Gacy, John Wayne, Jr.

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Gacy, John Wayne, Jr.

(b. 17 March 1942 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 10 May 1994 in Joliet, Illinois), businessman and small-time community leader who astounded the world with his record serial murders of thirty-three young men, most of whom he buried in the crawl space of his house.

Gacy was one of three children born to John Wayne Gacy, Sr., a machinist, and Marion Elaine Robinson, a home-maker. His father was a harsh disciplinarian and an abusive alcoholic. His mother favored her son, protecting him from his father’s alcohol-fueled rages. The elder Gacy, embarrassed by his son’s lack of interest in sports and outdoor recreation, condemned the boy as soft and effeminate. Writers find two harbingers in Gacy’s childhood. He later stated that when he was eight, a family friend, a contractor, “messed with” him, sexually tickling and wrestling with him. After hitting his head at age eleven, he also suffered blackouts from a blood clot in the brain until the clot was dissolved five years later.

Gacy was bright but undisciplined, his schoolwork uneven. He attended several high schools in Chicago but never graduated: Carl Schurz High School, Providence—St. Mel, Cooley Vocational High, and Charles A. Prosser Vocational. However, desperately seeking approval, he could and did work hard. Still a teenager, he was briefly employed in Las Vegas, Nevada, as a mortuary janitor. After returning to his family, he graduated from Northwestern Business College; he worked as a shoe salesman in Chicago and then in Springfield, Illinois.

In September 1964 Gacy married Marlynn Myers. Mar-lynn’s father invited the Gacys to Waterloo, Iowa, in 1966, asking Gacy to manage three Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets Myers owned. Myers distrusted Gacy, who always courted attention and lied about his accomplishments; but Gacy proved hardworking and competent, if abrasive. Gacy rose in the Waterloo Jaycee hierarchy, as he had done in Springfield. He and his wife had two children.

Then, in late 1968, Gacy was charged with sodomy for paying a sixteen-year-old boy to give him oral sex and with hiring another teenager to beat up the sixteen-year-old. On 2 December 1968 Gacy was sentenced to ten years in the Iowa State Reformatory for Men at Anamosa; the next day Marlynn filed for divorce, which was finalized on 18 September 1969. While in prison Gacy avoided and denigrated homosexual inmates and told his friends he had been framed by envious enemies. Gacy’s father died during the 1969 Christmas season, but Gacy was not allowed to attend the funeral.

After release on parole in June 1970 Gacy returned to Chicago, where he worked as a chef. He bought a house at 8213 West Summerdale Avenue in Norwood Park, an address that lives in infamy. Gacy remodeled his home, more enthusiastically than skillfully, and became a respected resident of the quiet family neighborhood. Yet he cruised Chicago for young male pickups; this led to charges of disorderly conduct in February 1971 (dismissed) and charges of aggravated battery and disorderly conduct in June 1972 (never brought to trial).

On 1 July 1972 Gacy married a divorcée named Carole, who was unaware of his other sexuality. Gacy was a good stepfather to Carole’s two children, and the couple held lavish theme parties, attended by the entire neighborhood and whatever political and social figures Gacy could persuade to come. Gacy started his own construction business, PDM Contractors, Inc., in 1974. In 1975, too old for the Jaycees, he joined Chicago Democratic politics, becoming secretary-treasurer of the Norwood Park Street Lighting Commission. Gacy began making public appearances as Pogo the Clown and ran large public parades, including the 1978 Polish Day Parade in Chicago, at which he was photographed with First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

Gacy had already committed his first murder on 3 January 1972, stabbing to death a youth he brought home for sex; he later claimed self-defense. This began the thirty-three documented murders, ending only with Gacy’s arrest in 1978. His construction company lured young men eager for work; he also cruised for victims in gay bars and the downtown Greyhound bus station. Taking most of them home for sex, he sometimes drugged his victims. Often he talked them into handcuffing themselves as a “magic trick.” When they were helpless, he told them, “The trick is, you need the key.” Most victims were strangled with a tourniquet device Gacy called “the rope trick.” PDM Construction also helped dispose of twenty-nine bodies, burying them on Gacy’s own property, especially in the crawl space of his house. Gacy glibly answered complaints about an awful smell, blaming the crawl space’s dampness. At least four bodies were dumped in the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers. Gacy may have killed others during business trips, though that remains unproven and largely uninvestigated.

Carole, though ignorant of the murders, knew their marriage was troubled; she found signs of late-night visits from young men but suspected enough about her husband’s sexuality not to ask any questions. The marriage ended amicably in March 1976. Carole continued to visit John, accepting his increased leaning toward homosexuality and unaware of anything darker.

Police remained ignorant as well. Investigations into the disappearances of two victims in 1975 and late 1976 would have tied Gacy to both, but the cases, in different police districts, went unconnected. Many disappearances were ignored as probable runaways.

However, when Robert Piest, a fifteen-year-old from nearby Des Plaines, disappeared on 11 December 1978, witnesses reported having last seen him talking with Gacy. Police harried Gacy with surveillance and got a warrant to excavate: the holiday season of 1978–1979 saw body after body removed from Gacy’s house, which was gutted in the process and then destroyed.

Gacy at first cooperated, drawing a meticulous map of the graves. However, he pleaded “not guilty by reason of insanity” and later hinted that others who shared his house may have murdered the victims and buried them there. After a gruesome and arduous trial, in March 1980 the jury quickly returned a verdict of guilty on thirty-three counts of murder, twelve carrying a death sentence, and two charges of sexual assault.

The convict was transferred from Cermak Hospital in the Cook County Jail to the Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois. Once again a model prisoner, Gacy corresponded voluminously and painted—badly—including portraits of clowns and Disney’s Seven Dwarfs. He was taken to Stateville Prison in Joliet and just after midnight on 10 May 1994 executed by lethal injection; he is buried in Mayhill Cemetery in Niles, Illinois.

More than most serial killers, Gacy fit the cliché of “such a nice neighbor,” the last person one would suspect; but beneath his ingratiating eagerness to please, he harbored a combination of rage, guilt, and sexual loathing. His extreme powers of denial perhaps account for his ability both to murder what was, up until that time, a record number of persons and to live, literally, with the consequences.

Tim Cahill, Buried Dreams (1986), provides detailed, spooky psychological insight; Clifford L. Linedecker, The Man Who Killed Boys (1980), and Harlan Mendenhall, Fall of the House of Gacy (1996), provide more facts, as does Killer Clown, by Terry Sullivan (a lawyer with Gacy’s prosecution) with Peter T. Maiken (1983). An interview with Gacy is in Robert Ressler and Tom Shachtman, I Have Lived in the Monster (1997).

Bernadette Lynn Bosky

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