John Wayne Gacy, the Killer Clown

painting of a clown on backdrop of trees
Self-portrait by John Wayne Gacy.

Steve Eichner / Getty Images

John Wayne Gacy was convicted of the torture, rape, and murder of 33 males between 1972 until his arrest in 1978. He was dubbed the "Killer Clown" because he entertained children at parties and hospitals as "Pogo the Clown." On May 10, 1994, Gacy was executed by lethal injection.

Gacy's Childhood Years

John Gacy was born on March 17, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois. He was the second of three children and the only son born to John Stanley Gacy and Marion Robinson.

From age 4, Gacy was verbally and physically abused by his alcoholic father. Despite the abuse, Gacy admired his father and constantly sought his approval. In return, his father would hurl insults at him, telling him he was stupid and acted like a girl.

When Gacy was 7 years old, he was molested repeatedly by a friend of the family. He never told his parents about it, fearing that his father would find him at fault and that he would be severely punished.

Gacy's Teen Years 

When Gacy was in elementary school, he was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition which limited his physical activity. As a result, he became overweight and endured teasing from his classmates.

At age 11, Gacy was hospitalized for several months at a time after experiencing unexplained blackouts. His father decided Gacy was faking the blackouts because the doctors were unable to diagnose why it was happening.

After five years of being in and out of the hospital, it was discovered that he had a blood clot in his brain, which was treated. But Gacy's delicate health issues failed to protect him from his father's drunken wrath. He received regular beatings, for no particular reason other than his father disdained him. After years of abuse, Gacy taught himself not to cry. This was the only thing he consciously ever did that he knew would provoke his father's anger.

Gacy found it too difficult to catch up with what he had missed in school while hospitalized, so he decided to drop out. His being a high school dropout solidified his father's constant accusations that Gacy was stupid.

Las Vegas or Bust

At the age of 18, Gacy was still living with his parents. He became involved with the Democratic Party and worked as an assistant precinct captain. It was during this time that he began to develop his gift for gab. He enjoyed the positive attention he received in what he felt was a prestigious position. But his father quickly squelched whatever good came out of his political involvement. He belittled Gacy’s association with the Party: he called him a Party patsy.

Gacy’s years of abuse from his father finally wore him down. After several episodes of his father having refused to let Gacy use his own car, he had enough. He packed his belongings and escaped to Las Vegas, Nevada.

A Frightening Awakening

In Las Vegas, Gacy worked for an ambulance service for a short time but was then transferred to a mortuary where he was employed as an attendant. He often spent nights alone at the mortuary, where he would sleep on a cot near the embalming room. 

On the last night that Gacy worked there, he got into a coffin and fondled the corpse of a teenage boy. Afterward, he was so confused and shocked by the realization that he had been sexually aroused by a male corpse, that he called his mother the following day and without providing details, asked if he could return home. His father agreed and Gacy, who had only been gone for 90 days, quit his job at the mortuary and drove back to Chicago.

Burying the Past

Back in Chicago, Gacy forced himself to bury the experience at the mortuary and move forward. Despite not having completed high school, he was accepted at Northwestern Business College, where he graduated in 1963. He then took a management trainee position with the Nunn-Bush Shoe Company and was quickly transferred to Springfield, Illinois, where he was promoted to a management position.

Marlynn Meyers was employed at the same store and worked in Gacy's department. The two began dating and nine months later they married.

Community Spirit

During his first year in Springfield, Gacy had become very involved with the local Jaycees, dedicating much of his spare time to the organization. He became adept at self-promotion, utilizing his salesmanship training to gain positive attention. He rose through the Jaycee ranks and in April 1964 he was awarded the title of Key Man.

Fundraising was Gacy's niche and by 1965 he was appointed the vice-president of the Jaycee's Springfield division and later that same year he was recognized as being the "third most outstanding" Jaycee in the state of Illinois. For the first time in his life, Gacy felt confident and full of self-esteem. He was married, a good future before him, and had persuaded people he was a leader. The one thing that threatened his success was his growing need to be sexually involved with young male teens.

Marriage and Fried Chicken

After dating in Springfield, Illinois, Gacy and Marlynn married in September 1964 and then moved to Waterloo, Iowa where Gacy managed three Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants owned by Marilyn's father. The newlyweds moved into Marlynn's parent's home, rent-free.

Gacy soon joined the Waterloo Jaycees, and once again quickly moved up the ranks. In 1967, he received recognition as "Outstanding Vice-President" of the Waterloo Jaycees and earned a seat on the Board of Directors. But, unlike in Springfield, the Waterloo Jaycees had a dark side that involved illegal drug use, wife swapping, prostitutes, and pornography. Gacy slid right into the position of managing and regularly participating in these activities. Gacy also began to act on his desires to have sex with male teenagers, many of whom worked at the fried chicken restaurants he managed.

The Lure

He turned a basement room into a hangout as a way to attract teens. He would entice the boys with free alcohol and pornography. Gacy would then take sexual advantage of some of the boys after they became too intoxicated to put up any resistance.

While Gacy was molesting teens in his basement and doing drugs with his Jaycee pals, Marlyn was busy having children. Their first child was a boy, born in 1967, and the second child was a girl, born a year later. Gacy later described this time of his life as being nearly perfect. It was also the only time he finally gained any approval from his father.

The Colonel

A common trait shared by many serial killers is their belief that they are smarter than everyone and that they will never get caught. Gacy fit that profile. With his above-average earnings and his social connections through the Jaycees, Gacy's ego and confidence level grew. He became pushy and commanding and would often brag about accomplishments, most of which were transparent lies. 

The Jaycee members who were not into hookers and porn began putting a distance between themselves and Gacy, or "Colonel," as he insisted on being called. But in March 1968 Gacy's near-perfect world quickly fell apart.

First Arrest

In August 1967 Gacy had hired 15-year-old Donald Voorhees to do odd jobs around his house. Donald met Gacy through his father, who was also in the Jaycees. After finishing his work, Gacy lured the teen to his basement with the promise of free beer and porn movies. After Gacy supplied him with an abundance of alcohol, he forced him into having oral sex.

This experience seemed to unplug any fears Gacy had about getting caught. Over the next several months, he sexually abused several teenage boys. He convinced some of them that a scientific research program that he was involved in was looking for participants and they would be paid $50 for each session. He also used blackmail as a way to force them into sexual submission.

But in March 1968 it all came crashing down on Gacy. Voorhees told his father about the incident with Gacy in his basement, who immediately reported it to the police. Another 16-year-old victim also reported Gacy to the police. Gacy was arrested and charged with oral sodomy of the 15-year-old and attempted assault of the other boy, charges he strongly denied. 

As his defense, Gacy said that the accusations were a lie by Voorhee's father who was trying to sabotage his efforts to become president of the Iowa Jaycees. Some of his Jaycee friends believed it was possible. However, despite his protests, Gacy was indicted on the sodomy charges.

In an effort to intimidate Voorhees and keep him from testifying, Gacy paid an employee, 18-year-old Russell Schroeder, $300 to beat up the teenager and warn him against showing up in court. Voorhees went straight to the police who arrested Schroeder. He promptly admitted his guilt and Gacy's involvement to the police. Gacy was charged with conspiracy-assault. By the time it was over, Gacy pled guilty to sodomy and received a 10-year sentence. 

Doing Time

On December 27, 1969, Gacy's father died of cirrhosis of the liver. The news hit Gacy hard, but despite his obvious poor emotional state, the prison officials denied his request to attend his father's funeral.

Gacy did everything right in prison. He earned his high school degree and took his position as head cook seriously. His good behavior paid off. In October 1971, after completing just two years of his sentence, he was released and placed on probation for 12 months.

Marlyn filed for divorce while Gacy was in prison. He was so angered by the divorce that he told her that she and the two children were dead to him, vowing never to see them again. Marlyn, no doubt, hoped that he would stick to his word.

Back in Action

With nothing to return to in Waterloo, Gacy moved back to Chicago to begin rebuilding his life. He moved in with his mother and got a job working as a cook, and then worked for a construction contractor.

Gacy later bought a home 30 miles outside of Chicago, in Des Plaines, Illinois. Gacy and his mother lived in the house, which was part of the terms of Gacy's probation.

In early February 1971, Gacy lured a teenage boy to his home and tried to rape him, but the boy escaped and went to the police. Gacy was charged with sexual assault, but the charges were dismissed when the teen did not show up in court. Word of his arrest never got back to his parole officer.

First Kill

On Jan. 2, 1972, Timothy Jack McCoy, age 16, was planning on sleeping at the bus terminal in Chicago. His next bus wasn't scheduled until the following day, but when Gacy approached him and offered to give him a tour of the city, plus let him sleep at his house, McCoy took him up on it. 

According to Gacy’s account, he awoke the following morning and saw McCoy standing with a knife at his bedroom door. Gacy thought the teen intended on killing him, so he charged the boy and got control of the knife. Gacy then stabbed the teen to death. Afterward, he realized that he had mistaken McCoy's intentions. The teen had a knife because he was preparing breakfast and had gone to Gacy's room to wake him up. 

Although Gacy had not planned to kill McCoy when he brought him home, he couldn't dismiss the fact that he had become sexually aroused to the point of orgasm during the kill. In fact, the killing was the most intense sexual pleasure he had ever felt.

Timothy Jack McCoy was the first of many to be buried in the crawl space under Gacy's home.

Second Marriage

On July 1, 1972, Gacy married a high school sweetheart, Carole Hoff. She and her two daughters from a previous marriage moved into Gacy's home. Carole was aware of why Gacy had spent time in prison, but he had downplayed the charges and convinced her that he had changed his ways.

Within weeks of being married, Gacy was arrested and charged with sexual assault after a teen male accused him of impersonating a police officer to get him into his car, then forcing him to engage in oral sex. Again the charges were dropped; this time because the victim had tried to blackmail Gacy.

In the meantime, as Gacy added more bodies in the crawlspace under his house, a horrible stench began to fill the air, both inside and outside of Gacy's home. It got to be so bad that neighbors began to insist that Gacy find a solution to get rid of the odor. 

You're Hired

In 1974 Gacy left his construction job and started a contracting business called Painting, Decorating, and Maintenance, or PDM Contractors, Inc. Gacy told friends that one way he planned to keep his costs down was by hiring teenage boys. But Gacy saw it as another way to find teens to lure to his basement of horrors. 

He began posting available jobs and then invited the applicants to his house on the pretext of talking to them about a job. Once the boys were inside his home, he would overpower them using various tricks, render them unconscious and then begin his gruesome and sadistic torture that almost always led to their death.

The Do-Gooder

While he wasn't killing young men, Gacy spent time reestablishing himself as a good neighbor and good community leader. He worked tirelessly on community projects, had several neighborhood parties, developed close friendships with his next-door neighbors, and became a familiar face, dressed as Pogo the Clown, at birthday parties and at the children's hospital. 

People liked John Wayne Gacy. By day, he was a successful business owner and community do-gooder, but by night, unknown to anyone but his victims, he was a sadistic killer on the loose.

Second Divorce

In October 1975 Carole filed for divorce after Gacy admitted to her that he was attracted to young men. She wasn't surprised by the news. Months before, on Mother's Day, he had informed her that they would not be having any more sex together. She was also bothered by all of the gay porn magazines lying around and she could no longer ignore all the teenage males coming in and out of the house.

Having Carole out of his hair, Gacy focused on what really mattered to him most; keeping his do-gooder facade in the community so that he could continue to achieve sexual gratification by raping and killing young boys.

From 1976 to 1978, Gacy had managed to hide the bodies of 29 of his victims under his house, but because of lack of space and the odor, he dumped the bodies of his last four victims into the Des Moines River.

Robert Piest

On December 11, 1978, in Des Moines, 15-year-old Robert Piest went missing after leaving his job at a pharmacy. He told his mother and a co-worker that he was going to an interview with a construction contractor about a summer position. The contractor had been in the pharmacy earlier in the evening discussing a future remodel with the owner. 

When Piest failed to return home, his parents contacted the police. The pharmacy owner told investigators that the contractor was John Gacy, owner of PDM Contractors.

When Gacy was contacted by the police, he admitted being in the pharmacy on the night the boy disappeared but denied ever speaking to the teenager. This contradicted what one of Piest's fellow employees had told the investigators.

According to the employee, Piest was upset because he had been turned down earlier in the evening when he asked for a raise. But when his shift ended, he was excited because the contractor that was remodeling the pharmacy agreed to meet with him that night to discuss a summer job.

Gacy’s denying that he had even spoken to the boy raised a lot of suspicions. Investigators ran a background check that revealed Gacy's past criminal record, including his conviction and prison time for sodomizing a minor. This information put Gacy on the top of the list of possible suspects.

On December 13, 1978, a warrant to search Gacy's Summerdale Avenue home was granted. While investigators searched his home and cars, he was at the police station giving an oral and written statement about his activities at the pharmacy on the night Piest disappeared. When he learned that his house had been searched, he went into a fit of anger.

The Search

The evidence collected at Gacy's house included a high school ring for the class of 1975 with initials J.A.S., handcuffs, drugs and drug paraphernalia, two driver's licenses that were not issued to Gacy, child pornography, police badges, guns and ammunition, a switchblade, a piece of stained carpet, hair samples from Gacy's automobiles, store receipts, and several items of teen-styled clothing in sizes that would not fit Gacy. 

Investigators also went down into the crawl space, but did not discover anything and left quickly due to the rancid odor that they attributed to being a sewage problem. Although the search solidified suspicions that Gacy was likely an active pedophile, it did not turn up any evidence linking him to Piest. However, he was still their prime suspect. 

Under Surveillance

Two surveillance teams were assigned to watch Gacy 24 hours a day. The investigators continued their search for Piest and continued interviewing his friends and co-worker. They also began interviewing people who had contact with Gacy.

What investigators learned was that Robert Piest was a good, family-oriented kid. John Gacy, on the other hand, had the makings of a monster. They also learned that Piest was not the first, but the fourth person who had disappeared after having contact with Gacy.

Meanwhile, Gacy seemed to be enjoying a game of cat and mouse with the surveillance team. More than once he was able to sneak away from his house undetected. He also invited the team into his home and served them breakfast, and then he would joke about spending the rest of the day getting rid of dead bodies.

The Big Break

Eight days into the investigation the lead detective went to the Piest's home to bring his parents up to date. During the conversation, Mrs. Piest mentioned a conversation that she had with one of the employees working on the night her son went missing. The employee had told her that she had borrowed her son's jacket when she went on her break and left a receipt in the jacket pocket. This was the same jacket that her son had on when he left to go talk to the contractor about a job and never returned.

That same receipt was found in the evidence collected during the search of Gacy's house. Further forensic tests were performed on the receipt that proved that Gacy had been lying and that Piest had been in his home.

Gacy Buckles

Those closest to Gacy were interviewed by detectives on multiple occasions. Afterward, Gacy demanded that they tell him everything that was said. This included the in-depth questioning of his employees regarding the crawl space under Gacy's home. Some of these employees admitted that Gacy had paid them to go down into specific areas of the crawl space to dig trenches.

Gacy realized it was just a matter of time before the extent of his crimes would be exposed. He began to buckle under the pressure, and his behavior turned bizarre. On the morning of his arrest, Gacy was observed driving to the homes of his friends to tell them goodbye. He was seen taking pills and drinking mid-morning. He also talked about committing suicide and confessed to a few people that he had killed thirty people.

What finally led to his arrest was a drug deal that Gacy orchestrated in full view of the surveillance team. They pulled Gacy over and placed him under arrest. 

Second Search Warrant

While in police custody, Gacy was informed that a second search warrant of his home had been issued. The news brought on chest pains, and Gacy was taken to the hospital. In the meantime, the search of his house, particularly the crawlspace, had begun. But the extent of what would be uncovered shocked even the most seasoned investigators.

The Confession

Gacy was released from the hospital later that night and taken back into custody. Knowing that his game was up, he confessed to murdering Robert Piest. He also confessed to thirty-two additional murders, starting in 1974, and hinted that the total could be as high as 45.

During the confession, Gacy explained how he had restrained his victims by pretending to do a magic trick, which required that they put on handcuffs. He then stuffed socks or underwear into their mouths and used a board with chains, which he would place under their chest, then wrapped the chains around their neck. He would then choke them to death while raping them.


Through dental and radiology records, 25 of the 33 bodies found were identified. In an effort to identify the remaining unknown victims, DNA testing was performed from 2011 to 2016. 

Went Missing



Location of Body

January 3, 1972

Timothy McCoy


Crawl space - Body #9

July 29, 1975

John Butkovitch


Garage - Body #2

April 6, 1976

Darrell Sampson


Crawl space - Body #29

May 14, 1976

Randall Reffett


Crawl space - Body #7

May 14, 1976

Samuel Stapleton


Crawl space - Body #6

June 3, 1976

Michael Bonnin


Crawl space - Body #6

June 13, 1976

William Carroll


Crawl space - Body #22

August 6, 1976

Rick Johnston


Crawl space - Body #23

October 24, 1976

Kenneth Parker


Crawl space - Body #15

October 26, 1976

William Bundy


Crawl space - Body #19

December 12, 1976

Gregory Godzik


Crawl space - Body #4

January 20, 1977

John Szyc


Crawl space - Body #3

March 15, 1977

Jon Prestidge


Crawl space - Body #1

July 5, 1977

Matthew Bowman


Crawl space - Body #8

September 15, 1977

Robert Gilroy


Crawl space - Body #25

September 25, 1977

John Mowery


Crawl space - Body #20

October 17, 1977

Russell Nelson


Crawl space - Body #16

November 10, 1977

Robert Winch


Crawl space - Body #11

November 18, 1977

Tommy Boling


Crawl space - Body #12

December 9, 1977

David Talsma


Crawl space - Body #17

February 16, 1978

William Kindred


Crawl space - Body #27

June 16, 1978

Timothy O'Rourke


Des Plaines River - Body #31

November 4, 1978

Frank Landingin


Des Plaines River - Body #32

November 24, 1978

James Mazzara


Des Plaines River - Body #33

December 11, 1978

Robert Piest


Des Plaines River - Body #30


Gacy went on trial on February 6, 1980, for the murder of thirty-three young men. His defense lawyers tried to prove that Gacy was insane, but the jury of five women and seven men did not agree. After only two hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and Gacy was given the death penalty.


While on death row, Gacy continued to taunt authorities with different versions of his story about the murders in an attempt to stay alive. But once his appeals were exhausted, the execution date was set.

John Gacy was executed by lethal injection on May 9, 1994. His last words were, "Kiss my ass."


  • Fall of the House of Gacy by Harlan Mendenhall
  • Killer Clown by Terry Sullivan and Peter T. Maiken
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Your Citation
Montaldo, Charles. "John Wayne Gacy, the Killer Clown." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Montaldo, Charles. (2023, April 5). John Wayne Gacy, the Killer Clown. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "John Wayne Gacy, the Killer Clown." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).