In December 1978, Chicago police were just beginning to uncover the evidence of one of the most heinous crimes their city had ever seen.
As body after body was pulled out from under the floorboards of a seemingly ordinary suburban home, investigators realized that they were dealing with one of America’s most evil serial killers.
John Wayne Gacy, also known as the Killer Clown, had murdered more people than any one person in U.S. history at that point in time.
What surprised everyone was that John Wayne Gacy was a well-known and well-liked figure in his suburban community North of Chicago. He owned a successful construction business, attended church faithfully, and was involved in the local Polish community. He was married to his second wife and seemed to be a devoted stepfather to her 2 daughters.
Through his position as a precinct captain for the Democratic Party, Gacy had the opportunity to meet and be photographed with First Lady Rosalynn Carter in early 1978 — the very same year that his horrific crimes would become public.
At that time, though, Gacy was loved and admired by his neighbors, friends, and the police, and had been known for hosting elaborate parties for his entire neighborhood. Gacy’s alter-ego, Pogo the Clown, was often a feature of these parties, and neighbors recall that he seemed to enjoy dressing up in his clown costume and makeup and entertaining local children.
But underneath Gacy’s idyllic suburban life, he was hiding a dark past. Prior to moving to Chicago, Gacy had been living in Iowa, where he was arrested for assaulting 2 young men while his first wife was in the hospital giving birth to his child.
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but after serving 18 months in jail, a now-divorced Gacy was released on parole and he received permission from the courts to relocate to Chicago for a fresh start.
Soon, though, Gacy’s community and the world at large would learn that these secrets paled in comparison to the sadistic double life that Gacy had been leading for years.
After telling his second wife that he was bi-sexual, the two divorced in 1976, and Gacy, now free to indulge his most sick and twisted fantasies, soon learned that killing was more satisfying to him than anything else, and he would spend the next several years trying to get his “fix” in the most horrific ways.
How he got caught
It all started to unravel for Gacy with the disappearance of Robert Piest.
On December 11th, 1978, Robert’s mother arrived to pick him up from his shift at the pharmacy where he worked. When his shift ended, Robert told his mother that he was going to talk to a man about a potential construction job that would pay more than double what he was making at the pharmacy.
He told her it would only take a few minutes, and then they could go home and enjoy his mother’s birthday celebration. She waited outside the pharmacy, but Robert never came back.
His panicked mother went home and returned to the pharmacy with her husband, other children, and the family’s 2 German Shepards, but they could find no sign of Robert. The worried family then drove immediately to the police station to report their son missing.
Lieutenant Kozenczak, whose son attended the same high school as Robert, took their report. One of the first calls he made was to John Wayne Gacy.
Gacy’s friends and neighbors may have been oblivious to his dark past, but the police were not. Not only were they aware of his past convictions, but they had also received numerous complaints about Gacy in recent years.
- In 1975, after an employee of Gacy’s construction company went missing, the man’s family pleaded with police to investigate Gacy, but their pleas were ignored.
- In 1976, police had run surveillance on Gacy’s home related to the disappearance of a 9-year-old boy, but they were unable to build a case against him.
- In 1977, a young man complained to the police about Gacy, alleging that Gacy had kidnapped him at gunpoint and assaulted him.
Gacy was arrested, and even admitted to his encounter with the young man, but he claimed that it was consensual and prosecutors declined to press charges.
Police were also beginning to suspect that Gacy was behind a string of complaints about a man named John who had been cruising local parks and picking up young men, many of whom seemed to disappear after their encounter with John.
Despite these incidents, Gacy had managed to stay one step ahead of the law so far, but his luck was about to run out.
After Robert’s family made their missing person’s report, officers quickly realized that the man he had gone to see about a construction job must have been John Wayne Gacy — his construction company had just recently finished a renovation job at the very pharmacy where Robert had worked.
The coincidence was too much to ignore, and this time the police seriously considered Gacy as a suspect in the disappearance of Robert Piest.
Little did they know that this particular crime was just the tip of the iceberg, and they were about to uncover one of the most gruesome crime sprees in history.
Lieutenant Kozenczak contacted Gacy and asked him to come into the police station for an interview. Gacy was cordial and agreed to come in, telling officers he could be there within half an hour.
Hours went by with no sign of Gacy. Officers were beginning to get suspicious when, at 3 a.m., Gacy suddenly appeared at the station. His arrival did little to calm their suspicions — Gacy was more than 4 hours late to his interview, and when he arrived he was covered in mud and grime.
The officer that Gacy had come to see wasn’t available, so he was sent on his way. Later, officers would learn that Gacy’s car had been towed from a snowbank near the Des Plaines River at 2 a.m., immediately before he arrived at the police station.
Armed with this information, officers served Gacy with a search warrant when he returned the following day for his interview. He reluctantly handed over his keys and was detained at the station while officers searched his home.
There, they found a receipt for a roll of film that Robert’s family confirmed belonged to him — police concluded that Robert had been in Gacy’s home, but they could find no evidence of a crime, and so Gacy was released and placed under surveillance.
The next day, officers found a ring that they linked to another missing boy, and employees of Gacy’s construction company told police about 2 different employees of Gacy’s who had mysteriously gone missing in recent months.
A few days later, Gacy had the audacity to invite the officers on surveillance duty outside of his home inside for a cup of coffee. Once inside his home, both officers noticed the unmistakable stench of death.
That same day, Gacy’s lawyers filed a lawsuit against the police department for harassment, but before long Gacy would have much bigger legal issues to worry about. While he was under 24-hour surveillance, officers witnessed Gacy selling marijuana to a gas station clerk, and they jumped on the opportunity to arrest him.
While Gacy was in custody for drug-related charges, police officers threaten to tear up the floorboards in his home, prompting him to admit to murder. He told officers that yes, he did kill a man in his home, but claims that it was self-defense. He showed police the exact spot under his garage where he buried the body, and during their search for this body, officers found a trap door leading to a crawl space under Gacy’s home.
Inside, amid the terrible stench of decay, officers find parts of at least 3 other bodies. Once he realized that police had found the first bodies, Gacy cracked.
In a rambling, hours-long confession in which he referred to himself in the 3rd person, Gacy told police that “John” or “Jack” had killed at least 32 young men, and that he had buried 27 of the bodies on his property and had disposed of the rest, including the body of Robert Piest, in the Des Plaines River.
In fact, Gacy had been dumping Robert’s body in that same river on the night he was towed out of the snowbank before he showed up at the police station covered in mud. Gacy was charged with the murder of Robert Piest, although police had yet to find his body.
By January 8th, 1979, police had uncovered the remains of 29 bodies, but only 7 had been positively identified. Gacy was charged with the murders of 7 young men as police continued their efforts to identify the rest of his victims.
In April 1979, a Grand Jury indicted Gacy on a total of 33 murders — the largest number attributed to one person in U.S. history at that time.
Throughout this, Gacy continued to give interviews to the police and even described his first murder to officers in gruesome detail. He admitted that he had stabbed his victim to death in his bedroom, before burying him in the crawlspace, and police found a large bloodstain on the underside of the bedroom carpet that matched his story.
Investigators also found a red light and a police radio in Gacy’s car, prompting them to conclude that he had posed as a police officer in order to kidnap his victims.
As the trial date loomed, police still had not found Robert Piest’s body, but they had found his jacket under the floor of Gacy’s laundry room.
Gacy’s trial began on February 6th, 1980. Due to the graphic nature of the crimes and the evidence, the judge banned anyone under the age of 16 from the courtroom. Gacy, who was facing the death penalty, pled not guilty to the charges and his lawyers attempted to launch a defense based on insanity, but after a 5-week trial, it took the jury just 2 hours to find John Wayne Gacy guilty of the heinous murder of 33 young men.
State Attorney Bernard Carey was quoted as saying “He certainly qualifies for the death penalty. If he doesn’t, who does?” Gacy was sentenced to death by lethal injection and sent to Menard Correctional Center to await his execution.
After nearly 15 years on death row, all of Gacy’s appeals were exhausted, and his execution date was set for May 10th, 1994. Gacy’s last meal consisted of fried shrimp, a pound of fresh strawberries, and a bucket of KFC chicken with fries — prior to his murder spree and subsequent incarceration, Gacy had actually managed 3 KFC restaurants owned by his former father-in-law.
As he was strapped to the gurney awaiting his execution, Gacy was asked if he had any last words. He snarled at his executioners: “Kiss my ass”, and at 12:58 a.m., he was executed by lethal injection.
At the time of Gacy’s execution, only 26 of his 33 victims had been positively identified. The advent of DNA testing helped police identify more of Gacy’s unknown victims, including the 2011 identification of William George Bundy, a Chicago man who told his family he was going to a party and was never seen again.
To this day, 6 victims of the killer clown remain unidentified. As a direct result of Gacy’s unthinkable crimes, Chicago police spearheaded the creation of a computerized database of missing and murdered children and youths to make it easier for various police departments across the country to communicate and share information in the hopes that similar crimes could be avoided in the future.
John Wayne Gacy brutally murdered 33 young men and buried their bodies under the floorboards of his home. He had appeared to be a successful businessman and a pillar of his community, but neighbors would soon learn that appearances can be deceiving.
Hiding behind the facade was America’s most evil serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, the Killer Clown.