On Sunday, January 27, 1974, Joseph Spisak got up very early. The 11-year-old was dressed for his paper route in a trench coat and a parka because it was very cold when he left his home in Hammond, Indiana. Around 9:30 a.m., he was done with all of his deliveries and went back to his home on McCook Avenue for a short time to drop off his empty newspaper bag. He went in the direction of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church to go to mass like he did every Sunday, but he never got there and was never seen again.
Monica Spisak, Joseph’s mother, was a little worried but not too worried when he didn’t come home for lunch that afternoon. He usually called home to let us know when he was going to eat with a friend, but she thought he might have just lost track of time. When she called some of his friends, she found out that Joseph had been seen playing with other kids on the grounds of Morton Middle School, where he was in sixth grade. Monica thought he had lunch with one of his friends.
Every night at the Spisak house, dinner was served at 5:00 pm. Joseph knew he had to get home in time to eat with his family. He had always followed this rule, so Monica knew something was wrong when he didn’t come home for dinner that night. Joseph’s two brothers were sent to look for him, but they couldn’t find him anywhere near the house. That’s when Monica called the Hammond Police Department to say her oldest son was missing.
Monica was sure that Joseph wasn’t running away, but the police weren’t so sure. For at least 24 hours, they told the family, they couldn’t do anything until the 11-year-old was found. As the next day went on, police talked to some of Joseph’s friends and heard that he wanted to leave home. This led them to believe that he probably did leave on his own. Monica said that Joseph didn’t take any of his things with him when he left, and she also said that he probably wouldn’t have left on a cold January day. It was clear to her that something had happened that kept Joseph from getting home.
In the evening of Sunday, around 5:00 pm, some of Joseph’s friends said they saw him walking along the railroad tracks next to an old cemetery. It wasn’t clear where he was going. At the time, he wasn’t carrying anything, and he might have been going home for dinner.
There was no sign of Joseph when police looked for him in places he was known to hang out. Boy Scouts from the area helped search along the shore of Optimist Lake and in a nearby wooded area. The Norfolk & Western Railroad sent an inspection car to look around the area around the tracks. They couldn’t find any hints about where Joseph was.
George Wise, the chief of police in Hammond, said it wasn’t likely that Joseph would be able to stay hidden in the area for long. He hadn’t run away before and wasn’t known to hide from friends, so he probably didn’t have any places in mind when he left his house. Chief Wise said it was possible that death had been caused by foul play. He also said it was possible that Joseph had gotten on one of the freight trains that went through town. Detectives said it was likely that Joseph was too short to fit into any of the Hammond passenger boxcars. The main worry of the police was that Joseph would die of exposure before they could find him.
Detectives talked to all of Joseph’s teachers and classmates, but they didn’t find anything interesting. Joseph was said to be a good student who got along with his peers and did well in all of his classes. He was good with his behavior and liked playing basketball and baseball. Some of his friends said he asked them if they wanted to run away from home with him, but he never said where he was going, and it didn’t seem likely that he was planning to leave.
In the days after Joseph went missing, police got a lot of tips about where he might be, but they couldn’t find any real clues. Officer Charles Hedinger said that a tip from a person in southern Indiana said Joseph had been seen with a man who was driving a green Cadillac to Hazard, Kentucky. Officer Hedinger said that they found the child that the tip led them to in Kentucky. “He was a double for Joseph. The exact same person twice. It wasn’t him, though.”
For the next week, police searched the area around the railroad tracks but couldn’t find anything that would help them find Joseph. Detective John Knazur said, “A lot of kids from the Hessville section go out there and build cooking fires and pretend they’re roughing it.” A lot of kids in Hammond liked to play along the tracks. Police looked for signs of some of these fires and talked to kids who were hanging out in the area, but none of them had seen Joseph.
Four hours after Joseph went missing, a group of forty volunteers searched the area along the Norfolk & Western Railroad tracks for any clues that the police might have missed. The group, which was led by Joseph Barrios, said they thought the Hammond police were doing all they could to find the missing boy but thought they could use some extra help.
Joseph still hadn’t been seen by April. Ronald Spisak, his father, said he still thought his son was alive but had no idea where he could be. His statement to the press said that there were no signs that Joseph was unhappy at home and that he had left all of his things, such as an extra pair of glasses, money, and his beloved Matchbox cars and baseball cards. He probably would have taken at least some of his things with him if he was planning to run away from home.
The area around Hammond had been searched by foot and by air several times, but police still didn’t know what had happened to Joseph. Detectives finally came to the conclusion after three months that Joseph probably wasn’t still alive if he had run away from home. He was too young to stay alive on his own for long. They thought he had either been killed by someone or died of exposure, but they couldn’t find his body.
Police in Hammond Capt. John Kouris said that they checked out leads in Kokomo, Indiana, and Kentucky, but they couldn’t say for sure that Joseph had made it to either location. Captain Kouris didn’t think Joseph was tall enough to get on a freight train. If he had been, he thought, railroad workers would have seen him while the cars were being unloaded.
Years went by, and no one knew what happened to Joseph. Local news stations didn’t pay much attention to his disappearance, and only one local newspaper wrote about him after he was last seen. A reporter said that Joseph might have wanted to see the world or just have more exciting experiences in his life. This made it seem like every 11-year-old might want to be like him and go on an adventure.
After Joseph went missing more than ten years ago, his half of the bedroom he shared with his brother Thomas stayed the same as it was the last time he left it. In 1986, the family moved to a new home, but they kept the same phone number in case Joseph called one day. The call never came, which is sad.
Joseph’s parents and three younger siblings never believed that he left home on his own. Joseph had not been seen or heard from in almost 25 years by 1998. He had a younger brother who he had never met. While Donald and Monica knew it was unlikely that they would find their oldest child alive, they still held out hope that they would see him again.
In 1998, Charles Hedinger was a detective with the Hammond Police Department. He was one of the first officers to arrive at the scene where Joseph was reported missing. He thought back to how quickly the case had gone cold. “They never got in touch.” In this case, someone is missing even though they can be seen. No one wants to know what happened to him more than me—not even his family. I wish I had a crystal ball.
Thomas Spisak was three years younger than Joseph Spisak, but the two were very close. Later, he told reporters that he had never even thought about the possibility that Joseph had left home on his own. “I still don’t get how his friends said he could have gotten away.” I hung out with the same group…It was because I was sick that week that I wasn’t with them that day.
Detective Hedinger agreed that Joseph might have been taken away. “Back then, there were a lot of transients in the area who lived on the rails…This area has been used by serial killers in the past. Police might not have been able to find Joseph’s body because he may have been killed the same day he went missing, but they couldn’t be sure until they had some kind of proof.
She said that even after more than twenty years, holidays and Joseph’s birthday were still hard for her and her family. Even though time had passed, their pain had not gone away. She still hoped that someone would call the police with the information they needed to bring Joseph home. “Now is the time for someone who knew something as a child but was afraid to say something to come forward.”
It had been 45 years since Joseph Spisak went missing. In January 2019, the family talked to reporters to mark the event. They still held on to the hope that Joseph was alive and working as a sportscaster, which was one of his old dreams. Elsa, his sister, said, “There’s no sign of him. That’s why we haven’t given up hope.” They might have thought he was still alive since there was no body to show that he had been killed.
Officer Adam Clark of the Hammond Police Department said that situations like Joseph’s were not common. “This kind of case doesn’t come up very often.” The person is usually found. In this case, Joseph just disappeared. He’s not there anymore.
Monica said that the police had asked her more than once if she wanted Joseph to be legally declared dead, but she always said no. “It looks like they want to end the case.” I won’t do that, though, until I have proof.
Joseph Andrew Spisak was last seen in Hammond, Indiana, in January 1974. He was only 11 years old. Joseph was a smart and nice kid who brought newspapers to people in his neighborhood after school. What happened to Joseph has been talked about over the years, but there have been no solid leads. At the time he went missing, Joseph was 4 feet tall and weighed 65 pounds. He has brown eyes and hair. He was last seen with a tan trench coat, a brown corduroy coat with a hood, green hunting boots with yellow tops, and glasses, which he needed to see. Please call the Hammond Police Department at 219–852–2906 if you know anything about Joseph.