enforcement scanned the backyard of the home where Joseph grew up.

The sonar technology scans for disturbances in the earth, but can’t definitively say whether a body is buried there, Clark said. They, did, however, discover an anomaly.

“So we got a team together with shovels, which ended up leading to a big payloader. Nothing turned up. We did find a couple of toys, but that’s it. I know the family’s been battling with that rumor for a while. And it’s just not true. The kid’s not back there,” Clark said.

Clark: Police chased leads

Clark said police followed up on numerous tips, so it's not like it wasn't for a lack of trying.

One tip years ago placed Joseph in the company of a man from southern Indiana traveling from Milford, Indiana, to Hazard, Kentucky. Police went to the top of a small mountain in Hazard where a child matching Joseph's description was reported to be living.

The boy was the spitting image of Joseph. "But it wasn't him," Monica said. 

"Detectives did a knockout job for back then. I mean, they followed that lead all the way into the mountains," Clark said. 

Clark, who knew Joseph's youngest brother, David, from high school, said he's taking a closer look at the case on behalf of the family. 

Earlier this month, Clark also obtained DNA samples from the family. That DNA will be sent to a lab in Texas that specializes in matching strains using genetics with the country’s database of unidentified remains.

The family is eager for closure — even if it means learning Joseph is no longer alive. 

"We just want closure," Elsa said. 

"At least we could give him a proper burial," Thomas added. 

'You have to keep going'

Since Joseph’s disappearance, life has moved forward for the Spisak family. As the children grew up, Monica said she and her husband tried to keep things as normal as possible, for the kids' sake. 

"You take things day by day," she said. Seven years later, the two welcomed a baby boy, David, into the world.

After school, Thomas enlisted in the U.S. Army before returning home and finding work at the steel mills. Steven also enlisted, serving four years in the U.S. Air Force and eight more for the Indiana National Guard. David works at BP these days. 

Steven named his youngest son after Joseph; Thomas named his oldest Andrew, which was Joseph's middle name. 

"We wanted to keep his memory alive," Thomas said.

Elsa stayed in Hammond to be close to her parents, became a mother, and is now engaged.

“You can’t totally give up life, you know. Even though it hurts, you still have to keep going. I mean, God willing, he will show up, whether it be alive or dead, but for me, the thing I want the most is closure for my parents,” Elsa said as tears welled up in her eyes.

Indiana authorities call every couple of years, asking the family to declare him legally dead. 

"They always ask if Joe has either returned or if we've found his body," Monica said. "I guess they want to close the case. But I'm not going to do that, not until I have proof."

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Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.