Where in the World Is Molly Zelko?
She was a Joliet journalist who had enemies in the local mob and more furs and jewelry than she could evidently afford. She disappeared 35 years ago. Some think she's still alive.
By John Conroy
Thirty-five years ago, on September 26, 1957, a man walking down Buell Avenue in Joliet found a woman's shoe. It was just after midnight, and it is possible that at that moment the inner sole was still warm. The man put the shoe, a stylish black patent-leather pump, on the trunk of a 1955 Chrysler and continued on his way. The following morning, the shoe's partner was found on a nearby lawn by two printers from the Spectator, a thriving Joliet weekly. They were looking for a 47-year-old journalist named Molly Zelko, the woman who had been wearing those high heels the night before.
In the 35 years since that search began, a variety of theories about the whereabouts of Miss Zelko have made the rounds in Joliet. Most of them have Zelko dead not long after she departed from her shoes, and her corpse resident in an overpass on Interstate 55, part of a concrete bridge on U.S. 52, at a storm-sewer site, or at the bottom of an abandoned quarry. In those various tales, the journalist was killed and planted in dirt, water, or concrete by men in the employ of the Joliet Mafia.
Not many journalists have been murdered in Illinois for what they have written, or what they stand for, or what they know. Local historians name only two: Elijah Lovejoy and Jake Lingle. Lovejoy, editor of the Alton Telegraph, was killed by a mob in 1837 for his paper's stand against slavery. Lingle, a Tribune crime reporter, was shot on the steps of the Randolph Street IC station on June 9, 1930, killed, it would seem, for what he knew and how he tried to use that knowledge. Through his sources in the Police Department, Lingle knew when certain speakeasies, brothels, and gambling operations were going to be visited by the police, and he was paid by the Capone organization for sharing this information. After some years on the payroll, however, Lingle took the operation a step further, trying to extort money from some Capone lieutenants by convincing them that he could actually control which operations would be raided. Capone was infuriated, and ordered him shot.
On the scales of journalistic virtue, with Lovejoy at one end and Lingle at the other, Molly Zelko of Joliet would fit comfortably at about the halfway point. Her disappearance, now largely forgotten, was a great event in 1957, and she achieved a level of celebrity reserved for the few--headline writers often referred to her only by her first name. In vanishing she drew the attention of reporters from all over the country, she captured the fancy of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Robert F. Kennedy took up a pick and a shovel in an attempt to find her remains. No tooth, knuckle, or rib was ever discovered, and today some who knew her believe she may still be alive.
Amelia "Molly" Zelko was born in 1910, the daughter of immigrant parents from Slovenia. At the age of 17 she went to work as a secretary for William McCabe, a 42-year-old lawyer who was not afraid to speak his mind. McCabe had started his career as a reporter in 1903, and by the time Zelko entered his employ he had worked on eight different newspapers, served six terms in the state legislature, and served one term as the mayor of Lockport.
In 1932 McCabe was elected state's attorney of Will County, and Zelko, who had then been with him for five years, was elevated to the position of office manager. In 1936 McCabe lost his bid for reelection and purchased the weekly Spectator. He promised Zelko 33 shares of stock--a third of the paper--if she would assume the role of secretary-treasurer and get the enterprise on sound financial footing. Her salary was to be $20 per week.
Shortly thereafter, McCabe set the tone of reportage that was to characterize the paper for the next two decades. He pointed out that his opponent in the race for state's attorney had promised to relieve local hoodlums and racketeers of their power over elected officials. McCabe then went on to list the names of nine local hoods who had been working for the new state's attorney on election day.
After 12 years of that sort of coverage, someone in Joliet decided that William McCabe was expendable. The 64-year-old publisher was ambushed on a deserted road by four men who beat him with baseball bats and left him for dead. When a local farmer discovered him hours later, he had a concussion, two broken legs, a broken arm, and various internal injuries. Although he lived for another ten years, he never quite recovered. He was often in the hospital and often in pain, and according to his family he took to treating the pain with strong drink.
The nature of the relationship between Zelko and McCabe is now difficult to spell out precisely. In a series of articles filed in 1978, Joliet Herald-News reporters John Whiteside and Lonny Cain portrayed Zelko as fiercely loyal. They quoted one subject who had known both Zelko and McCabe: "You've heard of a one-man dog? Well, Molly was a one-man woman. She would bite anyone McCabe didn't like. You couldn't separate the two."
When McCabe was sidelined by his injuries from the baseball bat ambush, Zelko assumed more responsibility at the paper, and her preoccupation was finding out who had tried to kill her boss. She believed he had been attacked because the paper had been campaigning against illegal gambling and crime-syndicate control of juke-box distribution in Joliet. She was not alone in that belief. In the wake of the beating, local Mafia chieftain Francis "the Thin Man" Curry walked into the office of the Will County state's attorney, asked if he was a suspect, and when told that he was, offered to appear before the investigating grand jury. He was ushered in, asked a few questions, and ushered out. No one was ever charged with the crime.
That did not sit well with Zelko. She was enraged when the Joliet Herald-News later gave Mr. and Mrs. Curry society-page treatment when they hosted a lavish affair, and she penned an editorial suggesting that the gathering should have been covered in the news pages under a headline about the mob and its connections. Zelko issued standing orders that the mobster's wife should be trimmed out of society photos at the Spectator, and when she learned that there was a party at the gangster's house, she circled the block, taking down license numbers of the guests.
Joliet was not then in its most noble era. Contractors fixed bids for public works projects and then paid kickbacks to city officials. Mayor Arthur Janke was convicted of income tax evasion for not paying taxes on those kickbacks, and then his sentence--one year probation--raised suspicions about the integrity of the local judiciary. Zelko suggested in print that the sentence was the equivalent of ten lashes with a piece of macaroni.
Illegal gambling operations flourished in those years, and the police force seemed to be looking the other way. In the pages of the Spectator, Zelko suggested that any policeman serious about closing gambling establishments could locate two of them by standing on the steps of police headquarters, throwing a handful of gravel, and observing where it landed.
Zelko trusted only a handful of policemen, chief among them William Daggett, who had once worked for the Spectator as a newsboy. After joining the force he was decorated for bravery on several occasions; he attained the rank of captain by the time he was 31. Daggett often visited Zelko at the Spectator and was suspected of providing her with information about the local syndicate.
On January 13, 1957, Captain Daggett called the coroner and told him to come to a certain address to examine the body of a suicide. When the coroner arrived, he found the captain on the floor of his own kitchen. Daggett, who had been married for seven weeks, had been shot twice, once in the head and once in the chest. The shot to the chest had been fired after he had fallen to the floor with a wound to his head. The coroner ruled that the cause of death was suicide.
That summer, the Joliet city council considered a bill that would outlaw pinball machines. The U.S. Supreme Court had recently ruled that the machines were gambling devices. In Joliet, as in other places, the mechanized games functioned as slot machines with flappers. Winners received payoffs from the bartender or owner of whatever establishment a machine was in. In Joliet, pinball and jukebox distribution was controlled by the Curry organization, a fact that no doubt fired Zelko's fierce editorial support of the legislation. On August 5, 1957, the city council voted to outlaw the machines, passing the bill by a vote of four to three. The three opponents included the mayor.
Also in August, Zelko sent a reporter and a photographer to document that a local warehouse was in fact a gambling den. As a result of the Spectator's attention the operation closed down.
It reopened in October, about two weeks after Zelko disappeared.
Zelko's last day at the paper was a day of deadlines. It was a Wednesday--the paper was printed on Thursday--and Zelko arrived at 7 AM. She sent out for her lunch, and late in the day began going over page proofs. She had had a private phone installed in her office the month before, and she spent much of the afternoon on it. When it rang several times that evening, she ignored it, telling an employee that she knew who it was and did not want to talk to him. She went out for a bacon sandwich for dinner. She returned to the office, and by 11:30 had approved everything except the front page, which she intended to take care of the following morning.
She seemed in a rush at that point. She often asked the pressroom foreman to follow her home when she left the office late at night, but this time she made no such request. She waved good-bye to John Walsh, a printer, saying she would see him in the morning, walked to her black 1955 Chrysler, and drove off. It was about a three-minute drive from the Spectator to her apartment on Buell Avenue. It seems likely that she parked the car in front of the building at about 11:40, put the car keys under the seat, as was her custom, and then headed toward the door. She often drove with her shoes off, so she may have started up the sidewalk in her stocking feet.
Neighbors later reported that they heard screams at around that time. They were accustomed to loud noises from teenagers late at night, however, and so no one called the police. At 12:15, the man walking down Buell found one of Zelko's shoes and placed it on the trunk of her car.
The two printers who had seen Zelko leave the Spectator at 11:30 arrived back at the paper at 5:15 the following morning. They phoned Zelko in order to wake her, as they did every Thursday. No one answered. They tried again, and then at six o'clock drove to her apartment. They saw her car, and upon closer inspection found both shoes. They then called Zelko's sister. At 11, her brother, two ad salesmen, and a woman who worked as a proofreader got a locksmith to open the door to the apartment. They came away with the impression that the bed had not been slept in. William McCabe called the police.
A great flurry of activity followed. There was an air-and-ground search of a five-county area. The civil defense searched water-filled quarries. The Road Runners, an organization of motorcycle and hot rod drivers, drove the back roads. The city manager offered to provide workers from the water and street departments to help in the search.
There were reports of sightings. The missing journalist was allegedly seen in a car in Waukegan, on a bus in Lemont, and on a plane in Dallas.
Reporters from Chicago, Saint Louis, Washington, and New York descended upon Joliet and began digging up details that added to the mystery. Zelko had apparently mastered the art of recording phone calls and had a tape of several local contractors fixing a bid on a city project. The tape seemed to have been made illegally. She also was alleged to have kept a set of "secret files" under lock and key. Reporters discovered that there had been a break-in at the Spectator two years earlier and that some of those files had disappeared. They also learned that shots had been fired at the Spectator building and that bricks had been hurled through the windows. Apparently Zelko had often felt that she was being followed, and once called her brother, Dr. Joseph Zelko, and said she was afraid to walk to her car because she thought someone was waiting for her. Dr. Zelko arrived at the scene with a loaded shotgun and watched his sister cross the parking lot without incident.
Reporters also learned that Zelko had some strange habits. She had previously taken trips on short notice, notifying only a few people that she was leaving. She had been to Florida and Colorado and once to Europe, though she stayed there only a week. She also had a record of checking herself into local hospitals and sanitariums when she felt that she needed a rest. In August she had spent time in Silver Cross Hospital, in a room across the hall from one where William McCabe was recuperating.
She seemed to have few close friends, and she did not often confide in them. She seemed to have no great social life and no great love interest. She was said to have been involved years earlier with a man who died in an accident, and on the day she disappeared she was wearing a diamond ring that was probably given to her by that young man. She was also wearing a bracelet valued at $5,000, leading some to wonder, if only for a moment, if she had come to a bad end in the course of a robbery.
Her possessions also included a ring, allegedly displayed at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, that had a diamond about the size of George Washington's image on a quarter. The Washington Star reported that the 17-carat ring was valued at $37,000. Zelko came to possess the ring after buying it from someone identified in the press only as a "friend and admirer." In addition to the ring, the Chicago American reported that she had three mink coats and that she wore tailored suits. Her car was a late-model Chrysler.
Although she lived in relatively Spartan circumstances--the rent on her apartment was $55, and it was sparsely furnished--reports of the value of her possessions raised eyebrows. Her annual income for the years 1947 to 1956 ranged from $4,950 to $7,200. The Tribune did some quick math and ran a story with the headline "Molly's wage, furs, gems don't add up." The Chicago American reported rumors that Zelko had kept two sets of books at the Spectator, fueling a theory that the journalist had disappeared voluntarily.
In making inquiries at the Spectator, police discovered that Zelko's share of the stock had increased considerably over the years. By the time she disappeared, Zelko held 48 shares, McCabe held 48 shares, a mutual friend held 1 share, and a trustee held 3 shares. Upon the death of either McCabe or Zelko, the trustee was to turn over his shares to the surviving party. As McCabe was 73 years old and in ill health, it appeared that Zelko was destined to have a controlling interest in the paper.
William McCabe was visibly upset when questioned by reporters about his protege's disappearance. When asked for his theory on what might have happened, he said, "Why don't you ask Francis Curry?"
McCabe's daughters, however, did not seem so moved. The press reported that they did not appreciate the extent of Zelko's involvement in the Spectator. The American alleged that Zelko and "a McCabe relative" had engaged in a "heated fist and hair pulling battle" allegedly provoked by Zelko's acquisition of so many shares of the Spectator's stock. In the wake of Zelko's disappearance, two of the McCabe daughters announced that they would take over the paper and that their first step would be to order an audit of the paper's accounts.
The audit, however, revealed that the Spectator's books balanced to the penny.
If press reports were accurate, the police seemed confused. On the day after the disappearance, Chief Joseph Trizna said he believed Zelko had been kidnapped. But he soon backed away from that position, saying only that he suspected foul play, and ultimately said he was treating the incident as a missing person case.
On October 9, 1957, two weeks after Zelko disappeared, William McCabe wrote to J. Edgar Hoover, begging the FBI to enter the case. "Due to underlying criminal background in this county, I am fearful she has been kidnaped," McCabe said. "I am certain it is not a voluntary disappearance."
Chief Trizna, whom Zelko had supported for promotion, also asked the FBI to step in, and later one of Zelko's brothers collected 5,000 signatures on a petition asking for an FBI investigation. The FBI declined, saying that there was no direct evidence that Zelko had been kidnapped or that any other federal law had been broken and therefore the agency lacked jurisdiction. For all the public knew, J. Edgar Hoover did not want to be involved.
By mid-November a $10,000 reward had been pledged for information on the disappearance, but newspaper interest had largely dissipated and the police investigation seemed at a standstill. Six months after Zelko vanished, the Tribune noted that the only people in Joliet who mentioned her anymore were visitors from out of town.
Unknown to the public, however, the FBI had started its own investigation early on. In documents released to the Reader after a Freedom of Information Act request, many of them blacked out by FOIA censors, Director Hoover seems to have been unable to let the case rest.
On January 24, 1958, the agent in charge of the Chicago office wrote to the director: "The local press has not carried an article referring to this case for the past two months and there is no apparent local interest in the matter at this time." The memo went on to say that the bureau had not been able to find a violation of a federal statute, that a review of the file indicated that there were no logical leads outstanding, and that the Chicago office was therefore going to close the case.
It was the first of the agent's several pleas to close the file. Each time Hoover wrote back and instructed him to keep the case open. Hoover said that if there were grounds for a reasonable man to believe an abduction had occurred, the bureau had the legal right to conduct an inquiry to determine if it had jurisdiction. Hoover's memos also indicated a certain suspicion of local authorities, who did not seem willing to interview certain "prominent hoodlums" and businessmen regarding Zelko's disappearance.
The FBI did not discount the possibility that Zelko had voluntarily vanished, and it investigated that theory while also pursuing the notion that she had been done in by "local hoodlum elements." Seven months after her disappearance, Hoover ordered "a searching, probing investigation into all facets of Zelko's personal life . . . with particular emphasis on the extent and full nature of her relationship" with an individual whom the FOIA censors will not identify. Hoover suggested that agents not overlook a conspiracy involving family members, though the censors again have protected the identity of the family. Hoover also suggested that although Zelko was an unlikely ally of local criminals, the possibility that she had "double-crossed" such an individual should not be overlooked.
The bureau asked the Internal Revenue Service for income tax returns for Zelko, McCabe, and the Spectator dating from 1948. FBI agents checked banks in Ottawa, LaSalle, Streator, Oak Park, Batavia, Aurora, Elgin, Saint Charles, Chicago Heights, and Harvey, looking for secret Zelko accounts. None surfaced. They inquired at hospitals and hotels in Denver, knowing Zelko had earlier traveled to that city; they found nothing. A report surfaced that Zelko was the lone female passenger in the forward compartment of an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Chicago ten days after she disappeared; after considerable effort, the bureau found that the passenger was a woman from Detroit. A taxi driver in Miami swore that she had Zelko as a fare sometime between January and May 1958. The lead went nowhere. Chasing a possible sighting, agents traveled to Parma, Ohio, and showed Zelko's photo around businesses and newspapers in the area, but no one could say they had seen the missing journalist. Other agents checked out places that Zelko had visited in Arizona and Florida, to no avail. A woman from Rockford was interviewed who had found a hat on Highway 51 after Zelko disappeared. The hat was recovered, but none of Zelko's friends could identify it.
By the summer of 1958, FBI bureaus in Milwaukee, Newark, New York, Detroit, Denver, Baltimore, Miami, Dallas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New Haven had all been pressed into service to check out one lead or another. Nothing solid had materialized.
On August 13, 1958, William McCabe died. At that point Zelko, if alive, would have become majority stockholder in the Spectator, and it seemed reasonable to believe that if she was alive she would surface. When she did not, those in Joliet who still thought about the case presumed she was dead.
Earlier that year, Robert F. Kennedy, then chief counsel of the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field (commonly known as the Senate Rackets Committee), had begun investigating the coin machine industry. He found much of it had been taken over by the crime syndicate.
In Chicago he found that tavern and restaurant owners who had jukeboxes and pinball games in their establishments were pressured to join the Chicago Independent Amusement Association, allegedly a union of coin machine operators. The association was a front for the crime syndicate, which extracted monthly dues from establishments that had coin machines. If the coin machines did not have the association's label, they were supposed to be removed. If they were not removed, they were subject to vandalism.
The vandalism was not subtle. Two men on the union's payroll would enter the tavern or restaurant and attack the machine with an ax. Or they simply would empty their guns into the machine works. Or, with bowling games and pool tables, they would dump a bottle of acid on the playing surface.
The two enforcers were identified as James Rini, 39, and Alex Ross, 46, the former small and skinny, the latter big and fat. While awaiting trial in the summer of 1958, the two forced their way into the office of the editor of the Edison Norwood Review, a weekly paper that had been investigating payoff pinball games in Niles. Ross and Rini had intended to intimidate the editor of the paper, who was not in the office; instead they terrorized a woman employee.
The two men were sent to prison not long thereafter, having been convicted of an assortment of crimes. Robert Kennedy and Jim McShane, an investigator for the Rackets Committee, traveled to Joliet to visit Rini in the Stateville penitentiary.
Rini had a criminal record dating back to 1934 and scars around his waist where a bottle of acid had broken in his pocket. He seemed also to have some political connections: he had once threatened an arresting policeman with demotion; he had received at least 16 continuances on charges that he was terrorizing saloonkeepers; and the Chicago police had stopped investigating the acid-and-ax incidents allegedly because "nobody could identify anyone," although Tribune reporters were able to finger Rini and Ross without much trouble.
Rini told Kennedy that he had participated in the kidnapping of Molly Zelko, that the journalist had been shot and then buried and covered with lime in a farmer's field not far from the prison.
Kennedy arranged for the convict to be released from the prison temporarily. The future presidential candidate and his investigator, armed with shovels and picks, drove to the farm. Rini pointed and Kennedy and McShane dug. The farmer appeared, wondering what three strangers were doing digging up his land. Kennedy and McShane thought the farmer was in on the burial and so McShane made up a cover story, saying that they were from the state of Illinois and that they were looking for some precious metal. The farmer left. After Kennedy and McShane had been digging for some time, Rini took them to a different spot. Kennedy complained. Rini allegedly took an oath: "May I have syphilis of the eyes, and may my mother be a whore, if she isn't buried here."
The two men dug again. They found nothing. The farmer reappeared, this time with three sons of impressive size. Kennedy, McShane, and Rini took off across the fields.
Kennedy brought Rini to Washington to testify before the Rackets Committee. Rini took the fifth in response to all of the committee's questions. The attempted exhumation became public in October 1959. At that point, Rini told reporters that he had made up the whole story. He told Tribune reporter Robert Wiedrich that he had conceived the idea while being questioned by a Senate investigator who promised to get his sentence reduced if he supplied information. "So I brought up the Zelko thing. I figured if McShane and Kennedy got me three to five years I'd be ahead before they found out my confession was all lies."
Still, there was something haunting about Rini's story. He had threatened another newspaper editor. He allegedly had participated in an attempted murder. He was intimately involved in the coin machine industry. His bosses were pals with Francis Curry.
Even after Rini claimed he'd made monkeys of the Senate investigators, Kennedy reportedly believed that the convict knew more about the murder than a diligent newspaper reader. The Rackets Committee counsel was assassinated nine years later. Rini survived him and did not mend his ways. In 1984, the Sun-Times noted that at the advanced age of 67 he was serving time for arson.
And so the Zelko case faded. The special agent in charge of the FBI's Chicago bureau continued to plead for permission to close the case. In a memo dated April 15, 1959, almost 17 months after the disappearance, the agent wrote: "From the very inception of this case, the Joliet Police Department, which holds primary jurisdiction, has treated the investigation as a missing person matter. . . . The inquiry of the Chicago [FBI] Office over the past 18 months has developed no factual information bearing on ZELKO's fate. . . . After the initial flurry of excitement following ZELKO's disappearance, press mention of this case has been practically nonexistent. Even the 'Spectator' newspaper has never expressed any unusual interest in the matter."
Hoover again ordered that the case be kept open, but the investigation petered out the following year.
Zelko's shares in the Spectator were sold for $51,000 to the McCabe family in the spring of 1959. The paper, however, was in decline, and the McCabe family sold it in 1963. Two years later, the Spectator went out of business.
In 1978, 21 years after the disappearance, two reporters from the Joliet Herald-News investigated the case for six months. John Whiteside, now a columnist with the paper, and Lonny Cain, now managing editor of the Ottawa Daily Times, tracked down scores of people who knew Zelko. Some seemed to have extremely poor memories (a policeman who had worked on the case for months could not recall a single detail), while many others were reluctant to talk.
William Wilson, a city councilman in 1957 and a friend of Zelko, told the reporters that he believed Zelko disappeared voluntarily. "Molly had many low times in her life," he said. "McCabe was dying and she thought she would have a hell of a time with his family."
William Ferguson, who as a teenager worked at the Spectator as an errand boy and who is now a school principal, was of the same belief. He told the reporters that he had been in the office one day when something was said that left him with the belief that Zelko held multiple bank accounts under other names.
Others who knew the missing woman spoke of a dark side, accusing her of being a master of innuendo, rumor, and character assassination. In their 13-part series, Whiteside and Cain portrayed Zelko as a journalist capable of directing salvos at high and low targets, writing about the street department worker who drank too much with the same enthusiasm that she directed at crooked politicians.
A former ad salesman for the Spectator told the reporters that Zelko had once ordered him to call on a bowling alley. The salesman protested that it was a waste of time, that the bowling alley and its tavern did so much business that they had no need to advertise. Zelko, however, insisted, and the salesman made the call. To his surprise, the owner of the establishment bought an ad. The proprietor explained that this was not some new marketing strategy, that Zelko had called and told him that his tavern violated a city ordinance because of its proximity to a school. He said that the Spectator's acting chief said that he would be in the paper one way or the other--either he would buy an ad, or he would be a story on page one.
When Cain and Whiteside inquired about the case at the Joliet Police Department, they learned that all of the files on the original investigation had disappeared. They visited former police chief Trizna, who at the time of the reporters' investigation was serving as sheriff of Will County and who has since died. Trizna told the reporters that nothing had happened in the initial investigation that had not been leaked to the local crime syndicate. He also recalled that in the course of the investigation the department had hired a secretary to take shorthand notes during 50 interviews. Trizna said that the woman took a Las Vegas vacation, never returned, never produced the notes, and never submitted a bill.
Trizna did, however, still have Zelko's shoes. He passed them on to Whiteside and Cain, who hoped they would reveal some secret. Zelko allegedly had told friends that she would leave something behind if she was ever attacked. Cain and Whiteside thought that perhaps she had purposely dropped her shoes and that there might be something hidden inside them. They took the high heels to a friend who worked at a hospital, and the friend had them x-rayed. The film, however, showed nothing but nails and staples.
The two reporters also took the shoes to an Elmhurst psychic, the high priestess of an occult society, who claimed to have a track record of working with police departments. She said that the vibrations from the high heels indicated that Zelko had been murdered. "She was running," the psychic said. "This young lady had enemies, honey. And I'm not talking about your common man-on-the-street enemies. I'm talking about respected businessmen. Underworld ties. She had the goods on somebody."
The priestess conducted a seance, the reporters seated at a table, the shoes resting on the tabletop. Zelko's spirit allegedly returned and indicated that she had been betrayed by someone she trusted, that she had been buried alive, that Cain and Whiteside were in some danger but that she would lead them to her grave. The priestess said Zelko was buried in Hammel Woods, a forest preserve outside Joliet.
The reporters did not immediately get out their shovels, however. They had also consulted a psychic from Joliet, who also claimed to have worked as a consultant with police. The local psychic had chosen a completely different site as Zelko's grave.
Whiteside and Cain also spent time with a man who claimed to have special powers that allowed him to take photographs of what was beneath the ground. The photographer attempted to locate Zelko's remains in the evening, and the two reporters found that about every 15 minutes they had to take a break and buy their guest a drink. The photos revealed nothing.
"We messed around with the psychics for probably three or four weeks," Whiteside recalls. "They kind of obsess you for a while. When you first deal with them you think, 'Well, hell, they can just answer all our questions.' But they throw out all these vague leads that you can't follow up. 'We see a wooded area with a big oak tree.' Well, s**t! Finally I remember the night I said, 'Lonny, we got to get away from these characters. We got to get back and talk to real people again.'"
Cain felt the same way. One of the real people they located was a woman who claimed to have seen a body buried at a construction site the night Zelko disappeared. She agreed to be interviewed only after the reporters promised to hide her identity. She said that she saw four men get out of a car on Stryker Avenue, drop a woman's body in a ditch dug for a storm sewer pipe, and then cover the body with dirt. She went on to say that the following morning one of the four grave diggers arrived at the Stryker Avenue construction site and bulldozed over the grave. He was one of a group of workers who had often come to the woman's house for water, and when he came by on the morning after the burial he allegedly asked her if she had slept well the night before. She told the two reporters that not long thereafter someone paid her bill at a local grocery, and at Christmas a $500 donation for needy families was delivered to her door.
The woman, who was still frightened 21 years after the event, agreed to tell her story under hypnosis, and the two reporters found a doctor to do the job. With Whiteside and Cain watching and a tape recorder running, the witness relived the experience. She trembled. She commanded her dog, long since dead, to be quiet. She saw four men get out of the car and pull the body out of the trunk. She grew more frightened at one point because she thought that one of the men had seen her. She recalled the license plate number of the car and bits and pieces of the grave diggers' conversation. One of them, she said, was yelled at because he tried to remove something from the body. As the narrative progressed, her trembling grew more violent until her voice could hardly be heard over the sound of her hand repeatedly hitting the arm of the chair. When she came out of the trance she was initially calm, but she then broke down and sobbed for several minutes.
The doctor was firmly convinced that the woman had witnessed a burial and said he would testify in court if necessary. The woman later was hypnotized a second time and recalled more details.
The two reporters also found the hypnotic trances convincing. Adding credibility was a coincidence of dates--there had been a storm sewer construction project on Stryker Avenue at the time Zelko disappeared.
Armed with that lead, they tried to get the Will County state's attorney interested in reopening the case, but their efforts came to naught. An exhumation would have been costly. It could not be done with a bulldozer, it was unlikely that the site could be pinpointed with any precision, and if the grave diggers had covered the corpse with lime there would not be much left to find. Even if the body was found and identified, there was no reason to believe that identification of the killers would follow or that any suspects might still be alive to investigate. In addition, there were questions about the witness, who had not said anything about the burial for 21 years, who told the reporters she was not telling them everything, and who had, in Cain's words, "other personal problems."
He says, "We kept coming back to her. And we kept saying, 'Well she's goofy. She has strange beliefs.' And then we would just listen to the tape again and become more convinced that she did see something that night. But it did seem like we were the only two who were. She may have been lying, she may have been fabricating it for reasons that we don't know. There is only one way to find out."
No one in Joliet, however, is distributing shovels.
"There probably are some people alive still, people in power at that time, who know exactly what happened to her," Cain says, "but I don't think they are the kind who are going to come forward." Cain himself was never absolutely convinced that Zelko came to a bad end.
"She probably was murdered," he says. "Everybody else is convinced of that. But the reporter in me would like to think that she is somewhere else and is still attainable, though she would be pretty old now."
Amelia "Molly" Zelko, declared legally dead on January 5, 1965, would be 82 years old if found today.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP-Wide World.