On March 12, 1980, a jury found serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr., guilty of murdering 33 teenage boys and young men in Illinois.
Gacy became known as the “Killer Clown” because he was known for dressing up for children’s parties as a character he created named “Pogo the Clown.” But his cheerful exterior hid a horrifying double life: Between the years of 1972 and 1978, Gacy’s house in the Chicago suburb of Norwood Park became a house of horrors.Gacy would typically lure victims to his house by asking them if they wanted to smoke marijuana, or under the pretense of doing odd jobs. Once inside, Gacy would rape the young men, torture them, and then strangle them to death with a makeshift tourniquet.
Eventually, police would find 26 victims buried in the crawlspace under his home. Three further victims were buried elsewhere on his property, while the bodies of his last four known victims were discarded in the Des Plaines River.
John Wayne Gacy, Jr., was born in Chicago, Illinois, on March 17, 1942, and as a child he was overweight and not athletic, and suffered from a heart condition.
Gacy had a fairly close relationship with his two sisters and mother, but his father, an alcoholic, was verbally and physically abusive — he reportedly called Gacy a “sissy” and a “Mama’s boy” who would probably “grow up queer.” Gacy claimed that he was molested by a family friend in 1949, but did not tell his father because he was afraid that he would blame him.
By 1966, Gacy was managing the three Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants his father-in-law purchased in Waterloo. For a while, life seemed normal: He got married, had two children, and joined the local chapter of the Jaycees.
But his social habits hid a dark side that involved wife swapping, prostitution, and drug use. Gacy is known to have opened a “club” in his basement, where he allowed employees to drink alcohol and play pool. He would make sexual advances on the young men he invited to the basement — and, if they rejected him, attempt to laugh it off as a joke.
In August 1967, Gacy committed his first known sexual assault upon a teenage boy, a 15-year-old named Donald Voorhees who was the son of a fellow Jaycee. Gacy was convicted of sodomy on December 3, 1968, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. After his conviction, his wife filed for divorce and asked for possession of the couple’s home, property, sole custody of their two children, and alimony.
The Court granted her requests, and Gacy never saw his first wife or children again. Gacy was a model prisoner, and on June 18, 1970, he was paroled after serving just 18 months of his 10-year sentence.
Gacy went back to Chicago to live with his mother, and soon got a job as a short-order cook. He married again and moved to the suburb of Norwood Park, became known as a model neighbor, and was active in his local community.Between 1975 until 1978, he was the director of the Polish Constitution Day Parade — and in this role, was photographed with First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Gacy is known to have performed as “Pogo” or “Patches the clown” at numerous local parties and events during this time.
On January 2, 1972, Gacy picked up 16-year-old Timothy Jack McCoy from Chicago’s Greyhound bus terminal, and later stabbed him to death. He told investigators that he realized in this moment that murder was the “ultimate thrill.”
Gacy has stated that the second time he killed was around January 1974. This time the victim was an unidentified teenage youth with medium brown, curly hair estimated to be aged between 14 and 18 whom Gacy strangled, then stuffed the body in a closet before burying the remains.
By 1975, Gacy was working 12- and 16-hour days — and killing more than ever. His typical modus operandi was to invite a young man over and offer him alcohol or drugs. Gacy would then pull out a pair of handcuffs and trick his intended victim into putting them on under the pretense of showing him how to free himself.
Gacy would then make a statement to the effect of “The trick is, you have to have the key,” before raping and torturing his victim. He would finally use “the rope trick,” which involved placing a rope over his victim’s neck and tying a makeshift tourniquet until the victim was strangled to death.
During this time, Gacy’s wife filed for divorce, and once he had the house to himself he continued to kill even more victims. But Gacy’s secret world began to unravel in December 1978 when he abducted and murdered a 15-year-old named Robert Jerome Piest.
After the teen’s parents reported him missing to police, the owner of the pharmacy where Piest worked part-time named Gacy as the contractor Piest had most likely left the store to talk with about a job.
Further investigation into Gacy’s background linked him to the disappearance of three additional young people, and one of Gacy’s employees also revealed that Gacy had paid him to dig trenches in the crawl space of his home.
Gacy eventually confessed his guilt to his lawyers in over 30 murders. Police obtained a search warrant for his house and, between December 22 and December 29, 1978, 27 bodies were recovered from Gacy’s property, 26 of which were found buried in his crawl space. One victim was found buried underneath the concrete floor of his garage precisely where Gacy had marked the youth’s grave with a can of spray paint. A 28th victim was found buried in a pit close to a barbecue grill in Gacy’s backyard, and on March 16 the skeletal remains of another victim were found buried underneath the dining room floor, bringing the total number of bodies exhumed at 8213 West Summerdale Avenue to 29.
In April 1979, the vacant house was demolished.
On March 13, 1980, Gacy was sentenced to death for 12 murders. He spent 14 years on Death Row before being executed by lethal injection on May 10, 1994.
Police continue to attempt to identify Gacy’s unnamed victims. Through DNA testing, investigators were able to identify William Bundy in 2015 as one of the men Gacy killed.
To learn more about John Wayne Gacy, watch Investigation Discovery’s The Killer Clown on Tuesday, October, 31, at 8/7c!
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Main photos: John Wayne Gacy mug shot [Des Plaines Police Department]