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John Wayne Gacy—No Single Thing Made Him a Killer

People like simple explanations, but deviant behavior tends to have no single source.

John Wayne Gacy Dressed as "Pogo the Clown"

Quite often when I read about serial killers, or violence in general, people wish to find a simple explanation for the behavior. In John Wayne Gacy's case, his abusive father was certainly an influence, but probably not the sole one. I can't help but notice how, officially anyway, he didn't become a serial killer until some time after he served in prison. Could that have been part of what sent him over the edge? It could be he had negative experiences with his fellow inmates, and that his overall experience in prison made him hate the human race more. 

Add this to his sexual confusion, and confused rage he felt towards his father, and it seems like a halfway decent explanation for what happened. Of course, others might pepper in things like "violent pornography," but there's no evidence Gacy was shaped by something like that in a significant way (though Ted Bundy claimed it significantly  influenced him).

Of course, there's also the explanation that he was simply born to kill, just as the average male deer was destined to develop antlers. There's another plausible theory, which I happen to agree with: Living in a crowded metropolitan area might make some people angrier. Gacy also had plenty of work-related stress, to be considered an outstanding vice-president of the Jaycees (or the United States Junior Chamber). 

He was under a lot of enormous pressure to prove himself to his father (who berated him as a child), and to look like someone who had the best future imaginable. In fact, this is probably the main reason he claimed he didn’t commit the 33 murders. He likely didn't want to look like a failure, just as Ted Bundy didn't want to look weird (in my opinion, Bundy probably only confessed because it started looking weird for him not to, and because it won him additional attention).

Unfortunately, Gacy was never the only man targeting men for violence. For example, William Bonin—called "the most arch-evil person who ever existed" by his prosecutor—was active between May 28, 1979–June 2, 1980, if not before then. Like Gacy, his life was ended by the death penalty, for killing 21+ people. Then, of course, you have people like Jeffrey Dahmer, Mexican serial killer Juan Corona, the German Fritz Haarman, Dean Corll, and Patrick Kearney (who apparently didn't have the same publicity as Gacy, perhaps because he didn't dress as a clown and kept a lower profile in general).

May 10, 1994

On that date, a few notable things happened. For one thing, it was the day of a solar eclipse. Also, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa's 1st black president. And yes, John Wayne Gacy was executed. Interestingly, after the injection, Gacy's brain was extracted and studied. In fact, according to the Chicago Tribune, the brain is said to reside somewhere in the basement of psychiatrist Helen Morrison (along with "slices of all his organs").

One wonders what sort of testing was done on it. It's not everyone who can say, "I have the brain of a famous serial killer clown in my basement." One also wonders if she'll keep it as a cherished family heirloom, or if, as a lark, she's ever used it as a paper weight or a doorstop. In any case, it's a pretty bizarre historical artifact. In any case, she probably won't be attempting a Frankenstein's monster scenario.

The Normal, Hardworking Dad

In this day and age, homosexuality is not only considered acceptable, but virtually everyone knows a gay guy. They'll have a gay uncle, a cousin, maybe even a dad. In the process, they'll likely see that not all gay people are like John Wayne Gacy or Dahmer, or what have you. Nevertheless, back when Gacy was a kid, homosexuality was considered outright deviant. There were no pride parades. Instead there would be tossed rocks and bottles. Gacy was probably a product of that environment as well.

What's amazing about serial killers is how ordinary people compare. Quite often, average people face abuse similar to what killers have experienced, but they don't become violent. In fact, normal people may detest violence even more due to such experiences. Serial killers seem to magnify and mirror the abuse, rather than simply move on. Of course, there are signs that they may try to stop, but it's unfortunately rarely successful.

On that note: Perhaps more fascinating than "Pogo the Clown" is Gacy the dad, or Gacy the Jaycee, or Gacy the KFC manager, who was undeniably struggling with his sexuality and who had very dark, mostly hidden impulses.

Like other serial killers, he collected paraphernalia from his victims, perhaps to cope with stretches where he couldn't unleash his rage. For example, one victim was identified partly by a "tiger's eye" belt buckle found in Gacy's home. Despite all this, the "Killer Clown" seemed capable of good will, and often harbored a constructive attitude.

Monster in the Basement?

Gacy had plenty of expectations growing up. As is well known, he was indeed named after the macho Western actor, John Wayne. However, as a child he often wasn't interested in things demanded by his father, John Stanley Gacy. His father was an auto repair machinist and World War I veteran, and was sort of a stereotypical male.

In contrast, John Wayne Gacy was more interested in gardening than in fishing as a child. This led to his being treated as a "sissy," and he was singled out by dear old dad for ridicule. On top of that, his parents often argued and his often drank brandy in the basement (which, obviously, is almost an on-the-nose example of a real-life "monster in the basement").

After a while, though, John simply stopped crying when his father hit him — even when getting struck by a razor strop. He likely still felt the pain, but he internalized it.

Even though he joined the Boy Scouts, it seemed there was no way to live up to father's expectations. In fact, daddy Gacy saw son's heart condition as just another failure. Among other things, it meant he couldn't operate heavy machinery, and was at risk of losing consciousness at times (one wonders if Gacy ever confronted his father about the genetics involved in this health problem!). Because his father would have rejected him (along with much of mainstream society in his day), Gacy was most certainly confused about his sexuality, which obviously leaned homosexual. 

Hard Work and Hard Play

Because he was so stomped on as a kid, it makes sense Gacy would work extra hard to make something of himself later on. Before becoming a Jaycee, he was a shoe salesman. Unlike (either Al or Ted) Bundy, who would want to look successful but lacked commitment, Gacy actually sustained his success. In fact, probably no one would say he didn't work hard on a regular job.

However, he led a double life, straining his relationships. The whole time he was married, he struggled to suppress his homosexual urges. In February 1966, it's said that he had oral sex with a male co-worker while his wife was pregnant in the hospital. While Gacy always maintained he was bisexual, there's reason to doubt he was equally as attracted to women as men. Obviously, all of his known victims were male. So, either he wasn't truly "straight" or, perhaps, he only targeted men because it was the most frustrating aspect of his sexuality.

His sister, Karen Kuzma, says he was a good father to his child, and most seem to believe John liked becoming a boss at KFC (that is, he liked bossing people around). He was capable of working 16-hour days. At the same time, his seedier side would sometimes come out, even as part of his success. When he worked for the Jaycees, it's said he screened stag films and held orgies with prostitutes. He was also apparently into wife-swapping, which shocked some people. Of course, it wasn't as shocking as what they later found beneath his home. 

Early Crime and Prison Stint

Donald Voorhees was either Gacy's first victim or the first anyone knows about. This was also apparently before Gacy became a full-blown killer. In order to abuse Donald, Gacy apparently made a mob connection threat, then paid him 50 bucks to keep his silence. That did not work, however, and Gacy was charged with the crime of sodomy. Although he failed a lie detector test, Gacy said what happened was consensual. For better or worse, Gacy also lost his wife after imprisonment.

While in prison, there was reason to think maybe he'd change his life around. While there he became the head cook, and it's said he was very good at it (especially compared to standard prison food). He also had joined the prison choir. However, the man was still traumatized by his past, and by his convoluted feelings. For example, he thought his father had died because of his conviction. He also kicked a gay man in the face while in prison, which some would consider symbolic (though it could be simply in self-defense, or something like that).

Released/The Ol' Handcuff Trick

Upon release, Gacy seemed hellbent on success, and appearing like a positive family fan. He started a business, PDM contractors, acquired a new girlfriend, Carol, and her kids loved him. However, in 1972, Gacy picked up 16-year-old Timothy Jack McCoy from a Greyhound bus station. Gacy claimed this first killing was at least semi-accidental.

The story goes that, while making breakfast, the youth foolishly ventured into Gacy's room with a kitchen knife in his hand. Gacy supposedly panicked, attacked him, then killed him because he felt threatened. The crazy thing is, this is actually plausible. While it's hard to say if the story is 100 person true, a person standing in your bedroom with a kitchen knife may take on ominous proportions. Still, accidental or not, Gacy likely killed him impulsively. Like many killers, he may have even been disgusted at first, but liked the power of the act and wanted to feel it again. He was later known to employ a rope tourniquet as opposed to a blade.

One of his earliest known victims, John Butkovich, apparently fell for Gacy's infamous handcuff trick—where Gacy would challenge someone to escape handcuffs, then tauntingly tell them, "The trick is, you have to have the key." He did not escape. Incredibly, John's parents were said to have pestered the police about Gacy for nearly two years before he was finally caught.

Though he would be known as a clown, he also became a Democratic Party precinct captain. However, his life seemed to fall apart even independently of his murders. It's not hard to imagine claims that Gacy's wife Carol would find gay porn in the house (which she most likely wasn't into). He also berated her for spending too much money.

When he was divorced again at 33, it was perhaps oddly bad for the world, as now he was even less distracted from killing. In fact, he got so immersed in it that he began taking ever greater chances. Rather than stop killing, he kept the ball rolling.

Low on Space

Even the lack of body storage space under the house didn't deter Gacy. In fact, regarding that unique problem, he had employee David Cram dig more holes in his crawlspace for him. Cram was actually living in Gacy's home, and apparently got to experience the handcuff trick himself. Incredibly, he survive the ordeal, even though he claims Gacy started growling at him, while dressed as a clown, and threatened to rape him (a reason the term "nightmare fuel" exists)!

Partly because of Cram's stated experiences, people would debate years later over whether or not Gacy had accomplices. In fact, some wonder about a human trafficking ring. While it's possible, it seems more likely that Gacy tended to operate alone. The more people you let in on such a secret, the more dominoes there are to fall.

Under Suspicion

They say all great things must come to an end, but it's often true of horrible things, too. By May 1978, Gacy was seemingly at the height of his achievement. At the Polish Independence Day event he was famously photographed shaking hands with Rosalynn Carter. It's a regrettable photo, as Gacy was killing at least one person every two or three weeks. The kill that won the most suspicion was that of Rob Piest. Before disappearing, he was last seen with Gacy. This fact alone let police attain a warrant to search his house. There, they found trophy items, and a film receipt that was originally placed in Rob's jacket.

Before long he was placed under 24-hour police surveillance, but he did his best to seem cool as a cucumber. At one point he even paid the officer's dinner tab in a restaurant. If that's not enough, he invited the police in for dinner at his place! However, when they were in there chowing down, something wasn't right.

It's said they smelled a foul odor from Gacy's air vents. They could sense it was the reek of death! Sure enough, the time would arrive when they excavated the remains of most of his known victims (others were later found in the Des Plaines River, as he was running out of room in the crawlspace beneath his humble home).

Caught

The headlines came out, and this man wasn't just a hard worker, or just some clown. He was also a self-assigned judge, jury and executioner. His flawed personality was revealed as well. He could hardly get his story straight, as he flip-flopped from accepting blame to hideous and ridiculous denial. It's fitting then that, when questioners asked the state he was born in, Gacy joked he was born in a state of confusion.

He claimed he had multiple personality disorder, but most people understandably saw that as a gimmick. Although even he likely hated what he'd done, his personality wouldn't let him take full responsibility for it. He buried his shame and hid it, much as he tried to do his victims. However, there was no concealing it anymore. The complex cocktail of his sexual frustrations, self-hatred and desire for control culminated in his own undoing. When you kill like this, it's also a path of self-destruction.

Purely Sexual Motives?

So, what about his sexuality? Did his father's abuse mostly lead him to kill? It's hard to say. Even at the bitter end, Gacy denied the possibly of being only homosexual, and insisted he was bisexual. Some people see this as a sign of self-hatred, but I'm not so sure. It's even possible he was genuinely bisexual, but only preferred killing males. Who knows?

It is true that a person's sexuality is never truly carved in stone. The same is likely true of a serial killer's motives. He may have killed sometimes because of having a bad day at work. Maybe his car didn't start one day and it got the ball rolling, and he just had to inflict rage on a victim. Sometimes these things likely lack a crystal clear motive or explanation, as we're dealing with complex (yet, in a way, simple) emotional states. Some people might even kill with little or no traceable rage. They may simply do because their brain functions differently.

Legacy

When he was sentenced to death, Gacy even congratulated the prosecutors for getting the death penalty, suggesting someone capable of being a good sport. This was someone who was both enigmatic and straightforward, and conflicted to the max. In prison he gained more fame for his paintings, and, oddly enough, he was a capable artist. Sure, he wasn't the greatest artist who ever lived, but it's another fascinating glimpse into what could have been.

Mostly serial killers offer a story of thwarted potential. Most of them seem capable of good—possibly even great—things. However, by the time they're through, they'll scarcely be known as anything but murderers.

Gacy will also be known as a bold-faced liar, and this lends itself to disagreement about his life. It sounds doubtful, but some say he was perhaps part of some twisted, murderous sex cult. They theorize that the trail doesn't end with Gacy, or even that he couldn't have acted alone.

It's understandable, even if far-fetched. Gacy himself claimed some of the bodies were planted under his home by employees. However, that was probably more about him waffling, or professing his innocence to gain sympathy. We should take that with a grain of salt.

One thing we do know: This man is now dead, and so is any decent aspect of his character. He will forever be known as "The Killer Clown," and everything else falls under its shadow.  

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