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 homosexuality. After being convicted of sexual assault in 1968, Gacy's murders were discovered.
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.
Years later, during a conversation with detectives while he was under surveillance, Gacy discussed his work as a clown, remarking, “Clowns can get away with murder.”
Sexual Assaults and Murders
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 1970s, two more young males accused Gacy of rape, and he would be questioned by police about the disappearances of others. Gacy referred to this period of his life as his “cruising years,” when he committed most of his murders.
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 drugstore where he worked before he headed out to meet Gacy to discuss a potential construction job.
Ten days later, a police search of Gacy's house in Norwood Park, Illinois, uncovered evidence of his involvement in numerous crimes, including murder. It was later discovered that Gacy had committed his first known killing in 1972, taking the life of 16-year-old Timothy McCoy after luring the youth to his home.
After a lengthy period of police surveillance and investigation — and the discovery of several trenches filled with human remains in the crawl space beneath his house — Gacy eventually confessed to killing about 30 people.
Victim No. 24
Over the years, there have been lingering concerns that Gacy may have been responsible for the deaths of other people whose bodies have yet to be found. And when police uncovered human remains in Gacy’s house in 1978, eight bodies could not be identified.
More recently, Cook County authorities used DNA evidence to identify Gacy’s unidentified victims. In 2017, one of those men, “Victim No. 24,” was identified as 16-year-old James "Jimmie" Byron Haakenson.
In 1976, Haakenson left his home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and traveled to Chicago to begin life in the city. On August 5, 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.”
Trial & Insanity Plea
Gacy's trial began on February 6, 1980. 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 telephone number set up with a 12-minute recorded statement declaring his innocence.
As both anti-death penalty forces and those in favor of the execution made their opinions known, Gacy died by lethal injection on May 10, 1994, at the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois.
John Wayne Gacy's Art
While imprisoned at the Menard Correctional Center, Gacy took up studying the visual arts, especially painting. His paintings were shown to the public via an exhibition at a Chicago gallery. Many of his paintings depict Gacy as “Pogo the Clown.”
In 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.
A 1992 television movie titled To Catch a Killer explored the efforts to find out what happened to the missing teenage boys who were later discovered to be among Gacy’s victims.
The movie, starring Brian Dennehy, Michael Riley and Margot Kidder, was nominated for an Emmy award for Dennehy’s performance. According to Dennehy, Gacy wrote a letter to him from prison, protesting his portrayal in the film and proclaiming his innocence.
John Wayne Gacy’s House
Gacy's house was located at 8213 W. Summerdale Ave. in Norwood Park, just east of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. On several occasions, visitors and family members reported that the house had an unusual stench, which Gacy attributed to mold or rodents.
A simple, one-story ranch house in a middle-class neighborhood, Gacy had outfitted his home with a trap door leading to a crawl space beneath the house, where he would dispose of many of his victim’s bodies. Others were buried in the backyard or dumped in the nearby Des Plaines River.
In 1978, with Gacy under arrest, the house was dismantled in an effort to find more evidence. The following year, the house and all structures on the property were demolished, and a new house was eventually built on the property.
According to one worker involved in the demolition of Gacy’s house, “If the devil's alive, he lived here.”
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