Notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy was born on March 17, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois. The son of Danish and Polish parents, Gacy and his siblings grew up with a drunken father who would beat the children with a razor strap if they were perceived to have misbehaved; his father physically assaulted Gacy’s mother as well. Gacy’s sister Karen would later say that the siblings learned to toughen up against the beatings, and that Gacy would not cry.
Gacy suffered further alienation at school, unable to play with other children due to a congenital heart condition that was looked upon by his father as another failing. He later realized he was attracted to men, and experienced great turmoil over his sexuality.
Gacy worked as a fast-food chain manager during the 1960s and became a self-made building contractor and Democratic precinct captain in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970s. Well-liked in his community, Gacy organized cultural gatherings and worked as a clown. He was married and divorced twice and had biological children and stepchildren.
In 1968, Gacy was convicted of sexually assaulting two teen boys and given a 10-year prison sentence. He was released on parole in the summer of 1970, but was arrested again the following year after another teen accused Gacy of sexual assault. The charges were dropped when the boy didn’t appear during the trial.
By the middle of the decade, two more young males accused Gacy of rape, and he would be questioned by police about the disappearances of others.
On December 11, 1978, 15-year-old Robert Piest went missing. It was reported to police that the boy was last seen by his mother at the store he worked at as he headed out to meet Gacy to discuss a potential job. On December 21, a police search of Gacy’s house in Norwood Park Township, Illinois, uncovered evidence of his involvement in numerous horrific acts, including murder. It was later discovered that Gacy had committed his first known killing in 1972, taking the life of Timothy McCoy after luring the teen to his home.
Gacy, also known as the “Serial Killer Clown,” killed 33 boys and young men, the majority of whom had been buried under the house and garage. Others would be recovered from the nearby Des Plaines River. Gacy was a clown performer at children’s parties; when he killed, he sometimes dressed as his alter ego “Pogo the Clown.” He lured his victims with the promise of construction work, and then captured, sexually assaulted and eventually strangled most of them with rope.
On August 1, 2017, one of those men, “Victim No. 24,” was identified as 16-year-old James “Jimmie” Byron Haakenson. Haakenson had left home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and traveled to Chicago to begin life in the city. On August 5, 1976, he called his mother to let her know he had arrived; however police believe Gacy killed him shortly thereafter. In 1979, Haakenson’s mother had contacted authorities to find out if her son was one of Gacy’s victims, but she didn’t have dental records and the department lacked sufficient resources to identify him as a victim. Haakenson’s mother died in the early 2000s, but other family members provided DNA samples in 2017, and authorities made an immediate match to “Victim No. 24.”
Question of Sanity
Gacy’s trial began on February 6, 1980, with a prosecution team headed by William Kunkle. With Gacy having confessed to the crimes, the arguments were focused on whether he could be declared insane and thus remitted to a state mental facility. Gacy had told police that the murders had been committed by an alternate personality, while mental health professionals testified for both sides about Gacy’s mental state.
After a short jury deliberation, Gacy was ultimately found guilty of committing 33 murders, and he became known as one of the most vicious serial killers in U.S. history. He was sentenced to serve 12 death sentences and 21 natural life sentences.