Questions About the John Wayne Gacy Murders Remain Unanswered
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In December 1978, the bodies of 26 young boys were excavated from the crawl space of John Wayne Gacy’s Chicago area home as crowds of press and onlookers surrounding the property. Three more bodies were found buried outside his house, and Gacy verbally confessed to four more murders of victims later found in the Des Plaines River. One of the most infamous serial killers in American history, John Wayne Gacy is known as the “Killer Clown” who would torture, bind, rape, and murder young men that he picked up in the area. Last year, Peacock released a docuseries called John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise, which featured never before seen interview footage of Gacy in 1992 before his execution, and suggested that there’s likely even more to the infamous case than is widely known. Now, with a new documentary called Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes out on Netflix, here's the true story of the Gacy case, as well as an overview of the unanswered questions that linger to this day.
John Wayne Gacy grew up in the Chicago area, and his sister Karen, who is interviewed in Peacock's documentary, details the medical problems, abuse, and injuries he suffered in his youth. According to her, he was beaten by their father, who was an alcoholic, and sexually abused regularly by a contractor in the neighborhood. When he was 18, Gacy ran away to Las Vegas for a few months, where he worked in a mortuary around dead bodies. After he returned to Illinois, Gacy met his first wife Marlynn Myers in 1964 working at a shoe store. They got married and moved to Iowa, where Gacy began working for Myers’ father and joined the Jaycees, a leadership training organization. He was a top recruiter at the organization, quickly rising through the ranks to become vice president in 1965. But his style was unconventional—he drew young men to the organization with promises of stag film viewings and parties. Eventually his behavior caught up to him, when a 15-year-old son of a fellow Jaycee named Donald Voorhees came forward and reported Gacy for forcing him to commit sexual acts with him. Gacy was convicted of sodomy in May 1968 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He served 18 months of his sentence, and Peacock’s documentary notes how well-liked and social Gacy was in prison, working in the kitchen and even organizing for a miniature golf course to be added to the grounds. During this time, in 1969, his wife filed for and was granted a divorce and custody of their children.
When he was paroled a year and a half later in 1970, Gacy moved back to the Chicago area. After a few months of living with his mother, he purchased a house at 8213 West Summerdale Avenue in Norwood Park Township, where he’d throw parties and socialize with his neighbors. He was involved in politics and started his own construction business called PDM Contractors, for which he hired teenage boys to help. He also volunteered at hospitals and performed at parties as Pogo the Clown, a hobby he calls “relaxation” for him. He got married again in 1972 to Carole Hoff, who moved into his home along with her two daughters. At one point in the marriage she found wallets belonging to young men in his car, and in Peacock's documentary, recalls complaining to Gacy about the smell of death coming from under the house at this time. The couple divorced in 1976.
Gacy was arrested several times and investigated several times between his release from prison in 1970 and 1978, when he was finally caught and charged with murder. In 1971, Gacy was arrested when a teenager claimed that he had picked him up from a bus station and tried to force him to commit a sex act. That charge, however, was dismissed when the boy failed to appear in court. The police investigated Gacy in both 1975 and 1976 when two young boys who worked for Gacy disappeared on separate occasions, but did not find anything to link Gacy to the disappearances. The police staked out his home again when a 9-year-old child prostitute went missing in 1976. In 1977, 27-year-old Jeff Rignall accused Gacy of luring him into his car, chloroforming him, and driving him to his home, where he bound, beat, and raped him. Gacy was charged with battery, but let go. Then later that year, he was arrested again when a 19-year-old said Gacy kidnapped him at gunpoint and forced him to commit sexual acts. He was taken into custody, but not prosecuted after he admitted to the act but contested that it was non-consensual.
But on December 11, 1978, 15-year-old Robert Piest went missing after he told his mom, who was waiting for him outside the drug store he worked at, that he was briefly going to talk to a contractor to discuss some potential higher paying work opportunities. When he was reported missing later that evening, the police asked Gacy, the contractor Piest had spoken to, to come in for questioning. He did not show up at the station, and police later learned that Gacy had taken Piest’s body from his home and dumped it into the Des Plaines River after that call.
The police obtained a search warrant early the next morning, and when Gacy’s home was searched, a receipt belonging to Robert Piest’s coworker from the drug store was found. Concluding that Piest had been inside Gacy’s home and hoping to find him alive, police, including officer Michael Albrecht, began to follow Gacy full-time beginning on December 14, 1978. The following day, police conducted another search of Gacy's home and found a high school ring belonging to another missing boy named John Szyc.
Authorities arrested Gacy on December 21, 1978, after he was seen handling marijuana while under surveillance. During another search of his home, investigators discovered the door to a crawl space under Gacy's home in which they found bones. On December 22, while in police custody, Gacy verbally confessed to killing 32 young men. He drew a diagram showing where the bodies would be found under his home, and gave the names of six of the victims. He was charged with murder, and on December 23, the very public spectacle of dismantling and digging under his home began. By December 30, police had uncovered the remains of 29 bodies.
On January 8, Gacy was charged with the murders of seven young men, aggravated kidnapping, deviate sexual assault, and taking indecent liberties with a child, to which he pleaded not guilty. On April 23, he was indicted for another 26 murders, and a judge later granted a motion that he would be tried for all 33 murder charges simultaneously. John Wayne Gacy’s trial began on February 6, 1980, where his lawyers aimed to convince the jury that Gacy was not guilty by reason of insanity, while prosecutors argued for a death sentence. Five weeks later, on March 12, 1980, the jury took less than two hours to convict Gacy of murdering 33 young men. The following day, he was sentenced to death.
All appeals filed in the years that followed were denied, and Gacy spent much of his time on death row at Menard Correctional Center painting. On May 10, 1994, John Wayne Gacy was executed by lethal injection at Stateville Correctional Center.
In 2011, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced that his office would be renewing the search for the identities of the 8 remaining unknown victims in the case. With new DNA technology available, the police exhumed the remains and asked anyone who knew of a young boy who went missing between 1970 and December 22 1978 to come forward. The following month, William George Bundy, who was 19 when he disappeared, was matched by the DNA of his sister to the 19th body recovered from Gacy’s crawl space.
This exhumation and renewed DNA matching process complicated things for one family. In 2012, Sherry Marino obtained permission to have her son Michael Marino’s grave exhumed, too. He had been identified as a Gacy victim in March of 1980, but she had always doubted the match due to discrepancies between her son’s dental records and the body found. The DNA of the exhumed body was not a match to her, and though her lawyers sent their findings to the police, the orthodontist who initially identified the body disputed that there is any discrepancy in Michael Marino’s case. The police still count Marino as a Gacy victim.
Peacock's 2021 documentary raises questions beyond the Marino case, too. It looks into David Cram and Michael Rossi, the two boys who worked with Gacy and moved into his home after his 1976 divorce. They dug the trenches in his crawl space during the time of the murders and covered the ground in lime to decrease the foul smell. They both testified against Gacy in court, saying they were told the crawl space was a plumbing project. In the new footage obtained for the documentary, Gacy claims that both men were involved with the murders, however he doesn't specify any other details. In an interview with Esquire, officer Michael Albrecht, who helped catch Gacy, says he believes the serial killer acted alone with no other accomplices.
Peacock's documentary proposes that there could have been more victims, too. In it, former police officer Rafael Tovar recounts Gacy telling him that “45 sounds like a good number” when asked if there were more victims. When asked where the other 12 bodies might be, Gacy retorted, “No, that’s your job. You got to find out.” Gacy was an unreliable, serial liar who from after his initial confession up until his death denied any wrongdoing of most of the murders he was convicted of, but Tovar states that he believed Gacy was being honest at that moment.
The documentary also features Bill Dorsch, a former Chicago homicide detective who knew John Wayne Gacy, and once saw him with a shovel in the middle of the night in the yard of his mother’s apartment building, where he kept the grounds in the 1970s. But when Dorsch called in to alert the police of this strange encounter after Gacy was arrested in 1978, the police did not immediately excavate the area. "I couldn't understand why anybody would not want to follow through on this," Dorsch told the Chicago Tribune in 2012. The documentary shows that the area was examined by radar and dug up in 1998 and 2013, although not in its entirety, and only in locations that witnesses have stated were incorrect.
“If there are more victims out there and they could be connected to him, it would give resolution to any families who are still searching for answers,” Alexa Danner, one of the executive producers of the series, told NBC. Gacy has not officially been connected to any other murders aside from the 33 he was convicted for by authorities.
In 2017, victim number 24 was identified by DNA matching as Jimmy Haakenson, a 16-year-old boy who had traveled from Minnesota to Chicago in 1976. Six known Gacy victims remain unidentified to this day.
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