John Wayne Gacy

The Chilling Story Of John Wayne Gacy, The Real-Life ‘Killer Clown’

Published January 29, 2022
Updated September 20, 2022

One of the worst serial killers in American history, John Wayne Gacy performed as "Pogo the Clown" by day and murdered young men and boys by night.

On January 2, 1972, 16-year-old Timothy McCoy got up early to make his host breakfast. He had met John Wayne Gacy at the Chicago bus terminal the night before, and Gacy let him stay over while he made his way home to Iowa after spending Christmas in Michigan.

McCoy got out eggs and bacon and set the table for two. Then, he walked up the stairs to wake Gacy, not realizing he hadn’t put down the knife he’d been using.

What happened next would set the scene for the rest of John Wayne Gacy’s life.

Not realizing the boy had intended no harm, Gacy stabbed him in the chest, killing him. He then buried his body in the crawlspace beneath his home and covered the grave with concrete.

Killing McCoy reportedly gave Gacy a “mind-numbing orgasm.” The murder had allegedly been a mistake, but it instilled in Gacy “the ultimate thrill” that he would crave for the rest of his life.

Over the next six years, dozens more bodies would join Timothy McCoy’s. And all the while, Gacy pretended to be an upstanding member of his community. He performed at parties and hospitals as “Pogo the Clown,” but his penchant for murder was no joke. By the time he was caught, Gacy the “Killer Clown” had amassed at least 33 victims.

A Secret, Tortured Past

Serial Killer John Wayne Gacy

Getty ImagesThe “Killer Clown” was a closeted gay man and unhappily married twice.

Those who knew John Wayne Gacy would never have expected him to turn out as he had. Almost everyone who met him described him as a mild-mannered and likable man. For most of his life, he worked in customer service, first managing three of his father-in-law’s KFC franchises, then starting his own construction business.

His customers remembered him as kind, generous, and willing to help people out. He employed local teenagers in need of jobs and contributed heavily to his local Junior Chamber of Commerce. He even took time out of his weekends to dress up as a clown for kids’ birthday parties.

However, as authorities would learn, something seriously disturbing had been inside him all along.

John Wayne Gacy was born in Chicago on March 17, 1942. His father had always despised him, called him a “sissy,” and abused him from age four. He often berated the boy and whipped him with a belt. When Gacy was seven years old and a family friend molested him, he didn’t tell anyone for fear of being beaten.

John Wayne Gacy With Rosalynn Carter

Wikimedia CommonsAn active member of his community in the 1970s, John Wayne Gacy often attended political events. He’s pictured here with First Lady Rosalynn Carter, just a few months before police discovered he’d murdered 33 people.

Early on, Gacy realized that he was gay. But during the 1950s, homosexuality was still taboo, so he pretended to be straight his entire life.

Gacy had a congenital heart condition that limited his physical activity and plagued him with lifelong obesity. He spent much of his youth in the hospital. When he was 11, doctors discovered that he had a blood clot in his brain. They were able to treat it, but even that didn’t spare Gacy from his father’s wrath.

Eventually, Gacy had enough of the abuse, and he picked up and moved out West. While working as a mortuary assistant in Las Vegas, Gacy slept on a cot behind the embalming room. One night, after observing the morticians embalming dead bodies, he crawled into a coffin with one. He laid in the coffin for a time, embracing and caressing the body, a teenage boy.

The event shocked him so much that he returned home and enrolled in business school, after just a few months in Vegas. He never told anyone about his night with the body in the morgue.

The “Killer Clown” Tries To Have A Normal Life

Home Of John Wayne Gacy

Cook County Circuit CourtA tiki bar in Gacy’s living room, where he regularly hosted neighborhood parties.

After graduating from Northwestern Business College, John Wayne Gacy met Marlynn Myers, a coworker at a shoe company in Springfield, Illinois. The couple married in 1964 and Gacy took over the management of his father-in-law’s Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in Waterloo, Iowa, where they lived with Myers’ parents.

He and Myers had two children and what was seemingly a perfect life.

But in the meantime, Gacy tried to covertly satisfy his depravity. He joined the Waterloo Jaycees, a group of businessmen who participated in wife swapping, prostitution, pornography, and drug abuse. He even opened a “club” in his own basement targeted at teenagers, where they could drink and play pool without getting in trouble.

“He often would build up trust with his victims, so they wouldn’t need to be on guard,” Detective Sgt. Jason Moran of the Cook County sheriff’s office said years later. “He was their employer, their friend. He may have been someone who provided them with alcohol and drugs and maybe a place to sleep at night. That’s an easy way to kill someone.”

Then, Gacy began to force some of these young men, including those he employed at KFC, to perform sexual acts with him. This would be his first downfall.

John Wayne Gacy Mugshot

Wikimedia CommonsIn 1968, John Wayne Gacy was arrested on charges of sexual coercion in the workplace.

It started in August 1967, when Gacy hired a 15-year-old Donald Voorhees — the son of a fellow member of the Jaycees — to do some housework for him. Gacy lured him into his basement, plied him with alcohol, and forced him to perform oral sex.

Voorhees kept quiet about the incident until March 1968, when he told his father and spurred a criminal investigation into Gacy that destroyed the facade of a normal life he’d crafted.

A few months later, he paid a KFC employee $300 to beat up Voorhees, hoping to scare him from testifying in court. But Voorhees escaped and reported the attempted beating, and the case against Gacy only escalated.

In December 1967, John Wayne Gacy pled guilty to oral sodomy. At that time, sexual relations between two people of the same sex was illegal in Iowa. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was promptly served divorce papers from his wife, whom he would never see again.

But less than two years after his sentencing, John Wayne Gacy was granted parole for being a model prisoner.

During the short time he was incarcerated, Gacy managed to secure a raise for prison mess hall workers, increased membership of the prison Jaycees by 600, worked to improve conditions for prisoners, and oversaw the installation of a miniature golf course in the recreation yard.

He also pretended he was straight and that he hated “queers” in order to protect himself from the wrath of his fellow inmates.

He was given 12 months probation under the conditions that he moved back to Chicago to live with his mother and maintained a 10 p.m. curfew. He agreed and declared, “I’ll never go back to jail.”

John Wayne Gacy’s House Of Horrors In Chicago

In this 1991 news clip, one of John Wayne Gacy’s victims recounts how he narrowly escaped the ‘Killer Clown.’

Months after his release, when he and his mother were living in Des Plaines, Illinois, John Wayne Gacy lured a teenage boy into his house and tried to rape him. Gacy was charged with sexual assault, but the charges were dropped when the boy failed to show up to court.

Gacy had technically violated his parole, but somehow his parole officer was never aware of the episode. By 1971, Gacy had settled into a new home in Norwood Park, a neighborhood in northwestern Chicago. His yellow brick ranch house there, at 8213 West Summerdale Avenue, would eventually become a graveyard for 29 young men and boys.

It was where all of his gruesome murders would be committed — and also where he would gain local fame as “Pogo the Clown.”

While in prison, John Wayne Gacy had become something of an artist and repeatedly sketched the image of Pogo the Clown. After his release, he joined the local “Jolly Joker” club, a clown club that would perform at birthday parties and hospitals.

He taught himself how to apply clown makeup and turned himself into Pogo the Clown as he had imagined him in his drawings. He performed as Pogo the Clown at all sorts of local parties, including Democratic Party functions and charitable events.

Residents of Norwood Park also remember him showing up to his favorite bar, the “Good Luck Lounge,” dressed as Pogo the Clown.

“[The public] would feel much more comfortable if Gacy was this type of creepy, sequestered ghoul that was unkempt and heinous,” Moran said. “But instead, he dressed as a clown and bounced kids on his knee. He would knock at your door and say vote for my candidate.”

Pogo The Clown

Chicago Tribune TwitterJohn Wayne Gacy as Pogo the Clown.

But Pogo the Clown didn’t fool everybody. Carol Hoff, his high school sweetheart and second wife who he married in 1972, questioned his sexuality. When Gacy told her he was bisexual in 1975, Hoff divorced him and left him alone in their house.

Though she denied knowledge of what was to come, Hoff later admitted to authorities that she had seen him bringing teenage boys into their garage before.

The same year Gacy married Hoff, he committed his first murder, that of Timothy McCoy. He stashed the body under his crawlspace. Gacy reportedly managed to kill a second victim while still married to his wife, in 1974.

That victim is still unidentified, but Gacy claims to have strangled a young man and hidden him in his closet. When the body began to leak, he moved it to the crawlspace as well.

But after his divorce, the “Killer Clown” had the freedom to bring more victims into his home. Save for his final four victims, who he dumped into a river, all of his victims were killed in and stored under his house.

Gacy’s victims were all young men and boys. He preyed on still-unidentified teenagers, some who were drifters from out of town, and some who were local boys who worked for him.

He lured some into his car by impersonating an officer, or to his house with the offer of a job, a place to party, or even money. Once he had his victim in his space, Gacy coaxed them with drugs or alcohol or a sick magic trick, during which he’d handcuff them and dangle the key in front of their face.

Then, he would torture, rape, and murder them. One of Gacy’s favorite acts of torture was to sit on his victim with all of his weight — which was substantial — and force the victim to fellate him. He strangled and revived his victims, sometimes even partially drowning them in his bathtub.

Home Of Pogo The Clown

Bettmann/Getty ImagesPolice continue the search around John Wayne Gacy’s house, where the badly decomposed bodies were discovered in the crawlspace.

Gacy would then have the gall to participate in the search parties for some of these boys, as he was friendly with their parents and was considered an upstanding member of the community.

He had set himself up to kill unfettered and unsuspected, but his 33rd murder wouldn’t go quite as planned.

The Facade Of Pogo The Clown Crumbles

At about 9 PM on December 11, 1978, Elizabeth Piest drove to pick up her son, a high school sophomore and honor roll student named Robert, from his job at a pharmacy in Des Plaines.

Robert Piest went outside and told her to wait a few minutes; he wanted to talk to a customer about a summer contracting job that would pay him twice what he was currently making.

Victims Of Pogo The Clown

Karen Engstrom/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty ImagesInvestigators carry the remains of one of John Wayne Gacy’s victims found under his garage floor.

That was the last time Elizabeth saw her son. Before midnight, she went to the police station to file a missing persons report.

Police figured out that man who Robert Piest was going to talk to was John Wayne Gacy, whose company PDM Contractors had recently remodeled Piest’s pharmacy. They called him into the station for questioning, and Gacy obliged — after taking Piest’s body and dumping it into the Des Plaines River.

Within hours, authorities searched Gacy’s home. They didn’t find any bodies, but they did find evidence that Piest had been there: a receipt that belonged to a friend of his.

It wasn’t until December 22, 1978 — almost exactly 10 years after his first sodomy conviction — that Gacy the “Killer Clown” confessed to murdering dozens of young men and boys. Investigators swarmed his house and uncovered 29 bodies in the crawlspace. Many had decomposed beyond recognition, and dental experts were brought in to identify John Wayne Gacy’s victims by their teeth.

John Wayne Gacy’s Victims Receive Justice

Covering His Face

Bettmann/Getty ImagesThe “Killer Clown” covers his face on the way to a courtroom in 1978. This was shortly after police discovered John Wayne Gacy’s victims stashed under his crawlspace.

Three years later, the “Killer Clown” used an insanity plea during his trial, hoping for a not guilty verdict.

The jury didn’t buy it. Gacy was sentenced to death and dropped the friendly facade he had maintained for all those years. He didn’t seem to have any remorse for his victims.

“He looked at his victims like he was taking out the trash. He had no feelings about them,” said Gacy’s lawyer, Sam Amirante. “He could talk about a child who’s dying of cancer and cry like a baby about this child he didn’t even know or never met and feel authentically sad about this child. Then he’d talk about another child that he murdered and have no feelings whatsoever.”

He would spend 14 years in prison awaiting his execution. The night before he was put to death, he returned to his roots and ordered a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken as his last meal.

John Wayne Gacy's Victims

Las Vegas WeeklySome of the faces of John Wayne Gacy’s victims.

According to reports, the “Killer Clown’s” last words before his execution were “kiss my ass.”

Though John Wayne Gacy is long gone — and his house has since been demolished — his legacy lives on. Most of John Wayne Gacy’s victims that were retrieved from his crawlspace were identified and released to their families for burial. However, 23 years after his death, authorities are still trying to identify the rest.

In July 2017, one of the last remaining bodies was finally identified, but his grieving family had already died.

Six of John Wayne Gacy’s victims remain anonymous.

After learning about John Wayne Gacy, the “Killer Clown,” read about how history’s most famous serial killers met their ends. Then, read about Ed Gein, the killer behind Texas Chainsaw Massacre who turned human body parts into furniture.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
Erik Hawkins
Erik Hawkins studied English and film at Keene State College in NH and has taught English as a Second Language stateside and in South America. He has done award-winning work as a reporter and editor on crime, local government, and national politics for almost 10 years, and most recently produced true crime content for NBC's Oxygen network.
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Serena, Katie. "The Chilling Story Of John Wayne Gacy, The Real-Life ‘Killer Clown’.", January 29, 2022, Accessed June 21, 2024.