In the opportunistic dream that is middle-class America, the hard‐working, outgoing ‘family man’ next door who entertained local children as a party clown is not supposed to be the perpetrator of one of the worst homicidal streaks in US history.
But John Wayne Gacy was just that.
Now, almost 30 years after he was executed for brutally murdering 33 young men and boys, the man who came to be known as the Killer Clown tells his own story with chilling candor in never-before-heard recordings from his death-row prison cell, which have been released as part of a new Netflix documentary, ‘Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes’.
In the eerie recordings, Gacy is heard boasting to his lawyers about ‘outsmarting’ the cops and preying on ‘the innocent virile ones’ during his six-year killing spree, revealing that, to him, his victims were ‘not human beings’ and at one point admitting that murdering a young man gave him ‘a mind-numbing orgasm.’
Cops knew something was terribly wrong when 15-year-old Rob Piest from Des Plaines, Illinois mysteriously vanished from his job at a local pharmacy on December 11, 1978.
Kim Byers-Lund, a co-worker and friend, recalled to police that he was last seen talking to a peculiar middle-aged man who was doing contract work on the store. Piest grabbed his coat, went outside to inquire about a potential summer job opportunity – and was never seen again.
What cops didn’t realize is that the investigation into Piest’s disappearance would crack open the case of one of America’s most prolific serial killers.
By all outward appearances, the Democratic precinct captain and father-of-two was a seemingly ordinary man. In his free time, Gacy performed at children’s hospitals and charitable events his alter-ego, ‘Pogo the Clown.’
Even as close associates around him began to disappear, nobody suspected that the man beneath the harlequin veneer was a homicidal sociopath who raped, tortured and strangled dozens of young men and boys during a six-year-long killing spree that lasted from 1972 to 1978.
The depravity of Gacy’s crimes shocked the public, who learned how he buried 29 bodies in the crawl space of his quiet Chicago suburban home. Four others, including Piest, were dumped in a nearby river when he ran out of space beneath his house. To this day, five victims remained unidentified.
While awaiting trial for murder, Gacy was interviewed by his legal defense team in over 60 hours of recorded testimony. ‘I’ve been a judge, jury, and executioner of many many people,’ he says in the unearthed recordings. ‘Now I want to be my own judge, jury, and executioner, I’m going to tell you everything that happened.’
The three-part docuseries examines the double life of an aspiring Democratic politician and beloved local business man who notoriously became known as ‘the serial killer clown.’
John Wayne Gacy was an infamous serial killer who raped, tortured and murdered 33 young men and boys between 1972 and 1978. The killer (seen in his mugshot in 1978) buried 29 bodies in the crawl space beneath the house he shared with his wife and kids, and dumped four in a nearby lake when he ran out of space. In never-before-heard audio tapes released in a new Netflix show, he says: ‘You bought ’em for an hour, you bought ’em for two hours, you bought their body to do what you want with it. To me, they’re not a human being’
Gacy seemed to be a cornerstone of his suburban Chicago community. He regularly performed as his alter-ego named ‘Pogo the clown’ at charitable functions. ‘When you clowned, you’re hiding your image. There are things that you could do that you wouldn’t do as a person,’ he says in the Netflix recordings. ‘Clowns can get away with anything. Clowns can get away with murder’
Gacy’s six-year-long killing spree ended in December 1978 when he was arrested for the murder of Rob Piest, a 15-year-old who was last seen talking to Gacy at his after-school job at a local pharmacy
Born in Chicago in 1942, Gacy had a tough childhood under the punitive thumb of an alcoholic father who was physically and mentally abusive.
He was named after John Wayne – the legendary Hollywood cowboy and paragon of American masculinity and virtue but was incapable of living up to his namesake as an awkward, overweight and unathletic child. As a perpetual disappointment to his father, Gacy was constantly beaten and ridiculed as a ‘sissy,’ who would ‘probably grow up queer.’
‘I guess I didn’t have the macho image,’ said Gacy in the Netflix recordings. He was a sensitive child, ‘You know the sickly little bookworm.’
‘I was more interested in how the flowers grew. I would rather sit and listen to The Nutcracker Suite or Beethoven’s 5th or Tchaikovsky’s music.’
Gacy naturally gravitated toward his mother’s more nurturing demeaner, but eventually developed a strange fetish for her underwear. He claimed that he enjoyed the scent and soft texture of the panties, but his mother was less forgiving when she discovered Gacy trying them on. ‘She made me wear it, and she punished me with it,’ he says on the tapes.
Clinical psychologist, Richard Rappaport who served as the chief psychiatrist for Gacy’s defense told Netflix: ‘He liked his mothers softness and genteel attitude compared to the father. And her underwear was symbolic of that. He had his conflicts on his sexuality which led him to try on her underwear and he was attracted to that.’
After a short courtship, Gacy married Marlynn Meyers in 1964. The couple moved to Waterloo, Iowa where he was given the opportunity to manage three Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises for his father-in-law.
‘I enjoyed the first years of my married life, I was really wrapped into it, I just had such a nice warm feeling and I was so happy with her,’ said Gacy in the Netflix series.
He welcomed two children shortly after, Michael in 1966 and Christine in 1967. He described this period of his life like ‘being in church all the time.’
During this time, Gacy became active in local politics as a precinct captain for the Democratic Party. ‘Precinct captains take care of people in the neighborhood,’ explained his lawyer, Sam Amirante to Netflix. ‘If somebody needed a garbage can or somebody needed a bulb changed, or somebody needed their driveway shoveled, the precinct captain would be there to help them.’
He also joined the local ‘Jaycees,’ a civic organization for men between the ages of 18 to 40, who are interested in doing charitable work. At meetings, Gacy often provided fried chicken and insisted on being called ‘Colonel.’ Despite his reputation for being a blowhard, he eventually worked his way up to being vice-president of the Waterloo Jaycees for his deft fundraising skills.
His picture-perfect family man image came crashing down in 1968, when Gacy was convicted of sodomy for assaulting 15-year-old Donald Voorhees, the son of a fellow Jaycee.
Shown are headshots of boys and young men whose bodies have been definitely identified as the victims of Gacy. To this day, five victims remain unidentified
Gacy told his lawyers that he thought homosexuals were ‘sick and weak’ and said that he was open with his wife about his own bi-sexuality. ‘It was almost as if I was trying to tell her something, that I needed her, that I wanted help from her.’ After their 1975 divorce was official, Gacy went on a killing spree which he later blamed her for: ‘I think if she would have been stronger, that this thing would have never gotten loose’
Gacy was a gregarious and boastful pillar of his community. He was known among neighbors as a fun-loving person who gave parties for as many as 400 friends and then shared the leftover food and liquor with those who lived nearby. Between his day-job as a popular contractor in the area, he volunteered as a clown at parades and charity events. ‘Everyone from the neighborhood knew John Gacy,’ said detective Greg Bedoe in the Netflix doc
Gacy’s picture-perfect family man image came crashing down in 1968, when he was convicted of sodomy for assaulting 15-year-old Donald Voorhees. ‘I had a wife, I had two children. I had a business. I had wealth. Why in the f**k did I go out and get myself involved with a kid?’ he laments in the never-before-heard tapes
During this time, Gacy began regularly performing as ‘Pogo the clown’ at charitable functions. ‘Pogo was John’s own creation, from the style of the makeup to the way he acted. It was all his doing. He was very proud of Pogo the clown,’ said Zielinski. ‘I enjoyed the limelight of being involved with something,’ said Gacy on the doc. ‘That included Democratic local politics, polish parades, parade director and ‘Pogo the clown.’ He said that clowning ‘almost like the feeling you get out of coming out of church on Christmas Eve’
Gacy retells the story of how he picked up the hitchhiking teenager and brought him back to his house. ‘He was asking me about the stag films. So me, like an a*****e, I took him over to my house and I showed him the films.
‘Of course I got horny by watching them. Anyhow to cut the conversation short, what happened is that he ended up blowing me and I believe I went down on him.’
Eventually Vorhees reported the incident to his father and Gacy was subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison. Marlynn filed for divorce shortly after and Gacy remained estranged from his biological children for the rest of his life.
The John Wayne Gacy Tapes is a new Netflix docuseries that delves into the double life of the serial killer clown who murdered 33 young men between 1972 to 1978. The series features newly unearthed audio of Gacy that were recorded by his lawyer over the course of 60 hours during his trial. He says in the tapes: ‘I’ve been a judge, jury, and executioner of many many people. Now I want to be my own judge jury and executioner, I’m going to tell you everything that happened’
‘I had a wife, I had two children. I had a business. I had wealth. Why in the f**k did I go out and get myself involved with a kid?’ he laments in the never-before-heard tapes.
During this time Gacy also abused several other youths, including Steve Nemmers, who speaks about his experience with the serial rapist to Netflix for the very first time.
He met Gacy in 1967 through a classmate that was an employee of his at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Gacy invited the group of young boys back to his house to play pool while his ‘family was out of town.’
Among the numerous official looking framed certificates that hung on the walls of Gacy’s basement club room, Nemmers recalled seeing one from the Illinois Governor’s Board of Sex and Health. ‘He told me that he was on a board that studied homosexuals.’
When it got too late for him to drive home, Gacy offered his guest a spare bedroom to spend the night. Soon after, he proposed a game of high stakes poker. ‘If I win, you have to perform a sex act on me. If you win, I have to perform a sex act on you.’
When Nemmers declined, Gacy claimed that it was merely to ‘test his morals’ as part of his study on homosexuals. But things took a turn for the worse when Gacy turned on a pornographic film for the teenage boy to watch. ‘Suddenly I heard a gun click behind me,’ he says.
Holding him at gunpoint, Gacy demanded him to take off his pants so he could perform oral sex.
‘I was crying, and crying and I was begging him not to do this and after a minute of sheer fright, he started laughing,’ remembers Nemmers in the doc.
Later that night, he woke up to someone rubbing his leg and a knife at his throat. ‘Through the light of the window, I could see his face,’ he says while tearing up. ‘That’s a sight that actually till haunts me to this day.’
Gacy was sentenced to ten years at the Anamosa State Penitentiary, but was released on good behavior after 18 months. During that time, he became a powerful inmate in his position as head cook, and increased the prison’s Jaycee chapter from 50 to 650 members.
One fellow inmate named Ray Cornell describes to Netflix how Gacy kicked a man in the jaw after he witnessed him performing fellatio on another inmate. ‘He’s struggling with his sexual urges toward homosexuals. That came out in my opinion. That came out in his personality as anger, as rage,’ he tells the doc.
Despite being a closeted homosexual, Gacy was outwardly homophobic. Clarifying that he was instead bisexual, he told his lawyers: ‘To me its like a form of masturbation, I’ll have sex with either one with no feeling involved.’
Before adding, ‘So I honestly can say that I’ve never had a homosexual relationship because all I’ve ever known, is oral or anal intercourse with no lovemaking. There was no feeling, there was no love.’
Born in 1942, Gacy had a tough childhood under the punitive thumb of an alcoholic father who was physically and mentally abusive. He was an awkward and pudgy child named after John Wayne, the Hollywood cowboy. A perpetual disappointment to his father, Gacy was constantly ridiculed his as a ‘sissy,’ who would ‘probably grow up queer’
Gacy was an aspiring politician and active in local Democratic politics as a precinct captain. Above, Gacy poses with First Lady Rosalynn Carter at a private reception in 1978 in Chicago. She autographed the picture: ‘To John Gacy, Best Wishes – Rosalynn Carter.’ The event later became an embarrassment to the United States Secret Service as Gacy is wearing an ‘S’ pin, indicating a person given special security clearance
Gacy is pictured on his wedding day with his second wife Carole Hoff in 1972. To those around them, ‘John and Carole seemed to be a perfectly normal couple.’ Hoff later claimed that Gacy had a ‘disfunction’ with women and said ‘we hardly had any sex.’ Their marriage deteriorated further as Gacy spent all hours of the night cruising for men
In some instances, Gacy lured his prey off the street by imitating a cop with a police spotlight attached to his late model black Oldsmobile. ‘I never impersonated a cop,’ he counters. ‘But I got a lot of sex just by letting them plant their own seed and letting them grow it.’ Investigators later discovered over 50 different badges from police departments that he used to con his victims
Out of prison, Gacy was desperate to put his past behind him and re-establish himself in Chicago.
‘I was divorced from Marlynn. I really didn’t miss Marlynn but I missed the children. I wanted to be John Wayne Gacy, the family man, the guy who wanted to have his own home,’ he explains in the recordings.
In 1971, he purchased a nondescript track home at 8213 Summerdale Avenue in the middle class blue collar suburban neighborhood of Norwood Park Township and got remarried to Carole Hoff, a divorcee with two daughters in 1972.
‘John and Carole seemed to be a perfectly normal couple. Carole seemed a little bit quiet and submissive, but other than that there was nothing unusual,’ recalled Marty Zielinski, a former employee of Gacy’s. For a while, he says, they represented the typical Chicago suburban family.
Gacy claims that he was ‘up front’ and ‘honest’ with Carole before their wedding. ‘She knew that I had been incarcerated but I wanted to explain that I was a bisexual and that I had engaged in different things. But that I wasn’t – you know – gay or anything like that.’
He started a lucrative new business named, PDM Contractors for ‘painting, decorating and maintenance.’ For a while, their house became a social hub for people in the community. The doc shows flashback footage of Gacy and his wife hosting neighborhood BBQs and front yard picnics.
‘But I didn’t feel that he particularly loved Carole. I never saw an affection from him,’ explained Zielinski. ‘I never saw any affection towards anyone. He could either be nice, or he could be a total jerk, he could turn on a dime. My impression was that John only cared about John.’
Gacy’s first killing was a boy he picked up at the Greyhound bus station and brought back to his house in January 1972. He was later identified in 1986 as 16-year-old Timothy McCoy who was on his way home to Nebraska from a Christmas holiday in Michigan.
He plied McCoy with a few drinks made with grain alcohol and the two engaged in oral sex. He claims they slept in separate bedrooms but says he woke up in morning to find McCoy standing in the doorway holding a kitchen knife. After the two tussled, Gacy fatally stabbed the teenager and left him to die in the bedroom.
When he entered the kitchen, Gacy noticed an open egg carton and slab of bacon on the set table for two and realized that McCoy had been making breakfast for both of them when he walked into Gacy’s bedroom to wake him while absentmindedly carrying the kitchen knife in his hand.
Gacy dumped the body in his crawl space and later covered his grave with a layer of lime and concrete to cover the odor.
In an interview several years after his arrest, Gacy said that listening to McCoy’s death rattle gave him a ‘mind-numbing orgasm.’ Adding: ‘That’s when I realized that death was the ultimate thrill.’
Throughout the summer of 1972, Carole noticed a smell that seemed to come from something decaying in the crawl space. In a back room was a swarm of flies, which she thought might be feeding on whatever was down there—maybe dead mice. Her husband explained that the pungent odor was the result of a runoff from a broken sewer pipe.
Once Gacy got his victim back at his house, his modus operandi was to ply him with drink and drugs to gain his trust. He would then produce a pair of handcuffs to ‘show a magic trick,’ by cuffing his own hands behind his back, before surreptitiously releasing himself with a key hidden between his fingers. Then he would offer to trade turns with his guest so he could teach him the trick. ‘Once the kid put the handcuffs on, it was game over,’ explained Des Plaines police detective, Greg Bedoe
Gacy mapped out for police where all the bodies were buried underneath his house. When he ran out of space, he began dumping his victims in a nearby river
After Gacy got his victims handcuffed under the false premise of a ‘magic trick.’ He referred to his final act as the ‘rope trick’ which was a tourniquet that he placed around the victim’s necks and tightened slowly with a hammer handle
During this time, Gacy began regularly performing as ‘Pogo the clown’ at charitable functions. ‘Pogo was John’s own creation, from the style of the makeup to the way he acted. It was all his doing. He was very proud of Pogo the clown,’ said Zielinski.
‘I enjoyed the limelight of being involved with something,’ said Gacy on the doc. ‘That included Democratic local politics, polish parades, parade director and ‘Pogo the clown.”
He said that clowning made him feel good, ‘almost like the feeling you get out of coming out of church on Christmas Eve.’
He particularly enjoyed the invisibility of it, ‘When you clowned, you’re hiding your image. There are things that you could do that you wouldn’t do as a person,’ he said menacingly. ‘Clowns can get away with anything. Clowns can get away with murder.’
Gacy’s marriage rapidly deteriorated in 1973 when he began spending most nights out, patrolling the gay red light district for more victims. He told Carole that he was visiting construction sites that he hoped to bid on for PDM Contractors. By then, they were making love less and less and Carole observed her husband bringing teenage boys into his garage in all hours of the night.
‘Carole and I were fighting over sex. It’s just that I was tired, working seven days a week. You just don’t want to do it.’
She had been well aware of his proclivities from the beginning, but toward the end of their relationship she said, ‘He could not function with a woman.’
‘We hardly had any sex,’ she explained. ‘He found it very difficult to have anything to do with me.’
Around this time, Carole discovered men’s wallets and gay porn magazines hidden beneath the kitchen sink, one of the photos was of a young man who appeared to have blood on his body.
Gacy told his lawyers that he thought homosexuals were ‘sick and weak’ and said that he was open with Carole about his bi-sexuality. ‘It was almost as if I was trying to tell her something, that I needed her, that I wanted help from her.’
After their 1975 divorce was official, Gacy went on a killing spree. ‘I think if she would have been stronger, that this thing would have never gotten loose.’
By the end of 1976, he had killed seven more and buried their bodies beneath his house. ‘After I got away with the first, I just kept getting away with them. That’s why I didn’t stop,’ he says on the tapes.
He lured his prey off the street with the promise of a job at PDM, or with an offer of drink and drugs, or money for sex. In some instances, Gacy imitated a cop with a police spotlight attached to his late model black Oldsmobile.
‘I never impersonated a cop,’ he counters. ‘But I got a lot of sex just by letting them plant their own seed and letting them grow it.’ Investigators later discovered over 50 different badges from police departments that he used to con his victims.
Once back at his house, his modus operandi was to ply a youth with drink and drugs to gain his trust. He would then produce a pair of handcuffs to ‘show a magic trick,’ by cuffing his own hands behind his back, then surreptitiously releasing himself with a key hidden between his fingers. Then he would offer to trade turns with his guest so he could teach him the trick.
‘Once the kid put the handcuffs on, it was game over,’ explained Des Plaines police detective, Greg Bedoe.
Having restrained his victim, Gacy proceeded to rape and torture his captive – sometimes with cigar burns, or by violating them with foreign objects. He frequently began by straddling himself above his victim’s chest before forcing fellatio and hog tying them to a 2×4 foot wooden post to inflict further sexual abuse.
He referred to his final act as the ‘rope trick’ which was a tourniquet that he placed around the victim’s necks and tightened slowly.
In addition to murdering those closest to him, Gacy also regularly preyed upon down-on-their-luck kids that he picked up at Bughouse Square and paid $50 for sex. ‘Could it be that through seeking out different people for sex, that I developed a hatred for them?’ he asked hypothetically. He committed most of his crimes between 1976 and 1978, and referred to this time as his ‘cruising years.’
‘You bought ’em for an hour, you bought ’em for two hours, you bought their body to do what you want with it,’ he says in the Netflix doc. ‘To me, they’re not a human being.
‘It’s like going to the store, if you buy something and you decide you don’t like it, and want to break it, it’s yours to break because you paid for it.’
While on death row, Gacy spent much of his time painting himself as Pogo the clown. He was permitted to earn money from the sale of his artwork and claimed that his paintings intended ‘to bring joy into people’s lives’
As Gacy’s homicidal spree went unchecked, his predilection for hiring teenagers to work at PDM Contracting did not go unnoticed. ‘Gacy’s choice for workers was always young men, small in stature, usually light colored hair,’ said Rafael Tovar, a member of Des Plaines police said.
‘Generally I would look for young, clean cut, virile looking. I felt that I would probably have the upper-hand or the fatherly image over them. In other words, the innocent ones,’ said Gacy in the docuseries.
Tony Antonucci was 16 when he started working for Gacy. ‘John always made you feel like you were his friend,’ he tells Netflix. ‘He did things like go out of his way to make sure I could find extra hours to work.’
Once while working on a construction job, Antonucci stepped on a nail and had to be taken to the hospital for a tetanus shot. Gacy brought the teenager back to his home to recover where they proceeded to get drunk together. ‘I was horse playing with him – you know just teasing him – and he really got violent about it, he got mad,’ Antonucci recalled. ‘Before I knew it, Gacy had slapped handcuffs on me.’
Antonucci was one of the lucky few who managed to slip the shackles in a wrestle with Gacy. ‘And then he said this quote which will always stick with me. He said, ‘Not only are you the only one that got out of the handcuffs, but you got them on me.’
Two weeks after Antonucci’s incident, John Butkovich, an 18-year-old employee of PDM Contractors, went missing.
‘The strongest feelings I had for any of them was Butkovich,’ says Gacy in the Netflix recordings. ‘I treated him like a father-son relationship. Also got into a sexual relationship with him. Him blowing me, me blowing him.’
Investigators excavated 29 bodies that were badly decomposed underneath Gacy’s ranch style home after spelling the stench of death
‘They just kept coming, one after another,’ said Detective Bedoe to Netflix. ‘The enormity of it all was mind boggling’
In the tapes Gacy says: ‘Same thing of the corpses and storing them in the basement. It was a hiding place, it was a secret place. Those are my bodies, that’s where I wanted to keep them, they had no right to touch them’
In short succession, four other employees of Gacy’s disappeared: William Bundy aged 19, Gregory Godzik aged 17, John Szyc aged 19 and Charles Hattula aged 25.
Despite their obvious connections, police were unable to correlate their vanishings until 1978 when they started investigating Rob Piest who went missing from his after-school job at Nisson Pharmacy. Piest was last seen talking to Gacy about summer work with PDM Contractors.
‘That put John in contact with knowing four or five different people who had come up missing that had never been located. This is highly unusual,’ said detective Ron Robinson. ‘I mean most people don’t know any missing person, let alone four or five.’
Des Plaines police launched round-the-clock surveillance on Gacy, and obtained a search warrant on his house. Upon searching the property, cops discovered pornography, shackles, and books titled ‘Gay Love Letters’ and ‘Pretty Boys Must Die.’ They also found drivers licenses related to missing persons, and a class ring with the initials ‘JS’ on it belonging to John Szyc.
During a subsequent search of the single-story ranch home, cops noticed the unmistakable odor of death. Gacy is arrested on December 21, 1978.
The following day, the killer clown delivered a rambling confession to police admitting to the murders of 33 men, with most buried in the crawl space beneath his house. He explained that four (including his last victim, Rob Piest) were thrown into the Des Plaines River when he ran out of space.
Over the next several weeks, investigators would unearth the remains of 29 bodies on Gacy’s property. ‘They just kept coming, one after another,’ said Detective Bedoe. ‘The enormity of it all was mind boggling.’
Gacy was sentenced to death in 1980 and executed by lethal injection in 1994. Unremorseful to the end, his last words were: ‘kiss my a**.’