John Wayne Gacy and The Dead Boys
How does a man—a short, chubby, amiable, well-liked, successful, and seemingly 100% normal man who performed as “Pogo the Clown” at children’s charity functions—wind up with the bodies of 29 murdered young men under his house and another four corpses in a nearby river?
The world blinked in disbelief, swallowed, and tried to focus its vision again in late December 1978 as TV cameras showed excavators dragging one carcass after the next out of the crawl space in Gacy’s modest Chicago ranch home. How is a successful business contractor and avid community booster able to hide a side of his personality that’s so dark, he was building a mass grave under his house for six years?
At the time of his 1980 conviction on 33 counts of murder, John Wayne Gacy held the all-time American body-count record among serial killers, only to be eclipsed by Gary “The Green River Killer” Ridgway nearly a quarter-century later.
What makes someone go from the Junior Chamber of Commerce’s Man of the Year to the most prolific serial killer in American history?
As far as I can tell, murdering 33 young boys was John Wayne Gacy’s twisted way of getting back at his father for murdering his innocence.
Gacy’s Childhood: Dad’s Drunk And Screaming In The Basement Again
Short, shy, prone to obesity, and doted on by his mother and sisters, John Wayne Gacy was what would be known in modern Internet circles as a beta male. A heart condition rendered him incapable of playing sports, which alienated him even further from his old-school, meat-and-potatoes, mean-as-a-snake father.
Gacy’s father beat him with a leather belt at age four because John had accidentally disarranged some car parts. His father beat him unconscious with a broomstick when young John was only six. At age 11, he was knocked in the head with a playground swing and experienced blackouts until he was 16, when it was discovered he had a blood clot on his brain. Medication eventually dissolved the clot.
Privately and in front of others, his father scoffed and sneered at John, calling him dumb, stupid, a sissy, and predicting he would “probably grow up queer.”
Gacy and his sisters would tell of how their dad would come home from a hard day of menial labor, go down to the basement and get sloshed on brandy, and start screaming uncontrollably. Even if dinner had been served, they were required to sit there quietly until dad was done screaming and walked up the stairs to finally join them.
Despite such treatment, Gacy wanted nothing more than to please his father.
A Model Citizen Who Wanted To Be President
At age 18, Gacy fled his father’s abuse and drove to Las Vegas, where he briefly worked as a mortuary attendant. It was here that he had his first “gay” experience—if you want to call it that. Gacy says he climbed into a young dead male’s casket and then began fondling his body before coming to his senses and recoiling in shock.
He returned to Chicago and became a precinct captain for Democratic Party in his neighborhood and a relentless advocate for the local Jaycees. He married a woman named Marlynn Myers in 1964. Her father owned three Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in Iowa, and in 1966 the Gacys moved there after John accepted an offer to manage the three stores. In 1967 he was named “outstanding vice-president” of the Jaycees in Waterloo, IA.
Gacy’s only two children born during this time: Michael (1966) and Christine (1967). Visiting the family in Iowa and observing how his son, now in his mid-twenties, was prospering, his father reportedly said, “Son, I was wrong about you.”
A Sudden Shock: Sodomy Conviction And Imprisonment
But even with the veneer of success, Gacy couldn’t seem to stay away from all things sleazy. There were reports that in order to recruit Jaycees, he would hold stag parties in motels showing pornographic reel-to-reel films and sometimes hiring prostitutes. And people started whispering that Gacy sure did seem to surround himself with a lot of underage males.
In August 1967, Gacy invited 15-year-old Donald Voorhees to his home, where he got him drunk and showed him porno films. Gacy claims they had consensual oral sex.
Voorhees disagreed. In March of the next year, he told his father what had happened. His father went to the police, who charged Gacy with oral sodomy. Gacy bribed one of his employees to beat up Voorhees to terrify him from testifying, but the plan backfired. Although the assault happened, Voorhees told the police about it, and 18-year-old Russell Schroeder was arrested, only to turn state’s evidence against Gacy.
Gacy was tried and convicted of sodomy and sentenced to ten years in prison. On the day of his sentencing, his wife divorced him. Gacy would never see his wife or children again.
While Gacy was in prison, his father died. Upon hearing the news, Gacy reportedly began sobbing uncontrollably. He requested a chaperoned leave to attend his father’s funeral, but it was denied. This enraged Gacy. He had disappointed his father again—he couldn’t attend his funeral because he was in prison for doing something “queer.”
Return To Chicago
After serving only 18 months of his 10-year sentence, Gacy was paroled in the summer of 1970. Using a handout from his mom, he bought a house at 8213 West Summerdale Avenue in an unincorporated area of Cook County, IL. It was inside this small ranch house where Gacy committed all 33 of his known murders.
He became active in Democratic Party politics and in 1978—the height of his murder spree—he was infamously photographed with First Lady Rosalynn Carter through his work as director of Chicago’s annual Polish Constitution Day Parade.
He was highly active in hokey civic organizations such as the Moose Club, where he became acquainted with a group of clowns who performed at fundraisers and for sick children. Gacy had two clown personas—“Pogo” and “Patches”—and other clowns noted that his painted-on smile had sharp edges rather than rounded ones. Professional clowns typically avoid sharp-edged smiles because they are said to scare children.
Gacy had also gone into business for himself as a professional contractor, undercutting competitors by hiring very young male workers who’d willingly accept low wages.
The “Handcuff Trick” And The “Rope Trick”
In 1972, Gacy stabbed his first murder victim to death and buried his body in the crawl space under his house. It would be his only stabbing murder.
From then on the pattern was fairly the same: Gacy would either peel off a young worker from his contracting squad or go find young males in public places. Sometimes he’d lure them back to his house either an offer of a job or alcohol. Many times he’d pull up in his black Oldsmobile—atop which he’d affixed a phony police light—flash a fake police badge, and force the youth into his car. On at least one occasion he lured a male into his car with an offer to smoke weed, only to smother him with chloroform and render him unconscious as he raced home in his car.
Gacy would then discuss his performances as a clown and offer to show his “handcuff trick.” This involved nothing more than slapping a pair of handcuffs on his prey. When they’d finally get impatient and ask what the trick was, he’d show the key and say, “The trick is, you have to have the key.”
He would then rape and torture his captives, often stuffing their own underwear down their throats to muffle their screams. Several of his victims died of asphyxiation due simply to being forcefully gagged in this manner.
The “rope trick” involved wrapping a noose around his prey’s neck and inserting a stick into the rope tourniquet-style, twisting it around and around until they choked to death. While doing the “rope trick” he’d often recite Bible verses and instruct his victims to face their demise honorably.
Nearly all of his victims died in the wee, wee hours of 3AM to 6AM.
33 Dead Boys
Upon his arrest, John Wayne Gacy told investigators he may have killed as many as 45 young males. Based on corpses found under his house and in the nearby Des Plaines River, he was convicted of 33 confirmed murders. All but nine of the victims have been identified. All of his victims were white. The first 29 bodies were either buried under Gacy’s crawl space or elsewhere on his property. The last four were dumped into the Des Plaines River. Rape and torture played a role in every murder. Many of the victims were found with prescription bottles lodged in their pelvic region, suggesting anal rape with a foreign object.
1. Timothy McCoy, age 15 … January 3, 1972 … stabbed four times in chest with a kitchen knife.
2. Unidentified Male, age 14-18 … January 1974 … strangulation, buried in backyard.
3. John Butkovich, age 17 … July 29, 1975 … strangulation.
4. Darrell Sampson, age 18 … April 6, 1976 … strangulation.
5. Randall Reffett, age 15 … May 14, 1976 … asphyxiation from being gagged with a cloth.
6. Sam Stapleton, age 14 … May 14, 1976 … strangulation.
7. Michael Bonnin, age 17 … June 3, 1976 … strangulation.
8. William Carroll, age 16 … June 13, 1976 … strangulation.
9. Unidentified Male, age 20-24 … June 13 – December, 1976 … strangulation.
10. Rick Johnston, age 17 … August 6, 1976 … strangulation.
11. Unidentified Male, age 18-22 … August 6 – October 5, 1976 … strangulation.
12. Unidentified Male, age 15-24 … August 6 – October 24, 1976 … strangulation.
13. Unidentified Male, age 14 … October 24, 1976 … strangulation.
14. Kenneth Parker, age 16 … October 25, 1976 … strangulation.
15. Michael Marino, age 14 … October 25, 1976. strangulation (Note: Recent evidence suggests Marino may not have been a Gacy victim).
16. Gregory Godzik, age 17 … December 12, 1976 … strangulation.
17. John Szyc, age 19 … January 20, 1977 … strangulation.
18. Jon Prestidge, age 20 … March 15, 1977 … strangulation.
19. Unidentified Male, age 17-21 … March 15 – July 5, 1977 … strangulation.
20. Matthew Bowman, age 19 … July 5, 1977 … strangled with piece of string.
21. Unidentified Male, age 20-24 … June 13 – December, 1976 … strangulation.
22. Robert Gilroy, age 18 … September 15, 1977 … asphyxiation.
23. John Mowery, age 19 … September 25, 1977 … strangulation.
24. Russell Nelson, age 21 … October 17, 1977 … asphyxiation.
25. Robert Winch, age 16 … November 10, 1977 … strangulation.
26. Tommy Boling, age 20 … November 18, 1977 … strangulation.
27. David Talsma, age 19 … December 9, 1977 … strangled with unspecified ligature.
28. Unidentified Male, age 22-32 … December 1976-March 15, 1977 … strangulation.
29. William Kindred, age 19 … February 16, 1978 … strangulation.
30. Timothy O’Rourke, age 20 … June 1978 … strangulation.
31. Frank Landingin, age 19 … November 4, 1978 … asphyxiation from his underwear being shoved down his throat.
32. James Mazzara, age 21 … November 24, 1978 … strangulation.
33. Robert Piest, age 15 … December 11, 1978 … asphyxiation from paper towels being stuffed down his throat.
Arrest, Imprisonment, Execution
After 15-year-old Robert Piest went missing shortly before Christmas in 1978, his mother recalled that while they were in a hardware store, her son had excused himself to go talk to a man who’d offered him a construction job. She never saw her son again. But a worker at the store identified the man as John Wayne Gacy.
Investigators began piecing together evidence and realized they had far more than a missing-persons case on their hands. Over the next ten or so days, they placed Gacy under heavy surveillance. Feeling invincible, Gacy taunted them, leading them on high-speed car chases and even inviting them to his home for dinner. At one point he even allegedly told them, “You know, clowns can get away with murder.” It was at his home where one of the detectives went to the bathroom and noticed when the heat kicked on that a foul odor wafted from the vents. It was the unmistakable smell of death. Their investigation escalated as they sought a search warrant for his crawl space.
Driven mad by the pressure, Gacy finally caved and confessed everything to his lawyer over the course of four hours. He allegedly told them, “I have been the judge, jury, and executioner of many, many people.”
On December 21, 1978, he was arrested and charged with murder. He eagerly spoke to police, reporters, and lawyers from both sides, confessing to everything. He said that after his first murder—the stabbing death of Timothy McCoy—“ That’s when I realized that death was the ultimate thrill. The day after Gacy’s arrest, technicians began excavating the crawl space under his home.
As time wore on, Gacy backpedaled from his previous confessions. He falsely slandered many of his victims as male prostitutes and runaways. At one point, he even tried claiming that all 33 murders were committed in self-defense during rough gay sex that got out of control. He stated—accurately in some cases—that he couldn’t have possibly committed some of the murders because the youths disappeared while he was out of town on business. As time goes by, many researchers agree that he had to have had at least one accomplice during some of these slayings.
Gacy gained infamy for being more than happy to correspond with the serial-killer fanatics and hybristophiliacs who are drawn to such infamous characters. He eagerly did primitive, childlike paintings in exchange for cash, many of them featuring clown and Disney themes.
After fourteen years behind bars, Gacy wore out his numerous appeals and was executed via lethal injection. His last meal consisted of “a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, a dozen fried shrimp, French fries, fresh strawberries, and a Diet Coke”—the Diet Coke is a very sad and baffling touch. It took three jabs to get the job done because the tube got clogged during the first try. When asked for some final words, Gacy had only three: “Kiss my ass.”
Outside the penitentiary where he was executed, a crowd of hundreds had gathered. There were a few candle-holding anti-death-penalty activists sprinkled among the attendees, but most seemed hungry for Gacy’s blood. One of those who cheered his death wore a shirt depicting Gacy as Pogo emblazoned with the message, NO TEARS FOR THIS CLOWN.
John Wayne Gacy In Pop Culture: ‘Twisty The Clown’ On American Horror Story And Others
The massive media attention Gacy’s case attracted naturally led to some ripples in the pop-culture world. There have been at least a dozen books written about him and four feature-length films. Musical artists such as Fingersmith and Sufjan Stevens have recorded songs about Gacy.
The American Horror Story character “Twisty The Clown”—a remorseless killer—was based on John Wayne Gacy. Just like Gacy, Twisty paints his smile with very sharp edges. Unlike the highly organized and meticulous Gacy, though, Twisty is the disorganized type of killer.
The Killer In His Own Words
These and several other John Wayne Gacy quotes are at Quote Catalog.
My dad was domineering. He had a different set of values, but also a very stern individual. My dad drank a lot, and when he drank a lot, he was abusive to my mother and to me. But I never swung at my dad, because I loved him for what he stood for.
I would definitely not be homosexual. I have nothing against what they do and I don’t deny that I’ve engaged in sex with males but that I’m bisexual.
When they paint the image that I was this monster who picked up these altar boys along the streets and swatted them like flies, I said, ‘This is ludicrous.
The idea that I’m a homosexual thrill killer, that I stroll down the streets and stalk young boys and slaughter them….Hell, if you could see my schedule, my work schedule, you knew damn well that I was never out there.
That one mother who goes on television all the time, who thinks I should be given 33 injections, I think she ought to take 33 Valiums and go lay down…. If her Marine son was so great, then what the hell did he run away from home all the time?
Don’t look at me as an innocent babe of the woods.
If you believe you’ve lived your life the right way, then you do not have nothing to fear.