John Wayne Gacy’s Last Trick: Did the Killer Clown have an accomplice?

John Wayne Gacy is one of the supposed ‘canon’ of celebrity serial killers. A Chicago businessman and political activist with a sideline in playing his Pogo the Clown character at community parties, Gacy was imprisoned for murdering 33 young men and boys between 1972 and his final arrest in 1978. He hid 29 of the bodies in the crawlspace under his house and left four others in the local Illinois River. He is one of the few killers who have entered the popular imagination, via the seminal TV series To Catch A Killer, books and critically acclaimed films such as Dear Mr Gacy. He also earned a comfortable sum selling his story on the murder memorabilia market. Much of this media examined the contrast between Gacy’s public and private personae, but there have been suggestions that Gacy may have had one or more accomplices or been a ‘mere’ accessory to some of the crimes. How likely is this, and if it is possible, does that leave the convict clown or Lady Justice with egg on their face?

Serial Killer Slapstick

John Wayne Gacy, though named after the square-jawed, tough-guy film star, was always thought of as something of a fool. He was born in Chicago in 1942 to John Gacy senior and Marion. John’s dad was stern and regularly chastised his son for his clumsy attitude towards life. No matter what the kid did (for he adored his father) he couldn’t please Gacy senior, so he would be beaten. They ran around in circles as Marion tried to protect her baby from her braying, bullying husband, while the boy tried to keep ahead of his dad as well as running for cover with his mother. Their mismatched efforts just made matters worse. Gacy senior came to see his son as an effeminate momma’s boy that, he pronounced, would probably grow up ‘queer’.

Life wasn’t much better for John junior at school, either. A congenital heart problem meant he couldn’t engage in the rough and tumble with the other children and he became the butt of jokes as the teachers’ pet who would mop up after his superiors by doing their errands. The other children laughed, not with little John, but at him.

At age 11, John fell from a swing and was knocked unconscious. Far from coming up to the sound of a comedy klaxon with a giddy grin and a shiny red bump on his bruised bonce, John developed psychomotor epileptic seizures, which were to plague him and keep him away from school for about a year over time. Such bad luck may have led to further misfortune as scientists at the University of Wisconsin identified such physical trauma as one of the key indicators for potential future serial killers.

The remains of one of Gacy's victims
The remains of one of Gacy’s victims

Entering the arena

John tried to make Gacy senior proud by following in his father’s footsteps. Reprising the traditional routine, he found himself a wife in Marilynn Myers. Her father owned several fried chicken restaurants and John soon began working for him. He turned out to be a natural businessman. Developing his veneer of respectability, Gacy also began work as a political activist. He campaigned for the Democrats (despite his dad considering their liberal views as ‘sissy’) where he would rise to be the precinct captain and have his photograph taken with Rosalynn Carter, wife to US President Jimmy. He was also elected vice president of the Springfield branch of the United States Junior Chamber, or Jaycees. The formerly clumsy kid was officially considered a community leader.

It was superb sleight of hand. Gacy’s politics were an effort to attract the right kind of attention. They hid his discovery that his father had been right: John junior had experienced sexual attraction to other men. The realisation that this was okay was, quite frankly, light years away for someone of his background, and he buried his head in secret dalliances with boys. It had started when he was a mortuary assistant for a brief time, when he found himself caressing a coffined corpse. His feelings continued, along with occasional liaisons, but he was playing with fire and the loaded cannon he had effectively been priming blew up in his face, propelling him to prison in 1968 for the felony of raping a boy. Gacy’s wife filed for divorce on his arrest, taking their two children with her. Gacy was released early for good behaviour.

Pogo the Go-To Guy

After prison, Gacy hid himself in a house of heterosexual mirrors and remarried with divorcee Carole Hoff. He bought a home with the help of his mother and set himself up on the outskirts of Chicago. A typical clown act involves physical comedy – pratfalls and feats of balance emphasised by ladders – and so John diligently established his own PDM (painting, decorating and maintenance) building-construction company. He swiftly somersaulted his way to the respect of other local bosses in undercutting their prices by hiring local lads to help with the heavy fetching and carrying. At the same time, he endeared himself to the local community by becoming Pogo the Clown. John Wayne Gacy, the business fire-breather with a conviction for felony against a minor, created the jovial character and played him not once, but regularly. He would visit children’s hospitals and became known for running massive community events in the guise of the grinning Grimaldi. Using the mask, he had finally become The Great American Man™. He’d just needed a pointy hat and a pom-pom on his head to do it.

Every lead clown needs friends to help behind the scenes, so John established himself as a benevolent trickster to his young male employees. Rather than being a ringmaster who would seem too much like (his own, fearsome) dad, he became a playmate to them. Like Stromboli, the circus master from Pinocchio, he would welcome the kids into his office home with the offer of late night snooker and smokes, the latter made more enticing by being marijuana, and he and the boys would get tripwire high together. Sometimes, the tinkling sound of their laughter was payment enough, but at other times he’d decide the show must go on. Only it couldn’t.

A body is removed from the Gacy residence
A body is removed from the Gacy residence

Murdering Ringmaster

Over and over again, John was squirted in the face not by the ‘flower’ of some beautiful young beau, but by the shame he felt because he couldn’t stand the scent of his sexuality. It had pervaded his life to the extent that he didn’t even bother hiding his male porn stash from his wife anymore and would regularly go cruising the Chicago red-light districts for rent boys. The only way he could deal with his inability to be what he thought of as a stand-up guy was to get off (both erotically and in terms of handling his homosexuality hobby horse) by tripping the ‘tricks’ he picked up: flooring and killing the objects of his desire.

He did this by fooling the boys and men into placing themselves directly in his ring – handcuffs – during which he would force them to commit sexual acts on him or would rape them. Then he would kill them. One thing he hadn’t bargained for, however, was the inevitable need for a disappearing act. The men’s and boys’ bodies were put in what became little more than a theatrical trap door in the base of John Gacy’s mind. 29 of them were buried in the crawl space directly beneath his house. The final four he was convicted for were flushed out and into the river.

Cops, props, problems

Some clowns pretend to be stupid, but because of Gacy’s arrogance, he was the real deal. The rule of any magic act is to keep the trick out of view of the audience, lest they catch the conjurer with his pants down, mid quick change. Gacy, however, was a messy showman and found clearing up afterwards became impossible because the bodies began to degrade and smell. Like a smoke bomb gone wrong, the odour began to leak up into his house, causing alarm from his neighbours. John, famously, tried to blame this on his sewage system.

Like many serial killers, he also kept keepsakes from those he killed. His final unwilling volunteer was Robert Piest, a pharmacist’s assistant he’d been seen with prior to the boy’s disappearance. Gacy had offered Piest a job and so was investigated by police. Only true entertainers can hide their secrets in close-up illusion, and on investigation, police searching Gacy’s home found a roll of Piest’s camera film. As if because of some great cosmic joke, Gacy was in custody already for possessing marijuana, and when he heard that the boy’s possessions had been found, he confessed to the murders of the boys in his basement immediately.

The bodies were uncovered, caked in a cruel makeup of flesh and bone-dissolving lime. Taped conversations with Gacy’s lawyers that were released to the public showed the most macabre sense of humour imaginable as the man intermingled lurid sexual jokes with discussions about his case. What a great way to make your audience hate you.

The jury took all of two hours to find Gacy guilty of all 33 murders, completely discarding his defence team’s plea for life imprisonment, rather than the death penalty, owing to his claimed insanity.

Ever notice how so many people seem almost proud to be scared of clowns? Folk often say it’s because they can’t believe how anyone could be that happy. The clowns’ gestures are too manic, the smiles too fixed and the glee with which the custard pies are thrown a little too forced for comfort. Like a killer ‘bad’ pun, Gacy’s garish gurning kept coming and coming, terrifying and titillating in equal measure.

Gacy in a police car
Gacy in a police car

Double Act?

Far from being a killer who solely glorified in his showmanship, Gacy got scared of his own spotlight.

In televised interviews, he claimed he had accomplices, men who worked with him for his construction firm. Indeed, surviving victim Jeffrey Rignall has stated there was someone else in the room during his encounter with the convicted killer.

That Gacy may have not have been alone is a claim that has been reinvestigated by Chicago attorneys Steven Becker and Robert Stephenson. Both men worked voluntarily, and as Gacy is long dead, let alone convicted, some may wonder whether they were the legal circus’s ‘first aid’ or illusionists. Their professed aim to help the families connected with the Gacy case to find closure is, however, laudable.

The men intended to see if there had been a miscarriage of justice by focusing on the case of Michael Marino, named by police as a Gacy victim. Sherry Marino, Michael’s mother, is convinced that the body discovered and named as Michael is not in fact her son but a different dead man, stage-placed by cops to cover up mistakes in the original murder investigations. The body identified as Michael’s has been exhumed and Becker and Stephenson state that tests have concluded there is no DNA match with Michael’s mother, and so the body cannot be her boy. This claim is flatly denied by forensics officers involved in the original case and reiterated by Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart. According to the sheriff’s office, the test report the attorneys provided is “redacted and incomplete” and “does not allow for competent review or conclusion.”

Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly the case that eight of Gacy’s victims were left merely unidentified, their bones in boxes for 30 years. Gacy’s crimes, it must be remembered, took place before DNA was widely used as a method of genetic criminal profiling and police had to rely on psychological profiling to catch the killers, hence the title of the Gacy biopic, To Catch A Killer. As far-fetched as it may sound, investigators were still looking for additional bodies as recently as 1998, 20 years after Gacy’s original trial.

Having re-examined more of the cases at hand, Becker and Stephenson stated that the families of three of the victims have not been dealt justice. This is because (they said) these cases – those of Robert Gilroy, Robert Nelson and Russell Mowery – showed dissimilarities with the other Gacy victims. Gilroy’s autopsy report showed there had been a “cloth-like” material stuck in his throat and that he was murdered when Gacy’s travel documents suggested he was not in the area. Nelson was allegedly kidnapped while with a friend and his throat stuffed with a cloth, again when Gacy was supposedly away, and distance was also used to discount John from the death of Russell Mowery. In short, Becker and Stephenson argued that police took their eye off the ball by conducting a sloppy investigation that ensured Gacy was perfectly, publicly placed to take the fall for at least three co-conspirators (two dead, one alive) who had, Houdini-like, disappeared.

Modern magicians – those who really can change the world – often look ordinary, and no more so than your standard law enforcement officer. Real Crime spoke to Cook County Sheriff’s Department’s Ben Breit, who suggested that while the lawyers’ evidence may seem like well-meaning smoke and mirrors, it was a stage front for sensationalism – “a fabrication”. It also disguised a sideshow all of their own: following their high-profile interviews in the Gacy media spotlight, Becker Stephenson were themselves ‘sawed in half’ because Robert M Stephenson was disbarred from practice for “misappropriating” $339,000 from his own children and involvement with drugs. Becker Stephenson’s office did not respond to Real Crime’s request for comment, but the sheriff’s office has promised that the cops carry on and will investigate new evidence at any time. That Ben Breit gave Real Crime detailed information on a large number of the cases during an unexpected telephone call while away from his desk speaks volumes – the officers know the case, are highly approachable, and they care.

Investigators probe the infamous crawlspace
Investigators probe the infamous crawlspace

Encore!

Gacy is getting an encore. Detective James Moran has used the publicity Pogo brought to develop a national database to reunite the bodies of those who have been slain with their living loved ones for proper burial. There are, after all, a further seven bodies that have yet to be identified, and there may be more. Gacy’s original legal team suggested that there may yet be further bodies purely by refusing to state categorically that there are not. We cannot know whether their phrasing is a result of something Gacy said or whether it is conjecture based on their dealings with the killer – Gacy never made a written statement but confessed in taped interviews prior to trial. His team cannot reveal the information because client privilege in law ensures they must take the information to their own graves.

There’s an old adage in show business that you have to know when to quit. The curtain of Gacy’s custodial sentence wasn’t about to close when (or even after) he was on death row. He consciously courted controversy, lapping up that last applause – and the coins rolled in. First came the paintings. Ever the artiste, he splashed about with brushes and canvas, producing likenesses of everyone from Elvis to ‘himselvis’ (obviously, having a King-sized ego) and depictions of infamous figures including Jeffrey Dahmer when he realised there was a market for the macabre. The critics weren’t kind to his new act – Gacy was described by one gallery owner as “no Rembrandt”, but his flourishes fitted the bill in exhibitions across the world and are said to have been bought by celebrities including Tom Cruise. True carny that John was, he also worked out how to charge his audience for hot air itself, establishing a premium rate phone number through which the public could listen to 12 minutes of his taped confession retractions at a rate of about $30 for the lot – a bloody bargain. His work is palmed from hand to hand to this day.

Pogo gets pranked

Of course, clowns are famous for falling over their own feet and the show John put on eventually illuminated his own demise in 1994. With the bitter bile of the failed performer, his final words were that the public should kiss (the equivalent of) his custard-stained pants. Instead, they bit it. The death penalty never brings victims back either and Gacy’s audience were left angry. Pogo’s ‘public’ stood outside the courtroom, dressed in mockery of him and hurled the insults they hoped would chase him down him to hell. You could say it worked. His execution injection didn’t work at first and it took 18 minutes for him to die in torturous agony. It was no laughing matter.

The media circus often focuses attention on the performer, even if for such sad reasons, but this can still serve the audience. Aside from an abstract idea of gaining justice for justice’s sake, the reason officers continue to investigate the case is that the men Gacy killed were people of worth regardless of who they were in life. Detective Jason Moran is taking the lead on the establishment of a DNA database to clarify the identities of bodies that are uncovered. These people were brothers, sons and perhaps fathers themselves and they and their families deserve remembrance. Detective Moran’s work has, so far, cleared 11 cold cases.

John Wayne Gacy’s gone and thankfully the world is now a somewhat better place. Attitudes towards sexuality are gradually altering, meaning that others should realise they don’t need to follow in his ridiculous, exaggerated footsteps out of shame of their self-identification or desires. Ironically, direct good is actually part of Gacy’s legacy. The quest for justice continues and Detective Moran’s Gacy database continues to reunite those who have left us with their living loved ones, regardless of whether or not their deaths were at the hands of John Wayne Gacy. There have also been some happier endings – Theodore ‘Ted’ Szal, long believed to have been one of Gacy’s victims, has been confirmed as alive by the Cook Country sheriff. Ted had simply decided to relocate all those years ago and his family can now breathe with peace.

The last laugh is on John: Pogo’s publicity-grabbing pratfalls will serve the public in the end. Just not in the way he intended.

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