For the people in his community, John Wayne Gacy was a friendly man who entertained young children. He was known for his alter ego, Pogo the Clown, and would host parties in his neighborhood. By 1978, public perception of Gacy took a turn, and garnered him the nickname of “the Killer Clown.”
Gacy was born in Chicago on March 17, 1942 to Polish and Danish parents. His father was an alcoholic who would often beat his children with a razor strap if he thought that they had misbehaved. His father would also physically assault his mother. Karen, Gacy’s sister, later said that the children toughened up to the beatings, and that Gacy would not cry.
Gacy was further alienated at school. He couldn’t play with the other children due to a congenital heart condition, which his father saw as another failing. He would later realize he was attracted to men, and this created more turmoil for him.
In the 1960s, Gacy became a fast-food chain manager and a self-made building contractor. He would also become the Democratic precinct captain in his Chicago suburb in the 1970s. He was very well-liked in his community. Gacy became a part of the “Jolly Joker” clown club in Chicago and would often perform in clown makeup and attire at fundraisers, children’s parties, and other events as Pogo the Clown or Patches the Clown.
He organized cultural gatherings and actively participated in political organizations and the Jaycees civic group. In March of 1963, he became engaged to Marlynn Myers. During their courtship, he joined the Jaycees, which is a leadership training and civic organization group.
Myers and Gacy were married in September 1964. Her father had purchased three KFCs in Waterloo, Iowa. The couple moved there so he could manage the restaurants. After starting his manager job, Gacy opened a club in his basement where his employees could drink and play pool. While Gacy employed teens of both sexes at the restaurants, he socialized only with the young men. He would give them alcohol before he made sexual advances. If they turned him down, he would say that his advances were just jokes or to test the morals.
His wife gave birth to a son in February 1966 and a daughter in March 1967. Gacy joined Waterloo’s Jaycee chapter. He provided them with fried chicken and insisted they call him “colonel.” While they did see him as a bit of a braggart, the other members held him in high regard. Gacy and other Waterloo Jaycee members were deeply involved in drug use, pornography, prostitution, and wife swapping.
He showed his true colors for his community in August 1967 when he sexually assaulted 15-year-old Donald Voorhees, the son of a fellow Jaycee. Gacy lured the boy to his house by promising to showing him heterosexual stag films, which were regularly shown at Jaycee events. He would get Voorhees drunk before taking advantage of the youth. Over the next few months, Gacy abused other youths. Gacy tricked several teens into thinking that he had been commissioned to conduct homosexual experiments in the interest of scientific research, and paid them $50.
Then in March 1968, Voorhees told his father what Gacy had done. He immediately told the police who arrested Gacy and charged with sexual assault, and the attempted assault of 16-year-old Edward Lynch. Gacy denied the charges, and demanded to take a polygraph. The results showed that he was nervous when he denied any wrongdoing in relation to the young men.
Gacy public denied that he had done anything to the boys and suggested the charged were politically motivated since Voorhees Sr had opposed Gacy’s nomination for appointment as president of the Iowa Jaycees. There were other Jaycee members who found Gacy’s story credible and supported him. However, on May 10, 1968, he was indicted on the sodomy charge.
During his time in custody, he paid 18-year-old Russell Schroeder to assault Voorhees to try and get him to not testify. Voorhees escaped and went to the police. He was also ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Two doctors examined over 17 days, and concluded that he had antisocial personality disorder, and was unlikely to benefit from any type of treatment, and his behavior pattern suggested he was likely be a repeat offender. Doctors said he was mentally competent to stand trial. He was convicted of sodomy on December 3rd and sentenced to ten years in prison. The same day, his wife filed for divorce. The divorce was finalized on September 18, 1969, and Gacy never saw her or his children again.
He was paroled on June 18, 1970 after only serving 18 months of his ten-year sentence. His parole required him to move to Chicago and live with his mother and keep a 10 pm curfew.
He didn’t keep his nose clean, though. By February 12, 1971, Gacy had been charged with sexually assaulting a teenage boy who said that Gacy had lured him to a Greyhound bus terminal and took him home, where he attempted to force the boy to have sex with him. This was dismissed when the boy didn’t appear in court. On June 22, Gacy was arrested and charged with aggravated sexual battery and reckless conduct. These were dropped as well when the complainant attempted to blackmail Gacy. The Iowa Board of Parole never learned of these incidents, and eight months later, his parole came to an end.
With the help of his mother, Gacy bought the house at 8213 West Summerdale Avenue in Norwood Park Township. This is where he would live until his arrest in December 1978. According to Gacy, this was also where he committed all of his murders.
Like before, he became well established in his community. He was considered to be helpful and willing to help people out free of charge. Between 1974 and 1978, he hosted annual summer parties that were attended by hundreds of people, including politicians.
Not long after he and his mother moved into the new house, he became engaged to Carole Hoff, a divorcee with two daughters. They married on July 1, 1972. Gacy’s mother moved out before the wedding. Gacy told his wife he was bisexual, and on Mother’s Day 1975, after they had sex, Gacy told her that would be the last time they would have sex.
He would stay out all night, saying he was working late. His wife noticed he would bring teen boys into the garage and discovered gay porn and men’s wallets and identification in the house. When she asked him about those things, he angrily told her it was none of her business. In October 1875, Carole asked for a divorce. He agreed. She stayed at the house until February 1976, when she and her daughters moved into their own apartment.
During this time, Gacy started a construction business called PDM Contractors. PDM stood for painting, decorating, and maintenance. Most of the people he employed were high school students and young men. He also allowed some of his workers live with him. Each one left after Gacy tried to handcuff them and rape them, sometimes dressed as Pogo the Clown.
Gacy murder at least 33 young men and boys. 26 were buried under the crawl space of his home. Most of the time, Gacy would lure a lone victim into his home, but on a few occasions, Gacy said he had doubles, where he killed two victims in the same evening. A lot of the victims were lured there with the promise of a job with PDM, others with the offer of drugs, money, or drinks. His victims included those he knew and random people he lured from Chicago’s Greyhound Bus station, Bughouse Square, or off the streets. Some he would grab by voice, and others were conned into believing he was a policeman.
Gacy’s modus operandi, once he had his victim inside his home, was to give them drugs or alcohol to the point they couldn’t fight him off, or he would work to gain their trust. Gacy then got a pair of handcuffs to show them some magic tricks, which was something he used as part of his clowning routine. He would cuff his hands behind his back, and would amazingly release himself with the key he had hid. He then offered to show the victim how he did the trick. With the victim handcuffed, he would say something like, “The trick is, you have to have the key.”
With his victim restrained, Gacy would rape and torture them. He would normally start by sitting on their chest before forcing them to have oral sex with him. He would then torture them by burning with cigars, make them pretend to be a horse as he sat on their backs and pulled on makeshift reins around their necks, and violate them with foreign objects after having sex with them. He would have cuff their ankles to a two-by-four with handcuffs attached at either end, which was inspired by the Houston Mass Murders. He would drag or force several victims to crawl into his bathroom where he would partially drown them in the tub before trying to revive them, which enabled him to prolong his assault.
He would normally murder them by placing a rope around their neck before progressively tightening it with a hammer handle. He referred to this as the “rope trick,” and would inform his victim, “This is the last trick.” In at least one of his killings, he read part of Psalm 23 as he tightened the rope. On occasion, the victim didn’t die right away and would convulse for a couple of hours before dying. Several victims died from asphyxiation from a cloth gag stuffed in their throat. Except for his last two victim, all of the rest were murdered between 3 am and 6 am.
After they died, he would place their bodies under his bed for up to 24 hours before burying them in the crawl space, where he would periodically pour quicklime to hasten the decomposition. He embalmed some of his victims prior to burial.
His first known murder occurred on January 3, 1972. According to Gacy, after a family party on the evening on January 2, he went to the Civic Center to view ice sculptures. He then lured 16-year-old Timothy McCoy from the Greyhound station into his car. Gacy took the boy on a sightseeing tour of Chicago and then took him back to his home, promising that he could stay the night and then take him back to the station the next morning.
Gacy claimed that the next morning he awoke to McCoy standing in his bedroom holding a knife. He jumped up and McCoy raised his arms in surrender, and accidently cut Gacy in the process. Gacy removed the knife from McCoy’s hand, banged his head against the bedroom wall, kicked him against the wardrobe, and walked towards him. McCoy then kicked Gacy. Gacy grabbed the body, wrestled him to the floor, and stabled him repeatedly in the chest.
As McCoy was dying, Gacy said he went to the bathroom and washed the knife and then went to the kitchen where he saw that McCoy had started to fix breakfast for them. He realized McCoy had come to his room to wake him and absentmindedly brought the knife with him. Gacy buried him in the crawl space and later covered the grave with concrete. In an interview several years after he was arrested, Gacy said he felt totally drained after killing McCoy. He also said that as he listened to the gurgulations and the gasps, he had had mind-numbing orgasms. He said, “That’s when I realized that death was the ultimate thrill.”
Gacy said he didn’t commit murder again until January 1974. This is an unidentified victim known as victim No. 28. His next victim was John Butkovich, an 18-year-old who worked for him. He was murdered in July 21, 1975. A day before Butkovich disappeared, he had confronted Gacy over back pay. Once the boy had been reported missing, Gacy even offered to help search for him. Over the next three years, Butkovich’s parents called the police more than 100 times, urging them to investigate Gacy.
Gacy called the years 1976 to 1978 his “cruising” years. He committed the majority of his murders during this time since he was living alone after his divorce. While Gacy made sure he remained gregarious and civic-minded, a number of his neighbors noticed erratic changes in his behavior and his divorce. They noticed he was keeping company with young me, could hear his car arrive and leave at odd hours, and see lights turn on and off at odd hours.
His fourth victim is still unknown and labeled as victim No. 5. He disappeared between January 20, 1976. His fifth victim was 19-year-old Darrel Samson. He was last seen alive on April 6, 1976. Then 14-year-old Samuel Stapleton went missing on May 13, 1976.
15-year-old Randall Reffett was his next victim. He was last seen May 14, 1976. The next was 17-year-old Michael Bonnin. He went missing on June 3, 1976. They found his fishing license inside Gacy’s house. 16-year-old William Carrol went missing on his brother’s birthday, June 13, 1976. The next victim is unidentified and known as Victim No. 26. He was between 22 and 30 years of age and went missing on June 13, 1976.
Over the years, people have wondered if Gacy could have been responsible for the deaths of several other people whose bodies have yet to be discovered. When police found the remains in Gacy’s home in 1978, eight of the bodies could not be identified. More recently, Cook County authorities used DNA evidence to identify some of the unidentified victims. In 2017, one the unidentified men that had be named Victim No. 24, was identified as 16-year-old James Byron Haakenson.
In 1976, Haakeson had left his home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and traveled to Chicago to start his life in the city. On August 5th, he phoned his mother to let her know that he had arrived safely. However, it is believed that Gacy killed him not long after his phone call.
In 1979, Haakenson’s mother contacted the police to find out if her son had been once of Gacy’s victims, but she didn’t have his dental records and the department didn’t have the resources to identify him. She died in the early 2000s, but other family members provided the DNA sample needed to make a match in 2017.
The next victim after Jimmy is an unidentified victim, known as Victim No. 13. He was between 17 and 21, and was last seen on August 6, 1976. The next victim is also unidentified, known as Victim No. 21. He was 21 to 27 and was last seen on August 6, 1976.
Then he killed 17-year-old Rick Johnston. He was last seen when his mom dropped him off at Aragon Ballroom for a concert on August 6, 1976. The next victim was William George Bundy, 19. He headed to a party in October 1976, leaving behind his wallet. For 35 years, his final destination remain unknown. Thanks to the efforts from Cook Count Sherriff’s department that helped identify Haakeson, Bundy’s siblings provided DNA, and they were able to identify William as one of the victims.
His next victims were 14-year-old Michael Marino and his friend, 16-year-old Kenneth Parker. They were last seen on October 24, 1976 near a restaurant at Clark Street and Diversey Parkway. This was an intersection where Gacy picked up several of his victims. However, Marino’s does not believe that the remains she was told were her sons are actually her sons.
The next victim was Gregory Godzik, 17. He worked for Gacy, and was last seen on December 11, 1976 for a date with his girlfriend. 19-year-old John Szyc was his next victim. He went missing on January 20, 1977. The police found his school ring in Gacy’s home.
20-year-old Jon Prestidge was last seen March 15, 1977 after meeting a friend for coffee. The next victim is known as Victim No. 10 and remains unidentified. He is between 17 and 21, and was last seen on March 15, 1977.
Then 18-year-old Matthew Bowman was reported missing on July 5, 1977. 18-year-old Robert Gilroy was last seen on September 15, 1977. He was supposed to go to horseback riding lessons, but never arrived. 19-year-old John Mowery went missing on September 25, 1977. He had just returned from an 18 month tour with the Marines.
21-year-old Russell Nelson went missing on October 17, 1977. 18-year-old Robert Winch went missing on November 11, 1977. They found his distinctive “tiger’s eye” belt buckle in Gacy’s home. 20-year-old Tommy Boling went missing on November 18, 1977. 20-year-old David Talsma went missing on December 9, 1977.
19-year-old William Kindred was reported missing on February 16, 1978. His girlfriend, Mary Jo Paulus, knew Gacy, but it’s unclear if Kindred did. 20-year-old Timothy O’Rourke went missing on June 30, 1978. His friends said that he would frequent gay bars, which Gacy would also prowl for victims. His body was recovered on June 30, 1978 near the Dresden Island Lock and Dam, just three miles away from where two other bodies were recovered.
19-year-old Frank Landingin disappeared on November 4, 1978. His naked body was found in the Des Plaines River in Channahon in Will County on November 12, 1978. He died from asphyxia after a pair of bikini briefs were stuffed in his throat. They connected his death to Gacy when they found personal items in Gacy’s house.
20-year-old James Mazzara went missing on November 23, 1978. Gacy admitted to dumping his body into the Des Plaines River. His last victim was 15-year-old Robert Piest who went missing on December 11, 1978. Gacy had visited Piest’s place of employment, Nisson Pharmacy, to talk about a remodeling deal. They were talking within earshot of Piest when Gacy said his firm was hiring teen boys at a starting wage of $5 an hour, nearly double what Piest was making at the pharmacy. Shortly after Gacy left, Piest’s mother arrived to pick her son up. Piest asked her to wais so he could talk to a contractor about a job. He left at 9 pm, promising to be back shortly. Piest was killed just after 10 pm at Gacy’s home.
When Piest didn’t return, his family filed a missing persons report. Torf the owner of the pharmacy, name Gacy as the contractor. Des Plaines police obtained a warrant to search Gacy’s home on December 13th. They found several suspicious items, including police badges, a gun, and a syringe and hypodermic needles. They also found driver’s licenses in a bedroom. They also found a 1975 Main West High School ring engraved with the initials JAS in another bedroom.
They started watching Gacy, and by December 16th, Gacy had started inviting the surveillance detectives in for drinks. He repeatedly denied he had anything to do with Piest’s disappearance, and accused the officers of harassing him because of his political connections or his drug use. On December 18th, he invited the officers to have breakfast with him, and at one point, he said, “You know… clowns can get away with murder.”
Gacy spoke with his lawyer to start a civil suit against the police. Then, on the evening of December 20th, Gacy went to his lawyers, likely to talk about the civil suit, but ended up picking up the Daily Herald and pointed at the article covering the disappearance of Piest and said, “This boy is dead. He’s in a river.” He then gave a rambling confession that ran into the early morning hours. He said that he had “been the judge, jury, and executioner of many, many people.” Gacy dismissed his victims as liars, hustlers, and prostitutes He buried them in his crawl space because he thought they were his property.
On December 21st, they got their second search warrant. When they arrived, they found Gacy had unplugged his sump pump, flooding the crawl space. They just replaced the plug and waited for the water to drain out. Once clear, they started digging, and it wasn’t long before they found putrefied flesh and an arm bone. Once Gacy was informed they had found human remains under his house, Gacy said he wanted to “clear the air.” He confessed to murdering 30 men, all of whom he said entered his house willingly. He referred to some by their name, but Gacy claimed he couldn’t remember or didn’t know all of the names. He only dug five graves, and had employees dig trenches for him. They likely did not know exactly what he needed them for. They demolished Gacy’s house in April 1979.
His trail started on February 6, 1980 and was charged with 33 counts of murder. His lawyers tried to get him off on insanity, and he underwent 100 hours of psychiatric tests. He tried to convince the doctors that he had multiple personality disorder. He said he had four personalities, the hard-working civic-minded contractor, the clown, the active politician, and a policeman called Jack Hanley, whom he called Bad Jack. He said that he was confessing to the crimes of Bad Jack who dested homosexuality and who viewed male prostitutes as “weak, stupid, and degraded scum.” His lawyers had him plead not guilty by reason of insanity. They presented him as Jekyll and Hyde character. Three psychiatric experts said that they found Gacy to be a paranoid schizophrenic with multiple personalities.
His lawyers also tried to convince the jury that all of the deaths were caused by accidental erotic asphyxia.
The state had plenty of witnesses to testify against Gacy, including the two men he had assaulted back in the 60s. During the fifth week of his trail, Gacy tried to get the Judge to call the trial a mistrial, but the request was denied. The jury deliberated for less than two hours and found Gacy guilty on all 33 charges. At that time, his conviction for 33 murders was the most for which any person in US history have been convicted. During sentencing, the jury deliberated just over two hours and sentenced Gacy to death.
He tried to appeal his case, saying he had only same knowledge of five of the murders, and that the other 28 murders had been committed by his employees who had keys to his house while he was away on business trips. He used up his final appeal in October 1993. His execution was set for May 10, 1994.
On May 9, 1994, he was transferred to Menard Correctional Center. That afternoon, he had a private picnic with his family. For his last meal, Gacy ordered a bucket of KFC, a dozen fried shrimp, French fries, fresh strawberries, and Diet Coke.
During his execution, the chemicals used solidified unexpectedly clogging the IV tube. They fixed the issue, and continued with the execution. Gacy never expressed remorse for his crimes. His last statement to his lawyers were that killing him wouldn’t compensate for the loss of others, and that the state was murdering him. His final spoken words were reported to be “Kiss my ass.” They removed his brain and gave it to Helen Morrison who had interviewed Gacy and other serial killers in an attempt to isolate common personality traits of violent sociopaths.
While many people question whether Gacy could have killed all those men by himself, no proof has been found that he had accomplices. Gacy had a long history of assaults that eventually led to murder. The police ample opportunities to put a stop to Gacy, but they never had enough information until at least 33 men had been killed. Could these murders have been prevented? Nobody knows, but one thing is for certain, nobody will ever trust Pogo the Clown again.