Who Was John Wayne Gacy?
John Wayne Gacy was an American serial killer and rapist who took the lives of at least 33 young males in Cook County, Illinois, burying most under his house. Other bodies were recovered from the nearby Des Plaines River.
Sometimes known as the “Killer Clown" for his habit of dressing in a clown costume and makeup, Gacy had an abusive childhood and struggled with his sexuality. After being convicted of sexual assault in 1968, Gacy's murders were discovered.
Family and Early Life
John Wayne Gacy was born on March 17, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois. The son of Danish and Polish parents, Gacy and his siblings grew up with an alcoholic father who would beat the children with a razor strap if they were perceived to have misbehaved. His father physically assaulted Gacy's mother as well.
Gacy's sister Karen would later say that the siblings learned to toughen up against the beatings, and that Gacy would not cry.
Gacy suffered further alienation at school, unable to play with other children due to a congenital heart condition that was looked upon by his father as another failing. He later realized he was attracted to men, and experienced great turmoil over his sexuality.
Career, Wife & Kids
Gacy worked as a fast-food chain manager during the 1960s and became a self-made building contractor and Democratic precinct captain in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970s.
Well-liked in his community, Gacy organized cultural gatherings and was active in political organizations and the Jaycees civic group. He was married and divorced twice and had two biological children (in addition to two stepdaughters).
Gacy was a member of a Chicago-area "Jolly Joker" clown club and frequently performed in clown attire and makeup at children's parties, charity fundraisers and other events. When he killed, he sometimes dressed as his alter egos "Pogo the Clown" or "Patches the Clown."
The “Killer Clown" sometimes lured his victims with the promise of construction work or some other ruse, and then captured, sexually assaulted, tortured and eventually strangled most of them with his hands or with rope.
John Wayne Gacy's Art
While imprisoned at the Menard Correctional Center, Gacy took up visual art. His paintings were shown to the public via an exhibition at a Chicago gallery.
On October 17, 2017, Mullock’s Auctions in Shropshire, U.K., auctioned off a number of Gacy’s artwork as well as crime scene pictures from Gacy’s trial. Three of Gacy’s paintings, including two originals of “I’m Pogo the Clown” and “They Call Him Mr. Gacy,” sold for £4,000 and £325, respectively. Eight other works went unsold.
“Victim No. 24”: James "Jimmie" Byron Haakenson
There have been lingering concerns that Gacy may have been responsible for the deaths of others whose bodies have yet to be found. The Cook County sheriff's office has pushed to search a Chicago apartment building where Gacy once worked as a maintenance employee. Cook County authorities are also using DNA evidence to try to identify six of Gacy’s victims, who remain unidentified.
On August 1, 2017, one of those men, “Victim No. 24,” was identified as 16-year-old James "Jimmie" Byron Haakenson. Decades earlier, Haakenson left his home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and traveled to Chicago to begin life in the city. On August 5, 1976, he called his mother to let her know he had arrived; however police believe Gacy killed him shortly thereafter.
In 1979, Haakenson’s mother had contacted authorities to find out if her son was one of Gacy’s victims, but she didn’t have dental records and the department lacked sufficient resources to identify him as a victim. Haakenson’s mother died in the early 2000s, but other family members provided DNA samples in 2017, and authorities made an immediate match to “Victim No. 24.”
History of Sexual Assaults
In 1968, Gacy was convicted of sexually assaulting two teen boys and given a 10-year prison sentence. He was released on parole in the summer of 1970, but was arrested again the following year after another teen accused Gacy of sexual assault. The charges were dropped when the boy didn't appear during the trial.
By the middle of the decade, two more young males accused Gacy of rape, and he would be questioned by police about the disappearances of others.
How Was John Wayne Gacy Caught?
On December 11, 1978, 15-year-old Robert Piest went missing. It was reported to police that the boy was last seen by his mother at a store where he worked before he headed out to meet Gacy to discuss a potential job.
On December 21, a police search of Gacy's house in Norwood Park Township, Illinois, uncovered evidence of his involvement in numerous horrific acts, including murder. It was later discovered that Gacy had committed his first known killing in 1972, taking the life of Timothy McCoy after luring the teen to his home.
Trial & Question of Sanity
Gacy's trial began on February 6, 1980, with a prosecution team headed by William Kunkle. With Gacy having confessed to the crimes, the arguments were focused on whether he could be declared insane and thus remitted to a state mental facility.
Gacy had told police that the murders had been committed by an alternate personality, while mental health professionals testified for both sides about Gacy's mental state.
After a short jury deliberation, Gacy was ultimately found guilty of committing 33 murders, and he became known as one of the most ruthless serial killers in U.S. history. He was sentenced to serve 12 death sentences and 21 natural life sentences.
Gacy was imprisoned at the Menard Correctional Center in Illinois for almost a decade and a half, appealing the sentence and offering contradictory statements on the murders in interviews. Though he had confessed, Gacy later denied being guilty of the charges and had a 900 number set up with a 12-minute recorded statement of his innocence.
As both anti-death penalty forces and those in favor of the execution made their opinions known, John Wayne Gacy died by lethal injection on May 10, 1994, at the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois.
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