BEAVERTON – More than 30 years ago, Theodore Szal abandoned his car at a Chicago airport and didn't look back.
"I threw my keys away down the sewer grate so I couldn't change my mind," said Szal, 59.
For the next three decades, Szal went about his life, not knowing that his family thought he'd been murdered by a serial killer.
When Szal, then 24, disappeared March 1977, his family never reported him missing to authorities because Szal was in and out of their lives. He would go months at a time without contacting them, said Detective Jason Moran, with the Cook County Sheriff's Office in Illinois.
But his family began to suspect, Moran said, that Szal was a victim of serial killer John Wayne Gacy after his car was found abandoned at the O'Hare International Airport, which is near the area where Gacy lived. The circumstances of Szal's disappearance matched the Gacy victim profile, authorities said.
In October, one of Szal's three sisters reportedly contacted the Cook County sheriff's office, after she learned the agency sought to identify remaining, unidentified Gacy victims through DNA. Authorities interviewed Szal's family and collected DNA samples from his parents. Last week, authorities discovered that there were no matches between Szal's parents' DNA and the seven unidentified Gacy victims.
Authorities performed background checks on Szal and located him in Beaverton. The Beaverton Police Department on Monday afternoon confirmed Szal's identity.
Moran called Szal and told him that his family in Chicago was looking for him. Moran met with Szal's father, mother and one of his sisters Tuesday and told them Szal is alive. He showed them a recent photograph of Szal.
"I didn't think it was him," Szal's father, Ted Szal, 87, said during a telephone interview Wednesday. "But the more I looked at it, the more I saw it was him."
Gacy was arrested Dec. 21, 1978 and convicted of killing 33 men and boys in the 1970s. In 1994, he was executed.
When Ted Szal learned of the Gacy killings, he worried about his son.
"I thought he'd come back or call or something, but he never did," he said. "When Gacy killed all these kids ... I thought Gacy killed my son."
Growing up, Theodore Szal said he felt like the "black sheep" of his family. While his three pretty sisters were cheerleaders in school, he was more of a rowdy class clown, he said.
After a divorce and a family disagreement in which he felt betrayed, Theodore Szal left home without telling anyone. "I just had to leave town," he said. "I just had to go."
Theodore Szal, carrying only a backpack of clothes, a sleeping bag and a fishing pole, drove to O'Hare International Airport, boarded a plane and left for good.
Over the next decade, Theodore Szal worked as a construction worker and lived in Colorado and California. In 1989, one of his contract jobs brought him to Springfield. He married a woman who worked at a Safeway store that he was remodeling. Theodore Szal and his wife, Debbie, later moved to Beaverton. He worked maintenance jobs, while his wife worked as the property manager of their apartment complex.
Missing his family
Theodore Szal said he missed his family and occasionally thought about calling them, but the pain of the betrayal was too great, he said.
"Not just everybody writes their family off," Szal said. "But I did."
When he didn't hear from his family, he figured they didn't care.
His family, however, didn't forget about him. Theodore Szal's father has carried an old, wrinkled picture of his son in his shirt pocket for the past 34 years.
Ted Szal said he didn't remember anything that could have driven his son away. He's happy his son wasn't a Gacy victim. But he's hurt.
"It feels better, but I feel bad," he said. "He didn't get in touch with anyone. He has three sisters who were worried about him. I don't know if he's married now or what."
Theodore Szal relayed a message to his father through Moran: He's still fishing, just the way his dad taught him when he was growing up.
Theodore Szal has no other words for his family yet. He's still trying to digest everything that has happened.
"All of a sudden, out of the clear blue sky I'm linked with a serial killer," he said. "It takes a while to swallow that one."
He doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. Yes, he left home, bitter and thick-headed, he said. But that's changed.
"I've forgiven them," Szal said.
Give him a few days, he said, and he'll call.