John Wayne Gacy, aka Pogo the (Killer) Clown

This is the stuff kids’ nightmares are made of.

In December 1978, the first of 33 bodies buried on John Wayne Gacy’s property was found. His hiding spot of choice? A crawl space under his house in Norwood Park Township. In fact, a total of 26 bodies were stuffed into that crawl space, as if he were a hoarder of the worst kind. Others were found outside the house and in waterways around the state.

John Wayne Gacy / John Wayne Gacy / John Wayne Gacy / Gacy’s Victims.
Source: Chicago Tribune Archive

It’s been over four decades, and bodies are still being identified. To make things even creepier, the man responsible for all these deaths was a clown. That’s right: John Wayne Gacy was a killer clown. Those who hired him for their kids’ parties knew him as Pogo the Clown.

Before the Clown Became a Killer

John Wayne Gacy became one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. The “Killer Clown” tortured, raped, and killed boys and young men in his area of Norwood Park Township in Chicago. His repugnant rampage might just have been a matter of time, given the childhood he suffered.

Gacy is dressed as a clown in his house.
John Wayne Gacy. Source: YouTube

A movie could have been made about his life. Gacy grew up in Chicago, and according to his sister Karen, the boy’s upbringing was full of medical problems, abuse, and injuries. She said her brother was beaten by their alcoholic father, who sexually abused his boy on the regular. At 18, Gacy ran away from home.

From Morgue Worker to Vice President

He landed in Las Vegas for a few months, where he found a job in a morgue (of all places). By 1964, he was back in Illinois and married his first wife, a woman named Marlynn Myers, who worked in a shoe store. The newlyweds then moved to Iowa, where Gacy started working for his wife’s father.

A portrait of John Wayne Gacy.
John Wayne Gacy. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

There, he joined the Jaycees, an organization that trains in leadership. Gacy worked his way up to top recruiter at the organization, even becoming vice president by 1965. The thing about him, though, was that his style was, let’s say, unconventional. Gacy would draw young men into the organization by promising to show them stag films (aka adult films) and take them to parties.

Earning Brownie Points in the Slammer

It may have worked at first, but his creepy ways caught up to him eventually. At one point, a 15-year-old son of a fellow organization member, Donald Voorhees, came forward. Voorhees claimed that Gacy forced him to commit sexual acts on him. It was 1978, and Gacy, now a father, was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

A photo of Gacy and a former business associate hosting a party.
Gacy, Jim VanVorous. Source: Chicago Tribune Archive

He only served 18 months, though, and it might have to do with how well-liked he was in prison. Gacy worked in the kitchen and even organized a mini-golf course. By 1969, his wife divorced him and won custody of their children.

The New Guy in Town Seems Like a Stellar Dude…

By 1970, Gacy was a free man. He moved back to Chicago, and after a few months of living with his mother, he bought a home in Norwood Park Township – the home many boys came to know too well. Gacy liked to socialize with his neighbors and started throwing parties.

An external shot of Gacy’s house.
Gacy’s House. Photo by William Yates/Chicago Tribune

He was known and liked in the community. He ran a construction business called PDM Contractors, where he “helped” teenage boys out by hiring them for construction work. How could you not like the guy who volunteered at hospitals, performing as Pogo the Clown? He called it a “hobby” that “relaxed” him.

The Smell of Death

Gacy married for the second time in 1972 to Carole Hoff, who moved in with her two daughters. Her gut told her something was off when she started finding the wallets of young men in her husband’s car. There were times when she even complained of the “smell of death” coming from under the house. Four years into their marriage, Gacy and Hoff divorced.

A photo of John Wayne Gacy's bedroom.
Source: Chicago Tribune Archive

In 1975, he was again on Chicago police radar when teenagers reported to the cops that they had been seeing a man they knew only as “John” cruising the area of Uptown in his car and picking up boys. Of course, the man was Gacy.

Pogo the Clown Is Hiding Something

Officers staked out his property, witnessing dozens of young men coming in and out of Gacy’s home, which sat in a standalone location in Norwood Park Township, just east of O’Hare International Airport. The cops questioned the boys, yet none of them said anything incriminating about Gacy.

A photo of Gacy's recreation room.
Source: Cook County Circuit Court

Gacy, now single, had a rap sheet and did stuff that any normal person would call creepy, but the police didn’t have enough to build a new case on him. In 1976, Gacy landed himself on their radar yet again, this time for more than just being some eerie clown who hung out with too many boys.

The Deviant Was Still Walking the Streets

Officers staked out his house again. They suspected that he might have something to do with the disappearance of a 9-year-old child prostitute, also a boy. So, officers ran surveillance on his house, despite the fact that it was outside their jurisdiction. Still, there wasn’t enough to build a case against the guy. Not yet, at least…

A picture of Des Plaines police Lt. Joe Kozenczak.
Police Lt. Joe Kozenczak. Photo by Charles Osgood/Chicago Tribune

Come March 1977 and another sexual assault claim was made. 27-year-old Jeff Rignall reported that Gacy lured him into his car by offering him a joint. Rignall accepted the offer, only to have chloroform stuffed into his mouth.

All Hearsay – No Witnesses

Rignall said Gacy then drove his unconscious body to his house, handcuffed him and sexually abused him before finally letting him go. Gacy was charged with battery and a misdemeanor (believe it or not), and a $3,000 civil suit was settled.

A portrait of Gacy in a clown costume.
Photo by Elaine Chung

Rignall wrote a book about the whole experience entitled 29 Below. The problem, as one official explained at the time, was that it “was a one-on-one situation with Gacy’s word against the kids’. There were no witnesses.” In other words, the police didn’t take it seriously that the same man was preying on child after male child.

Oh, the Humanity

While the police essentially kept Gacy on the streets, more and more teenage boys were falling victim to his predatory ways. On New Year’s Eve 1977, Gacy was arrested yet again when a 19-year-old teen from the North Side reported being kidnapped by him at gunpoint and, as usual, forced to engage in sexual acts.

A picture of Gacy during an interview with the FBI.
John Wayne Gacy. Photo by Craig Bowley/NBC

According to that police report, when Gacy was taken into custody, he admitted to the sexual acts – and even to how brutal they were. However, he insisted that the teen was a willing participant. And whaddayaknow? Gacy was let off. Again.

The Beginning of the End

Meanwhile, in 1978, the same year he would be convicted of murder, Gacy was posing with first lady Rosalynn Carter (he was director of the Polish Constitution Day Parade). But sooner than later, Gacy was going to get what was coming for him.

A picture of Rosalynn Carter and Gacy at a private reception.
Rosalynn Carter, John Wayne Gacy. Source: Chicago Tribune

The beginning of the end came in the form of a 15-year-old boy from Des Plaines named Robert Piest. As he was about to end his shift at Nisson Pharmacy around 9 p.m., his mother, Elizabeth Piest came to pick him up. It was her 46th birthday and they were planning to party.

The Last Time He Was Seen

Piest told his mom to wait because he wanted a few minutes with some man who offered him a construction job that paid $5 an hour – twice what he was making at the pharmacy. His mom never saw him again. In fact, no one did.

An interior shot of the pharmacy.
Source: Cook County’s Sheriff Office

Elizabeth drove back home to get her husband so they could return to the pharmacy together. They drove back with their other two children and their two German shepherds in the car. But their son was nowhere to be found. Before midnight, the Piests got to the police station to report their son missing.

A Slap on the Wrist Wasn’t Going to Suffice This Time

Another boy gone missing? Gacy’s gotta have something to do with it. Not long after that night at the pharmacy, the police brought Gacy in for questioning. This time, Lt. Kozenczak, a cop and father whose son went to the same high school as Piest, learned that Gacy, whose company had recently remodeled Nisson Pharmacy, was the man Piest spoke to the night he went missing.

A portrait of Robert Piest.
Robert Piest. Source: Chicago Tribune Archive

Kozenczak insisted on a much deeper investigation – not like the previous slaps on the wrist. Gacy called the station: “You still want to talk to me?” Kozenczak asked Gacy how long it would take him to come to the station.

From the Crawlspace to the River

Gacy told him half an hour. Kozenczak waited. Gacy was a no-show. Only later did the police learn that after that phone call to Kozenczak, Gacy went up to his attic – to the crawlspace – to take Piest’s body out and move it into the trunk of his car. He then drove to Des Plaines River to dump his body.

Gacy’s mug shot / Firefighters search for victims in the Des Plaines River.
Source: Des Plaines Police Department / Chicago Tribune.

Investigators discovered Gacy’s car had been towed out of a snowbank at 2 a.m. that night, 38 miles from where (Gacy would later reveal) he dumped Piest’s body. It was after 3 a.m. when Gacy walked into the police station… with mud on his pants and shoes.

Bad Move, Gacy

He gave Kozenczak and other officers a brief statement. When Kozenczak asked Gacy for the keys to his house, with a search warrant in hand, Gacy refused. It was a bad move on his part, as police then raided his home.

Police are removing floorboards in Gacy’s kitchen.
Gacy’s kitchen. Source: Cook County Sheriff’s Office

Inside his house, they found a receipt for a roll of film that was being developed. The receipt actually belonged to a female friend of Piest’s, who offered to have the film developed for him. Other items were seized, including Gacy’s car, van and pickup truck. Police concluded that Piest was indeed in the house.

There It Is Again – The Smell of Death

Gacy went to jail that same day. But guess what? He was released by 11 p.m., but the police were still investigating. They placed him under 24/7 surveillance. They found a Maine West High School ring in his home, which was then linked to John Szyc, a boy who had been missing for two years.

A photo of Gacy covering his face at the time of his arrest.
John Wayne Gacy. Photo by Michael Budrys/Chicago Tribune

On December 19, 1978, two days before his final arrest, Gacy invited two police officers into his home for breakfast. Remember the smell of death that his second wife complained about? Well, the cops smelled it, too.

Gacy’s Lawyers Fight Back

Meanwhile, Gacy’s lawyers were trying to sue the police department – a $750,000 civil rights suit against Des Plaines PD. They were accusing the officers of harassing their client with illegal searches and seizures, which was “destroying his reputation.”

Defense attorneys meet reporters.
Gacy’s Attorneys. Photo by James Mayo/Chicago Tribune

On December 20, the police learned of Gacy’s 1968 conviction and brief stint in prison for sodomy. The next day, they cuff him, but it was for a drug charge, believe it or not. While under surveillance, Gacy could be seen handing a package of marijuana to a gas station clerk. Gacy was followed and finally arrested.

X Marks the Spot

While in custody, the police were told that Gacy had already fessed up to his lawyers that he committed “maybe 30” murders. With that, the police search his home once again. When the cops accused Gacy of holding Piest in his home against his will, Gacy denied it.

Grids were marked Gacy’s garage is excavated.
Source: Cook County Circuit Court

When they then threatened to tear up the floor, Gacy confessed to being “forced” to kill a man in self-defense. He said he buried the man under the concrete floor of his garage. Gacy even marked an X on the spot where he buried the body.

Jack Did It

Police also discovered a trapdoor to Gacy’s infamous crawl space, in which they found body parts of at least three different people. Two days after his arrest, Gacy started fessing up to all kinds of things, “giving all kinds of statements, saying there’s a body here, a body there, a body in a lake or a lagoon, a body buried,” a county sheriff reported.

A photo of the jacket Piest was wearing when he disappeared / A portrait of Piest wearing the jacket.
Source: Chicago Tribune Archive

His rambling verbal statement lasted for hours, during which he told the police about killing 32 young men after having sex with them. Strangely enough, he spoke in the third person, discussing the acts as being committed by “Jack” or “John.”

Follow the Map

Although Piest’s body wasn’t found, they charged Gacy with his murder. Gacy admitted to burying 27 of his victims on his property (29 were discovered), and most of them were in the crawl space. Five other bodies, including Piest’s, were later found in rivers and waterways, after Gacy drew a diagram – a map of sorts – of where to find them.

A diagram is drawn by Gacy showing the location of his victims.
Photo by Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune

Since many of the victims were missing boys, parents from as far as England were calling the police to see if any of their sons were identified.

A House of Horrors

The police also found a police light and radio, leading them to believe that Gacy had posed as a cop to lure his victims. All the while, Gacy’s home became something of a freak show. Hundreds of people would gather around to witness the house of horrors.

Photos of Gacy’s victims.
Michael Bonnin, Robert Gilroy, Jon Prestidge Russell Nelson. Source: Cook County Circuit Court

As time went on, more and more missing children reports were linked to Gacy, and more and more bodies were discovered. “He always had a lot of kids working around his place, but they never stayed long,” a neighbor shared.

Film Crews Grew by the Day

Another neighbor said, “I want my children to know what dangers lurk in society.” What that neighbor might not want his kids knowing, however, is that many of Gacy’s victims had men’s bikini underwear stuffed into their mouths, while others had ropes around their necks.

A large crew gathers outside Gacy’s house.
Photo by James Mayo/Chicago Tribune

It got to the point where Gacy, who initially confessed and cooperated with the authorities, started to pull back and refuse to discuss his case. The case was gaining momentum, though, as were the crowds of news reporters and crew trucks outside his home, which grew by the day.

The First Body Is Identified

“If the Devil’s alive, he lived here,” said one of the workers hired to dismantle Gacy’s house. By the end of 1978, authorities revealed the identity of the first body taken from Gacy’s property. The body belonged to 18-year-old John Butkovich of Chicago.

Photosof Gacy’s victims.
John Butkovich, James Mazzara, Frank Landingin. Source: Cook County Circuit Court

Butkovich had been missing for three years. He worked for Gacy before disappearing in August of 1975. His parents reported that their son went to Gacy’s to collect money that he owed him. He never came home. Afterwards, more bodies were discovered, and more identities were confirmed.

What About the Clown Community?

This is no joke: the Chicago Metropolitan Clown Guild held a news conference in 1979 to declare Gacy’s fondness for playing “Pogo the Clown” had been causing problems for other clowns. Actual, non-homicidal clowns in the Chicago area were losing bookings.

A portrait of Gacy dressed as a clown in front of his home.
John Wayne Gacy. Photo by Photo by Martin Zielinski/Chicago Tribune

Evidently, clients (mostly mothers) were afraid to have clowns near their kids (can you blame them?). Whether anything came of the Guild’s news conference isn’t clear. But it’s safe to say the clown business wasn’t anywhere near the top of the police department’s priority list.

Too. Many. Bodies.

Gacy didn’t say much, other than tell the police, “you have all the bodies.” He also revealed that each and every victim was killed in the house, and only after the crawl space became too crowded did he start dumping the bodies in the river.

Photos of the 33 victims.
Gacy’s 33 Victims. Source: Chicago Tribune Archive

His first in-house victim (so to speak) was killed on January 3, 1972. Gacy revealed that it was a boy he picked up at a Greyhound bus station in the Loop. The boy was identified (in 1986) as 16-year-old Timothy Jack McCoy.

History in the Making

Thanks to the Gacy case, a missing persons databank was created. In Chicago at the time, the police department was receiving up to 20,000 reports of missing persons each year, 14,000 of which were juveniles.

A chief medical examiner speaks to reporters.
Chief Medical Examiner Robert Stein. Photo by Walter Kale/Chicago Tribune

In 1979, the Chicago police announced that they would set up a new computerized program to help investigate cases of kidnapped or killed minors as a result of the Gacy case. As the program was underway, so was the motion by the state to give Gacy the death penalty.

After All This, a Plea of Not Guilty?

By March 1979, a total of 29 bodies were found on the Gacy property. By that point, Gacy was charged with the murder of seven young men as well as kidnapping, deviant sexual assault and taking indecent liberties with children. In court, Gacy had the audacity to plead not guilty.

A sketch illustration of Gacy during the trial.
Source: Chicago Tribune Archive

Gacy was further indicted for 26 bodies found on his land. With a total of 33 bodies, it was the largest number charged to one person in American history at the time. Yet the man wasn’t willing to admit guilt… Unbelievable.

On Father’s Day, of All Days

The Gacy house was razed, and any items that weren’t evidence – stereo equipment, furniture, tools from and a collection of clown heads – were sold at auction. Reportedly, it was in an attempt to raise funds to pay for Gacy’s legal team.

An advertisement for the auction of Gacy’s clown heads.
Source: Chicago Tribune Archive

The auction, however, was called off when his attorneys realized it was going to take place on Father’s Day. Gacy’s cars, including the 1979 Oldsmobile he used to carry one of his victims, was sold at an auction in 1980 in Winnebago County. Gacy had become famous, as other cars sold there included those owned by Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley, and former President Gerald Ford.

Taxpayers Paid for His Legal Team

“It is apparent that it would not serve the ends of justice to fragment the prosecution into 33 separate prosecutions,” Judge Louis Garippo stated. It was decided that one trial would take place, which occurred in January 1980, two years after his arrest.

An image of a police car carrying Gacy after his arrest.
Photo by Val Mazzenga/Chicago Tribune Archive

Ironically, it was Cook Country taxpayers who funded Gacy’s defense team. Before the case began, Gacy’s attorneys, Sam Amirante and Robert Motta, said they ran out of money and were over $2,000 in debt. “If we ever make a profit on this case, we would be glad to reimburse the county,” Amirante announced at the time.

Pushing for the Chair

In February 1980, the trial began. “Gacy killed people like he was swatting flies,” the Assistant State Attorney Robert Egan stated. Considering how graphic the nature of the trial was, the judge banned anyone younger than 16 from the courtroom.

An officer holds a drawing made by Gacy in jail.
Source: Chicago Tribune Archive

As the defense was arguing that Gacy was not guilty by reason of insanity, prosecutors were pushing for the electric chair. “He certainly qualifies for the death penalty. If he doesn’t, who does?” asked attorney Bernard Carey. The trial lasted for five weeks, with psychiatrists, police, neighbors, acquaintances and family members of the victims testifying.

A Round of Applause

The jury took less than two hours to convict John Wayne Gacy of killing 33 young men. He was then given the death sentence. Judge Louis Garippo declared: “I don’t know what this trial cost. Whatever the cost, it was a small price….”

A newspaper clipping on Gacy’s sentence to death.
Source: Chicago Tribune Archive

“My voice is cracking because I really feel it’s a small price we pay for our freedom. What we do for the John Gacys of this world, we will do for everyone.” When it was announced that he was heading for death row, the parents and relatives of his victims broke into applause.

Book Deals, Caskets, and Paintings

After the trial, Gacy’s lawyers, Sam Amirante and Robert Motta, withdrew from the case and pursued book, movie and television deals. In 1981, there were still nine unidentified victims. Nonetheless, nine empty caskets were buried in their honor, each one in a separate cemetery, with a gravestone reading. “We remembered.”

A victim’s mother talks to the press / A photo of the young victim.
Sherry Marino, Michael Marino. Photo by Nancy Stone

Around the same time, six of Gacy’s paintings were sold at Illinois State Fair. One featured the Seven Dwarfs, another was of a desert scene, one of a mountain ranch, and portraits of circus clowns and a portrait of a Native American chief.

How Did John Wayne Gacy Die?

On May 10, 1994, Gacy was executed by lethal injection. His last meal was fried chicken and butterfly shrimp. By 2011, eight victims were still unidentified. After exhuming remains from the Gacy property and extracting DNA from the unidentified victims, the police encouraged any friends or family members to come forward.

A picture of the place where Gacy’s home once stood.
Photo by Jerry Tomaselli

Detectives believed that the passing of time might actually work in their favor. Those families who never reported their sons missing and never searched for them might be willing to do so at this point. Those who may have worried about the homosexual undertones of the crimes decades ago may not feel ashamed anymore.

Victim No. 19

In 2011, DNA technology was able to identify another victim. Back in 1976, William George Bundy told his family that he was going to a party only to never come home. In 1979, when investigators tried to identify Gacy’s victims, Bundy’s mother attempted to find her son’s dental records, but the dentist had retired.

A photo of William George Bundy’s ID.
William George Bundy. Source: Cook County Sheriff’s Office

When she finally found the family dentist, she learned that he destroyed all his records. Bundy’s sister and brother then provided DNA samples which led to a perfect match for what was dubbed “Victim No. 19” which was one of the many pulled from the crawl space of Gacy’s house.

Victim No. 24

In 2017, a second long-unknown victim was identified. It’s been over 40 years since Jimmy Haakenson set out on an adventure, traveling from his Minnesota home to Chicago at just 16. His brother and sister supplied his DNA to help confirm that Haakenson was Victim No. 24.

Pictures of Jimmy Haakenson at home.
Jimmy Haakenson. Source: Chicago Tribune

Haakenson’s mother arrived in Chicago in 1979 after Gacy’s arrest. She wanted to know if her son was among Gacy’s victims, and since dental records were the main method of identifying remains back then, she couldn’t get answers.

Victim No. 5

“Every family deserves to have closure,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart stated. As recently as October 2021, a third unknown Gacy victim was finally identified. The boy’s name was Francis Wayne Alexander. He was officially known as Victim No. 5.

Pictures of Francis Wayne Alexander are shown to the media.
Francis Wayne Alexander. Source: Chicago Tribune

His body was found inside Gacy’s home on December 26, 1978. He was killed between early 1976 and early 1977. This means that there are five more Gacy victims that remain. Hopefully it’s only a matter of time for their families to find the closure they need.

Devil in Disguise

John Wayne Gacy’s story was made into a documentary series called Devil in Disguise: The Untold Story of John Wayne Gacy. Director Rod Blackhurst started the project knowing not much more than Gacy’s name. “I had kind of a cursory knowledge of what had transpired in the ’70s,” the director said.

A portrait of Gacy dressed as a clown.
John Wayne Gacy. Source: YouTube

Blackhurst was immediately captivated by the decades-long work done by independent journalists Alison True and Tracy Ullman, showing how Gacy’s crimes continued for so long thanks to his close relationships with Chicago area bigwigs.

A Damn Shame

Many of Gacy’s victims were also chalked up to being “mere” runaways or gay men whose lifestyles put them at risk. “Many of John Wayne Gacy’s victims had to been reduced to being second-class citizens,” Blackhurst explained.

Brothers of a victim during a family gathering / A photo of the victim.
Source: Chicago Tribune

“The way that the police dealt with their claims and the charges that [were] leveled against him… it’s not just a shame that that happened but that it took this long for somebody to shine a light on it.” The docuseries exposes how the Gacy case was relying too much on police informants and confidential sources, and less on real journalism.