The Brutal Murders of John Wayne Gacy
Looking back, it seems unreal that John Wayne Gacy was able to kill so many men without detection. A prolific predator, Gacy would ultimately be convicted for the murders of thirty-three young men and boys; twenty-nine of whom were buried underneath and around his home. In December of 1978, shocked citizens gathered in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, IL, to watch the grim procession of bodies as they were brought out, one-by-one. How did one man get away with so much without alerting police sooner?
For the most part, Gacy was careful selecting his victims. Many were complete strangers, and included a number of gay men that he picked up for consensual, anonymous sex. From time to time, Gacy also posed as a police officer, pulling over lone men walking down the street. Gacy would flash a badge, sometimes a gun, and a mock arrest would ensue. He would then drive the man to his house, where the unfortunate victim would be raped, possibly tortured, and ultimately murdered.
His victims weren’t always strangers, however. At least two of the victims whose remains were recovered from his crawlspace had been employees of Gacy’s contracting business. Unfortunately for the boys, their families, and subsequent victims, police dismissed their disappearances, writing them off as “typical” acts of delinquents runaways. On December 11, 1978, however, a boy tied to Gacy would go missing whose disappearance would force police to take notice.
Rob Piest was a fifteen-year old sophomore. By all accounts a “good kid”, Rob was an honors student with aspirations of being an astronaut. On the day of his disappearance, Piest’s mother arrived at Nisson Pharmacy, where Rob worked a part-time job, to drive him home after his shift. He told his mother that he needed to go speak with a local contractor about a job, and that he would return a few minutes later. His mother consented and waited for Rob’s return, which sadly never came.
By the next morning, police were involved in Rob’s search. They visited Nisson Pharmacy, where they learned that a local contractor named John Gacy had done some work for them in the recent past, and that he may have indeed been the man who offered Rob work.
A short time later, Gacy was being questioned at police headquarters, where he denied knowing Piest. Soon afterward, however, a search of Gacy’s home took place that would solidify detectives’ belief that Gacy was behind Piest’s disappearance. While in his home, the police discovered a photo receipt from Nisson Pharmacy which had been placed in the missing boy’s jacket by a co-worker the night he disappeared. This proved a link between his disappearance and Gacy. Police also discovered a 1975 class ring, which they would later find out belonged to John Szyc, a young man who had been missing for two years.
A background check revealed that ten years earlier, Gacy had been convicted of sodomy with a teenage boy in Iowa. The “model prisoner”, Gacy spent only eighteen months behind bars before being paroled. The police also found that their suspect had a pending assault charge from a 26-year old named Jeffery Rignall, who Gacy had tortured and raped in March of 1978. The police decided on around-the-clock surveillance of Gacy.
Gacy Was Charming; Quest for a Second Search Warrant
David Hachmeister was appointed to head the surveillance team. Hachmeister would later say in interviews that he and his fellow officers had to “constantly remind themselves” that John Wayne Gacy was a murder suspect. Typical of the characteristics of a sociopath, Gacy was disarmingly charming and very aware of that fact. At one point the killer even hosted the surveillance team in his home for a fish dinner, presumably to manipulate the officers by showing them that he had nothing to hide. The stunt did not pay off. One officer was in Gacy’s bathroom when the heat came on; a foul odor came through the vent. The officer correctly reasoned that the smell could be from decaying human remains under the house. When asked about the smell, Gacy explained it away as a disconnected sump pump that was allowing moisture to collect below the floor.
A successful business owner, Gacy had been a well-liked and active member of his community. His involvement with the Democratic Party even led to him being photographed with then-First Lady, Rosalynn Carter. Those who knew him well would describe him as being very charismatic and capable. Any illusions that his acquaintances had about his true nature, however, would soon be shattered by the long procession of human remains that were removed from his property.
Police kept a close eye on the killer, hoping for a development that would allow them to obtain a second search warrant, and Gacy was feeling the heat. On December 20th, they followed their suspect to his attorney’s office and became convinced that they were close to a confession. Gacy spent the night on his attorney’s couch, but no confession came. The next morning he was again on the move. People close to the case then became convinced that rather than answer for his crimes, Gacy had made up his mind to commit suicide. That morning he began visiting acquaintances, supposedly to say his last goodbyes.
One of his stops was to a local gas station that he frequented regularly. The surveillance team discovered that Gacy had given one or more of the employees a little marijuana as a “parting gift”. Knowledge of this petty crime gave the police the opportunity to arrest Gacy for drug possession, which they did immediately. The police were then able to obtain a new search warrant, which would quickly lead to the discovery of human bones in the crawlspace under his house.
Now under arrest for murder, John Wayne Gacy confessed to killing more than thirty males. Showing no emotion, he went on to describe in great detail the rape, torture and murder of his victims. According to David Hachmeister, at no time did Gacy display any remorse for his actions. Gacy’s first murder was a stabbing, Hachmeister explained, but that was much too messy. From that point on, the deranged killer used strangulation to murder his victims. After tying a rope around his victims’ neck, he would insert a metal rod through the knot at the back of their neck, and then begin turning the rod, causing the rope to tighten until the victim stopped moving.
Beginning on December 22nd, twenty-seven bodies were recovered from Gacy’s property. The floorboards in his home and part of the garage were removed in order to facilitate the recovery. Gacy even went to his home at one point and sketched a map, showing police where to dig. Months later, a twenty-eighth victim would be discovered buried in his back yard, and a twenty-ninth under the house. He also informed investigators that he had disposed of other victims by throwing them off the I-55 bridge over the Des Plaines bridge. Three bodies, including that of Rob Piest, were recovered from the area.
Others Come Forward; David Cram’s Creepy Account
Examples of Gacy’s depravity were illustrated through the stories of the few victims who escaped with their lives. In March of ’78, Gacy had picked up Jeffrey Rignall for a night of “cruising”. Shortly after getting in Gacy’s car, the killer placed a chloroform-doused rag over the young man’s mouth. Half-dressed and with a burned face, Rignall came to at 5:30 in the morning by the Lincoln Park Steps.
One man approached prosecutor Terry Sullivan during the Gacy trial and told him of a night he spent with Gacy. He claimed that Gacy had tortured him with candles, then submerged him in water until he was close to drowning.
The creepiest story of a survivor, though (especially for those of us who find clowns particularly unsettling), comes from a 26-year old employee of Gacy’s named David Cram. Cram had actually been the employee who was given the task of digging trenches in Gacy’s crawlspace, allegedly to facilitate the installation of a new drainage system. For a while, Cram also rented the spare bedroom in Gacy’s home. One night Cram came home to find his depraved roommate dressed as Pogo the Clown, a character Gacy had invented to entertain at children’s parties.
On this night, Pogo the Clown was very drunk, and invited Cram to have some drinks with him. After a number of Mai Tai’s, Gacy proposed that Cram take part in a magic trick. The trick required that Cram be handcuffed; Once he was, the night took a very sobering turn. Cram would later say “It was just like a light switch went off; in the middle of a conversation, in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a thought, he just starts growling like a mad dog”. Gacy grabbed Cram and began throwing him around the room, warning him that he was about to be raped. Miraculously, Cram was able to get control of the situation. The restrained man not only managed to throw Gacy to the ground, but gained possession of the handcuff key, at which point he ran into his room and locked the door. Cram moved out immediately afterward.
Rumors of Other Murders, Accomplices
On May 9, 1994, John Wayne Gacy was executed at the Statesville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois. Four and a half years later, in November of 1998, investigators gathered in Chicago to inspect the grounds of at an apartment complex that Gacy had been caretaker of in 1975. That year, a resident of the apartments saw a man digging on the property late at night. The man told the suspicious resident that he was the caretaker, and was doing work that he could not complete during the day. The resident believes the man to have been Gacy. Though no additional bodies were found on the property, it is reported that not all areas of interest were explored.
One last chilling question remains. Did the killer clown have accomplices? First of all, Gacy himself told police that others had direct involvement in some of the murders. Jeffrey Rignall was adamant that while being tortured by Gacy, he at one point gained consciousness and saw a man with brown hair in the room, watching. If this is indeed true, it is very possible that a second monster could still be roaming the streets, still searching for prey.