The site of Gacy's home in Des Plaines, Ill., where Gacy buried the bodies of 28 of the known 33 teenage boys he murdered. (Gacy's home on this site was leveled by the authorities following the discovery of the mass graves beneath it.)
Serial killer John Wayne Gacy was a born salesman with a natural charm. Kids loved him, parents trusted him, First Lady Rosalyn Carter posed in a picture with him. All the while, over a seven-year period, he sexually assaulted and murdered 33 teenage boys and young men, burying 28 of them under his house and garage in a Chicago suburb.
by David Lohr
Not many people who knew him would have suspected that John Wayne Gacy, a respected member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Des Plaines, Ill., a performing clown at neighborhood children's parties, a precinct captain in the local Democratic party, and the owner of his own contracting business would come to be known as one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history.
Nor would his childhood in any particular way set off red flags that a monster was in the making. Gacy, a middle child, was born in Chicago in 1942 into a blue-collar family. He had two sisters, one two years older and the other two years younger. According to the book Killer Clown, by Terry Sullivan and Peter Maiken, Gacy seemed to have a regular childhood with the exception of his turbulent relationship with his father, John Wayne Gacy Sr. The authors describe the father as an unpleasant, abusive alcoholic prone to physically and verbally assaulting his children. The authors describe Gacy as deeply loving his father and wanting desperately to gain his approval and attention, but failing to win him over.
According to the book The Man Who Killed Boys by Clifford L. Lindecker, Gacy was struck in the head with a playground swing when he was 11 years old. He suffered from blackouts until the age of 16, when a doctor diagnosed him with a blood clot on the brain and corrected the condition with medication.
After attending four high schools during his senior year and never graduating, Gacy dropped out of school and left Chicago for Las Vegas. While there, he worked part time as a janitor for Palm Mortuary. Unhappy in Vegas, he returned to Chicago a few months later.
During the early 1960's, Gacy enrolled in a business college and developed a talent for salesmanship. A natural salesman, he could talk his way in and out of practically any situation. Upon graduating, he went to work as a management trainee at Nunn Bush Shoe Co in downtown Chicago. He excelled in his position and within weeks was transferred to Springfield, Ill., to manage a men's clothing outlet for the company, where he remained employed for nearly a year.
In 1964, Gacy married Marilyn Myer, a co-worker. Shortly after the wedding, the newlyweds relocated to her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa. Marilyn's father prompted the move by offering Gacy a position in the family's chicken restaurant. A year later, Gacy's father died in Chicago.
In 1966, at the request of his father-in-law, Gacy took over management of the family's chicken restaurant. Gacy became a well-known and liked member of the community, according to later accounts in the Waterloo Courier.
But all was not well with Gacy. The future serial killer would be arrested for the first time in 1968. The felony charge -- attempting to coerce a male employee into homosexual acts -- came as a big surprise to those who thought they knew this likable father of two toddlers, especially his wife of four years. Gacy pled guilty to sodomy and was sentenced to 10 years in Iowa's State Men's Reformatory in Anamosa. His wife filed for divorce following the sentencing. Angered, Gacy informed her he did not want to see his children again and would henceforth consider her and the two kids dead.
After serving 18 months, Gacy was paroled on Oct. 18, 1971 and returned to Chicago. Unknown to his parole officer, Gacy was arrested by Chicago police on Feb. 12 -- eight months after his release from prison -- and charged with attempted rape and disorderly conduct. A gay youth had complained to authorities that Gacy had picked him up at the Greyhound station in downtown Chicago. He told police that Gacy took him back to his house and attempted to have sex with him. However, the charges were dropped when the boy failed to appear in court for the hearing.
Shortly after returning to Chicago, Gacy went to work as a construction contractor. Three years later, in 1975, he started his own construction business, PDM Contractors. That July he remarried a recently divorced woman he had met through mutual friends and, with financial assistance from his mother, moved into a house in Des Plaines, a middle-class Chicago suburb.
Gacy had a talent for business. According to the Des Plaines Journal, he was known by local merchants as a sharp businessman. He often gained contracts by undercutting his competitors' bids. He was able to cut costs by hiring on a number of teenage boys. (At least five of these boys became his victims.) His business grew.
Gacy spent part of his leisure time hosting elaborate street parties for friends and neighbors, dressing as a clown, and entertaining children at local hospitals. He also immersed himself in organizations such as the Jaycees and the local Democratic party. As a Democratic precinct captain he once had his picture taken with First Lady Rosalyn Carter.
Gacy's second wife divorced him in March of 1976. According to accounts in Harlan Mendenhall's book, Fall of the House of Gacy, she felt she could no longer cope with the marriage due to her husband's unpredictable moods and bizarre obsession with homosexual magazines. The couple did not have children.
On Dec. 12, 1978, the police again focused their attention on John Wayne Gacy. Robert Piest, a teenage stock boy at a Nisson Pharmacy in Des Plaines, had come up missing. Gacy was the last person seen with the boy prior to his disappearance. When investigators ran a background check on Gacy, they were surprised to discover that he had previously served time for committing sodomy on a teenage boy. With this incriminating information, investigators were able to obtain a warrant to search Gacy's house.
During the execution of the warrant, investigators entered a crawl space located beneath the home. A rancid odor was quickly noticed. The smell was believed to be faulty sewage lines and was dismissed. Without any noticeable incriminating evidence, investigators returned to headquarters to run tests on the evidence they seized.
During a review of the items confiscated from Gacy's house, investigators soon realized that they had unknowingly seized a piece of critical evidence. One of the rings found at Gacy's house belonged to another teenager who had disappeared a year earlier. They also discovered that a receipt for a roll of film found at Gacy's home had belonged to a co-worker of Robert Piest who had given it to Robert the day of his disappearance.
With this new information, investigators began to realize the possible enormity of the case that was unfolding before them. Following the discovery of their new information, it was not long before investigators were able to obtain a second search warrant for Gacy's home.
On Dec. 22, 1978, Gacy, realizing that his dark secrets were about to be exposed, went to the police to confess. Shortly into the confessions, Gacy waived his Miranda rights and told detectives, ''There are four Johns.'' He later explained that there was John the contractor, John the clown, and John the politician. The fourth person went by the name of Jack Hanley. Jack was the killer and did all the evil things.
According to accounts in Killer Clown, Gacy informed investigators that his first killing took place in January 1972, and the second two years later in January 1974. He further confessed that he lured his victims into being handcuffed. Gacy would tell his victim that he wanted to show him a "pair of trick handcuffs" he used in his clown act, claiming there was a special way to unlock the cuffs and daring the youth to break out of them. Once the youth was securely manacled, he would kill him by pulling a rope or board against their throats, as he raped them. Gacy admitted to sometimes keeping the dead bodies under his bed or in the attic for several hours before eventually burying them in the crawl space
Gacy went on to make voluntary confessions to over two dozen murders, although he couldn't answer all the questions posed by the police, often responding, ''You'll have to ask Jack that.'' He also drew them a detailed map to the locations of 28 shallow graves under his house and garage. Further he admitted to dumping five other victims into the Des Plaines River.
Less than an hour after the initial dig at Gacy's house began, investigators discovered the first body in a crawl space under the home. As the days and weeks passed, the body count grew. So did the media coverage, exponentially. The macabre excavations at Gacy's modest home in Des Plaines led the national news night after night. The house itself became almost as familiar to American and foreign viewing audiences as The White House.
The details of the dig were riveting. Some of the victims had been buried so close together that police believed they were probably killed or buried at the same time. By the end of January, police and construction crews had gutted the entire house and exhumed twenty-seven bodies. The search had taken longer than expected due to the frozen ground and the winter cold.
During this time, four bodies that had been discovered in the Des Plaines River were linked to Gacy by driver's licenses and other personal items found in his home.
While the identities of the 32 victims began to surface, investigators discovered that all of the victims were young men ranging from their early teens to mid-twenties. While most were male prostitutes known to solicit at "Bunghouse Square" in Chicago, some were young boys who simply disappeared for no apparent reason, and at least five were employees of PDM Contracting at one point or another.
Surprisingly, the excavations and the dragging of the river did not turn up the corpse of Robert Piest.
As the search for bodies came to and end, two young men, Robert Donnelly and Jeff Rignall came forward and spoke to investigators. The youths both felt extremely lucky to be alive and their stories were startlingly similar in detail even though their run ins with Gacy happened on different days. Each claimed that sometime in December of 1977, he had been abducted at gunpoint by Gacy, chloroformed, tortured, whipped and raped. For reasons only know to Gacy himself, both youths were spared their lives. Whether it was fear or embarrassment, neither youth had wished to pursue the matter directly after it had occurred.
Finally in April 1979, the remains of Robert Piest were discovered along the Illinois River. An autopsy later determined that he had died as a result of suffocation. Gacy was charged with his death.
Gacy's murder trial began Feb. 6, 1980 in the Cook County Criminal Courts Building in Chicago. During the five-week trial the prosecution and the defense called more than 100 witnesses to testify. The defense strategy was to establish that Gacy was insane and out of control at the time of the killings. To bolster this claim the defense put on the stand psychiatrists who had interviewed Gacy prior to trial. The prosecution, on the other hand, vigorously opposed the notion that Gacy was insane, contending that his claim of multiple personalities was a death-penalty dodge.
The jury clearly sided with the prosecution's version. It deliberated for only two hours before finding Gacy guilty of murdering 33 people.
On March 13, 1980, Gacy was sentenced to die. He was sent to Menard Correctional Center in Illinois. He would remain there for just over 14 years until he was transported to the Statesville Penitentiary near Joliet for execution.
On May 9, 1994, Gacy sat down for his last meal: fried chicken, French fries, Coke and strawberry shortcake. Prison officials later described his demeanor as ''chatty... talking up a storm.'' In a phone interview shortly before his execution, he told a Knight-Tribune reporter, ''There's been 11 hardback books on me, 31 paperbacks, two screenplays, one movie, one off-Broadway play, five songs, and over 5,000 articles. What can I say about it?'' But of course, he quickly protested, ''I have no ego for any of this garbage.''
Just after midnight on May 10, 1994, Gacy was executed by lethal injection. For his last words, Gacy snarled, ''Kiss my ass.''