The arrest and trial
The case against John Wayne Gacy unfolded in the days, weeks and months following the disappearance of 15-year-old Robert Piest on Dec. 11, 1978. People in Chicago and across the country came to view the case -- and Gacy's house -- with a morbid fascination. Here is how it happened.
When Robert Piest’s mother arrives to pick up her son after his shift at a Des Plaines pharmacy around 9 p.m. Dec. 11, 1978, the 15-year-old Maine West student asks her to wait a few minutes while he sees a man about a summer construction job.
He is never seen alive again.
His mother files a missing person report at 11:30 that night.
The next day, Des Plaines police learn it was John Wayne Gacy whom Piest wanted to speak to about a job. Gacy is asked to come to the station for questioning. At 11 p.m., Gacy calls Des Plaines police Lt. Joe Kozenczak. "You still want to talk to me?" Gacy asks.
Gacy arrives at the station at 3:20 a.m. Dec. 13 but doesn't connect with the lieutenant.
|Excavating Gacy's basement graveyard.|
Inside the house, authorities find a receipt the Piest family later says is connected with their son.
By Dec. 14, Gacy is placed under around-the-clock surveillance. On Dec. 19, Gacy invites two police officers into his house for breakfast. Both smell the odor of death.
Two days later, Gacy is seen handing a package containing marijuana to a gas station clerk. He is followed and arrested. Police are told Gacy has already admitted to his lawyer that he committed "maybe 30" murders.
|Bodies of Gacy's victims at the morgue.|
In a rambling verbal statement lasting several hours, Gacy on Dec. 22 tells police he has killed 32 young men and boys after having sexual relations with them.
In his earliest confession, he says he buried the bodies of 27 victims on his property, most of them in the crawl space. Five other bodies, including that of Piest, Gacy says were thrown into the Des Plaines River.
Gacy is arrested and charged with Piest's murder.
|Officials removing bodies from the Gacy home.|
Piest's body is identified April 9, 1979.
The trial begins in February 1980, and after five weeks of testimony from psychiatrists, police, neighbors, acquaintances and family members of the victims, a jury takes less than two hours March 13 to convict Gacy of killing 33 young men.
The next day, parents and relatives of Gacy's victims break into applause as it is announced that he has been sentenced to die. Judge Louis Garippo sets an execution date of June 2, 1980, but that date is immediately stayed while the case is appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.
Appeals to the state Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court fail, and at 12:58 a.m. May 10, 1994, Gacy is put to death by lethal injection at Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet.
His last meal includes fried chicken and butterfly shrimp.
|Gacy's house is demolished. Did they salt the earth?|
Following Gacy’s arrest, detectives and prosecutors learned that he had been on law enforcement’s radar prior to 1978, including a case two years earlier when he was a suspect in the disappearance of a 9-year-old boy. Gacy’s case, as highlighted by a cascade of news articles and books, embarrassed law enforcement by exposing the lack of a safety net for vulnerable young people.
In the years since Gacy and other high-profile serial murder cases like that of 6-year-old Adam Walsh and a string of child killings in Atlanta, authorities have erected a system of public and private partnerships, along with implementing missing persons computer databases that can analyze patterns and reveal previous police complaints against a suspect. Also, private organizations such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington assemble computerized information on missing people to safeguard against sex traffickers as well as sexual predators.
"The police ended up looking kind of foolish,” in the wake of the Gacy case, a University of Louisville criminologist told the Tribune in 1994 after Gacy’s execution. The criminologist, Robert C. Crouse, called Gacy “the No. 1 event” that changed how police departments operate.
After Dart took office, he ordered a review of cold cases. He said he was astounded to learn just how poorly missing persons cases were investigated by police of that era, saying he believed communication would have been similar to today.
|Aerial view of the house being demolished.|
Elected officials began passing laws creating sex offender registries, and schools across the country added curriculum teaching youngsters about stranger danger and instructing them to speak out. Even Hollywood got into the act, blanketing 1980s and ’90s television with public service announcements during family sitcoms and after-school programming.
The dramatic five-week trial led to years of headlines, numerous books and a television movie starring Brian Dennehy as Gacy. The term “crawl space” entered the American lexicon, meaning any dark secret in a quiet place, as DJ Steve Dahl’s parody song, “Another Kid in the Crawl,” earned chuckles from area teens and rebukes from families of survivors. Gacy may have also helped popularize the “killer clown” archetype, though author Stephen King’s 1986 best-seller “It” likely didn’t help matters.
Today, with airliners crisscrossing the skies above, Norwood Park Township, with its small bungalows and two-flat buildings, resembles other neighborhoods at the edges of the city, popular with municipal workers and ethnic whites. In the aftermath of the gruesome discovery on Gacy’s property, his neighbors had difficulty reconciling the friendly, gentle neighbor with the killer.
“Gacy had everybody fooled, and people don’t like it — they don’t like that they were friends with an evildoer,” Moran said.
But over the years, as old neighbors moved away or died, quiet returned to Summerdale Avenue.
One neighbor, whose family moved to the block three years ago from Canada, said she had no idea about Gacy’s connection until a friend told her that she might live across the street from the infamous house.
“I still don’t know which house it is,” the woman said outside her home.
Moran said he hopes society and law enforcement have learned lessons from Gacy, though both must remain vigilant. “I’d like to believe that it would not take 33 victims in six years in one geographic area again … that we would be on top of it more.”
His boss, Dart, added that technology and social media have removed much of the anonymity that allowed serial killers like Gacy to operate in the shadows.
“I don’t think the magnitude could ever occur again like this,” he said. “I just don’t see a scenario where it would happen.”
|Today a new dwelling sits atop the Gacy killing field.|