"The scary thing about Gacy was that he wasn’t scary at all. That’s the scary thing — he could have been anyone’s brother or father, uncle.” - Sam Amirante, Public Defender for serial killer John Wayne Gacy
One of the fascinating facts that tie the stories of many serial killers together is that they nearly all seem so "normal" to the people who knew them. Forensic science and improved investigation methods have given us a better understanding of how and why these shocking crimes take place. Confessions from the killers also add to the corpus (no pun intended) of knowledge about this most dangerous breed of human species.
In the case of John Wayne Gacy, as a boy he was subjected to verbal abuse by his father. He also harbored a suppressed homosexuality that at the time was widely unaccepted by mainstream society. Was it these two mind-bending traumas that finally collided, turning Gacy into a human monster?
The following story from the Chicago Tribune is a look back at the arrest and subsequent discovery forty years ago this month, of the incredible string of unfortunates that fell victim to the tortured and twisted mind of a serial killer.
John Wayne Gacy was arrested 40 years ago in a killing spree that claimed 33 victims and shattered the illusion of the safe suburban community
By William Lee
Chicago Tribune, December 16, 2018
IN THE SHADOW OF O'HARE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, the winding, looping streets and small-town character of unincorporated Norwood Park Township look much the way they did in December 1978.
But gone are the lines of gawking bystanders, desperate families of missing young men and carloads of curiosity-seekers who choked the streets in the days before that long-ago Christmas, trying to catch a glimpse of the murder house.
John Wayne Gacy’s confession to the rape and murder of more than 30 people didn’t just awaken America to a nightmare hidden in its own backyard. The discovery 40 years ago of the dank, muddy mass grave underneath Gacy's yellow brick ranch house at 8213 W. Summerdale Ave. forever shattered the image of the safe suburban community.
A police search for missing Maine West sophomore Robert Piest led investigators to 36-year-old Gacy, a “stocky, bull necked contractor,” described by neighbors and business associates as a pillar of the community: a likable, boastful divorced businessman and Democratic precinct captain who hosted themed neighborhood parties and entertained children as a clown named Pogo.
“(The public) would feel much more comfortable if Gacy was this type of creepy, sequestered ghoul that was unkempt and heinous,” Detective Sgt. Jason Moran of the Cook County sheriff’s office, who is a point man on the Gacy case, said recently. “But instead, he dressed as a clown and bounced kids on his knee. He would knock at your door and say vote for my candidate.”
Gacy’s nice-guy persona masked something far more sinister. Once they were safely restrained — usually in a pair of handcuffs as he demonstrated a “trick” he learned as a clown — Gacy’s easy smile melted away, revealing a cold, growling predator who sexually assaulted his victims before strangling many of them with a knotted rope. He buried 29 of his 33 victims in trenches underneath and around his home and dumped four others from bridges once his property could hold no more bodies.
The horror in the tiny community and images of Gacy in his clown outfit were splashed across newspapers around the world, again associating Chicago with a killing spree 12 years after Richard Speck’s massacre of eight student nurses on the Far South Side. Gacy also had chilling similarities to another charming Chicago-area killer, Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as Dr. H.H. Holmes. Quite possibly the country’s first serial killer, he lured people into his personally designed “murder castle” in 1890s Englewood. But where Mudgett had trick rooms with vents that led to disposal rooms, Gacy had a knotted rope and a crawl space.
After Gacy’s house was razed in April 1979, the vacant lot became a notorious gathering place in the 1980s, drawing everyone from ghost hunters to rowdy neighborhood teenagers who late at night spun their wheels in the dirt lot and dumped beer bottles.
Now a new home sits on the lot, but the block still draws the occasional tourist or documentary crew, said one neighbor who lives across the street from the former Gacy property but asked not to be identified. “If you’ve got two guys in a car, or an out-of-state plate, it’s probably Gacy.”
Gacy was executed by lethal injection in 1994, but the impact of his crimes went beyond tainting his neighborhood. In response to widespread criticism of local police for taking years to connect the missing victims to Gacy, federal and local law enforcement agencies began sharing information on runaways and sex offenders, implemented a national hotline and launched a computer database for missing people.
Police departments and schools nationwide joined forces for massive public service campaigns tasked with teaching parents and children about “stranger danger.”
Experts said the case also breathed new life into old, unevolved fears about homosexuality, still a taboo subject at the time. The combination of homosexuality and the heinous nature of the murders of young men lent a tawdry element to the tale that also attached shame to the victims and their families as the unfortunately named Gacy became a punchline in living rooms and on playgrounds across the country.
|Gacy dressed as a clown and entertained at kids' parties.|
Case ‘cleared’ but not ‘closed’
Inside battered boxes at Moran’s Little Village office are pictures from Gacy’s arrest four days before Christmas that capture not only grisly images but also serve as a time capsule of a more worry-free era, with items like Gacy’s Tiki-style mock bar set up inside his rec room. Aging photos show law enforcement officers and Chief Medical Examiner Robert Stein working in the muddy crawl space in street clothes, where officers today would be dressed in full-body hazmat suits.
Other photos show colorful merchandise inside Nisson Pharmacy on Touhy Avenue. Fifteen-year-old Piest worked at the family-owned shop, one of many that have since yielded largely to corporate giants like Walgreens and CVS. The teen told his mother, who’d come to pick him up from work so he could attend her birthday party, that he’d be right back after he talked to a man about a summer job that paid $5 an hour.
Piest’s slaying later that night at Gacy’s home was the thread that unraveled Gacy’s six-year rampage and brought Des Plaines police to his doorstep on Dec. 12, 1978. Authorities later found evidence at his home that linked him to the pharmacy, despite his early denials. Then a shocking confession to “maybe 30” murders confirmed a police officer’s suspicion about the strange odor inside Gacy’s home.
Retired sheriff’s investigator Phil Bettiker, one of the first officers to hear Gacy’s confession, has grim memories of the early days of the case, particularly when he and other sheriff’s officers began excavating bodies from underneath the home. Inside the muddy pit, days seemed to stretch on endlessly as reporters and others gathered outside waiting for the nightly body count. He remembered officers running over to a local McDonald’s to get fry baskets to sift the soil. And he recalled with a smile how a supervisor gave him and other officers the OK to help themselves to a case of Gacy’s beer after digging up his home for more than 12 hours.
Bettiker has since become a mentor to Moran, a one-man cold-case squad who was tasked by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart in 2010 with finding out the names of the remaining unidentified victims.
“This case isn’t cleared and closed … it’s open in that all of his victims haven’t been identified,” Moran explained. He said there’s no new evidence that links Gacy to additional victims but adds “it’s hard to put it past someone so evil.”
Attorney Sam Amirante likes to joke that he was 6-foot-4 before he began representing an acquaintance named John W. Gacy and wound up 5-foot-2 after being ground down by the immense and horrifying details of the case. Amirante, who later became a Cook County judge, wrote about his experience and how his infamous former client made a drunken confession to being “judge, jury and executioner of many, many people.”
Amirante said it took months of exposure to Gacy to recognize his chilling duality.
“He looked at his victims like he was taking out the trash. He had no feelings about them,” Amirante said, sitting in a private office at his Barrington home nearly 40 years after hearing the famous confession. “He could talk about a child who's dying of cancer and cry like a baby about this child he didn't even know or never met and feel authentically sad about this child. Then he'd talk about another child that he murdered and have no feelings whatsoever.”
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Gacy’s case wasn’t the body count — it was that the portly, unassuming man killed 33 able-bodied young men and boys.
Over time, he’d refined his technique of trapping and killing his victims so well, it allowed him to ensnare multiple victims within days. It wasn’t until Gacy’s arrest that cracks began to appear in his carefully cultivated image. Gacy had secret gay relationships but, according to his former attorney, denied being gay. Still, he cruised the city’s North Side from Lakeview to Uptown prowling for young men. He also conditioned his neighbors to see young men coming and leaving his home any time of day or night, easily explaining visitors as young workers digging trenches underneath his home.
Amirante, a former assistant public defender who represented Gacy as his first private client, agreed that the secret to Gacy’s success lay largely in his unctuous charm developed over years as the son of a harsh, verbally abusive father and later refined as a successful shoe salesman.
“I always tell people that the scary thing about Gacy was that he wasn’t scary at all. That’s the scary thing — he could have been anyone’s brother or father, uncle,” Amirante said. “He was not an intimidating kind of person, with the exception of when he would turn and change out of the very affable, charming, likable guy into the killer that he was.”
“Everyone who ever knew John Gacy knew one thing about him — he was a master manipulator. He could sell ice cubes to Eskimos,” Amirante wrote in a 2011 book with Danny Broderick, “John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster.”
Gacy also knew how to set a trap, Moran said.
“He often would build up trust with his victims, so they wouldn’t need to be on guard,” Moran said. “He was their employer, their friend. He may have been someone who provided them with alcohol and drugs and maybe a place to sleep at night. That’s an easy way to kill someone.”
Bettiker recalled the elaborately themed parties that Gacy hosted at his home, where dozens of guests unwittingly celebrated over his private graveyard.
“He’d have parties at his residence where he’d invite maybe 200 people. He’d be the center of attraction,” he recalled. "One-on-one, or in a group setting, he would be the last person that you’d think was a serial killer and is as devious as he was.”
|Gacy's Tiki Bar where he entertained many neighbors and friends.|
Most of Gacy's victims were buried in the crawl space under his home. Others were found elsewhere on his property, and four victims were recovered after Gacy dumped them in rivers south of Chicago.
Had Gacy not targeted Piest, a well-regarded Maine West athlete and student with strong family ties to the community, his killing spree may have continued. Today, Amirante speculates that the usually cautious Gacy may have subconsciously pursued a victim who he knew would get him caught.
“I think he was being absolutely self-destructive and in the good side of him — the very limited good side of him that was left — clearly wanted to be caught,” Amirante said. “He was sabotaging himself.”
Gacy became the bogeyman to a generation of boys who never considered that they could be victims of sexual violence. The case left an impact across the entire area, including the city’s South Side, where Moran spent his boyhood.
“I was only a boy during the original investigation, but growing up a boy in Chicago, the case, facts and circumstances, the Gacy serial killings stuck with you because it meant that boys could be victims of violent crime just like girls had been,” Moran recalled.
He and others who worked during Gacy’s time said the case also tapped a well of homophobia that may have scared off some families from seeking information on their missing loved ones due to the social stigma.
“These victims were primarily born in the 1950s and their parents were born in the 1920s and ’30s,” Moran said. “That generation, the parents of these victims, was not ready to accept homosexuality, and because the media constantly brought up the gay aspect of this case, Sheriff (Dart) and I thought it may be what kept people from coming forward.”
Amirante said he believed a killer with Gacy’s personal demons would be less likely to exist today.
“The police department (at the time) looked at things differently. Society looked at things differently. Gacy looked at himself differently then, because he was homosexual and, because of the trauma he went through, he couldn’t accept himself. Today, the world is more open, people are more open. People are more understanding and compassionate about people who are different,” he said.