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15 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About the John Wayne Gacy Case

Charles is a true crime addict and has been watching and reading about crime for more than 15 years.

The abduction and murder of Rob Piest by John Gacy would set the investigation into motion.

The abduction and murder of Rob Piest by John Gacy would set the investigation into motion.

Behind the Face Paint: Chilling John Wayne Gacy Facts

It was Christmas time, 1978, when TV screens across the country were filled with visions of horror. Investigators uncovered the remains of 29 young men buried underneath and around the suburban Chicago home of a 36-year-old building contractor named John Wayne Gacy.

In addition to the bodies buried in his crawl space, Gacy confessed to having killed and disposed of at least four others in the nearby Des Plaines River. From 1972 through 1978, he sexually assaulted, tortured, and killed the young men in the privacy of his home. He handcuffed and strangled them to death.

John Wayne Gacy led two lives. He was a precinct captain and active in politics. Gacy sometimes dressed as a clown to make children laugh, but behind the face paint was a man who tortured and murdered people. He was probably the most notorious and most evil murderer in United States history.

1. The Case May Have Been Solved Earlier

Gacy’s murders went undetected for six years. He tortured his victims and let some of them go. Two went to the police, but authorities didn’t check into Gacy’s past. Most of the stories weren’t believed and were dismissed by the police as lover’s quarrels. Some parents of the victims went further and reported their sons missing.

However, the police were not helpful and said they were runaways. Not a single parent was believed and for years, some police officers unwittingly played right into Gacy’s hands. If they had listened to the parents, many lives could have been saved.

The disappearance of a 15-year-old boy in December 1978 was what finally sparked the investigation. He was one of a number of boys who had disappeared in the Chicago area, but something about him was different.

The boy was Rob Piest, a sophomore in high school who worked part-time at the Nisson pharmacy in the northwestern suburb of Chicago. Rob Piest was the consummate good kid—an honor student who was devoted to his family and wanted to be an astronaut. There was no reason for him to run away.

On December 11, he told his mother he was going to talk to a man about a construction job, but Rob Piest never made it home.

His parents finally ended up at the police department to fill out a missing persons report on their youngest son. Obviously, the first thing investigators focused on was the man whom Piest had gone to see. The man was discovered to be John Wayne Gacy.

A simple background check revealed that Gacy had been convicted 10 years earlier in Iowa on the charge of sodomy. It is highly likely if Rob Piest had been a teen runaway, the police probably wouldn’t have looked into the case as closely as they did.

2. John Wayne Gacy Became Familiar With Dead Bodies Earlier in Life

Gacy left Chicago at 20 years old and without qualifications and struck out on his own. He traveled to Las Vegas where he found a job cleaning up in a mortuary. He lived with the dead people in the funeral home and often worked alone with dead bodies for company.

A number of serial killers are believed to go through a variety of experiences that will bring them into close proximity with dead bodies. In Gacy’s case, his work as a janitor in a mortuary provided this avenue, which helped him gain familiarity with dead bodies—a familiarity that removed the taboo of being around corpses.

3. Gacy's Arrogance Contributed to His Downfall

A police interview with Gacy’s employees revealed that he had asked them to dig trenches for new plumbing in the crawl space beneath his house. The story triggered a memory for a detective who had once used the bathroom in Gacy’s house.

Perhaps out of arrogance, John Wayne Gacy had invited the surveillance team over to his house for a fish dinner.

The detective smelled a foul odor coming from the air vents. Being an experienced homicide detective, he came back and said he recognized the odors of bodies decaying and was pretty sure the crawl space below had become Gacy’s makeshift burial ground.

It was an appalling idea that haunted detectives, some of whom had spent several hours inside Gacy’s home.

Gacy with First Lady Rosalynn Carter on May 6, 1978.

Gacy with First Lady Rosalynn Carter on May 6, 1978.

4. His Crimes Might Be Linked to an Abusive Childhood

During Gacy’s murder trial, the defense argued that Gacy’s twisted relationship with his father laid the groundwork for his antisocial personality. John Gacy was the brunt of his father’s criticism and scorn.

His father was said to ridicule him in front of his sisters and other children in the neighborhood. In his father’s eyes, he was a wimp who was not going to amount to anything.

His father used to go downstairs and get raging drunk and scream and yell from the basement like some voice coming through the air vent, terrorizing Gacy in that way.

His father wanted a tough and masculine son. Instead, he saw a lot of feminine traits in Gacy and taunted him for this. Gacy struggled to please his father but regardless of how hard he tried, his effort fell short.

He said his mother was the only one that made his life bearable. She gave him all the love because he never got any from his father.

5. Gacy Should Have Been Released the Day His Last Victim Disappeared

In December 1968, Gacy arrived at the state penitentiary at Anamosa. His charge was sodomy against a teenage boy. Even behind bars, he aggressively pursued all the social outlets available to him.

He not only made friends with fellow prisoners but he mingled with the guards, social workers, and even the warden. Within eight months, Gacy had landed a job as the head cook in the prison kitchen. He became a model inmate, a chef, and even started a prison chapter of the Jaycees; he was named the "Man of the Year."

In 1970, Gacy came up for parole. A prison psychiatrist warned against his release. He said Gacy was a psychopath, and a sexual sadist who will be dangerous for the rest of his life. Still, he was paroled just 18 months into his sentence on June 18, 1970.

The harrowing fact is that had Gacy served his entire 10-year prison sentence in Iowa, he would have been released the day that his last victim disappeared.

6. His First Kill Was Just Seven Months Before His Marriage

On Janueary 2, 1972, Gacy picked up 16-year-old Tim McCoy at the Greyhound bus station. John offered to show the boy the sites, and then lured him back to his house where they engaged in sex.

When they were done, Gacy grabbed a kitchen knife and plunged it into the teenager’s chest. He buried the boy’s body in the crawl space under his house. Gacy was able to act as if nothing had happened. Seven months later, he was married to Carole Hoff.

John Wayne Gacy's clown suit.

John Wayne Gacy's clown suit.

7. Gacy's Handwritten Sketch Sends Shivers Down the Spine

Initially, investigators had trouble with the location of some of the bodies on Gacy’s property, so they brought in the one person who could provide the most help, John Gacy.

He showed them one spot to check and was quickly whisked away. Gacy’s information about the graveyard beneath his house was remarkably precise. At one point, he even drew a sketch of the crawl space.

To this day, the handwritten sketch is bone-chilling because Gacy knew where almost every dead body was. He didn’t remember the names, but he knew where they were in the basement.

8. He Had Numerous Tricks Up His Sleeves

The nagging question that investigators faced was how Gacy had managed to overpower the young men who were all strong and healthy. The answer was that Gacy was cunning, and he had a perfect ploy.

In his black car equipped with two spotlights, Gacy pretended to be a policeman. He would stop boys walking down the street, flash a fake police badge and tell them to get in. Once inside his car, the boys were driven to Gacy’s home. All he needed then was a good trick. He told officers how it worked with his last victim, Rob Piest.

He would lie to his victims that he dressed as a clown and ask them if they wanted to see some of his tricks. On the pretext of doing a magic trick, he will coax the boys into slipping on a pair of handcuffs.

The boys would get agitated after some time as they couldn’t get the handcuffs off and would ask what the trick was. Gacy would go in his pocket and grab the key to his handcuffs and say, “The trick is, you have to have the key.”

He would then gag his victims with their own underwear and sexually torture them. Afterward, he would loop a rope around the teenagers’ necks and then slid a stick between the knots which he twisted three or four times until they stopped moving.

9. Gacy Kept His Victims' Belongings as Trophies

Upon Rob Piest's disappearance, the police got a search warrant to check Gacy’s house for any evidence linking him to Piest. While they initially found nothing they could tie to Piest, they did discover numerous personal items belonging to other missing teenagers.

One of the most chilling was a class ring. It was quickly learned that the ring belonged to a recent high school graduate, John Zig, another missing teen. An unmistakable pattern began to emerge linking Gacy to missing boys.

10. There Was a Slight Chance He Could Be on the Streets Again

Insanity was Gacy’s only defence. His lawyers had no choice but to acknowledge the enormity of his crimes. In a classic use of the insanity defence, they planned to argue that the sheer number of murders was proof of insanity.

The legal team said that once he started killing, Gacy lost all control. The defence described Gacy as impulsive and deranged, and that he was a profoundly sick man who collected bodies like souvenirs.

For the defence, a battery of experts testified that Gacy fit the standard of insanity. The psychiatric experts offered varying opinions on Gacy’s mental illness from borderline personality to amnesia.

However, the prosecutors believed the facts of the case were more important than the psychiatric testimony:

  • If the murders were not premeditated, they asked why Gacy would have burial trenches dug in advance.
  • Why did he keep handcuffs and a rope ready?
  • If he didn’t understand the criminality of his behaviour, why would he deliberately choose victims who might not be missed?
  • If he had amnesia, how could he draw a precise sketch locating each body?

The final blow against John Gacy was when a psychiatrist testified that if he was found insane, he would be put out on the streets because he could not be hospitalised beyond his will. Nobody in their right mind believed Gacy was sane, but nobody was willing to take the chance that he would be out on the streets.

11. Gacy Was Extremely Confident He Would Win the Case

Throughout the trial, Gacy remained confident and certain that he would win the case despite the overwhelming mountain of evidence against him.

He had been casually reading the Chicago Sun-Times, from which he had torn out a page and circled a party. It was a St. Patrick’s Day party that was coming up. Gacy gave it to one of the prosecutors and said he would see him there.

12. He Didn’t Believe He Was Going to Die Until the End

As the day of Gacy’s execution approached, he seemed to have held on to the belief that somehow he would find a way to avoid his punishment. Even if his attorneys didn’t have the answer, he did.

He was figuring it out and could not be bothered. On the afternoon of May 9, 1994, hours before he was to die, Gacy was in his cell talking to his lawyers and busily writing notes. At around 11:15 p.m. with 45 minutes left to live, one of the defense lawyers called Gacy to ask how he was doing.

The call was a formality. Under Illinois law, the defense gets one final chance to check on the mental state of a condemned individual.

Given Gacy’s tenuous hold on reality, it’s not clear whether he understood this requirement, but in response to the lawyer’s question, Gacy said, “Can’t this wait. I’m busy.” The lawyers persisted and Gacy finally said he was fine and then hung up.

John Wayne Gacy art.

John Wayne Gacy art.

13. He Made Full Use of His Criminal Notoriety

The serial killer was sent to death row at the Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois. He quickly cashed in on his criminal celebrity by becoming an artist. Gacy’s artwork won praise from those who appreciated the macabre image of a killer clown.

In 1988, John exploited his notoriety by proclaiming his innocence. He wrote and published a book titled A Question of Doubt. In it, he passed himself off as the 34th victim and claimed that all the bodies discovered beneath his home were planted there by his employees.

14. His Brain Was Extracted After His Death

Immediately after his death, Gacy's body was secretly transported to a nearby hospital where Doctor Helen Morrison, a forensic psychiatrist, waited to extract his brain.

Doctor Morrison thought Gacy’s brain might show signs of abnormality that could possibly explain his actions. Yet after examining it, she found nothing. There was no biological evidence that shed light on his severe psychological problem, leaving the world with an enduring mystery.

One of the things that was important for prosecutors was to make the victims people and not just this chain of bodies. For the first two days of the trial, a parade of the victims' families, friends, and loved ones took the stand.

The names and pictures of Gacy’s victims were displayed in slots on a giant board that came to be known as the gallery of grief.

The courtroom was charged with memories of the dead. In closing arguments, the state refilled the so-called gallery of grief with photos of the dead and they called John Wayne Gacy the worst of all murderers.

2022 Update

Although Gacy's crimes took place in the 1970s and he was executed in 1994, interest in his case remains strong in the legal system, the media, and the public.

DNA Results

In 2011, investigators announced that full DNA profiles had been obtained from all of Gacy's unidentified victims. So far, these efforts have resulted in three victims being identified:

  • William Bundy (identified 2011)
  • James Haakenson (identified 2017)
  • Francis Wayne Alexander (identified 2021)

Additionally, numerous other missing youths suspected of being Gacy victims were ruled out, and four unrelated cases from the '70s were solved.

Proof of Accomplices?

It has long been suspected, and Gacy himself maintained, that he had worked with accomplices (possibly his employees) in several murders. In 2012, a law firm in Chicago took up a pro bono case for the mother of a suspected Gacy victim, and their investigation concluded that Gacy had worked with accomplices. The law firm named the accomplices and claimed at the time that they turned over information to authorities.

Selection of Films and Documentaries

  • Gacy (2003 feature film)
  • Dear Mr. Gacy (2010 made-for-TV film)
  • 8213: Gacy House (2010 horror film)
  • "Killer Clown: John Wayne Gacy" (2015 episode from series Monster in My Family)
  • John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise (2021 Peacock docuseries)
  • Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes (2022 Netflix docuseries)

© 2018 Charles Nuamah