REMEMBERING A BRUSH WITH EVIL
There was nothing unusual about John Gacy's brick bungalow. I had seen thousands just like it all over the Chicago area. But Gacy's house at 8213 Summerdale, near O'Hare International Airport, held a horrifying and sickening secret. To create the events that took place there under cover of darkness would test the appetite for the macabre of Edgar Allan Poe or even the Frenchman, Cline.
With a favorite length of rope, the chubby, walrus-mustached Gacy strangled 29 young men, and then buried them in a crawlspace under the living-room floor. With the crawlspace filled, he began tossing the bodies into the Des Plaines River until his total reached 33 and he was caught. Gacy killed the first of these boys in 1972 and the last in 1978. He picked up the first at the Greyhound bus station across the street from Marshall Field's department store in the Loop and brought him home for "some fun." Gacy never knew the boy's name. Police still refer to the body as "The Greyhound Bus Boy."
Convicted in 1980 after a 5 1/2-week trial, Gacy was executed a few minutes after midnight on Tuesday of this week.
@body:Spend a career as a newspaperman and you realize only a few stories that you covered become unforgettable to you. I didn't have to work at remembering Gacy. There was nothing about him that wasn't sordid. The fault is my own. I never developed the moral discipline to erase it from my mind. The repulsive and grisly details overpowered my subconscious. Why would I want to remember it? Certainly, I played no dynamic part in covering the story for my newspaper. I was just one of dozens of reporters slogging through the details every day. Despite its sensational nature, there were never any big, breaking stories that merited journalism awards. Back in December of 1978, I spent the week before Christmas standing outside Gacy's home in subzero cold. I was just one of dozens of media foot soldiers, waiting for something to happen. It was particularly uncomfortable for me. On the night before the story began, I slipped on an icy sidewalk and fell into a concrete stoop, breaking my nose and getting two black eyes. So I had to wear sunglasses even though it was the dead of winter.
Each morning, I drove out toward O'Hare and then down Summerdale to number 8213 to join the milling mob standing there with paper coffee cups in their hands. There was only one entrance to the street, and Gacy's house was on the right. There were three casement windows on its front and a small, concrete walkway leading to a mailbox at the street.
The highlight of the day came just before dark when the police representatives would stand in the driveway and meet the press. They would announce the number of bodies that had been recovered that day while, in the background, other police would carry the bodies to waiting ambulances. It was a perfect setup for the evening television news.
I noticed that during this operation, many of the cops had strangely satisfied expressions on their faces. It wasn't until years later that I learned Gacy had a large stash of beer in his garage. At the close of the digging day, the police officers would pause and down a few beers. By the time the digging was finished, they had consumed two dozen cases of Old Milwaukee. That in itself must be a record of some sort.
This was the Chicago winter that it snowed a record 90 inches. The snow didn't melt until April, just in time for voters to burst from their homes and vote Jane Byrne, the town's first woman mayor, into office. Michael Bilandic, the incumbent who succeeded the fabled Richard J. Daley, had failed to remove the snow from the streets fast enough. In Chicago, politicians do not remain long unemployed. Bilandic soon became a judge, a position to which he has appended himself quite happily.
There was so much about Gacy that I never learned until much later. I was six feet away from him as he stood wearing a black leather jacket in court in Des Plaines for his arraignment. I was close enough to feel both the hatred and fascination held for this evil man by everyone in that courtroom. Gacy's hair was jet black then and he had a cowlick in the back. When I saw his picture the other day, his hair had turned snow white and his walrus mustache was gone.
I saw him again after he was indicted. This time, they brought Gacy into the Cook County Criminal Courts building. He appeared before Judge Richard Fitzgerald, who was always my favorite Chicago judge. Fitzgerald was an ardent handball player who also had the moral courage to stand up to the Democratic machine during the days of the civil rights marches.
By this time, the case was an international sensation. A bullet-proof glass partition had been built into the court to separate Gacy from the spectators. Many of the relatives of the victims were in the court. This was the first time I saw Harold Piest, the forlorn father of Rob Piest, 15, Gacy's final victim. Piest sat with his wife. They were neatly dressed suburbanites. Their son had been only two minor tests away from becoming an Eagle Scout. By now Gacy had acquired a young, ambitious lawyer named Sam Amirante, a diminutive Italian with a lot of energy and a wardrobe of loud suits. On this day, Gacy himself wore a brown sport coat, a white shirt and a polka-dot tie. He managed to appear bored by the procedure. Each time the death penalty was mentioned, he stared at the ceiling as if they were talking about someone else.
Chicago has the largest Polish population of any city in the world, including Warsaw. For that reason, Gacy's Polish connections were played down for fear of offending readers.
Gacy had been the director of the Polish Constitution Day parade for the previous three years, a fact which never appeared in any Chicago newspaper to my knowledge. That is how Gacy obtained the Secret Service clearance that earned him a spot on the reviewing stand with First Lady Rosalyn Carter and an invitation to attend a reception with her later. A photo of Gacy and Mrs. Carter achieved worldwide syndication.
Gacy also performed regularly as a clown at picnics during the summer months. Gacy explained that his clown name, Pogo, was derived from the fact that he was Polish and always on the go.
A few days after his arrest, Gacy sat down in jail and wrote the following note to his mother:
"Please forgive me for what I am about to tell you. I have been very sick for a long time."
He also confided to Ron Rhode, a friend, who later revealed:
"He walked up and put his hands on my shoulders, and he starts crying and he says, 'Ron, I've been a bad boy. I've killed 30 people, give or take a few.'" Police theorized that during the years Gacy was roaming the Chicago streets at night cruising for victims, he had approximately 1,500 relationships. Gacy claimed he only killed the male hustlers who attempted to raise their prices at the last minute.
There is no tape recording of Gacy's confession. Police questioned him over a period of three days, but were afraid if they showed they were making a record that Gacy would stop talking.
It was during these days that Gacy revealed how he killed his victims. Here is how Terry Sullivan, one of the prosecutors, and Peter T. Maiken explained it in their book Killer Clown: "All but one he killed by looping a rope around their necks, knotting it twice, then tightening it, like a tourniquet, with a stick. Some of the victims, he said, convulsed for an hour or two after his rope trick. When he put the bodies into the crawlspace, he either soaked the bodies with acid or put lime on them and buried them under a foot of earth. Sometimes he buried one on top of the other. He disposed of their personal effects in the garbage. "The Piest boy, he said, wanted to make easy money. He had run up to Gacy's car asking for a summer job. He said he would do almost anything for money--but he lied, Gacy said ominously. Rob asked why Gacy was putting the rope around his neck. Why did he ask? Gacy said rhetorically. He was stupid, that's why. Gacy related how he was interrupted by a phone call from a contractor while strangling the boy. When Gacy returned, the boy was already dead."
Gacy said he slept next to the boy's body that night and then put it up in the attic, where it was when the police came to question him. When the police left, Gacy took the body in his car and tossed it into the river. It wasn't found until five months later--on April 9. During his time in Menard prison, Gacy has done dozens of paintings, many of them of clowns. They will soon go on sale for a minimum price of $2,500.
Gacy often attempted to exhibit a wry wit about his murderous spree. "The only crime I'm guilty of," he says, "is operating a cemetery without a license." He used the same line for years.
Mrs. Piest won't talk to the press. "I think of him every day," the father says. Now living alone, he says: "It's been such a lousy 14 years." The misery remained constant for the survivors.
Meanwhile, Gacy kept himself busy in prison with puttering, his painting and small hobbies. He was like a man who had made enough money to retire early.
He maintained a diary for every meal in prison. He kept a record of the score of every Cubs game, and a record of visitors that came to more than 400. He claimed he received more than 27,000 letters. He also kept a brief record of the daily weather report for every day he was in prison.
Gacy spoke earlier this year to Alec Wilkinson of the New Yorker magazine. Previously, Gacy said he had turned down the late Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, and Oprah Winfrey.
Wilkinson wrote of Gacy, "He has a haughty manner suggesting that he thinks he is smarter than anyone he is talking to at the moment."
Gacy told Wilkinson he has made no friends in the prison. But he is famous and is quite aware that his deeds have set him apart from the rest of ordinary men.
Gacy spoke of his prison routine.
"I go to bed and say three Hail Marys and the Our Father. I dream about the life I used to have. (He planned at one time to become a Roman Catholic priest.) I dream about being in construction. For a while, I would tape newspaper pictures of the victims to the wall beside my bed and go to sleep seeing if I could dream about them or if I could recall if I ever met them. I would look at them and say, 'Who the hell are you, and how did you die?'"
Gacy's cell at Menard was large, but there were no windows.
"I don't know," he told Wilkinson, "whether it's night or day. I can't tell you if it's raining. Being in prison is like being in Las Vegas, where you're gambling and you don't know what's going on outside."
In order to satisfy Gacy for the interview, Wilkinson had to fill out an application which listed the enthusiams of his life.
Gacy illustrated what he wanted by filling out a form listing his own enthusiasms:
"Perfect woman: independent thinker, self-starter, mind of her own.
"I view myself as: a positive thinker, open-minded, nonjudgmental.
"My biggest fear: dying before I have a chance to clear my name.
"If I were an animal I'd be: a bear or an eagle.
"My biggest regret: being so trusting and gullible, and thus taken advantage of.
"Favorite song: 'Send In the Clowns' and 'Amazing Grace.'
"I think sex is overrated. My mother told me about sex, my father never did. She said try to make it an act of love and never force yourself on anyone. And I never have."
@body:Let me clear up some loose ends.
Sam Amirante, the fledgling lawyer who took up Gacy's cause, is now a judge.
After a 5 1/2-week trial, it took the jury only one hour and 50 minutes to find Gacy guilty.
Greg Bedoe, who was one of the chief investigators on the case, was sitting near Gacy when he was sentenced to death by Judge Luis Garippo.
"I could look him straight in the eye," Bedoe says. "He didn't bat an eye."
Bedoe remembers something else about Gacy's behavior during the trial: "As soon as the jury would leave the court, even after the most damaging testimony, he would reach for a cigar and ask the bailiff for a match. Then he'd light the cigar, throw the match on the floor and saunter back into the holding zone."
A final cameo:
Lawrence Finder, an assistant state's attorney for Cook County, was one of those present when Gacy confessed. He remembers watching Gacy wrap his rosary beads around the wrist of a detective and twist them like a tourniquet. This was to demonstrate how he had strangled his victims.
"I remember feeling like my knees were turning to jelly," Finder says. "Gacy is the most evil man I ever met.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.