John Wayne Gacy – The Clown Killer: The Man Behind the Makeup

john wayne gacy killer clown

John Wayne Gacy, one of America’s most prolific serial killers, was convicted of murdering 33 men, but the number doesn’t stop there. More men fell victim to the hands of Gacy; fortunately, they survived. 

“I killed 33 times. You’re only going to kill me once. Gacy outsmarted you.”

One of the most infamous serial killers in American history, John Wayne Gacy, has accrued somewhat of a celebrity status due to the amount of press and attention he has received since his arrest. This played directly into John Wayne Gacy’s hands; he wanted to be legendary. He wanted to be the centre of attention. He wanted to outsmart everyone.

Netflix recently released a new documentary – Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes. It’s a three-part series revealing the unheard, documented tape recordings from Gacy during his questioning by the police and trial between 1979-1980. The surviving victims speak out about their horrifying encounter with the Killer Clown, the Des Plaines police force that worked on the case and the loved ones of the victims that were brutally murdered. It truly is a chilling watch and maybe not one for the faint-hearted.

With the release of this documentary, we wanted to share and talk about John Wayne Gacy and his story of events.

So, who is John Wayne Gacy, and what possessed him to be one of the world’s biggest serial killers?

John Wayne Gacy: Behind the Clown

Born 17th March 1942 in Chicago, Illinois, John Wayne Gacy was everyone’s friend, a “man of the people”, and a successful business owner. He introduced his pastime, “Pogo the Clown”, a children’s party entertainer.

He married twice; Marlynn Myers, 1964-1969 and Carole Hoff, 1972 – 1976. Both wives were oblivious to their husband’s sinister second life.

Gacy had a troubled childhood, living with an abusive, alcoholic father, who belittled him regularly by calling him “dumb and stupid” and showed little affection. According to Gacy, his father often stayed in the basement and made it clear that no one was allowed to come in; otherwise, there would be consequences. It was argued during his trial that this brought on psychotic episodes, resulting in him victimising multiple men.

Gacy launched a construction business in 1971 called PDM Contractors – Painting Decorating and Maintenance. He grew the business and employed a specific type of person – young men, some of whom were runaways and Gacy’s victims. He also joined the local Jaycee organisation, part of the Junior Chamber International, providing leadership training and civic organisations for those aged 18-40, including young men.

Enjoying the spotlight, Gacy joined the Moose Club in 1975 and created Pogo the Clown and Patches the Clown, both with very different personalities; one being the jolly clown that would delight families at parties and one that had a darker, more serious demeanour. Either way, it’s a clown that no one wants to show up to the party.

Through the many faces of John Wayne Gacy, he is often referred to as the “Killer Clown”. Here’s a chilling thought. Gacy openly said that being a clown means hiding your image by sitting on women’s laps and touching them, and “clowns get away with anything – get away with murder”.

Despite being married twice, Gacy admitted that he was bisexual. He’s never had a homosexual relationship, as he never had meaningful sexual intercourse with another man. He gained pleasure from targeting and tricking vulnerable young men and began his evil vendetta against Chicago’s Gay community.

The Victims

On record, there are 33 non-surviving victims – that number is important. They are non-surviving, meaning the number of John Wayne Gacy victims is higher.

Gacy had a particular type of victim and knew precisely how to get them and what he wanted to do with them. His victim profile was young, clean-cut, masculine-looking, innocent men, most of whom were homosexual. One of the reasons for hiring young men over experience was so he could control them. Some of these men were runaway teens who opened up about their sexuality to their families and were shut out. Gacy knew they were vulnerable, knew he could control them, and he used that knowledge to his advantage. Some were never to be seen again, including Gregory Godzik, who went missing in early March 1977.

Occasionally, he would get his employees to dig deep holes at his house, including a BBQ pit. Unbeknownst to them, these holes would be the final resting places for many of the Killer Clown’s victims.

During the 1960s and 70s, it was difficult for homosexuals to be open about their sexuality and publicly meet other Gay men and women. It brought challenges and persecution and heavily impacted mental health. Some believed that being a homosexual meant you had mental health issues.

Gacy had a framed certificate from the Governor on Sex and Health, and he told people that he was on the board that studied homosexuality.

On 3rd January 1972, a Greyhound Bus Boy became one of the first victims. The Greyhound Bus Station was a popular hangout for runaway boys, especially those who came out about their sexuality to their parents and had no home to return to. Gacy met a boy at the bus station and invited him to go for a ride so he could show him the sights of Chicago.

Gacy bought the boy to his house to drink and perform oral sex. He told the victim that he could stay the night and he would drive him back to the station. John Gacy claimed the boy had a knife in his hand and came at him, so he wrestled him to the ground and stabbed him multiple times. Instead of calling the police for an act of “self-defence”, he buried him in the crawl space under the house. He stated that was the last time he said sexual intercourse with another male until 1974/75.

James Byron Haakenson

In 1974, Gacy’s wife Carole Hoff said their marriage had broken down, and they often argued about the lack of intimacy. Gacy would often bring men home at night, including the young boys who worked for him and spent long periods in the garage. Carole was aware that her husband was homosexual and had started to explore his newly adopted sexuality.

Do you know what Gacy’s response was? If he’s being accused of having sex with men, he may as well do it.

Around two weeks after the incident with Tony Antonucci (a survivor) in 1975, teenager John Butkovich went missing – he also worked at PDM Contractors.

Gacy had strong feelings for John, and they developed a father-son relationship – and a sexual relationship. One day, John never returned to work but left his car behind, his pride and joy. His co-workers noticed this, and they started to question his absence. They were told that Butkovich was arguing about pay, and he left.

However, Gacy had handcuffed and used a rope to strangle him until he had taken his final breath. Gacy later stated on tape that he couldn’t recall what happened and woke up to him dead. Another hole was dug for his body and cemented over. His body was found under the garage on 22nd December 1978 during the house search on Gacy’s house.

The following year in 1976, 17-year-old Michael Bonne became the next victim. His family didn’t believe that he could have run away, as it was out of character for Michael to disappear for long periods. It was later discovered that Bonne went to work with Gacy. He, too, was sexually assaulted before being strangled and buried under the house; investigators later found his fishing license at Gacy’s home.

Following his divorce from Carole Hoff in 1976, John Wayne Gacy discovered another popular hangout amongst the Gay community and regularly met men for sex.

Gacy believed he owned their bodies and would decide who lived and who died based on how he felt about them. If he decided he was no longer attracted to them or didn’t satisfy his needs, he would sexually assault and torture them before murdering them and burying their bodies.

Frustratingly, Gacy admitted what he did to his attorney Sam Amirante and the legal team, but they could not disclose the information due to client privileges.

Robert Piest

On 11th December 1978, Robert Piest was at his local chemist store. Whilst there, a witness described a white, middle-aged man that visited the store. Robert went to speak to him about a job. He was 15 years old and was never seen again. The man described was John Wayne Gacy.

Gacy said Robert should ride with him in his car to talk, and they went back to his house, his house of death.

Robert was sexually assaulted and handcuffed; like many others, a rope was placed around his neck. The phone rang, and when Gacy returned, Robert was dead.

It was out of character for Robert to not return home. He was close to his family, well-liked, played sports and was a keen photographer. It was his mum’s birthday, an occasion Robert wouldn’t miss.

On 12th December 1978, Robert Piest’s family filed a missing person’s case with the Des Plaines Police Department, in Chicago. Lieutenant Kezenczal was part of the investigating team and asked Gacy to come to the station to make a statement. Reluctantly, he diverted the conversation claiming he had personal family issues to care for and would only be able to visit the station after this.

While this may seem like Gacy is in control, it’s the reverse. He was careless and made mistakes, leaving a slew of evidence behind him and reasons to cause suspicion.

At 3 am, Gacy arrived at the police station, covered in mud, including in his car. What type of person would do that? He was a primary suspect in a murder case and chose to willingly visit the police station in the early morning hours covered in filth? This raises suspicion, but Gacy thought he could outsmart the police and was untouchable.

Robert Piest

So, what was Gacy doing to be covered in mud?

He was disposing of the body.

This needed to be done fast, as the police were tailing him and getting a warrant to search his home. He took the body and threw it in the Des Plaines River, but Robert wasn’t the only body to be given a watery grave. On the way back from the river, Gacy was in a car accident, another mistake that added to his ever-growing list; this resulted in his mud-covered clothes.

In the United States, the police can only hold you without charge for a certain amount of time. Gacy refused to give the police permission to search his home voluntarily, but he knew he had no choice once a search warrant was granted, so he either handed over the keys or the police would find alternative ways to get in. Gacy knew that the wolves were circling him now.

John Wayne Gacy was already on the police’s radar, as he had previously been arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison at the Anamosa State Penitentiary for sexually assaulting a 15-yeard old boy, a crime that bared resemblance to many of his future crimes.

At the time, his then-wife Marylnn issued him divorce papers, adding another layer of emotional pressure to an increasingly unstable John Wayne Gacy.

You can probably imagine the eeriness that surrounds John Wayne Gacy’s macabre home. The police found some utterly disturbing items, such as sinister-looking paintings of clowns on the wall, a tiki bar and a hallway with yellow zig-zag lines on the walls. It’s rumoured that Gacy buried his victims in a zig-zag formation in his house, so his choice of interior décor could be symbolic of this. 

One of the most significant items found later by the police was a photographed receipt with the reference number 36119 from Nissan Pharmacy; the store Robert worked at. This is significant, as it leaves a trail of who it belonged to and the time for dropping the film off to be processed. It belonged to Robert; he was with John Wayne Gacy at his home. Despite this finding, the police could not charge Gacy due to the circumstantial nature of the evidence, and he was free to go, for now. However, they could secure an additional warrant to search his house again.

The police had also discovered personal items belonging to other victims, including an engraved ring that belonged to 19-year-old John Szyc, who also disappeared. His car was found and sold to Michael Rossi by Gacy, another employee at PDM Contractors.

Szyc’s parents said his TV went missing – the police found a similar one in Gacy’s house. This is not uncommon amongst serial killers, many like to take tokens and souvenirs from their victims, and Gacy was no different. These items reminded Gacy of the power he held over each and every one of them.

Gacy enjoyed the hierarchy status of being powerful. He knew that gay men would be unable to walk into a police station and report being sexually assaulted by another man. Who would believe them? Gacy knew this and used it to protect his gruesome acts. With his contacts and the control he had with his legal team, all he needed was to make one phone call if any complaints were made about him.

On 19th December 1978 (day eight of the Piest investigation), a police officer noticed a foul odour stemming from within the house. This was the smell of decaying flesh. Two days later, the police were able to arrest Gacy for possession of marijuana and obtained another warrant to search his home.

The police searched the crawl space and uncovered the unimaginable – bodies, not just one or two. They were pulling out bones, decomposed bodies, and more in other areas of the house, making it one of the most significant homicide cases in American history. This discovery led Gacy to talk, revealing that his vicious killing spree began in 1972.

On 22nd December 1978, the house evacuation began on John Gacy’s home, which was being pulled apart to find Robert. More bodies were found, more victims and more lives extinguished at the hands of this monster.

The bodies were found in various positions, some with rope marks around their necks. But Robert was yet to be discovered. When questioned by the police, Gacy said Robert’s body was neither above nor below ground. What did this mean? Could Robert’s body be in the water?

Twenty-one bodies were found on 29th December 1978.

John Wayne Gacy drew a map to show where the bodies were buried at his home. There were over 20 bodies marked, and not all of them were buried under his house.

It wasn’t until 9th April 1979 that Robert’s body was found in the waters. Due to the change in seasons, the water needs to reach a specific temperature before a body can resurface.

John Wayne Gacy’s house was demolished on 10th April 1979 to ensure all bodies were found and that his house was no longer present in the community as a disturbing reminder of the Killer Clown that lived next door. 

Surviving Victims

The Netflix documentary introduced a surviving victim who told his terrifying story about his unfriendly encounter with Gacy.

John Wayne Gacy and three other men went back to his house to play pool and have a few drinks. Two of them decided to leave with one man remaining – he was already feeling uncomfortable. The mood quickly changed as Gacy chose to have some “fun”.

While playing pool, he wanted to place some bets, but not for money, for sexual acts. If Gacy wins, a sexual act will be performed on him. The victim will have to endure Gacy if he loses. Although he said no, Gacy asked if he wanted to watch porn instead. Gacy staged this, as another way to manipulate the situation to reach his twisted end goal.

There was a projector on; Gacy left the room to return, then pointed a gun at the victim’s head, yelling at him to remove his trousers. When the victim went to bed, he woke up to Gacy rubbing his leg and holding a knife to his throat. He found it amusing, as he enjoyed psychologically testing his victims to see how they act under pressure. Also, it was a threat that if anyone found out, he would kill him.

In 1975, Tony Antonucci became another victim, fortunately, a survivor. He, too, worked with Gacy, and due to an incident at work, he was sent home. Gacy visited Tony at his home to see how he was – he was also aware that his parents were away. Fortunately, Tony was a wrestler in high school and could defend himself. Tony managed to escape and placed the handcuffs on Gacy. Gacy told him after that, “you’re the only one that not only got out of the handcuffs but had them on me”.

On 21st March 1978, Jeffrey Rignall, a young man, was picked up by Gacy. He placed a cloth over his face with chloroform; he passed out and was taken to Gacy’s home. Gacy put Jeffrey into a pillory device to secure his hands and head and another device for his feet. He was left there for some time, giving Gacy more enjoyment and control – Gacy even raped and tortured him with large sex toys.

Jeffrey woke up on the steps by Lincoln Park the following morning with his face burnt from the chloroform. As it was a man-on-man sexual assault, there wasn’t much urgency from the police to investigate. However, Gacy was later arrested for battery.

The Trial

John Wayne Gacy’s legal team was obligated to represent him, despite knowing the extent of his gruesome crimes. Due to his confession, an insanity plea was the only way Gacy could avoid prison. He was evaluated by a forensic psychiatrist, Dr Richard Rapport.

Dr Rapport concluded that Gacy’s father was an aggressor, constantly criticising him. He drank and became violent toward his son. His mother was the opposite. He developed a close bond with his mother and would often try on her underwear, clearly confused about his sexuality from a young age.

Dr Rapport also believed that Gacy had neurotic, psychotic and compulsive behaviour that led him to bury the bodies. He thought he was insane and had a brief psychotic episode on each murder victim, which could have been represented by how his father victimised him in his basement as a boy. So, Gacy projected this on his victims by burying them in the crawler.

Gacy claimed throughout the trial that he didn’t understand why he was on trial and what crimes he had committed.

On 6th February 1980, Gacy’s trial began for the 33 known male bodies found and the survivors.

William Kunkle was the prosecutor; Gacy took an instant dislike to him. Had Gacy found someone who finally made him feel threatened, someone he was unable to manipulate? Throughout the trial, Gacy showed no remorse.

During week six of the trial, 10th March 1980, Kunkle delivered his closing statement that would change the minds of any juror thinking Gacy was insane. He showed the jurors the photos of the 22 identified bodies and told them if they wanted to show John Wayne Gacy mercy, show him the same mercy he showed these victims. He then threw the photos in a mock-up version of the crawler.

It took less than nine hours for the jurors to come to a decision. The jury unanimously dismissed the plea of insanity. He was found guilty.

On 13th March 1980, John Wayne Gacy was sentenced to death. He was still claiming that he didn’t understand what he did, but he didn’t feel guilty. Gacy alleged that he only knew about two of the bodies and helped dispose of them. He also said he didn’t murder anyone; he was just an accomplice.

Following years of appeals, John Wayne Gacy was executed in Illinois on 10th May 1994. His last words were, “kiss my ass”.

The Aftermath

During the 70s, it was harder to identify bodies without DNA. In situations like this, where there are just skeletal remains, forensics rely on fingerprints and dental records. The Des Plaines police force asked parents of missing teenage boys to come forward with dental records so the bodies could be identified. However, not everyone did, and some bodies remain unidentified even today.

Some of this was due to the perception of homosexuality and missing person cases being ignored or parents not wanting to associate themselves with their gay children. 

There was no authentic voice for the Gay community, no education or understanding. It was seen as an abnormality that caused so many people to lose their identity, and become a runaway from a home they once loved and instead try to survive the streets, hoping predators like John Wayne Gacy never surfaced.

There was a lack of trust between the Gay community and the police (a common theme throughout history), forcing them to be silenced, even under the most horrifying experiences.

In 2010, there were still unidentified bodies. The case was reopened to identify the remaining victims rather than referring to them as numbers. In 2017, a family came forward and identified 16-year-old James Haakenson. In 2021, Wayne Alexander was identified; he was in his early 20s and last seen in 1976. The rest remain unnamed.

Every boy who caught the eye of John Wayne Gacy became his victim.

One thing remains of Gacy’s legacy – his haunting paintings of clowns that are in high demand within the art community. Should they be seen as a stark reminder of his crimes against the Gay community within Chicago? 

I ask you this, is it better to remove these paintings from history or keep them in the public eye as a reminder that we can’t let these crimes happen again?

In Memory:

john wayne gacy victims

The names of the 28 identified victims are:

  1. Timothy Jack McCoy, aged 16, was murdered on 3rd January 1972, found in the crawl space.
  2. John Butkovich, aged 18, murdered on 31st July 1975, found in the garage.
  3. Darrell Julius Samson, aged 18, was murdered on 6th April 1976, found under the dining room.
  4. Randall Wayne Reffett, aged 15, was murdered on 14th May 1976, found in the crawl space.
  5. Samuel G Dodd Stapleton, aged 14, was murdered on 14th May 1976, found in the crawl space.
  6. Michael Lawrence Bonnin, aged 17, was murdered on 3rd June 1976, found in the crawl space.
  7. William Huey Carroll Jr, aged 16, was murdered on 13th June 1976, found in the crawl space.
  8. James Byron Haakenson, aged 16, was murdered on 5th August 1976, found in the crawl space.
  9. Rick Louis Johnston, aged 17, was murdered on 6th August 1976, found in the crawl space.
  10. Kenneth Ray Parker, aged 16, was murdered on 24th October 1976, found in the crawl space.
  11. Michael M Marino, aged 14, was murdered on 24th October 1976, found in the crawl space.
  12. William George Bundy, aged 19, was murdered on 26th October 1976, found in the crawl space.
  13. Francis Wayne Alexander, aged 21, was murdered on 1st December 1976, found in the crawl space.
  14. Gregory John Godzik, 17, murdered on 12th December 1976, found in the crawl space.
  15. John Alan Szyc, aged 19, was murdered on 20th January 1977, found in the crawl space.
  16. Jon Steven Prestidge, aged 20, was murdered on 15th March 1977, found in the crawl space.
  17. Matthew Walter Bowman, aged 19, was murdered on 5th July 1977, found in the crawl space.
  18. Robert Edward Gilroy Jr, aged 18, was murdered on 15th September 1977, found in the crawl space.
  19. John Antheney Mowery, aged 19, was murdered on 25th September 1977, found in the crawl space.
  20. Russell Lloyd Nelson, aged 21, was murdered on 17th October 1977, found in the crawl space.
  21. Robert David Winch, aged 16, murdered on 10th November 1977, found in the crawl space.
  22. Tommy Joe Boling, aged 20, was murdered on 18th November 1877, found in the crawl space.
  23. David Paul Talsma, aged 19, was murdered on 9th December 1977, found in the crawl space.
  24. William Wayne Kindred, aged 19, murdered on 16th February 1978, found in the crawl space.
  25. Timothy David O’Rourke, aged 20, was murdered around 16th – 23rd June 1978, found in Des Plaines River.
  26. Frank William Landingin, aged 19, was murdered on 4th November 1978, found in Des Plaines River.
  27. James Mazzara, aged 20, was murdered on 24th November 1978, found in Des Plaines River.
  28. Robert Jerome Piest, aged 15, was murdered on 11th December 1978, found in Des Plaines River.

The details of the five unidentified victims are:

  1. Male aged 14–18, murdered between 3rd January 1972 – 31th July 1975, found in the backyard.
  2. Male aged 23–30, murdered between 13th June – 5th August 1976, was found in the crawl space.
  3. Male aged 17–22, murdered between 6th August – 5th October 1976, found in the crawl space.
  4. Male aged 15–24, murdered between 6th August – 24th October 1976, found in the crawl space.
  5. Male aged 17–21, murdered between 15th March – 5th July 1977, was found in the crawl space.

Source: Netflix – Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes

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