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New Jersey Missing Person Case Solved After Serial Killer Search

(Credit: Thinkstock)

(Credit: Thinkstock)

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CHICAGO (AP) — An effort to identify the remains of eight young men who were murdered in the 1970s by serial killer John Wayne Gacy has solved an unrelated case of a teenager who vanished in New Jersey.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said Tuesday the sister of the missing teen, Steven Soden, provided a DNA sample that matched a set of remains found more than a decade ago. They were discovered in a wooded area in New Jersey not far from the orphanage where the 16-year-old was last seen running away in April 1972 with another boy.

“They were relieved,” Dart said of Soden’s sister and half-brother. “With Gacy, your fear is that your loved one’s last minutes was with this monster and to find out they weren’t is a relief.”

The identification of the teenager follows the exhumation in 2011 of eight unidentified young men who were among the 33 people killed by Gacy, one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. Gacy was executed in 1994.

Dozens of people have responded to Dart’s highly publicized request for information about young men who disappeared about the time Gacy was luring young men to his home, strangling them and burying most in the crawlspace of his Chicago area house.

Soden’s half-brother, Ronald Soden, contacted the sheriff’s office with a story of returning from serving in Vietnam to learn that while he was gone his mother had put Soden and his younger sister into an orphanage.

Dart said Ronald Soden was told his younger half-sister, April, was still living at the orphanage, but Steven had disappeared a few months earlier. Soden and a 12-year-old boy who also lived at the orphanage ran away in April 1972 during a group camping trip at the Bass River Camp Grounds in New Jersey’s Burlington County.

“He started to think that Steven’s father was living in Chicago and maybe Steven tried hitchhiking to Chicago,” Dart said. “We were thinking this is a Gacy-type victim, a kid hitchhiking who didn’t know anybody.”

Soden’s sister, April Leonard, provided a DNA sample to authorities in her Washington state home. The woman’s DNA did not match any of Gacy’s 33 victims. But it did match the skeletal remains found in 2000 in a wooded area in the same New Jersey county where the teen was last seen alive.

The sheriff’s department and the New Jersey State Police then obtained DNA profiles from other relatives, and testing done at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification — the same lab that did the testing on the eight unknown victims — led investigators to conclude in recent weeks that the remains were those of Steven Soden. The cause of death has not been determined.

Dart said the second boy, 12-year-old Donald Caldwell, was never seen again. He said that he has been told that authorities may begin searching the area where Soden’s bones were found to see if they can locate his remains as well.

One of the eight bodies exhumed as part of Dart’s effort has been identified. Also, the remains of a 22-year-old man who disappeared while hitchhiking from Washington state to Illinois was also identified when the DNA provided by his family matched the bones discovered by hikers in Utah a few years ago. As with Soden, that man’s death had nothing to do with Gacy.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)