Above: Vasquez, right, at age five, and a school photo of half-brother Michael Bonnin.
(Photos) Courtesy of Patti Vasquez; (Newspaper) Chicago Tribune

Through 25 years in the public eye, Patti Vasquez has worn a lot of hats: comedian, consultant, political activist, and until June, WGN radio host. Through all of it, she's used her mother's maiden name, Vasquez, rather than her father's surname, Bonnin.

That wasn't a problem until August, when Vasquez, 48, announced her run for the 19th District state house seat currently occupied by Lindsey LaPointe, who was tapped to fill the vacancy in July.

Now, faced with a requirement to use her legal name on the ballot, Vasquez risks forfeiting years of hard-earned name recognition against an incumbent. 

Even stickier, her solution — to appear as Patricia D. Bonnin "Patti Vasquez" on the ballot — has led to accusations that she's using two names to pander to different sets of voters: Vasquez for Latinos, and Bonnin for whites.

But the truth is more complicated: Vasquez's half-brother was Michael Bonnin, one of 33 young men killed by John Wayne Gacy — a fact she's kept private until now. At the time of his disappearance in 1979 at age 17, Vasquez was four, living with their shared father and her mother, his second wife, in Norwood Park. When they found his body in the crawl space of Gacy's house, she was seven.

Vasquez Photo: Courtesy of Vasquez

Leading up to Gacy's execution in 1994, Vasquez was just beginning her comedy career, performing at open mic nights around town. "That first summer I did standup was when he was being executed," she says. "It was insane how many comics had a joke about it. There were nights when I had to leave the room."

And so, to detach herself from the Gacy tragedy and not allow it to define her, Patti Bonnin became Patti Vasquez. And when her comedy career gave way to one in radio, the name stuck. "I knew our name was going to be in the paper again," she says. "I didn’t want [the murder] to precede every conversation and interview I gave."

I met Vasquez at a restaurant near Harlem and Lawrence — a few miles from her current home in Gladstone Park, and even fewer from the site of Gacy's home in unincorporated Norwood Park.

Why come out now with this?

I had always planned to write a book about our lives — about my family and my brother. I’ve started and stopped several times. It’s painful to dive into it.

I had hoped that was the way I would come out. But when we started the process of running [for state house], we had a conversation about how my name would appear on the ballot. I have to use my legal name, but I’ve never legally changed my name to Patti Vasquez. [The name] I’ve created a career around — whether it’s advocacy, radio, performing — is Patti Vasquez. No one knows Patricia Bonnin.

Has anyone wondered why you’re now using Bonnin?

Someone asked — they thought Bonnin was my husband’s name. When I got married, I kept Bonnin because my brother was the last male in the family.

You say you've been accused of using Vasquez to appeal to one set of voters and Bonnin to appeal to another.

Yes. In several conversations and on some of the [online] neighborhood groups it began coming up. Someone thought I was trying to pander to Latinos by using Vasquez.

So you now want to set the record straight?

I was at an endorsement meeting and thought, Is this going to be the night? I can’t spend the next few weeks or months wondering if this is the night someone is going to ask me. At some point, people try to find anything they can [to use against you].

Was the decision to go public a hard one?

I’ve wanted to be able to talk about it for a long time, but I’ve always pulled back because it’s not just my story. I have sisters. I called my aunt and uncle yesterday to talk through what I’m thinking about and they were very sweet. They even told me they’ve been in situations where people don’t know and make jokes. They're in their 80s and people are still cracking wise and they have to stop them and say their nephew was murdered.

Tell me about your brother.

I was four when Mike disappeared, so everything I know about him is more from the experience of my dad trying to find him. What I remember is my dad taking me to police stations with a picture of Mike. It’s the same black-and-white picture that you see on the grid of the victims. When he went missing they were in complete shock. It didn’t make any sense to them that he was gone. He was 17.

He disappeared in June 1976, so he was missing for more than two years by the time Gacy was arrested in December 1978. How long did it take investigators to figure it out?

Mike was one of the earliest victims. It wasn't something my parents talked to me about. Later, when I did some research, I found out more. I do remember the phone ringing because it was the holiday season. My mom was doing the dishes and answered the phone. It was a Saturday and my dad was still sleeping. He was a cab driver, so he had weird hours. I remember my mom waking up my dad and saying, "It’s about Mike." They had found Mike’s fishing license in Gacy's belongings. This was just a few days after he was arrested, and they had a definite I.D. on January 6, through dental records.

Is it hard to be in the neighborhood?

It’s surreal. I grew up on Northwest Highway in Norwood Park. There are times when you say you’re from Norwood Park and that’s what people know — even though Summerdale, where [Gacy] lived, is in the unincorporated area.

But I could be anywhere and it’s hard. When I was in college in Champaign, I remember somebody making jokes [about Gacy].

Have you ever driven past the site of his home [which was demolished in 1979 and where a new house now stands]?

When I was little there wasn’t much that was shared with me. How do you talk to a 7-year-old [about that] when she’s still waiting for Santa? I also think [my parents] were in shock — unable to process what was happening. So, I didn’t know a lot when I was little.

But in high school, I was in a car with some friends and they were like, "We have to show you something," and they drove me to the house. That was the first time I ever saw it.

Those kids didn’t know your brother was a victim?

They didn’t know. They know now and they were mortified when they found out.

Michael was missing for two years. How did that affect your parents?

It destroyed my father, the not knowing. I’ve asked my mom, but it wasn’t something my dad and I really discussed. The only thing I would get from my dad was when he was at his lowest. He would wonder if, had he been a better father, things would be different.

There are moments when things happen, like Sandy Hook, or the Las Vegas shootings — that’s when I go searching for parts of my brother. There’s a virtual gravesite for Mike online that people will occasionally leave messages on. I go back to it once in awhile to see if there’s something that might be a piece of my brother I can have. On the night of the Las Vegas shootings, someone posted a picture of my brother and said they went to grade school together. I reached out to the person and he wrote me back about how my brother was a great wrestler and how Mike was working at a gas station and that’s where he would see him before he went missing.

Another time, I met this guy, Steve, who told me he went to high school with one of the victims. When he said he went to Luther North, I asked him what was the victim's name was and he said Mike. I told him Mike was my brother and asked what can he tell me about him. He said he had a great laugh, these great blue eyes and strawberry blond hair. He also said he was a great baseball player. I didn’t know that.

Was your father able to give him a proper burial?

They did not bring me with them to the memorial. They had our neighbor babysit. I’ve never asked about it because it was hard for them to talk to me about it. I believe he's in an unmarked grave, because they wanted privacy — there were a lot of people, a lot of thrill seekers. I’m aware of where he is. So, yes, he was given a proper burial. Michael’s mother passed away before my dad did in the 1990s. It was so hard on everybody.

How old was your dad when he passed away?

My dad was 68 when he died in 2001. I think that Shirley [Michael's mother] was in her late 50s. My dad struggled with alcoholism after Mike died. He stopped drinking for the last 12 years of his life, but he was also a heavy smoker because of the anxiety.

It certainly took its toll. When he drank he would call Shirley crying. Because our apartment was so small, I could hear everything he was saying. He would beg her for forgiveness and say, "I’m the one who should have died, not Mike. If I’d been a better father, if I had been there."

I’m sure all the victims' parents have some sort of guilt — I can’t imagine they don’t. Even when your kid gets sick you think, What did I do wrong? So imagine something on this scale. It’s incomprehensible.

I do remember one time, my mom said it was worse knowing how he died than thinking he was never coming home. It was worse knowing how he died.

You’re talking about specifically how?

I didn’t know for years. I didn’t know for a long, long time.

He was strangled, right?

Among other things, yes.

He was 17 in 1976…

He would be 60 now. His friend that went to school with him, Steve… every time I see him, I cry, because he was the same age as my brother. He makes me happy but he makes me cry. I look at him and think this his how Mike would have aged. I’d get so greedy with his time. Every time I hug him, I don’t want to let go, because he’s the closest thing I have to Mike.

Is going public with this a weight off your shoulders?

It’s a huge weight. I wanted to last year. It had been 40 years [since Gacy’s arrest] and the story was everywhere. I got a call from someone who said I should think about writing something because [the media was] just printing these blurbs. Mike’s blurb in the Chicago Tribune was that he was found with a ligature around his neck. That’s all anybody knows about Mike. I wrote something and it made my mom cry, but they wouldn’t publish it anonymously.

You said you've been talking with people who were involved in the case. Are you going to do something with that?

I am. It never seemed fair: There are all these books about Gacy, but people know the names [of his victims] as just the next victim. Not only was Michael’s story not finished, none of it was told. Because I decided to be private about it, I couldn’t share my pain.

People think they're funny, pulling out a John Wayne Gacy business card. I have to pick my moments when I share with them that piece of me. I’ll say, "I have to tell you something," depending on the situation. Sometimes it was coworkers at my old job. I’d want to ask them, Do you know that one of your co-workers is in pain right now? You’re in Chicago: There are hundreds of us. My aunt and uncle are in their 80s and there are generations between us. I read somewhere that this will hurt a hundred years of people. A publisher said they wanted [my book], but asked me, How does it end?

It doesn’t end with Gacy’s death.

It doesn’t. It never ends.