On Jan. 2, 1972, 16-year-old Timothy McCoy got up early to make his host breakfast. He’d met John Wayne Gacy at the Chicago bus terminal the night before, and Gacy let him stay over while he made his way home to Iowa after spending Christmas in Michigan.
McCoy got out eggs and bacon and set the table for two. Then, he walked up the stairs to wake Gacy, not realizing he hadn’t put down the knife he’d been using.
What happened next would set the scene for the rest of Gacy’s life.
Not realizing the boy had intended no harm, Gacy stabbed him in the chest, killing him. He then buried his body in the crawlspace beneath his home and covered the grave with concrete.
Killing McCoy gave Gacy the most intense orgasm he had ever felt. The murder had been a mistake, but it had instilled in Gacy “the ultimate thrill” that he would crave for the rest of his life.
Over the next six years, 32 more bodies would join Timothy McCoy’s, all victims of Gacy’s thirst for murder and penchant for teenage boys.
Those who knew John Wayne Gacy would never have expected him to turn out as he had. Almost everyone who met him described him as a mild-mannered and likable man. For most of his life, he worked in customer service, first managing three of his father-in-law’s KFC franchises, then starting his own construction business.
His customers remembered him as kind, generous, and willing to help people out. He employed local teenagers in need of jobs and contributed heavily to his local Junior Chamber of Commerce. He even took time out of his weekends to dress up as a clown for kids birthday parties.
However, as authorities would learn, something seriously disturbing had been inside him all along.
John Wayne Gacy was born in Chicago on March 17, 1942. His father had always despised him, called him a “sissy,” and abused him from age four, berating him and whipping him with a belt. When Gacy was seven years old and a family friend molested him, he didn’t tell anyone for fear of being beaten.
Early in life, Gacy realized that he was gay. But it was the 1950s, and homosexuality was still taboo, so he pretended to be straight his entire life.
Gacy had a congenital heart condition which limited his physical activity and plagued him with lifelong obesity, and he spent much of his youth in the hospital. When he was 11, doctors discovered he had a blood clot in his brain. They were able to treat it, but even that didn’t spare Gacy from his father’s wrath.
Eventually Gacy had enough, and he picked up and moved out West. While working as a mortuary assistant in Las Vegas, Gacy slept on a cot behind the embalming room. One night, after observing the morticians embalming dead bodies, he crawled into a coffin with one. He laid in the coffin for a time, embracing and caressing the body, a teenage boy.
The event shocked him so much he returned home and enrolled in business school, after just a few months in Vegas. He never told anyone about his night with the body in the morgue.
After graduating from Northwestern Business College, Gacy met Marlynn Myers, a coworker at a shoe company in Springfield, Illinois. The couple married in 1964 and Gacy took over the management of his father-in-law’s Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in Waterloo, Iowa. They lived there with Marlynn’s parents.
He and Marlynn would have two children, and what was seemingly a perfect life.
But under the surface, Gacy’s monster still lurked. Gacy joined the Waterloo Jaycees, a group of businessmen who participated in wife swapping, prostitution, pornography, and drug abuse.
Gacy even opened a “club” in his own basement targeted at teenagers, letting them drink and play pool.
“He often would build up trust with his victims, so they wouldn’t need to be on guard,” Detective Sgt. Jason Moran of the Cook County sheriff’s office said years later. “He was their employer, their friend. He may have been someone who provided them with alcohol and drugs and maybe a place to sleep at night. That’s an easy way to kill someone.”
Gacy forced some of these young men, as well as those he employed at his KFC’s, to perform sexual acts with him.
This would be his first downfall.
It started in August 1967, when Gacy hired a 15-year-old Donald Voorhees — the son of a fellow member of the Jaycees — to do some house work for him. Gacy lured him into his basement, plied him with alcohol, and forced him to perform oral sex.
Voorhees kept quiet about the incident until March 1968, when he told his father and spurred a criminal investigation into Gacy, forcing his world to come crashing down. A few months later, he paid a KFC employee $300 to beat up Voorhees, hoping to scare him from testifying in court. But Voorhees escaped and reported the attempted beating, and the case against Gacy escalated.
In December, Gacy pled guilty to oral sodomy (at that time, sexual relations between two people of the same sex was illegal in Iowa) and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was promptly served divorce papers from his wife, whom he would never see again.
Less than two years after his sentencing, John Wayne Gacy was granted parole for being a model prisoner.
During the short time he was incarcerated, he managed to secure a raise for prison mess hall workers, increased membership of the prison Jaycees by 600, worked to improve conditions for prisoners, and oversaw the installation of a miniature golf course in the recreation yard. He also pretended he was straight and that he hated “queers,” in order to protect himself from the wrath of his fellow inmates.
He was given 12 months probation under the conditions that he moved back to Chicago to live with his mother and maintained a 10 p.m. curfew. He agreed and declared “I’ll never go back to jail.”
Months after his release, when he and his mother were living in Des Plaines, Illinois, outside Chicago, Gacy lured a teenage boy into his house and tried to rape him. Gacy was charged with sexual assault, but the charges were dropped when the boy failed to show up to court.
Gacy had technically violated his parole, but somehow his parole officer was never aware of the episode. And Gacy’s parole ended well before Jan. 2, 1972 — the day he killed Timothy McCoy.
By that point, Gacy had settled into his new home in Norwood Park, in northwestern Chicago. His yellow brick ranch house at 8213 West Summerdale Avenue is where he would eventually stash 29 corpses — all young men.
It was also where all of his gruesome murders would be committed, and where he would gain local fame as “Pogo the Clown.”
While in prison, Gacy had become something of an artist and repeatedly sketched the image of Pogo the Clown. After joining the “Jolly Joker” club, a clown club that would perform at birthday parties and hospitals, he taught himself how to apply clown makeup and turned himself into his drawings. He performed as Pogo the Clown at all sorts of local parties, including Democratic party functions and charitable events.
Residents of Norwood Park also remember him showing up to his favorite bar, the “Good Luck Lounge,” dressed as Pogo.
“[The public] would feel much more comfortable if Gacy was this type of creepy, sequestered ghoul that was unkempt and heinous,” Moran said. “But instead, he dressed as a clown and bounced kids on his knee. He would knock at your door and say vote for my candidate.”
Still, his infatuation with dressing up like a clown and his history with teenage boys led his second wife, Carol Hoff, a high school sweetheart whom he married in 1972, to question his sexuality. When Gacy told her he was bisexual in 1975, Hoff divorced him and left him alone in their house.
Though she denied knowledge of what was to come, Hoff later admitted to authorities that she had seen him bringing teenage boys into their garage.
After his divorce, John Wayne Gacy had his home to himself, and felt freer to fill it with dead bodies (save for his final four kills, which he dumped in a river).
Some were still-unidentified teenagers, some were drifters from out of town, and some were local boys who worked for Gacy. Gacy even participated in the searches for some of the boys, as he was friendly with their parents and was considered an upstanding member of the community.
But his thirty-third kill didn’t go as planned.
At about 9 p.m. on Dec. 11, 1978, Elizabeth Piest drove to pick up her son, a high school sophomore and honor roll student named Robert, from his job at a pharmacy in Des Plaines. He went outside and told her to wait a few minutes; he wanted to talk to a customer about a summer contracting job that would pay him twice what he was currently making.
That was the last time Elizabeth saw her son. Before midnight, she went to the police station to file a missing persons report.
Police figure out that man Robert Piest was going to talk to was John Wayne Gacy, whose company PDM Contractors had recently remodeled Piest’s pharmacy. They call him into the station for questioning, and Gacy obliges — after taking Piest’s body and dumping it into the Des Plaines River.
Within hours, authorities searched Gacy’s home. They didn’t find any bodies, but they did find evidence that Piest had been there: a receipt that belonged to a friend of his. They knew Piest was there, but they still had know idea where he was — or whether he was alive.
It wasn’t until Dec. 22, 1978 — almost exactly 10 years after his sodomy conviction — that Gacy confessed to murdering dozens of men and boys. Investigators swarmed his house and uncovered 29 bodies in Gacy’s crawl space. Many had decomposed beyond recognition; and dental experts were brought in to identify them by their teeth.
Three years later, he used an insanity plea during his trial, hoping for a not guilty verdict.
The jury didn’t buy it. Gacy was sentenced to death and dropped the friendly facade he had maintained for all those years. He didn’t seem to have any remorse for the 33 people he killed.
“He looked at his victims like he was taking out the trash. He had no feelings about them,” said Gacy’s lawyer, Sam Amirante. “He could talk about a child who’s dying of cancer and cry like a baby about this child he didn’t even know or never met and feel authentically sad about this child. Then he’d talk about another child that he murdered and have no feelings whatsoever.”
He would spend 14 years in prison awaiting his execution, the night before which he returned to his roots and ordered a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken as his last meal.
According to reports, the killer clown’s last words before his execution were “kiss my ass.”
Though Gacy is long gone — and his house had been demolished — his legacy lives on. Most of the victims retrieved from his crawlspace were identified and released to the families for burial. However, 23 years after his death, authorities are still trying to identify the rest. In July 2017, one of the bodies was finally identified, but his grieving family had already died.
Six of John Wayne Gacy’s victims remain anonymous.