Reality too often surpasses fiction. Not for nothing films, books and video games emerge from the same human imagery as the most gruesome crimes or the most beautiful works. Everything is unified. The following article is a sample of the extreme evil that a person can reach. This is one of those cases that attracts the attention of story makers, a breeding ground for the creation of horror stories. Meet John Wayne Gacy, a character who would make Stephen King’s Pennywise tremble
The comparison we have made in the previous paragraph is not unjustified. To put the reader in context, we will first give a few details about who Pennywise is. With the nicknames of “the dancing clown” or “It” he is, fortunately, a fictional character. His origin can be found in the fruitful creativity of the prolific Stephen King (1947-), the world bestseller with dozens of fantasy, science fiction and horror novels and nearly two hundred stories behind him, many of them adapted to cinema. Pennywise is a character who is already part of international popular culture. His first appearance was in the horror novel IT (1986), later adapted to the big screen on two occasions: first as a miniseries produced by Mark Bacino and Matthew O’Connor (1990) and with Tim Curry in the role of Pennywise and, more recently, as a film directed by Andy Muschietti (2017) and with Bill Skarsgard in the role of the clown.
We’re not going to reveal the main argument of the book, but we are going to specify that Pennywise is not just a macabre, sadistic clown. Pennywise is an abstract creature according to the complex cosmology that Stephen King has devised with great doses of ingenuity and imagination. He is an arcane and ancestral being, even older than the universe. A kind of divine, malignant and demonic entity. Although he often appears in the novel in the form of a harlequin, he does not really have a fixed form, and his original appearance has never been seen. It came to Earth at some point in prehistoric times, and crashed in the form of a meteorite in the town of Derry, where it settled in an underground den. Since human beings appeared in the area, and in regular periods of 27 years (the rest of the time is hibernating), he provokes waves of violence and sadism, killing everyone who comes across him. One of his defining features is his ability to change shape. Human perception affects his appearance and he ends up adopting forms related to the deepest fears of those who see him, thus taking advantage of his victims. Pennywise is therefore fear and evil personified.
But is Pennywise really as fictional as we thought? Obviously, many of his traits make us think so. However, the characteristic of Pennywise as an ambassador of terror and evil is not exclusive to him. In fact, this characteristic too often transcends the lines of fiction. It is even possible that Stephen King had based on the story of a real and demonic character who lived until not long ago to write his novel IT.
John Wayne Gacy, alias Pogo the Clown
John Wayne Gacy Jr., son of John Wayne Gacy Sr. and Marion Elaine Robinson, was born in Chicago on March 17, 1942. He was the second of three children. He had two sisters, Joanne, his older sister, and Karen, the youngest of the family. He had a tough childhood: his father, an alcoholic, picked on him for his obesity and physically assaulted him when he came home drunk. Still, John loved his father and constantly sought his approval, support, and love, elements he would never find. Essential elements for a child to be properly formed and to achieve basic emotional and psychological stability. His father died in 1969.
Gacy Jr. tried to graduate unsuccessfully. He attended four high schools, but his attempts were unsuccessful. This obstacle forced him to move to Las Vegas in search of work. There he worked as a janitor at Palm Mortuary. His job didn’t seem to fill him up enough, so when he got the optimal savings, he left Las Vegas and his job to go back to Chicago. However, it wouldn’t be long before Gacy found the environment where he would excel. Gacy felt the call of the business world, enrolling at Northwestern Business College. In this respect, Gacy acquired the necessary skills that would make him a natural-born salesman. A remarkable loquacity made Gacy move up the work hierarchy quickly. When John graduated, he moved to Chicago to work as a management apprentice at Nunn Bush Shoe Co. As we say, Gacy put his sales skills into practice and quickly excelled in his job, so he was transferred to Illinois, where he would run a men’s clothing store belonging to the company he worked for.
At that time he met his first wife, Marlynn Myers, with whom he had two children. Marlynn grew up in a wealthy family and Gacy could take advantage of that situation. His relationship with his father-in-law was cordial, so much so that he was entrusted with the management of a KFC franchise in Iowa that his wife’s family ran in 1966. The Gacy couple moved to Iowa in 1967. During this period, he decided to join the Jaycees (the United States Junior Chamber), a nonprofit organization dedicated to leadership training, of which Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon were also members. Gacy became vice president of the Waterloo section (Iowa) and made some voluntary works for his community. He also became involved in many other organizations that served the community. Shortly thereafter, however, his decline began. Gacy Jr. was a predator, a sinister person with a double life that he knew how to hide and to complement with his public life perfectly.
Exemplary citizen, criminal clown
The first scandal came in the form of a serious charge of attempting to coerce a young employee, Mark Miller, from the franchise in which he worked to maintain relations with him. It is true that some rumors took shape at that time about his homosexuality and his attraction to young boys, especially among the members of the Jaycees, although his closest friends denied such lucubrations. Gacy denied the rape charges, but it wasn’t the only thing he faced. A few months after Miller accused him, Gacy hired an 18-year-old, Dwight Andersson, to beat Miller up. Andersson was captured by the police and revealed Gacy’s name. Gacy finally pleaded guilty to rape and was sentenced in 1968 to 10 years in prison at the Iowa’s State Men’s Reformatory. This would be the sad tip of the iceberg. Of course, Gacy shocked people who knew him and saw him as an exemplary and dedicated father and citizen. This ended with his first marriage and his relationship with his wife and children, whom he never wanted to see again. However, he was paroled after 18 months for good behavior and returned to Chicago, surely to get away from Iowa, to start a new life and rebuild his reputation.
From then on, another moment of relative calm came into his life. Gacy moved with his mother to Illinois for 4 months and sought job stability again. Firstly, he worked as a chef in a restaurant. Some time later he started a business as a contractor in the construction sector known as PDM Contractors (Painting, Decorating, and Maintenance Contractors). It seems that at that time he had several depressive episodes related to the death of his father, who died while he was in prison. His teenage yearnings returned to his memory and he deeply regretted he couldn’t have reconciled with his father and said goodbye to him.
He married Carole Hoff in 1972 and moved to 8213 West Summerdale Avenue, Chicago, Illinois. In 1971 he was again the protagonist of another scandal. He was again accused of attempted rape by another young man, but in this case Gacy was released unpunished as the young man did not appear to testify. The following year a similar episode happened, as another young man accused him of abusing him in his car, where Gacy lured the young man by posing as sheriff. Again, the charges were dropped. During this period he continued to manifest that double life that he knew how to handle so well, because he did not arouse any suspicion among his new neighbors even though he had been in jail. But his terrible secret was almost revealed. The Grexas couple, Gacy’s neighbors who he got along well with, perceived a strange pestilence emanating from Gacy’s house each time they visited him, although Gacy convinced them that the smell came from the spaces beneath the house, which was easily attributable to some problem in the sewer. In his social circle, no one knew that Gacy was a sex criminal, although his wife was aware of his time in prison, but decided to give him a chance thinking that her husband had really changed. In the work, Gacy was seen as a cunning salesman against whom it was difficult to compete and a dedicated worker.
He used to organize events and parties in his neighborhood, and participated assiduously in the social life of his district; he used to go to hospitals to make children laugh, and even participated briefly in politics by being part of the campaign of his district’s Democratic Party. He was so involved that he came into contact with First Lady Rosalyn Carter. In the eyes of the public, Gacy was the exemplary American citizen, if only in appearance. His theme parties were memorable, and at some of them he brought together nearly 300 people. Certainly, his guests continued to smell the strange smell coming from Gacy’s house, but they never suspected anything.
It should be noted that Gacy didn’t go dressed normally to these events and parties. Gacy liked to go dressed as a clown (a bit creepy, let it all be said) to entertain the children, to whom he gave candies and balloons and made them laugh with his jokes. He called his alter ego Pogo the Clown. With his good-natured white painted face, his red painted mouth and blue painted eyes, and dressed in a cap with colorful pom-poms, a striking ruff and a squeaky red and white suit, Gacy was the life of the parties.
In 1976 he divorced his second wife. It seems that his sudden outbursts of rage and inability to satisfy his wife’s sexual desires (Gacy’s sexual tastes were much more sinister) influenced this decision. In addition, Gacy spent too much time outside at night and when he was at home, he spent time on some scam in the garage or outside the house, kept IDs of young boys at home and consumed homosexual pornography.
Gacy continued to run his business and used his trade to contact young people in need of employment. He met them at their Chicago home and “interviewed” them there. He was only interested in hiring young boys, supposedly to reducing costs. However, something strange happened during those years. A growing number of young boys were disappearing. The Police could not find a trace of any of them… Until December 11, 1978.
That day, John Wayne Gacy, the cheerful Pogo, began to be investigated following the disappearance of a 15-year-old boy, Robert Piest, in Des Plaines, Illinois. He was last seen at the pharmacy where he worked. Robert had informed his mother about an appointment with a man who was going to offer him a job at a construction company. It could be none other than John, who, as a curiosity, had been in charge of remodeling the Nisson pharmacy where the disappearance took place. Piest’s mother, worried about her son’s prolonged absence, decided to notify the police of his disappearance. The investigation was led by Lieutenant Joseph Kozenczak. After discovering that Gacy was one of the last people who had been with the young man, Kozenczak went to visit him at his house to ask him some questions. However, Gacy refused to be interviewed at the time because, according to him, he had to attend to several calls regarding the death of a family member. Even so, he went to the police station hours later for questioning. Gacy insisted that he didn’t know Robert Piest at all, so he returned home unpunished. The day after the interrogation, Lt. Kozenczak discovered Gacy’s criminal recordand his time in prison for sodomizing a teenager in 1968. It is curious that the disappearance of several of his employees, all of them young teenagers, such as Gregory Godzik and John Butkovich, both 16 to 17 years old, did not provoke an earlier intervention by the police. In fact, in 1977 Gacy was again charged with sexual assault by a 19-year-old boy who claimed to have been abducted at gunpoint and forced to have sex with him, but the charges were dropped again. Finally, Kozenczak obtained a search warrant for Gacy’s house, which was executed on December 13, 1978.
So the police come to his Chicago home to inspect it. That day, Gacy wasn’t home. During that first examination, the officers collected certain clues and evidence that would later help incriminate Gacy. For example, the police discovered a series of spaces under the floor of the house, a kind of basement excavated by Gacy from which emanated a penetrating and unpleasant smell and in which there were traces of lime. However, the officers did not associate it with anything strange at the time. The smell could have come from the sewer. They also seized several objects for later analysis in the forensic laboratory. In the list drawn up by Inspector Kautz, who was responsible for taking an inventory of the material evidence seized, appeared a pair of handcuffs with their respective keys, a box of marijuana, a jeweller with several driving licences that were not his and several rings, colour photographs of various pharmacies, a carpet with a suspicious stain, a wooden plank perforated with two holes at each end, a vibrator, hypodermic needles, clothes too small for Gacy, a nylon rope, a roll of film from the pharmacy where Robert Piest had disappeared and several books with such peculiar titles as Tight Teenagers, Pederasty, Sex between men and boys… Police suspicions grew instantly when among the seized objects appeared a ring with the inscriptions J.A.S. which was very similar to the one worn by one of the teenager who had disappeared a year earlier, John Szyc. They also seized Gacy’s three vehicles, including a black Oldmobile with traces of hair.
Gacy was called back to the police station to explain some of the objects found in his house. It seems that Gacy was furious about the police intervention and decided to speak only when a lawyer was present. Finally, Gacy was placed under constant surveillance. In the following days, Gacy’s friends and acquaintances were interrogated, who had previously been alerted by Gacy that the police were trying to incriminate him for a crime he had not committed. His acquaintances remained faithful to their good relationship with Gacy and the police were unable to make anything clear. However, they could arrest Gacy for possession of marijuana, and they did it. The results of the expert examinations of the samples seized from Gacy’s house ended up confirming all the suspicions. That man was guarding something rough and very dark. Behind his appearance of benefactor and worker was hidden a very dark, malignant secret.
Police got a second search warrant. Gacy, seeing that the Police was about to reveal his tenebrous hobby, decided to recognize that he had murdered a person, but in self-defense. He also gave the location of the body, which he had buried under his garage. The police went to the house with Dr. Robert Stein. They quickly found the hole where Gacy had hidden the body, which belonged to John Butkovich, one of his employees. However, Dr. Stein also noticed something: a very unpleasant smell surrounded the house. A smell that he knew so well. It was the smell of death. No one until that moment could determine the origin of it, neither the neighbors, nor the Police.
Seeing that his secret was about to come out, Gacy decided to surrender and confess on December 22, 1978. He revealed the chilling number of real victims he had abducted. He also testified that he brutally sodomized all of them while they were handcuffed and those who resisted, Gacy strangled them. 33 was the number of the tragedy. Almost all of their victims were young men with a life ahead of them (although one of them, who was a married man), but with such bad luck that they had to bump into a degenerate psychopath. All of them were murdered between 1972 and 1978. Let’s look at this period of time, because that’s when Gacy organized all those parties and disguised himelf as Pogo in order to get in touch with the children. The mere fact of thinking that he could have had access to so many other victims with such tricks causes chills…
He also detailed the Police where he had hidden the corpses by drawing the hiding places that he had made throughout the house. 28 corpses were hidden in those underground spaces. The remaining 5 were thrown into the Des Plaines River. All the victims could be recognized except 8 for their advanced state of decomposition. Indeed, the Police were able to verify the statements of that psychopath when they accessed those cameras of horrors. The bodies were almost piled up, so much so that the police believed that Gacy had killed and buried several people in a single day. To some extent this was the case, but the reason why Gacy placed the bodies so close together was that he was running out of space underneath his house, from which it can be inferred that if he had not been stopped, he would have continued to give free rein to his dark desires and would have continued to murder.
The last of the bodies was found in the Des Plaines River in April 1979. It was that of Robert Piest, also his last victim. Gacy must have suffered from multiple personality disorder, or perhaps it could have been a ploy for the judges to consider him mentally ill and thus lessen his sentence. According to him, there were “four Johns”: John the Contractor, John the Clown (aka Pogo), John the Politician, and Jack Hanley. Jack would have been the perpetrator.
Some of his victims managed to survive, like Jaimie, who was deceived by Gacy, handcuffed in his house and sodomized. However, Jaimie was released by his captor upon payment to keep his “little” secret safe. Those who resisted and opposed the fearsome clown were strangled. Jeffrey Rignall was another of Gacy’s survivors. In May 1978 he was kidnapped. Gacy invited him to get on his black Oldsmobile to share a marijuana cigarette. Taking advantage of the circumstances, Gacy put a handkerchief bathed in chloroform on his face and Rignall fainted. During the drive he woke up several times, but could not get enough information to determine what was happening to him before Gacy knocked him unconscious again. When he woke up again, still stunned, he was in a sinister, stinking room, and in front of him was a round, naked guy. Around him were several dildos scattered on the floor and the stranger he had in front of him intended to use them with his drugged body. Rignall regained full consciousness the next day in Lincoln Park. He was dressed and lying in the middle of the street, aching and traumatized. A sadist had drugged and raped him brutally. He stayed in the hospital for several days and reported the facts to the Police. It was of little use to them, because the information he offered was blurred and incomplete and the police could not establish a route to the criminal. However, his testimony helped the police cement their suspicions about Gacy. While Gacy was being held for possession of marijuana, Rignall made the decision to uncover the immoral man who had raped him. Let’s remember that Rignall had brief moments of lucidity during the trip in his kidnapper’s vehicle, so he waited on a stretch of the road he vaguely remembered with expectations of discovering his kidnapper. Indeed, he saw a black Oldsmobile that was familiar to him, so he followed him until he reached the home of Gacy, his rapist. He filed rape charges against him. This experience marked him deeply. When it was time for him to testify in Gacy’s trial, he collapsed and could barely utter a few syllables.
Obviously, once the facts came out, the world was petrified and dismayed. Although consternation and fear that the neighbors and people close to Gacy must have felt when, without knowing it beforehand, they understood with whom they had been. Pogo the Clown thus became one of the worst serial killers in the United States and was dubbed by the press as “the killer clown”. It would not be strange, therefore, if Stephen King had taken this event as a basis for writing his famed novel IT. Certainly, there are some coincidences between the two stories: that the villain manifests himself as a cruel and psychopathic clown and that his teenage victims are taken to an underground place to be hidden forever.
John Wayne Gacy was tried on February 6, 1980 in Cook County. Gacy’s defense had an ace up its sleeve: making him look crazy and alienated. However, 5 weeks of trial and the testimony of about 100 witnesses allowed Judge Louis B. Garippo pass sentence. On March 13, 1980, Gacy was sentenced to 21 life sentences and 12 death sentences for the murder of 33 young men. He was transferred to Menard Correctional Center in Illinois, where he remained for 14 years. In 1994 he was taken to Statesville Penitentiary for execution. His last meal was fried chicken accompanied with chips, Coca Cola and a strawberry cake. He was finally executed by lethal injection on May 10, 1994. Showing off his pedantry and finally demonstrating that he had enjoyed everything he had done and that he had no regrets, he grunted: “Kiss my ass”.
His brain was extracted for study. Dr. Helen Morrison took care of it, as she was also studying possible neurological traits related to sociopathy. However, Gacy’s brain did not present any anomaly, although when he was 11 years old he suffered a strong trauma to the forehead that caused a cerebral blood clot that would cause him fainting and loss of consciousness on several occasions until it was dissolved years later with the help of drugs. Some try to explain Gacy’s actions by alluding to this trauma or the toxic relationship he had with his father. Others speculate that the rapes and murders were the expression of self-hatred for his homosexual tastes. We may never know what the motivations were for such despicable acts.
As he waited for his final on death row, his artistic vein emerged and he produced several successful oil paintings. His work consisted mainly of portraits of clowns and of his alter ego Pogo. He also painted a couple of portraits of Jesus Christ and several skulls, perhaps in memory of his actions or as a manifestation of his darker and murderous side. One of his most extravagant works is a skull made up of genitals. His paintings were auctioned after his death and sold for almost 200 dollars to 9500 dollars. Some of them were acquired by the relatives of several of his victims and later burned in a bonfire in which nearly 300 people participated. If Gacy didn’t go unpunished, his legacy shouldn’t either… A curious painting is what he called the Baseball Hall of Fame. It is currently housed in the National Museum of Crime & Punishment and bears the signatures of several baseball players and even of the former President Richard Nixon. None of them ever imagined who John Wayne Gacy really was.
John Wayne Gacy is a paradigmatic case of criminal sociopathy. He was living proof of how these criminals are capable of infiltrating society as normal people, even exemplary, capable of reaching relevant positions within the social structure. It is the best example that reality always surpasses fiction, also in cruelty.
Timothy McCoy, 18, disappeared January 3, 1972.
John Butkovitch, 17, disappeared July 21, 1975.
Darrell Sampson, 18, disappeared April 6, 1976.
Randall Reffett, 15, disappeared May 14, 1976.
Sam Stapleton, 14, disappeared May 14, 1976.
Michael Bonnin, 17, disappeared June 3, 1976.
William Carroll, 16, disappeared June 13, 1976.
Rick Johnston, 17, disappeared August 6, 1976.
Kenneth Parker, 16, disappeared 25 October 1976.
Michael Marino, 14, disappeared October 25, 1976.
Gregory Godzik, 17, disappeared 12 December 1976.
John Szyc, 19, disappeared 20 January 1977.
Jon Prestidge, 20, disappeared 15 March 1977.
Matthew Bowman, 19, disappeared July 5, 1977.
Robert Gilroy, 18, disappeared September 15, 1977.
John Mowery, 19, disappeared September 25, 1977.
Russell Nelson, 21, disappeared October 17, 1977.
Robert Winch, 16, disappeared November 10, 1977.
Tommy Boling, 20, disappeared November 18, 1977.
David Talsma, 19, disappeared December 9, 1977.
William Kindred, 19, disappeared February 16, 1978.
Timothy O’Rourke, 20, disappeared June 1978.
Frank Landingin, 19, disappeared November 4, 1978.
James Mazzara, 21, disappeared November 24, 1978.
Robert Piest, 15, disappeared December 11, 1978.
8 bodies could not be identified due to their poor state of conservation.
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Herradón, O. (2017). John Wayne Gacy. El payaso asesino que inspiró IT. Enigmas del Hombre y del Universo, 264, 74-75.
Linedecker, C.L. (1993). The Man Who Killed Boys: The John Wayne Gacy, Jr. Story. Nueva York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks.
Murderpedia (2017). John Wayne Gacy Jr. [online] available in: http://murderpedia.org/male.G/g1/gacy-john-wayne.htm
Museum Syndicate (2018). John Wayne Gacy [online] available in: http://www.museumsyndicate.com/artist.php?artist=475
Sullivan, T. & Maiken, P.T. (2013). Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders. Pinnacle.