CHICAGO — For more than three decades, Michael Noe hoped that his older brother would walk through the front door of their family's central Illinois home, returning from his hitchhiking travels with his usual cheerful smile.
But after authorities told him last week that they'd solved the mystery and found the remains of Daniel Noe — an outgoing factory worker and avid hiker with plans of finishing his last credit at Northwestern University — the younger Noe found himself grappling with something new.
How would the family say goodbye?
A wake for Noe is planned for Monday and the funeral Mass is Tuesday, the family said. He was raised Catholic, so a religious ceremony and burial at Resurrection Cemetery in Peoria seemed appropriate.
Family members picked out a plot and selected a half-dozen framed photographs to display at the funeral home in hopes that the images would conjure memories of Noe as a high school debate team member, keen bowler and baseball enthusiast.
"It was rough for my mom and dad to pick out a casket," said Michael Noe, who is six years younger than his brother Dan. "We never declared him dead. We have never had a memorial service."
Daniel was just 22 when he vanished in 1978. He'd been living on the West Coast and planned to hitchhike home — not unusual for him — and go back to Northwestern. But he never surfaced.
The Noe family filed a missing persons report and waited. Debt collectors continued to call over the years about Daniel's college loans, but family members didn't know what to say. Even as they started to think he may be dead, they continued to send dental records to law enforcement agencies anytime they heard about unidentified bodies.
"I was still holding on to the sliver of hope that he would walk through the front door," Michael Noe said. "At what point do you decide that he's not coming back?"
A new effort in the Chicago area to identify more of serial killer John Wayne Gacy's victims led to authorities exhuming the remains of previous victims. It prompted dozens of families with young men who'd gone missing in the 1970s to step forward, including the Noes.
Michael Noe said he thought his brother may have been a victim of Gacy, who was convicted of killing 33 men and executed in 1994. Gacy preyed on young men, often promising construction work.
Authorities had already identified one victim through the renewed efforts and solved other cold cases in the process. The Noe family provided DNA samples, which weren't a match to any of the Gacy victims. But the DNA did link to human remains more than 1,000 miles away in Utah, where hikers in 2010 had found a skull and some other bones.
They were confirmed as those of Daniel Noe.
In the following days, family and friends concluded that Noe had probably stopped to camp and hike as he meandered back to Illinois. There were no signs of foul play, authorities said; the only trauma to the body was a broken arm.
Noe said it was shock and relief all at once.
"This has been bittersweet," he said. "It was relief to know that he probably didn't suffer, and we no longer have to wonder if he is in a mental hospital or off on his own."