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John Wayne Gacy

Notable Fact
The most dangerous situation for young boys to be in with John Wayne Gacy was at his home.

There are three images that jump to mind about John Wayne Gacy, who ranks as one of the worst serial killers in the United States during the twentieth century:

A photo of the portly Gacy, dressed and painted as a clown, with a big clown smile on his face - and a certain chilling light in his eyes.
A picture of Gacy standing next to Rosalynn Carter in 1978, which she autographed, “To John Gacy, Best Wishes, Rosalynn Carter.”
And finally, when the cops searched his house, they found a two - foot - long dildo, one of his torture implements, eighteen inches of it covered with dried excreta and blood.

Growing Up Gacy

Like most serial murderers, John Wayne Gacy was able to disguise the savagery inside him, the compulsion that made him kill. Part of his disguise included marrying - twice- and having children.

John Wayne (after the movie star) Gacy was born in 1942 in Edgewater Hospital in Chicago, the only boy in a family with a younger and older sister. In Gacy’s family there were not the obvious ruptures so common in the childhood of other serial killers, such as a father who abandons the family or a history of insanity. Gacy’s family, for all intents and purposes, was a lot like yours or mine. They lived a middle - class existence in middle - class Chicago.

But while Gacy grew up, something terrible was happening between him and his father. His father seemed obsessed with punishing “Little John,” criticizing him, never allowing that his son could do anything right. For years they were at odds, and it was a lifelong regret of Gacy’s that he could never please his father. Indeed, Gacy’s father died while Gacy was in jail; Gacy couldn’t even get permission to attend the funeral.

Gacy was an ordinary kind of student in grade school and high school, and he never got into much trouble. His personality, however, developed a couple of noticeable quirks. He was a glad - handing kind of person, with an aggressive style that turned some people off.

But his biggest problem was that he was a liar. He was always lying about his accomplishments, as if what he really did do was not good enough; to make himself feel good, he had to exaggerate. He never seemed to notice that many people knew he was lying. Indeed, his tales were often so tall that it would have been impossible for him to have crowded into his life all the things he said he did.

After high school Gacy briefly attended business school, and then he became a salesman for the Nunn - Bush Shoe Store in Springfield, Illinois. While working there, he met a pretty young woman named Marilyn Myers. They started to date and he eventually popped the question. While Gacy was no matinee idol - he was short, 58, and always had a weight problem complete with large belly - he was persuasive and generous and nice to be around. She said yes. They were married in September 1964.

Undone in Iowa

Marilyn’s parents bought a string of Kentucky Fried Chicken stores soon after Marilyn and Gacy’s wedding, and they wanted the young couple to manage them. They agreed and moved into the elder Meyers’s home in Waterloo, Iowa.

They seemed blessed. Marilyn bore a son and then a daughter. They lived comfortably and worked hard. Gacy also became active in the Waterloo chapter of the Jaycees, a civic group devoted to bettering their communities with a wide variety of activities; he had first done this in Springfield, achieving quite a lot of success and earning a number of awards from the Jaycees for his work.

Although this sort of life would be more than enough to satisfy most people, Gacy kept lying. He worked hard at the job - seven days a week until ten or eleven at night - but he continued his self-aggrandizement; at one point he claimed to be a relative of the person who founded the fried chicken chain. He not only liked to seem important but also liked to look the part. One manifestation of this was his car, which he equipped with a siren and police lights. Later, his more sinister purpose would be revealed.

The Rumors

But there were problems. There were some nasty rumors circulating, claiming that Gacy was propositioning and having sex with some of the teenage boys who worked in the restaurants he managed. It was charged that he gave the best-looking boys - he seemed to like light-haired boys with muscled bodies - rides home and favored them in other ways as well.

Then a boy named Mark Miller brought charges against Gacy. Miller said that Gacy had forced him to perform “deviant” sexual acts with him. Gacy denied it, but an investigation showed that they had been involved with each other and that there were other boys too. One of those boys, James Tullery, detailed a terrifying ordeal in the book The Man Who Killed Boys, by Clifford L. Linedecker. Tullery had been at Gacy’s house and, after plying Tullery with booze and pornographic films, Gacy had tried to force him to perform sexual acts. To do this, Gacy had threatened Tullery, cut him with a knife, shackled him, and choked him almost to the point of unconsciousness. Nothing happened, and Gacy released the boy - he was lucky to get out alive.

The judge in Miller’s case, mindful of Gacy’s perverse patterns, sentenced him to ten years at the Iowa State Reformatory at Adamosa. At the tender age of twentysix, John Wayne Gacy was in jail. Marilyn filed divorce papers soon after, and ultimately he was to lose her, the house, and his two kids. That didn’t seem to matter too much to him, however, because he apparently never contacted her or the kids again.

Gacy brought the same verve and vigor to the prison world that he brought to his fried chicken restaurants, and prison officials regarded him highly. After only eight months, he received parole. Freed, he moved into a house in Chicago with his sixty-one-year-old mother and his sister and got a job as a fast - food cook. He then asked the Iowa parole board for permission to move to Chicago. Because of his seemingly stable life, including a job, the board granted his request.


He moved around as a cook but was doing well for himself - so well that he decided to buy a house. With the help of his mother, who provided half the financing, he bought a small two-bedroom ranch at 8213 West Summerdale Avenue in Norwood, a middle-class suburban community not far from the Northwest Side of Chicago. The house was on a one - way westbound street and did not get a great deal of traffic; most of the people traveling down it were heading home. It was a typical suburban brick house, with a garage and front and back yards: The most significant feature of the house (as it turned out) was the crawl space underneath. It had four-feet-high concrete walls and a dirt floor, and to gain access to it there was a trapdoor on the floor of the bedroom closet. John Wayne Gacy passed through that trapdoor many times.

Gacy made friends with his neighbors at the new house, particularly the Grexa family directly next door, which had six children. They noticed that he was always working around the house; he seemed to like that type of work very much.

Gacy didn’t stay a bachelor for too long. On June 1, 1972, he married Carole Hoff, a divorcée with two kids, and settled into a suburban life at his home on Summerdale. In 1974 Gacy formed PDM Contractors—the letters stood for painting, decorating, and maintenance—and started remodeling commercial properties.

But all was not blissful at home. Soon his relationship with his wife had deteriorated to the point that she filed for divorce. Later she was to explain that he was sexually impotent and had a quick, dangerous temper. One minute he would be cool, calm, and collected, and the next he would be in a rage and breaking furniture.

Gacy had also told his wife a minor detail about himself: He said he liked boys as well as women. While unsuccessful in marriage, however, Gacy’s contracting business was doing quite well. He worked extremely hard, finishing jobs early and making sure customers were satisfied. His work crews consisted of two kinds of people: experienced older craftsmen and teenage boys as laborers. He often invited the better - looking boys home to watch stag films, where they could drink and smoke marijuana.

From time to time Gacy had brushes with the law, but no convictions ever came of them. One boy complained to the police that Gacy had ordered him into his car one night saying that he was a deputy sheriff, and then had forced him to perform oral sex. After Gacy demanded that the boy fellate him again, the boy refused and jumped out of the car. Gacy tried to run him down, but he escaped. Luckily for Gacy, Iowa parole authorities didn’t find out, and soon he didn’t have to worry: On June, 18, 1976, his parole from the Iowa prison was up and he could not be brought up on parole violation charges.

Gacy was too old to work for the Jaycees in Chicago, but he was not too old for politics. He got himself involved in local politics, ingratiating himself with politicos by providing the services of PDM free of charge. Perhaps the high point of his political achievements was when he posed with Rosalynn Carter.

House of Horrors

At one point after Gacy moved onto Summerdale, his neighbors, the Grexas, noticed an objectionable odor around his house that never really left during all the time Gacy lived there. It was a thick, foul smell; when they asked about it, Gacy said it was probably something wrong with the sewer lines. Because the Grexas had also had trouble with their sewer lines, they didn’t pursue it. The smell, of course, was not sewage: From time to time, Gacy would kill a young man, then carry his body through the trapdoor in the closet and bury it in a shallow grave. He hastened decomposition by covering the bodies with lime.

Later, investigation would reveal that Gacy trapped his victims in a variety of ways. One method was by posing as a police officer, as he did with the previously mentioned young man. He had purchased a black 1978 Oldsmobile Delta equipped with a searchlight on the side, and he would often cruise the gay neighborhoods of Chicago. Young men - particularly young gay men - felt they could not say no to a police officer and would obediently get in. Or he would simply pick up street hustlers and pay for sex—and sometimes kill them.

The most dangerous situation for anyone to be in with John Wayne Gacy was at his home. He had a couple of ways to trap young men there. One was chloroform; he would catch the person off guard and hold a chloroform-soaked rag to his nose until he collapsed. Once the boy was incapacitated, Gacy would cuff the victim.

Another way he got them was the handcuff trick. Gacy would produce what he said were toy handcuffs and challenge the person to put them on and escape. Of course, they were real handcuffs and his victim couldn’t escape, and then Gacy would rape and torture and perhaps kill him, though not always. A street hustler named Jaime described a very close call with Gacy in The Man Who Killed Boys:

Jaime’s husky host led him to the bedroom, where both of them stripped. Gacy told Jaime to get busy doing what he was paid to do, but before the youth could comply his head was jolted with a sudden slap. Suddenly Jaime was being beaten. He tried to scream but the powerful hands that closed around his throat smothered the noise. The boy managed to wriggle free, then Gacy did something that terrified him even more. From somewhere Gacy produced a pair of handcuffs. Jaime picked up a vase and shattered it over the man’s head. Moments later Jaime was lifted off his feet and heaved onto the bed. The man threw his heavy body onto that of the youth, smashing him into the mattress. Jaime couldn’t move. He was smothering.

Then, for some unaccountable reason, Gacy got off the boy and sent him on his way with $50-$20 more than he had agreed to pay—and seemed to regard the whole thing as a joke. Jaime, terrified, left. He had been a prostitute since he was twelve, but he was so shaken by the event that he didn’t go back on the streets for a month.

In retrospect, it is amazing that Gacy wasn’t caught before he was. Young boys were disappearing at an alarming rate, and Gacy’s name even came up in various investigations at different police stations. However, there was often no communication between different police jurisdictions, and none of them thought to see whether he had a criminal record. If they had, they would have discovered his conviction in Iowa for sodomy and might have saved many lives.

It is amazing, too, that none of the neighbors suspected anything. One woman living in a home a block away said she would occasionally hear faint screams coming from the house in the dead of night, but neither she nor anyone else did anything about it. And of course, there was that sickening odor that never really went away.

A Break in the Case

It took the murder of Robert Piest - and the determination and skill of one police officer - to derail Gacy’s murderous train.

Robert Piest was a sixteen-year-old, all-American high school boy who, in December 1978, was working in the Nisson Pharmacy in Des Plaines, Illinois, for $2.85 an hour. His mother came to pick him up one night at nine o’clock, and Robert asked her to wait in the store while he talked with a contractor about a job that would pay him $5 an hour for the summer. Piest was saving to buy a car, and the job was quite attractive.

Piest went out a few minutes after nine and never returned. When his mother went outside the pharmacy to check on him, she found he had simply vanished. The next day Lieutenant Joseph Kozenczak was looking over missing-person reports and came across that of Piest. He spoke with Piest’s mother, ascertained that Piest was not a runaway, and launched a full-scale investigation.

One tentacle of the investigation led to Gacy, who denied even having seen the boy. However, unlike other police officers before him, Kozenczak had done a routine background check of Gacy, which included a check for any prior criminal record. The check revealed the Iowa sodomy conviction and prison sentence. Kozenczak convinced a judge that there was probable cause to issue a search warrant, and soon thereafter cops descended on the house at 8213 West Summerdale.

They found pornographic gay films, literature, and other material. And in the trunk of his car, the black Oldsmobile, they found hair that matched that of Robert Piest.

The hair found was not sufficient for an arrest, so police started open surveillance on Gacy that drove him crazy. Then came another break: Police had taken a roll of film from Gacy’s house during their search, and when they developed it, they discovered that it belonged to Robert Piest.

Kozenczak was sure that Gacy was his man. And when one of his investigators entered Gacy’s house with a second search warrant, he got lucky: Before he was a police officer, the detective had long worked in a place where the smell in Gacy’s house was routine: the morgue. The police obtained another warrant and started taking up floorboards and digging into the earth in the crawl space.

The digging took place over a two-week period, very carefully, as if it were an archaeological dig. When it was over, the police had uncovered twenty-seven bodies and Gacy had confessed to killing another five, which he had dumped in the Des Plaines River. That was the final resting place of Robert Piest, who was found in the river some months later. An autopsy revealed paper towels jammed in Piest’s throat; he had suffocated.

It was questioned whether Gacy was mentally fit to stand trial, but Judge Louis B. Garippo determined that he was. A psychologist for the defense testified that Gacy was a paranoid schizophrenic and did not have control over his actions, but that wasn’t enough: Gacy was found guilty of the murder of thirty-three young men and was sentenced to die by lethal injection. He was shipped down to the Menard Correctional Center in Menard, Illinois, where for a time he was the only inmate in the death-row cell block. Illinois authorities said they received hundreds of requests from citizens all over the United States asking for the pleasure of injecting him.


The Menard prison in southern Illinois, about fifty miles south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River, has a panoramic view of the river and surrounding countryside. In fact, it may have the most scenic view of any prison in the Illinois system.

Gacy became a portrait painter during his time on death row; his subjects were mostly clowns. He would paint clowns in all kinds of scenes, and he sold them for a handsome price until prison officials cracked down on the practice. He was executed by lethal injection on May 10, 1994.

An Unusual Collection

Jonathan Davis, the lead vocalist for the heavy rock group KoRn, is an avid collector of crime memorabilia and has a special interest in items relating to serial killers.

Davis, a former mortuary science student, admits that he has always been drawn to the dark side, and at one time he planned to open a museum dedicated to crime items with a special emphasis on serial murder. He personally owns a great deal of memorabilia, including original artwork from John Wayne Gacy and Richard Ramírez. The highlights of his collection, however, are two “Pogo the Clown” suits once owned by Gacy when he entertained at children’s parties and the yellow VW Ted Bundy drove when he was out looking for victims.
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