Kidnapped by mobsters? The disappearance of Molly Zelko
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On a September night in 1957, residents at an apartment complex in Joliet, Illinois heard a woman’s screams. The next morning, they would learn that one of their neighbors had vanished without a trace. The only thing she’d seemingly left behind was a pair of her shoes. Let’s talk about Molly Zelko, who hasn’t been seen or heard from in almost 65 years.
Amelia Jo Zelko, better known as Molly, was born in 1910 in Joliet. She was one of six children and her parents were Slovenian immigrants.
When Molly was 17, she went to work for a lawyer named William McCabe. She stayed with him throughout his career, which included a brief period as the state’s attorney of Will County. In 1936, he bought a newspaper called The Spectator, which Molly both reported for and co-owned. According to The Spectator Podcast, which examines Molly’s case in-depth, McCabe bought the paper “to influence public opinion” and fight corruption.
And Molly wanted the same things. Both she and the paper had a reputation for exposing things like illegal gambling and mob activity. Molly was also harsh on policemen who metaphorically looked the other way at illegal gambling — something she was especially against.
But Molly often went to extreme lengths to get what she perceived as justice. She was aggressive and tenacious in her reporting, and there were rumors of her engaging in things like blackmail and character assassination. She was known to illegally wiretap lines and record conversations on a least one or two occasions. These recordings couldn’t be used in court, of course, but that was likely never her ultimate goal anyway. Another account from one of her co-workers alleges she blackmailed the owner of a bowling alley into buying ad space in The Spectator in exchange for keeping quiet about a city ordinance he was violating.
In 1948, Molly’s boss, William McCabe, was severely beaten with baseball bats. This wasn’t the first time the now-65-year-old had been physically attacked, but it seemed to be the worst, leaving him with multiple broken bones and other complications he never fully recovered from. After this attack, Molly took over operations at The Spectator — and she became obsessed with finding out who had attacked her boss. Both of them believed the attack was retaliation for their anti-gambling stance — a position Molly only cracked down on after this.
On Wednesday, September 25, 1957, a now 47-year-old Molly arrived at work around 7 am. The Spectator was printed on Thursdays, so Wednesdays were busy, with employees making all the final preparations. On this day, Molly spent a noticeably long time in her office making private phone calls, which apparently didn’t happen much. But other than that, everything appeared to be normal.
Molly didn’t leave work until around 11:30 that night. Before leaving, she told a co-worker she would see them the next day.
Molly’s car was seen parked in front of her apartment building by 11:40 pm. Neighbors would later report hearing screams sometime between then and 12:15 am, but wrote them off as coming from noisy kids.
The next morning, one of Molly’s co-workers called her at home; this was customary for them, but on this day there was no answer. Around 6 am, her co-workers drove to her apartment and found her shoes outside — one on the trunk of her car, the other close by on the ground. Molly had always told her friends that if she ever felt like she was in danger or thought someone was pursuing her, she would kick off her shoes and run.
Around 11 am, a locksmith was called and opened the door to Molly’s apartment — but she wasn’t inside. William McCabe called the police.
Investigators who soon arrived on the scene also found no trace of Molly and nothing out of place. She didn’t appear to have even slept in her bed the night before. Her car keys were found under the driver’s side door of her car, where she always kept them.
A search of her office also found very little out of place. The only thing missing was a packet of letters and photos she’d told family members they should take if anything ever happened to her. Her office must have already been unlocked because the keys were never found.
A witness would later claim she’d seen men in a black car burning a woman’s body near Molly’s apartment. This incident was never confirmed.
Early on in the investigation, William McCabe and several of Molly’s friends contacted the FBI, requesting that they get involved in the case. According to an article in the Daily Illini, McCabe was afraid Molly had been kidnapped because of the “underlying gangster and criminal background” in the area. The FBI initially declined to get involved, saying there was no evidence that any federal laws had been broken. Ultimately, though, they did conduct their own investigation into the case. They did follow up on some alleged sightings of Molly, but this never led anywhere.
In 1958, a man named James Rini told the FBI that he was involved in Molly’s disappearance. Rini, who was in prison for robbery at the time, said he was the driver in the operation and that Molly had been kidnapped, shot, covered with lime and buried. He led investigators to the area where he said her body was buried, but they found nothing at the first site he led them to. After leading them to a second dig site, he reportedly said: “May I have syphilis of the eyes and may my mother be a whore if she isn’t buried here.”
Molly wasn’t buried there. Rini later claimed his “confession” was a hoax.
In August of 1958, William McCabe died. Over the next couple of years, the leads in Molly’s case slowed to a standstill, with people reportedly afraid to talk about it for fear of retaliation from her attackers. She was declared legally dead in 1964.
In 1978, a bartender reported seeing Molly on the night she’d gone missing. According to this bartender, Molly arrived at the bar — which was close to The Spectator office — just after leaving work. She bought a drink and used a pay phone on her way out. It’s not clear why this bartender waited so long to report the sighting or if the call Molly made here was related to the phone calls she made at work earlier that day. This incident also had to have happened very quickly. Remember, Molly left work around 11:30 pm and was home by 11:40, which would have left her only ten minutes to stop at this bar, get a drink and make a phone call. This is an awfully short time frame, though it is certainly possible that she did all this in ten minutes.
The Spectator later folded, and the building was torn down and eventually rebuilt. Ironically, the building across the street from the old Spectator offices is now a casino — something Molly and her old boss likely would not have been too thrilled with.
In 2004, a couple who lived in Molly’s old neighborhood found a bathtub filled with concrete in their backyard. Detectives spent two hours smashing the bathtub in an attempt to find human remains, but there was nothing there.
In the years following Molly’s disappearance, her case has been the subject of a folk song and inspiration for a mystery novel called One Shoe Off**. In 2019, the Joliet Area Historical Museum and the Joliet Public Library produced the previously mentioned podcast The Spectator. This podcast ran for eight episodes and, like I mentioned earlier, did a pretty deep dive into the case.
So what happened to Molly Zelko? Let’s talk theories and some speculation.
The first theory is that Molly left voluntarily. This is the theory that the FBI believed in the early days of the investigation. A friend of Molly’s named William Wilson also thought this was the case. Molly’s boss, William McCabe, never fully recovered from his 1948 attack, and had complications from it for the rest of his life. Remember, he died less than a year after Molly’s disappearance, and there was a good chance she knew he wouldn’t live much longer. She also didn’t get along well with his family, namely his daughters. There has been speculation that Molly left on her own because she didn’t want to deal with McCabe’s family in the aftermath of his death. However, this theory has its holes, namely the fact that Molly likely would have come back for major events like her father’s death.
The next theory is that Molly was killed in a robbery gone wrong. When she was last seen, Molly was reportedly wearing both an expensive diamond ring and bracelet. The ring was later found and returned to her family — but if she did have the bracelet on, did someone try to steal it? Based on what little I’ve researched about Molly, she didn’t seem like the kind of person to just take something like that lying down. Did she try to fight back — and fail?
But the most prominent theory is that Molly was kidnapped and/or killed by one of her many enemies. Molly angered a lot of people in her career, people she either exposed or possibly even defamed. Did one of them take their emotions too far and end up hurting her?
Molly was afraid of this. She often spoke to family and friends about feeling like someone was following or even stalking her. In one particular incident, she crossed the street as her brother stood nearby with a shotgun at her request.
One possibility is that a local man named Francis Curry was responsible for Molly’s disappearance. Better known as “The Thin Man,” Curry was known to have connections with the mob, an entity that is often theorized to be responsible as well. Molly suspected Curry as being involved in the 1948 attack on McCabe, and even went so far as to write down the license plate numbers of guests at every party held at Curry’s house. And Curry wasn’t oblivious to the suspicion surrounding him — he reportedly even asked police if he was a suspect in Molly’s disappearance.
But regardless of how Molly actually went missing, where is she now? Speculation ranges from her being buried under and overpass or concrete bridge to being thrown in a body of water. Very few clues have been found, and almost none that suggest her whereabouts.
There is one more piece of speculation I want to go over, and that is the idea that Molly and William McCabe — who was married — were having an affair. They were very close and spent a lot of time together. Like I mentioned earlier, Molly didn’t get along with McCabe’s daughters, despite being close to their father. Did they want the share of the paper she was supposed to get someday? Or could they have known about a secret affair — or at least suspected it?
While I do find this line of speculation interesting, I’ve never seen anyone explicitly suggest that a potential affair could have been related to Molly’s disappearance. And, of course, remember that that’s all this is — speculation. There’s no solid evidence to support it.
Amelia Jo Zelko, better known as Molly, was 47 years old when she was last seen in Joliet, Illinois on the evening of September 25, 1957. Molly was a white female who was about 5 feet 4 inches tall and 120 pounds at the time of her disappearance, with brown hair and eyes. She might have been wearing a diamond bracelet and a hat when she was last seen.
Molly would be around 111 years old today, so she is almost certainly no longer alive. At this point, her family simply wants answers, to find out where her remains are and give her a proper burial.