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.
After the body was found, a half-dozen witnesses came forward with a new clue. All said that on the day of her abduction, they spotted a new Buick with a cream-colored top parked at the dump site between 10:30 and 11 a.m. The trunk was open, though they saw nobody around. Some said the car was green, others said maroon. Another person reported seeing a tall, thin man in the area at about the same time.
Police investigated hundreds of suspects, checking out their shoes, cars, blankets and whereabouts. A 53-year-old Redford man named Paul Hassell came under close scrutiny when a female friend turned him in as a child molester. The woman said Hassell had taken her for rides through Oakland County in his green Chevrolet and once offered to show her the place where Barbara’s body had been found. He was familiar with the site, he told her, because he often hunted rabbits in the area.
Hassell was a serial predator. His police record included convictions for child molestation in 1940 and indecent exposure in 1953. There had also been many other complaints for which he had not been prosecuted. A search of his home revealed several dolls used to lure girls. A few were 3 feet tall — just a few inches shorter than Barbara. Several incriminating items — candy, Vaseline and an Army blanket — were found in his car.
Hassell had started his new job at the Ford tank plant in Plymouth just three days before Barbara’s disappearance. On the morning of March 24, witnesses confirmed he had punched out at 7:20 a.m. But would he — could he — have driven all the way to the east side of Detroit to randomly snatch Barbara by 8 a.m., the approximate time she vanished? Police had their doubts, especially after Hassell submitted to six polygraph tests and all proved inconclusive.
Other likely suspects emerged. There was an Oakland County mailman, a known pervert, who had missed work the day of the murder, and a soldier who was caught molesting a 6-year-old girl in his barracks. There was a gangly “cowboy” named Charlie, who was spotted in a rural area of Wayne County with a girl a witness said resembled Barbara. Charlie happened to have a green car whose interior had been freshly scrubbed; moreover, a bag of candy was found on the floor. These and other promising leads went nowhere.
At one point 60 detectives were assigned to work overtime on the case, but by 1957 the investigation had lost much of its steam. After two years, police had chased down 1,974 tips, looked at 850 suspects, and still were no closer to solving the mystery.
The Gacas got on with life the best they could. Frank and Rita, responding to their physician’s suggestion that they “replace” their lost daughter, had two more children. They bought the cottage in White Lake Township, which they expanded and moved to permanently after Frank retired. Today its paneled walls are crowded with dozens of framed family photographs, including an oversize portrait of Barbara painted by a relative. All the while, the close-knit family has put up with prank calls, most made on the anniversary of the crime.
“We never changed our number,” Gaca says. “We always thought someday, somebody who knew something would call.”
The dormant case was reopened in 1965, when a 29-year-old autoworker already serving time on a manslaughter conviction became a suspect in an earlier slaying of a 14-year-old girl. Certain evidence seemed to link him to Barbara’s killing, but in the end police eliminated him as a suspect.
Then, in 1967, an old suspect re-emerged when a neighbor complained of Paul Hassell’s inappropriate behavior with two little girls. State police picked him up for questioning, then scheduled a polygraph test in Pontiac before his arraignment on child molestation charges. Hassell conferred with his lawyer, at which point he confessed to having killed Barbara. He then went home, put a shotgun to his head, and pulled the trigger.
Despite the damning evidence against Hassell, Gaca agrees with the conclusion of state police detectives. They determined the distance Hassell needed to travel from his workplace to the area Barbara was abducted was impossible to cover in the time available. “You have to remember, in 1955 there wasn’t a freeway to get you from that part of town to the other,” he says. It was all surface streets and stoplights in rush-hour traffic. Why did Hassell confess? Nobody can ever say for sure, though criminologists know that bogus admissions of guilt, for whatever reason, are not unusual among the deranged. Neither are suicides.
In retrospect, Gaca wishes detectives had more closely examined a guest priest who had been brought in to assist Assumption clergy during the Lenten season. According to Gaca, he was interviewed and “shipped to a parish in Nova Scotia immediately afterwards” — a transfer by church officials that aroused little suspicion in 1955.
Gaca lets out a short, rueful laugh. “At that time, who would ever think a priest could do something like that to a child?”
Captain Tim Sheridan of the West Bloomfield Township Police Department was brought up in St. Raymond’s Parish, near Assumption. “I was only 3 years old when Barbara was murdered,” he says, “but I grew up hearing about it from my older sisters.”
Seated inside a conference room, the polished-looking veteran detective admits the case hits home — not only because of the crime’s connection to the old neighborhood, or his and the Gacas’ shared faith, but because he’s a father himself. “What happened to Barbara,” he says, “is every parent’s nightmare.”
That characterization is underscored by the files he has brought along. Crime scene and autopsy photos show a ponytailed girl in almost angelic repose — knees drawn up, eyes and mouth closed — but with her frail torso punctured by 15 stab wounds. A 1955 memo refers to the presence of chocolate-coated peppermint candy in her stomach: “She died shortly after eating the candy and was emotionally upset after eating the candy. It was only partially digested.”
Although Detroit and state police were far better equipped to handle the original investigation, West Bloomfield Township maintains official jurisdiction. The community has only two unsolved murders on its books. Barbara Gaca is one of them. Despite a full caseload, Sheridan started “nosing around.”
In 1996, he submitted a detailed report to the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension System (VICAP), a national computer database that collects and analyzes the unique aspects of violent crimes. Patterns can be detected and leads provided to local law-enforcement agencies.
VICAP came back with the name of William Henry Redmond, an itinerant carnival worker who had died in 1992 while awaiting trial for the rape and strangulation of an 8-year-old Philadelphia girl in 1951.
Redmond, who had a long record of convictions for sex offenses, also was linked to the rape-murders of girls in Ohio and New York. “They may have me on this one,” Redmond had reportedly told an inmate while in jail, “but not the other three.”
Authorities connected Redmond to only three murders, not four. Was Barbara the fourth victim he was referring to? With some difficulty, Sheridan pieced together Redmond’s job history — and finally determined he was working for a railroad in New Mexico at the time of Barbara’s murder.
Another suspect Sheridan subsequently identified is still alive — and, according to Sheridan, acting suspiciously. Today, the 63-year-old man runs a business in Detroit. He has a stable family life and, despite three convictions for minor crimes as a young man, no record of sex offenses.
In 1955, however, he was a 13-year-old runaway from a troubled family. Two days before Barbara’s body was discovered, he was arrested in a stolen car at Faircrest and Chalmers, just one block from the Gacas’ house. Detectives from the Youth Bureau interviewed him at the juvenile home, and he directed them to an abandoned car where he had been sleeping. Inside police found blankets and 14 “skin” magazines, which the boy admitted he had stolen from a drugstore.
Despite the medical examiner’s determination that it was possible “a boy as young as 12” committed the rape and murder, and the suspect’s inability to account for his whereabouts the day Barbara was killed, he was never reinterviewed. Then Sheridan showed up one day in 2000 at the man’s place of business, hoping to have some questions answered.
“He made a big production in front of his employees, yelling, ‘Hey, these guys think I killed a little girl!’” Sheridan says. The suspect offered to take a polygraph — then backed out.
After considerable back and forth, the suspect agreed to provide a DNA sample. In May 2002, following lengthy discussions between Sheridan and the FBI, as well as Detroit and state police, the suspect’s attorney and several family members showed up at township headquarters to loudly decry the investigation. The suspect, who nervously stayed outside in the parking lot while all the commotion went on inside, had changed his mind about cooperating.
Sheridan is troubled by the suspect’s equivocating. He issues a familiar law-enforcement lament: “If someone has nothing to hide, you’d think that person would jump at the chance to prove himself innocent.”
Most deviants have some sort of history involving molestation or child pornography. Working in this suspect’s favor is the absence of an established sexual criminal past. “Maybe he’s straightened out,” Sheridan suggests, which criminal psychologists know is unlikely. “Or maybe he was never caught.”
Asked to assess the probability that the evasive businessman is the “mad slayer” of 1955 news reports, Sheridan says he’s “80-percent sure.” The evidence — all circumstantial — and the detective’s hunches are together not enough to persuade Oakland County prosecutors to seek a court order to force the suspect to submit DNA samples or sit for a polygraph test.
Frank Gaca has always been stoic about his daughter’s murder. No, he says, he’s never had nightmares about Barbara. He saw his share of death as a sailor in the South Pacific during World War II. And he doesn’t blame anybody or beat himself up over events. “I was upset, of course, but life went on,” he says. “Heck, I had five other kids I had to take care of.”
On this gray, snowy day, Gaca categorically appraises suspects, old and new. A scrapbook dedicated to the case lies open on the dining-room table. The killer will probably never be found, he concludes. “It’s been too long. Not unless someone comes forward and confesses.” His wife died a year ago, believing the same. His children prefer he not get false hopes up.
Many murders go unsolved. It doesn’t help that certain evidence — including vaginal smears and Barbara’s clothes — has been lost over the years. Sheridan, a 29-year veteran, admits the case is at a standstill. “Soon it’ll just fade completely from everybody’s memory.” He pauses a few moments before adding, “Unfortunately.”
When Barbara Gaca left home that final morning, she had with her items familiar to generations of Catholic schoolchildren: a white rosary, a pencil case, a composition book. Detectives found them strewn about the crime scene.
A page torn from the notebook included three neatly penciled lines written on her last day in school:
I love the angel
I see an angel
I have an angel
The words suggest more than a rote classroom exercise. The Gacas’ faith tells them her tiny life goes on — in some special harbor in the hereafter, where all God’s children are safe from predators.
“When we think of Barbara today,” says her brother, Robert, “we think of her as our guardian angel. I know there have been many times over the years when I could feel her hand on my shoulder.”