(Spoiler alert: Do not read on if you don’t want to know what happens in “John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise.”)
John Wayne Gacy will go down as one of the most notorious serial killers in American history, balancing a life of clowning, contracting and torturing and killing young men before burying them under his house.
Peacock’s new series “John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise” takes a deeper look at the killer clown and the confirmed 33 lives he took (investigators believe there were more victims in other states due to his travels as part of his contracting work). He would often lure victims into working for him, take them to his house and force handcuffs on them as part of a magic trick, then rape and torture them until strangling them with a garrote.
Gacy’s case didn’t stop with his execution in 1994 — victims’ bodies remained unidentified and investigators reopened the case multiple times as more DNA testing became available. Investigators identified a victim as recently as 2017, and six still remain unidentified.
“John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise” premieres on Peacock on Thursday. Below, see the 11 most shocking revelations from the docuseries.
1. Until the end, Gacy blamed the media for making him a “fantasy monster”
During his 1992 interview with FBI profiler Robert Ressler in prison, Gacy said that for 12 years, the media had created a “fantasy monster image” of him and were guilty of “sensationalism” in their headlines.
“I’m not the monster image that is portrayed of me,” he said, claiming his victims were also to blame.
In an interview with TheWrap, investigator Michael Albrecht said, “He just blamed it on his victims. They came to him for a job, for money, drugs, or whatever it may be. But Rob Piest [one of Gacy’s victims], he was this all-American kid from an all-American family and there were a lot more of his victims that became victimized by John Gacy, either because they were applying for a job for him or whatever it may be.”
2. Gacy would snatch victims out of plain sight
Investigators first zoomed in on Gacy when a 15-year-old boy named Robert Piest from Des Plaines, Ill., went missing under unusual circumstances. Piest’s mom was picking him up from his job at a pharmacy, and he told her he’d be out in a few minutes; he first wanted to talk to a man who was offering him a contracting job. “That was the last time I saw him,” his mother said.
When police called Gacy asking about the missing kid, he got defensive, which led the police to do a background check in 1978. They found that he had been on parole to Chicago from Iowa and served prison time for sodomy of a teenage boy. (He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but only served 18 months.)
Several other men who worked for Gacy were also reported missing. During various searches of Gacy’s house, investigators found drivers licenses related to missing persons, as well as a class ring with the initials “JS” on them, belonging to John Szyc, a young man who had gone missing as well. Investigators also found pornography, shackles and two books titled “Gay Love Letters” and “Pretty Boys Must Die.”
Gacy explained that the encounters with his victims often happened by chance — for example, he would pull up to a traffic light and see someone waiting for the bus. One victim, Jeff Rignall, said he got in the car to smoke a joint and shortly after he got in, Gacy placed a rag over his face which turned out to be chloroform. Rignall was strapped down in a torture wood, chains suspended from the ceiling, and was beaten, raped, chloroformed, drugged and beaten again. After the attack, Gacy drove Rignall back to the area where he was picked up and left him there half-clothed.
3. He flagrantly manipulated cops
Gacy realized early on that he was being surveilled. But being a first-class manipulator, he started inviting investigators to join him for breakfast, and would even tell them in the morning where he was going so they wouldn’t get lost.
At one point, he asked police officers to come into his home for dinner — which turned out to be a huge mistake. When the heat kicked in, one member of the surveillance team, Robert Schultz, smelled a horrific odor of decaying flesh coming from the bathroom. After a warrant was issued, they found human bones under the house.
“I had seen dead people before, but nothing like this,” one investigator said. Initially, they had just started looking for the body of Piest, but when they found three femur bones, they knew they had stumbled upon something bigger.
Weirdly, Gacy later sued the Des Plaines Police Department for harassment.
4. Clowning allowed him to “relax”
Gacy would visit different hospitals twice a month as a clown to “relax,” he said, and he also did parades dressed up like Pogo the Clown. “When I went into clown makeup, I regressed into childhood,” he said.
At one point, he said, “Clowns can get away with murder.”
5. His first murder may have been an accident
Gacy’s first known murder was in 1972 when he lured 16-year-old Timothy Jack McCoy into his car from Chicago’s Greyhound Bus Terminal with the promise to drive him back to catch the bus in the morning. Gacy said he woke up early in the morning to find McCoy standing in his bedroom with a knife. A struggle ensued and Gacy stabbed McCoy. As McCoy lay dying, he saw an opened carton of eggs and unsliced bacon in the kitchen, with the table set for two. McCoy had apparently walked into the bedroom to wake Gacy up, carrying the knife he was using to slice the bacon. Gacy buried the body in a crawl space with a layer of concrete on top.
6. He confessed to the murder of Robert Piest
When Gacy was arrested (and after he smiled in his mugshot), he told investigators the truth about what happened with Piest. He said Piest was getting ready to leave the pharmacy when he came to his car for a job application. Gacy asked him to hop in his car to fill out the application, and then told Piest he didn’t have the necessary paperwork but only lived a block away. At the house, Gacy told Piest he entertained kids as a clown and showed Piest a magic trick, putting handcuffs on himself and then taking them off. When Piest showed bewilderment, Gacy told him he’d show him the trick. But Piest struggled and couldn’t get the cuffs off.
“I reached into my pocket and said, ‘the trick is to have the key,’” he told investigators. “Once I had him shackled, he was pretty much mine at that point.”
He did the “rope trick,” strangling Piest by twisting the rope three times. Then he dumped Piest’s body in the Des Plaines River. During the confession, Gacy showed no emotion.
Gacy’s confessions would often change, and he sometimes even denied crimes he had just confessed to. “He was like a chameleon,” one investigator said.
“What sane person goes out and does something like this, talks about it, confesses to it and then says he didn’t do it?” his sister said in the documentary. “How can he be so smart and intelligent, and then so evil?”
7. Others may have been involved
At one point, Gacy told investigators that he might’ve slept in the same house as a dead body but never had sex with it, although “Jack might’ve.” He would often mention someone by the name of Jack Hanley, who apparently killed some of the kids. It quickly dawned on investigators that Gacy might be using the insanity defense by claiming he had multiple personality disorder — a suspicion that became validated when investigators found a criminal law book among Gacy’s possessions with a chapter on the insanity defense bookmarked.
Throughout the investigation, Gacy would talk about Michael Rossi and David Cram, whom he said were involved in the murders. Gacy said he couldn’t fit in the crawl space himself, so the two young men dug trenches for him.
Rossi did not cooperate with authorities and lawyered up right away, but said he was told to pour lime in the crawl space to cover the odor. He claimed he did not know why the smell came from there. Both Cram and Rossi have denied their involvement.
Gacy said that in the murder of John Szyk, he came home to find Rossi and Szyk there. He had a couple drinks and went to bed, and in the morning, he woke up to find Szyk dead. “I just kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to get involved,” he said. Then, the body disappeared.
During his testimony, Rignall said there was a third person in the house during his torture. Every time he would come to, he saw a person with “light hair parted in the middle,” and at one point, another person that wasn’t Gacy was giving him oral sex.
Accomplices were never identified. Cram died by suicide in 2001, and Rossi has stayed silent and declined to comment.
8. Gacy struggled in his childhood
The docuseries delved deep into Gacy’s childhood. His father was allegedly a heavy drinker who would unleash his anger on Gacy, but there was also another man in Gacy’s life who left a bad mark on him.
According to Gacy’s sister, there was a contractor building a house next door when Gacy was 9 years old, and the man would often show Gacy wrestling holds where Gacy’s head was held between the man’s legs. He must have done something to Gacy to the point where their father wanted to kill the contractor, his sister said. “Was that the start of this?” she asked.
9. There may be even more victims
Thirty-three victims were attributed to Gacy, but at one point, he told an investigator, “45 sounds like a good number.” That means there might be 12 other victims unaccounted for, if Gacy was telling the truth.
Gacy traveled a lot due to his contracting work, and investigators think there’s no way he didn’t commit these kinds of crimes in other states. Plus, there have been witnesses who claim they saw Gacy digging ditches or dragging garbage bags across the yard in other locations besides his Summerdale Ave. house in Illinois.
10. His execution was drawn out
Gacy was on the phone with his friend Craig Bowley when he nonchalantly said, “Ok, my ride is here, gotta go,” referencing his transport to his execution.
He was executed by lethal injection in 1994, but it malfunctioned, and he wasn’t pronounced dead for 18 minutes. “He probably felt more pain that we had planned on,” one investigator said, while another added, “He had a much easier death than his victims. In my opinion, he got a much easier path than he deserved.”
In his interview with TheWrap, Albrecht said, “As far as the death penalty goes, if they’re going to have a death penalty case, and he didn’t get it, then they shouldn’t have it.” Rafael Tovar, a retired police officer who assisted during the exhumation of the bodies, called the execution “closure” for many investigators working on the case, and proof that they had successfully done their job.
11. The case was reopened
After Gacy’s death, Bowley said he got tapes from Gacy on which he confessed to the murders but said, “I think I killed them.” Cold case investigators reopened the case and found that many victims had been left unidentified.
In one strange occurrence related to Gacy’s case, the mother of a missing 14-year-old, Michael Marino, tried for years to tell authorities that her son might have been another Gacy victim. As with many other missing boys, authorities told her he must have just been a “runaway.” Through dental records, she was told in 1979 with certainty that he was not one of Gacy’s victims.
But in 1980, police knocked on Sherry’s door to tell her they’d made a mistake and that her son was identified as a victim of Gacy’s. However, she always wondered about the sudden change in identification and was convinced he was misidentified. A petition for exhumation was filed, and 36 years later, in 2012, they obtained a DNA profile that showed no match between “body number 14” and Michael. Even so, the sheriff’s department refused to acknowledge they were wrong, in part because no one from their department had been at the exhumation.
Investigators identified a victim of Gacy’s as recently as 2017, and six still remain unidentified.