Clowning Around With Gacy

On many weekday mornings, Acme Records publicist Wendy Harte sits in her suburban Los Angeles office and prepares press kits to get the word out to the media about semifamous rock bands with colorful names like E.I.E.I.O. and Thin White Rope. Sometimes, Harte says, she works so hard that she gets "slaphappy" by four in the afternoon. And on occasion, she takes some time off to prepare a press kit for a favorite artist of hers who's not on the record label.

That artist is John Wayne Gacy, the mass murderer who in 1980 was convicted of killing 33 young men and boys.

Gacy is now a prison-based huckster whose paintings have appeared at exhibits across the country, including one on New Year's Eve at Time Out of Mind, an all-ages nightclub in South Phoenix. That display, you may remember, also featured art by Peter Petrisko Jr., the wag who snagged the Virgin Mary "miracle yucca" in January from a downtown street corner.

Harte has been writing to Gacy since August. And Gacy's been writing back from his Menard, Illinois, prison cell. And Harte has been compiling their correspondence into a press kit. Even though she calls it a press kit, she doesn't send it to the media, but, instead, to family, friends and bands who record for Acme Records (the company's name has been changed here at the request of president Lisa Fancher).

Judging by the packet of letters (which the Acme crew swears are authentic), Harte and Gacy have become such good pen pals that they've even established a business relationship. Gacy sells stuff to her, including a photo of Gacy dressed in his infamous Pogo the Clown costume. In December, she got Gacy to paint a picture of Fancher made up as a clown, and Harte gave the painting to her boss for a Christmas present. Fancher, by the way, not only thinks it's groovy that Harte writes to Gacy on company time. The prez herself has even fired off one letter to the killer clown.

Do Harte and Fancher think what they're doing is perhaps, uh, warped? Harte allows that what she's doing is indeed, uh, warped: "You go, `How the hell could I ever be corresponding with someone that evil?'"

Fancher adds, "Yeah, I admit that it's a little sick. It's probably a lot sick. We don't really have a good reason we've continued to write. We're oddly fascinated, but at the same time, we're appalled. Murder, to me, is the most horrible thing in the world. I don't think it's cool, funny or cute."

It all started at a swap meet last year at Pasadena City College, where Harte and Fancher bought a bundle of Gacy's letters and discovered his address on them. In her first letter, Harte asked Gacy to send a photo of himself dressed as Pogo, one of two clowns the killer routinely personified. She requested that Gacy sign the photo, "Hi Ho, Crew!" Gacy wrote back that he was willing to mail the portrait but that he wanted a clown calendar or two in return. She agreed, and in October, Gacy's signed photo finally arrived at the Acme office.

Harte insists that much of what she writes to Gacy is designed to mock him, like her note to him in January: "Today, your picture hangs proudly in my office--if ya catch my drift."

"We just mess with him a lot, which he does not catch," Fancher says. "That's what entertains us a lot about it. We say things that are obtuse or mean. That's one way of justifying it or rationalizing it. We don't write letters like, `Oh, we know you didn't do it.'"

A few months ago, Harte thought it would be humorous to put Gacy's art skills to work. She asked him if he would paint Fancher made up as a clown. After haggling over the price ($125) and details (the color of a flag Fancher holds in the painting), Gacy burned the midnight oil in his cell and shipped the canvas in time for Harte to put it under the Acme Records Christmas tree.

Bargaining with Gacy has been one of the more fascinating elements of their correspondence, Harte says.

"The guy's a real wheeler-dealer and manipulator," she notes. "He always wants more than he deserves. We gave him a Shriner's pin, and he put it on his Cubs hat. But the back of it was ruined, and he wanted a new one. He was willing to give us one of his pictures, but we would have to give him the calendars. The calendars cost $16. We read a book about him that said he was a total capitalist."

"What does he do with this money?" Fancher wonders. "You can only buy so many cigarettes.