Are you afraid of clowns? A lot of people are. Studies have suggested the people are more uneasy around clowns than they are around the idea of climate change. But for people who were alive in the 1970s and know the story of John Wayne Gacy, the fear of clowns may be justified.
Who Was John Wayne Gacy?
John Wayne Gacy, “the Killer Clown,” shocked the nation when it was discovered that he had the dead bodies of over two dozen young men rotting in his home. John Wayne Gacy has gone down in history as one of the most prolific – and absolutely terrifying – serial killers in history.
This news came as a shock to many people that knew Gacy. For most of Gacy’s life, he was regarded as a leader in the community and even someone who brought great joy to the children around him. But shoved into the darkness by his reputation were many red flags and signs of a man who would later go on to commit horrific crimes.
The Early Life of John Wayne Gacy
John Wayne Gacy was born in 1942 in Chicago. His father was physically and verbally abusive throughout most of his childhood, repeatedly telling Gacy that he was a disappointment to his family. Gacy was unathletic and overweight, and took his aggression out in unfavorable ways. Reports of Gacy allegedly sexually abusing neighborhood kids surfaced as early as 1949, when Gacy was seven years old.
Although beatings from his father were the result of accusations like sexual abuse, Gacy’s father also beat his son for no reason at all. Gacy left home at 18 to live in Las Vegas, but came back after experiencing disturbing incidents as a mortuary attendant. He came back to Chicago mere months later.
Back in Chicago, he earned a degree from Northwestern Business College. He joined the Junior Chamber of Commerce in his community. During this time, Gacy was allegedly sexually assaulted by a fellow member. Gacy might have also been molested as a child by a family friend. Due to the abuse from his father as a young boy, Gacy did not report these early incidents of abuse.
The Community Leader (and Clown)
During this time, he met and fell in love with a woman named Marlynn, a coworker of his. In 1966, Gacy moved to Waterloo, Iowa with her – the couple would later go on to have two children. Marlynn’s father was the owner of multiple KFC restaurants. Gacy was the manager for the restaurants. He had big ambitions, and although some of the employees complained that he was “too friendly,” he became a prominent figure in the Waterloo community. In addition to his role as a manager, Gacy was also a member of the Waterloo Junior Chamber of Commerce. This organization, known as the Jaycees, was prominent in the community. Gacy was in charge of recruiting new members to the community, even earning “Man of the Year” for his great ability to do so.
According to Gacy, he was able to recruit so many new members to the Jaycees through stag shows (where the members watched pornography.) The members of the Jaycees were also swingers.
Two years after moving to Waterloo, he was arrested on a sodomy charge. Even when he was behind bars, Gacy claimed that the sodomy charge was consensual. Reports (and laws regarding whether minors can give consent) say otherwise. He allegedly persuaded a 15-year-old boy to perform oral sex on him. Although a number of other boys claimed to be the victims in similar stories involving Gacy, the community where Gacy lived allegedly believed his story. Still, he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to ten years behind bars.
During this time, Gacy got special privileges. He was in the good graces of the guards and made many friends during his time in prison. People who knew him from this time claim that he was certainly a master manipulator, but that he also was able to do good things for the prison and help people around him. In 1970, two years after he was sentenced to ten years behind bars, he was let out on parole. During this time, John Gacy’s father had died – Gacy mourned his death and told friends and family that he believed that the shame of his crimes was what killed his father.
Marlynn had filed for divorce from Gacy in 1969, and John did not return to his position at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Instead, he moved back in with his mother to Chicago. With money that he saved up from odd jobs, he started his own construction company. Eventually, he moved to a quiet neighborhood outside of Chicago called Norwood Park. This was the house where police would eventually discover the bodies of close to 30 young boys whom Gacy had murdered. In 1972, the year that Gacy first committed murder, he married his second wife, Carole Hoff.
Carole Hoff eventually left John Wayne Gacy, knowing of his indiscretions and seeing other strange red flags. When she left, Gacy opened his home to young boys that he employed or who just needed a place to crash for the night. He would often develop sexual relationships with them. (He considered himself bisexual, but would only go on to commit violent acts against young boys.)
But these reports didn’t stop Gacy from being a leader in the community. Gacy was a prominent figure in Norwood Park politics and the local Moose club. Through the Moose Club, Gacy spent some free time dressing up as “Pogo the Clown” and other various clown characters. Dressing up as a clown, Gacy later told interviews, was a form of relaxation. He would visit hospitals or birthday parties as “Pogo the Clown” twice a month. According to interviews, Gacy did not use his clown disguise as a way to lure young boys into his home to murder them. These crimes were usually committed as Gacy posed as a police officer or simply picked up young boys from nearby Greyhound stations. And this happened, in secret, from 1972 until Gacy’s arrest in late 1978.
John Wayne Gacy Crimes
Although Gacy did win over the favor and respect of his neighbors, local police kept an eye on him. In 1975, three years before Gacy would be arrested on 33 counts of homicide, police had him on their radar. Boys around Chicago told police officers that a man named “John” was looking to pick up teenage boys in his car. The name matched John Wayne Gacy – and after some investigation, police found that many young men were coming in and out of Gacy’s home. But they didn’t investigate further – none of the young men in Gacy’s home suspected him of murder or anything nefarious. They were usually just involved in Gacy’s construction company. There were employees that had been sexually assaulted by Gacy during this time, but they did not go to the police until right before Gacy’s arrest.
Over the next three years, police would revisit John Wayne Gacy in multiple cases against young boys. A nine-year-old boy had gone missing; a 19-year old boy claimed that Gacy kidnapped him and sexually assaulted him; a 27-year-old man claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Gacy. Gacy was charged for battery in the latter incident, but the claim was settled with a $3,000 fine. Gacy was still considered a well-respected member of the community, even getting a photo with the First Lady at the time during a community event.
How Was John Wayne Gacy Caught?
On December 12, 1978, police were looking to find Robert Piest, a teenage boy who had recently gone missing. What they found throughout the coming weeks became one of the most shocking news stories in Chicago history.
Piest had gone missing the day before. He told his mother that he wanted to speak to a man about a construction job – and he never returned home. After the boy’s mother filed a missing persons report, investigators discovered that Gacy was the man in question. The police called Gacy in for questioning, but Gacy didn’t show up. (He was dumping Piest’s body in the river during this time.) This gave officers the greenlight to get a search warrant for Gacy’s home and car, and put him on around-the-clock surveillance.
At first, only a small receipt linked to Piest was found in Gacy’s home. On a second visit, the officers smelled “death,” but weren’t able to recover any missing boys. Gacy was even released from prison at this time, although he was under surveillance. His lawyers started to build a case against the police, claiming that they were conducting illegal search and seizures.
By December 20, police did not find any bodies, but they did uncover Gacy’s sodomy charge from Iowa. He had been released on parole in 1970 after serving two years behind bars and allowed to come back to Chicago in 1971. A day after this conviction was uncovered, Gacy was arrested and brought in for more thorough questioning and a search of his home. Gacy’s lawyers admit to police that Gacy has confessed to around 30 murders.
Over the next two and a half weeks, police would conduct a more thorough search of Gacy’s home, finding and identifying young boys who were murdered and dumped into Gacy’s crawl space, other parts of his home, and a nearby river. Most of the bodies were found in the crawlspace of his home, buried in shallow graves. Another three bodies were found in various other parts of his home. Four additional bodies were found in nearby streams.
Gacy would admit to the murders, but he could not be charged with them until all of the bodies were identified. This was no easy task – some of the bodies had been rotting in shallow graves for years, and not all parents of the missing sons came forward to inquire about their son’s disappearance or identify the bodies.
Charges and Indictment
On January 10, 1979, John Wayne Gacy was charged with the murder of seven young boys. He pleaded not guilty, despite his admittance of guilt to a larger number of murders. But the numbers kept inching higher and higher. On March 17th, 1979, 32 bodies were linked to John Wayne Gacy and 11 had been identified. On April 23, John Wayne Gacy was indicted for an additional 26 murders, bringing the total up to 33.
The trial of John Wayne Gacy took place in February 1980. During the trial, Gacy tried to be acquitted on the grounds of insanity. It didn’t work. A month later, the trial ended and a jury took less than two hours to come to an agreement. He was guilty and he would be sentenced to death.
While Gacy was on death row, more victims would be identified. These victims were as young as 14 years old. As Gacy appealed his case (and was repeatedly denied,) forensic examiners would continue to match the remains found in his home to missing boys. In 1981, eight victims were still unidentified, but laid to rest. The last victim to be identified was Timothy McCoy, John Wayne Gacy’s first victim. The 16-year-old was killed on January 3, 1972.
Is John Wayne Gacy Dead?
John Wayne Gacy was executed in 1994.
In 2021, the streaming service Peacock released a documentary that features a 1992 interview with Gacy, two years before he was executed at Stateville Correctional Center by lethal injection. If you want to learn more about the serial killer and hear, in his own words, about his case, you can watch that now.
As you know, there were many red flags that could have predicted the crimes of John Wayne Gacy. When he was evaluated by a psychiatrist before his sentencing in 1968, experts believed that he was a sexual psychopath and would go on to commit crimes for the rest of his life. No treatment would be able to cure him, the report said. He would need to be monitored – but that didn’t happen. His manipulating ways allowed him to go on, become a trusted person in society, and murder over 30 young boys with their whole lives ahead of them. And that is the legacy of John Wayne Gacy.