67 years later, Detroit still has no idea who kidnapped and murdered seven-year-old Barbara Gaca.
When little Barbara Gaca skipped off to school and never returned on that damp, bleak Thursday, she was settled into a routine as comfortable and predictable as the route her father, Frank, took 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, and walked six blocks from her 14102 Faircrest frame house to Assumption Grotto, one of the city’s largest Catholic parishes. The second-grader went to Mass, ate breakfast at her desk, and then began a long day of studying under the close supervision of the nuns. Noon was a welcome break for Barbara and her younger siblings, Gloria and Robert, who weren’t allowed to watch television until Barbara came home and turned it on herself. Then they all went out to 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 homesick?
“Mom was anxious, then angry, and then angry turned to despair,” Robert Gaca, now 55 and living near Lansing, recalls. “It didn’t take long for her to fall apart.”
Police issued a search warrant for the missing child. Frank Gaca left work to search the area around Gratiot and McNichols with friends and family. As night fell, more officers were dispatched to look for the slender brown-eyed girl in the blue snowsuit and print babushka. Thousands of concerned Detroiters had turned the city upside down by the next day. “Knock on every door,” officers and volunteers were instructed.
“Look under every vehicle. Look for a little girl anywhere she might be.”
Garages, confessionals, garbage cans, and abandoned refrigerators were among the locations searched. Assumption’s nuns and 1,100 students prayed the rosary. On Friday night, Frank Gaca made a televised plea to whoever was holding his daughter to release her. The next day, 3,000 Boy Scouts combed a 90-square-mile area despite the snowfall. Meanwhile, cops apprehended every known pervert and dealt with a flood of tips, rumors, and hoaxes.
On March 31, the biggest search in local history came to an end when a railroad worker discovered Barbara’s body wrapped in an Army blanket. She’d been raped, strangled, and stabbed before being dumped like trash at an Oakland County dump site 25 miles from her home. Detroit Mayor Albert Cobo was so moved by the news that he burst into tears in public.
“What are we going to do?” he wondered. “What else can we do?” A little girl like this — it appears we must construct a chain around our children!”
60 detectives were assigned to work overtime on the case at one point, but by 1957, the investigation had lost much of its steam. After two years, police had received 1,974 tips, interviewed 850 suspects, and were still no closer to solving the mystery.
Was it the man in the confessional, a guest priest at the kidnapped girl’s family church who was immediately transferred to a parish in Nova Scotia after her body was discovered? Or was it the man who confessed, Paul Hassell, a child-abusing Ford worker from the other side of town who committed suicide a dozen years later after admitting the crime?
What about the child-molesting mailman who missed work that day, or a relative or possibly a friend who had slipped through the hands of investigators early on – someone the shy girl trusted? Perhaps William Henry Redmond, an itinerant carnival worker who died while awaiting trial for the rape and strangulation of an 8-year-old Philadelphia girl – a common suspect in a child-related crime? Could it have been a man who, years later, after brushes with authority, ran a business in Detroit, followed the law, and had a stable family life?
Whoever killed Barbara Gaca (pronounced GAHT-za) on that cold March Thursday in 1955 left an unforgettable scene:
Photos from the crime scene and autopsy show a ponytailed girl in almost angelic repose, knees drawn up, eyes and mouth closed, but her frail torso punctured by 15 stab wounds. The presence of chocolate-coated peppermint candy in her stomach is mentioned in a memo: “She died shortly after and was emotionally upset after eating the candy.” “It had only been partially digested.”
Furthermore, she’d been raped. Brutally.
Richard Bak’s 2009 article in Hour Detroit is essential reading: Who murdered Barbara Gaca? The headline reads, and the text follows suit, laying out the facts in a page-turning fashion.
Barbara Gaca missed her second-grade class that day. On her way to school at the Assumption Grotto parish, the slender brown-eyed girl in the blue snowsuit and print babushka vanished completely – until she was found a week later. In the interim,
Garages, confessionals, garbage cans, and abandoned refrigerators were among the locations searched. Assumption’s nuns and 1,100 students prayed the rosary. On Friday night, her father, Frank Gaca, made a televised plea to whoever was holding his daughter to release her. The next day, 3,000 Boy Scouts combed a 90-square-mile area despite the snowfall. Meanwhile, cops apprehended every known pervert and dealt with a flood of tips, rumors, and hoaxes.
A railroad worker discovered her body a week later, on March 31st.
After Barbara Gaca became the city’s sixth child murdered in eight years, True Detective, a popular crime magazine at the time, dubbed the city “a kid killers town.”
Seven decades later, that telling reputation, if unfair, remains.
Who murdered Barbara Gaca? We still don’t know nearly 67 years later. Which suspect strikes you as the most likely?