Who Killed Barbara Gaca?

In 1955, the slaying of a little girl gripped Detroit. Fifty years on, the perpetrator remains a mystery.


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Photograph by Matthew Moore
Barbara’s father, Frank, holds a photo of Barbara.

On that damp, bleak Thursday when little Barbara Gaca skipped off to school and never returned, she was settled into a routine as comfortably predictable as the route her father, Frank, followed every day for 38 years as a Detroit mail carrier.

Every morning she dressed in her blue-and-white school uniform and black strap shoes, kissed her mother goodbye, then walked the six blocks from the frame house at 14102 Faircrest to Assumption Grotto, one of the city’s largest Catholic parishes. The second-grader attended Mass, had breakfast at her desk, then began a long day of study under the watchful eyes of the nuns. Noon provided a welcome break for Barbara and her younger siblings, Gloria and Robert, who weren’t allowed to watch television until Barbara came home and personally clicked it on. Then they all had lunch with Soupy Sales.

But on March 24, 1955, Barbara didn’t come home for lunch. Her mother called the school office. Barbara hadn’t shown up at school today, Rita Gaca was told. Wasn’t she home sick?

“Mom was anxious, then angry, then anger turned to despair,” remembers Robert Gaca, now 55 and living near Lansing. “It didn’t take long for her to fall apart.”

Police issued a bulletin for the lost youngster. Frank Gaca left work to join friends and relatives in searching the neighborhood around Gratiot and McNichols. As darkness fell, more and more police were sent out to look for the slender brown-eyed girl in the blue snowsuit and print babushka. By the following day, thousands of concerned Detroiters were turning the city upside down. “Knock on every door,” police and volunteers were told.

“Look under every car. Check everywhere a little girl possibly could be.”

Garages, confessionals, garbage cans and abandoned refrigerators were scoured. The nuns and 1,100 students at Assumption said rosaries. On Friday night, Frank Gaca made a televised appeal, asking whoever had his daughter to set her free. A snowfall didn’t deter 3,000 Boy Scouts from combing a 90-square-mile area the next day. Meanwhile, police rounded up every known pervert and contended with a flurry of tips, rumors and hoaxes.

On March 31, the largest search in local memory ended when a railroad worker came across Barbara’s body wrapped inside an Army blanket. She had been raped, strangled, stabbed, then discarded like so much trash at an Oakland County dump site, 25 miles from her home. Detroit Mayor Albert Cobo was so upset by the news, he broke down and wept in public.

“What are we going to do?” he cried. “What can we do! A little girl like this — it just seems we have to build a chain around our children!”
As Holy Week began, 15,000 people stood in block-long lines to view the little girl laid out in the white dress she was planning to wear at her upcoming First Holy Communion. The funeral was held April 5, five days before Easter. The cortege that accompanied Barbara to Mount Olivet Cemetery was so long, motorists caught at traffic crossings had to wait nearly an hour for it to pass through. The United Casket Company donated the casket, and Mount Olivet donated the plot.

In the years since, society has grown inured to crimes involving children, even homicide. National crime statistics show that on a per capita basis, Detroit today is easily the deadliest big city for youngsters, with 80 children murdered between 1999 and 2001 alone. There have been no mayoral meltdowns over their loss, no truly communal outpourings of grief.

In 1955, however, the murder of a 7-year-old schoolgirl was still enough of an aberration to send a city of nearly 2 million into a state of collective revulsion. It caused a popular crime magazine to ask, “When are the kids going to be safe in Detroit?” After all, Real Detective pointed out, Barbara Gaca was the sixth child to have been murdered in Detroit in the last eight years. “Detroit,” it declared, “is a kid-killer’s town.”

Who killed Barbara Gaca? It’s a question that has baffled police for a half-century. Over the last few years, old suspects have been dusted off and promising new leads pursued — all in what amounts to a last push to solve one of Detroit’s most infamous murders while there still is somebody left who cares.

At 81, Frank Gaca (pronounced GAHT-za) is trim and robust, despite several heart operations. There is a trace of a Polish accent as he talks about his daughter. “She was a happy kid,” he says one morning inside his White Lake Township home. “She made friends very easily. She’d talk to everybody, though she shied away from a lot of grown-ups. Once, she refused to get into a car with her grandfather until he got out and she recognized him.”

Such reticence caused investigators to speculate that Barbara must have known her killer, that she would not have been lured into a strange car. Friends and relatives were interviewed and cleared. Then who? One boy said he spoke to Barbara at the corner of Linnhurst and Gratiot, four blocks from school. She told him she was waiting for a friend. A neighborhood girl said she saw somebody being pulled into a car.

“It had to have been a random pickup,” Gaca says. “Some pervert ...” His voice trails off.

Police were puzzled. Plucking a girl off a sidewalk was one thing. How could her abductor then drive 25 miles in daylight, through populous sections of Detroit and the suburbs, without Barbara attracting somebody’s attention? Two witnesses reported seeing a 1954 green Hudson at a gas station at 10 Mile and Groesbeck that morning. The driver was described as a 40-to-45-year-old man, about 5-feet-6 inches and 150 pounds.

A girl matching Barbara’s description was inside the car as an attendant pumped gas. The girl looked frightened, he said.
The wooded hollow where Barbara’s body was found was 200 feet off Halstead Road, between Walnut Lake Road and Pontiac Trail. Evidence established the rape and murder occurred within two to four hours of her abduction, and that both happened inside a clean car or room. Police focused on three clues found at the crime scene: the bloodstained Army blanket, footprints made by large shoes and fresh tire tracks leading from 50 feet beyond Barbara’s body to the rutted dirt lane that connected to Halstead.

Detectives discovered that for the last two summers, the Gacas, along with relatives and friends, had often picnicked at Pleasant Lake in Waterford. The speculation was that the killer not only knew the area, he may have known the family or was stalking them.

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