This five-part series originally aired on the CBS 2 News at 10PM on May 11-15, 1992. The accompanying written story was originally published on cbs2chicago.com on May 19, 2007.
CHICAGO (CBS) — There are only a few serial killers whose acts were so heinous that even saying their names can cause people to wince. But to many, John Wayne Gacy stands out as especially villainous even among them.
Police discovered 29 bodies buried in a crawl space of his house and the surrounding yard of his house in unincorporated Norwood Park Township. Another four bodies were found in the Des Plaines River.
Gacy was executed on May 10, 1994. Two years before that, he talked about the murders for the first time, to CBS 2’s Walter Jacobson, and spent the whole interview attempting to paint himself as a misunderstood victim of circumstance.
Gacy Says He Never Committed Murders
Jacobson spent 2 1/2 hours with Gacy in May 1992, listening to a whole new story about his case. He was rambling and often inconsistent, but always very cagey.
Thirteen years earlier when he was convicted, Gacy had told police how he had murdered his victims. But he told Jacobson he had never done it at all.
“When they paint the image that I was this monster who picked up these altar boys along the streets and swatted them like flies, I said, ‘This is ludicrous,'” Gacy said.
But the jury did not find it ludicrous. After barely two hours’ deliberation in 1979, Gacy was found guilty of 33 counts of murder. The bodies in his house at 8213 W. Summerdale Ave. were found in a crawlspace, covered with lime and encased with plastic.
They were dug up a few days before Christmas 1978, and carried into the cold, one after another, after another.
But Gacy claimed he had proof that he did not do it.
“I’ve taken 3 1/2 hours of truth serum – sodium amytal – the maximum amount I could have,” Gacy said. “It shows I have no knowledge of the crime whatsoever.”
But this is where his attempts to change history broke down. There was no evidence that he ever took truth serum.
Many times during the interview, he also tried to portray himself as a good guy – an ethical family man.
Gacy said as a father, he was “loving and caring.”
“I don’t believe in hitting children. I don’t believe in spoiling a child either,” Gacy said.
“This is crazy. You’re accused of murdering 33 kids and you say you didn’t believe in hitting?” Jacobson said.
“You’re basing this garbage on what you’ve heard of me,” Gacy replied.
But the jury and the courts of appeal said he had committed the murders, and former prosecutor William Kunkle, now a Cook County judge, called Gacy a ruthless and sadistic killing machine.
“He’s responsible, he knew what he was doing, he planned it in advance, and he carried it out, and he enjoyed it” Kunkle said, adding that Gacy was desperate because he was close to execution.
And he admitted most of it to police.
But in the interview, Gacy would occasionally slip up during his cunning and manipulative denials.
When asked about one victim. John Butkovich, Gacy replied: “The five that I know about… Butkovich is not one that I killed, so I don’t know nothing about him.”
Gacy Calls Himself A Victim Of Circumstance
Gacy also said he was a misunderstood victim of circumstance, and said all the evidence against him had an innocent explanation.
He said he had some knowledge of just five of the murders, and direct knowledge of even fewer.
“If you want to charge me with anything, charge me with complicity in two of the murders,” Gacy said.
Gacy claimed all he did was help dispose of two bodies, including that of Robert Piest, 15, whom Gacy had invited to apply for a job at his construction company. Gacy alleged that Piest had been killed by someone else in his home, but he said he did throw the body in the Des Plaines River.
“Don’t look at me as an innocent babe of the woods,” Gacy said.
Thirteen years before the interview, Gacy implicated himself as perhaps the farthest thing from a “babe of the woods.” He confessed to almost everything, telling police “you have all the bodies,” and even supplying a map showing where 27 bodies were buried.
He even led the police to a garage, and sprayed orange paint on the concrete to mark the spot precisely where the body was found.
In 1992, Gacy told Jacobson there was an innocent explanation. He was just marking a spot where concrete had been poured.
Not so, says Kunkle.
“He sprayed a stick figure with the orange spray can in the garage – not just a mark – a stick figure showing the orientation of the body,” Kunkle said. “Right underneath that stick figure, exactly where he drew it, pointed in the direction he drew it, was the body of John Butkovich.”
Gacy even tried to provide an innocent explanation about how he killed his victims. Police said he used rosary beads to demonstrate an infamous rope trick to strangle his victims.
He says he was simply discussing knots in general. He claimed he was asked what kind of knot he used when he had to tie things, and replied that he only knew how to tie a tourniquet knot.
He demonstrated the tourniquet knot on Jacobson’s forearm, tying two knots and turning a stick inside.
“That’s the only knot I ever learned,” Gacy said.
It was also precisely the kind of knot found on the ropes wrapped around the necks of the victims found at the Summerdale Avenue house.
There was other compelling evidence, including wallets and rings from the victims that were found in Gacy’s home, that left no doubt whatsoever he was the killer.
Inside Gacy’s Mind
But what in Gacy’s mind led him to commit the crimes?
To a casual observer, his background did not seem to suggest it. Gacy was known by many as a pillar of his community before the murders were discovered.
He was married and with five children. He had owned his own construction company, worked as a precinct captain for the Democratic Party and even had his picture taken with First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
But he had also been convicted and served a sentence for molestation in 1968.
He also performed at hospitals and for an ice cream company as Pogo the clown, and maintained an obsession with clowns even years later. He painted portraits of himself as a clown while on Death Row.
Nobody knows how Gacy could have led this double life and committed 33 murders. But psychiatrists talked about how obsessive and meticulous he was – enough to kill repeatedly, and to stack his victims in a careful and ordered manner.
Even on Death Row, he was obsessive and meticulous, keeping an excruciatingly detailed log of his day-to-day life, and also maintaining a log on everything his victims did before they were killed.
Northwestern University psychiatrist Daniel Yohanna spent a few hours screening Jacobson’s interview with Gacy.
“(Gacy) is very attentive to all details, and that’s the way that he operates, and that’s how people like him are able to… do these crimes and cover them up, because they are well-planned and organized,” Yohanna said.
Gacy could not plan how he got that way. He blamed his father for his personality.
“My dad was domineering. He had a different set of values, but also a very stern individual. My dad drank a lot, and when he drank a lot, he was abusive to my mother and to me,” Gacy said. “But I never swung at my dad, because I loved him for what he stood for.”
But Gacy did not know or seem to care whether that was where things began to go wrong for him. Instead, he became lost in his paintings. Among them were a depiction of Christ, and one of the Seven Dwarfs from “Snow White.”
“Walt Disney is a mentor for me, because I’ve always enjoyed his creativity,” Gacy said.
Gacy Talks About His Victims
Gacy talked about his victims like so many numbers on a scorecard, with no apparent feelings whatsoever like human beings.
In fact, they were 33 children – teenage boys who lived and loved, and were loved. John Butkovich was 18. Michael Bonnin was 17. Randall Reffett was 15. Samuel Stapleton was only 14. There was no logical explanation for why he targeted them.
But several of them were runaways from broken homes. He had preyed on children from families that had split apart, but speaking with Jacobson 14 years later, he lectured them.
“Nowadays, do your realize that by 1993, that 50 percent of the American families will be single-parented?” Gacy said, “And that shows a breakdown in the church, in not being able to hold families together.”
Gacy added that he believed kids got in trouble because nobody cared about them. Gacy himself got in trouble because after 32 victims, he slipped up in killing Piest – an all-American, clean-cut local kid whose disappearance attracted police.
Such carelessness is typical, experts said. The same cavalier attitude was also seen in Jeffrey Dahmer, who was awaiting trial for 17 murders when Jacobson interviewed Gacy.
Gacy did not care to be compared to Dahmer or other serial killers.
“I hate that, when they put me in the same club with them,” Gacy said.
But that was the precisely the club he was in, and his victims still felt the pain 13 years later.
“When you have a child taken out of your life, it is like a little piece is taken out of your heart,” said Delores Nieder, mother of Gacy victim John Mowrey. “You can never forget it. Everything keeps revolving back to the day he did this or he did that, and we reminisce.”
Mowrey, 19, was a U.S. Marine and studying to be an accountant, and had gone to Gacy’s house for a job. He never came back.
In the interview Gacy expressed no remorse whatsoever, instead calling himself a victim for being convicted of a crime he claimed he did not commit. He also called the families victims for not knowing who the real killer was.
But when the families insisted that Gacy be executed, his real feelings came out.
“That one mother who goes on television all the time, who thinks I should be given 33 injections, I think she ought to take 33 Valiums and go lay down…. If her Marine son was so great, then what the hell did he run away from home all the time?” Gacy said, referring to Nieder.
But Mowrey was not a runaway. And Nieder said it was hard to believe Gacy thought he had the right to say anything about her at all.
Gacy Claims He Had Accomplices, Gives Other Alibis
Gacy’s house on Summerdale Avenue was demolished before the interview, and it went down in history for the crawlspace he filled with teenage boys’ bodies.
But Gacy presented the house to Jacobson in a different light, attempting instead to use it as an alibi.
“It’s not a house where you live and you work 9 to 5 and come home and it’s like a house where you live in,” Gacy said. “The living room was a private office section, one of the bedrooms was a terrarium, the kitchen was more like a fast food kitchen.”
He painted a picture of a busy place, but conveniently omitted the crawl space, which he had divided into 26 plots like a cemetery – about 6 feet by 3 feet, and a foot and a half deep.
But the house did indeed double as headquarters for his P.D.M. Construction company, and a flophouse for his employees, on whom he blamed the murders when he talked to Jacobson.
“The media has always contended there was others involved,” Gacy said. “At the time of my arrest, there were four other suspects.” Three of them worked for P.D.M., Gacy said.
He claimed that one man, Michael Rossi, had socialized in the house with one victim, John Szyc, the night he was murdered. Gacy said he had a drink at the house, then left, and when he came back, Szyc was dead.
But he said he did not say anything because “it wasn’t my business, and I stayed out of other people’s business.”
If this story did not seem credible, he had another one, about being so high on drugs he did not know what he was doing. He said he took Valium to cope with his long workdays.
But what about the smell of decomposing bodies that neighbors complained about? Gacy said it was because his lhasa apso dog was locked in the kitchen all day and had been urinating and defecating. Or if not that, maybe the sump-pump.
All of these alibis and excuses were the bases of his appeals, all of which failed.
And as to getting executed, he said 13 years of thinking about death had no effect.
“I’m just as lovable and jokeable as I was back then,” Gacy said. “I don’t sit around worrying about the death penalty and things like that…. If you believe you’ve lived your life the right way, then you do not have nothing to fear.”
Gacy was executed about two years after he said those words. Just after midnight on May 10, 1994, he was put to death by lethal injection. Notoriously, his last words were, “Kiss my ass.”
CBS Chicago Web Producer Adam Harrington contributed to this written report.