The Strange
 The Strange

 Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye!

Four Visits to Serial Killer John Wayne Gacy by 
Charles Nemo 
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"The history of our race, and individual experience, evidences that truth is not hard to kill, and that a lie well told is immortal." 
Mark Twain Himself! Humor, War & Fundamentalism, Vol. 2 
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Just after midnight on May 10, 1994, American serial killer(1) John Wayne Gacy was executed by lethal injection at the Stateville Prison in Joliet, Illinois. Published accounts indicate that Gacy went stoically to his death.(2) Although he generally denied responsibility for the gruesome murders of 29 young men buried in the crawl space of his home (and at least four more dumped into a nearby river) just outside Chicago, he did make revealing comments during various audio and video interviews that allow reasonable inference of more than passing knowledge of the young lads' untimely demise.

I visited Gacy four times on Death Row at Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois in 1993 and 1994. I also received dozens of letters, postcards and collect calls from him.(3) These events turned out to be the end of my long journey into "the heart of darkness", that mid-life passage that all of us must make if we wish to evolve and mature, or at least come to understand how things really are and adjust to them. It had begun almost 10 years earlier with the break-up of my long-term marriage and some severe career disappointments in the form of encounters with sociopathic clients and colleagues.(4) I survived those challenges and managed to preserve some small hope for the human race until my encounters with John Wayne Gacy and the criminal so-called "justice" system. Then I could no longer ignore the truly grim realities of life.

Let me tell you how I approached this article. I began with the dry historical information about Gacy's life and alleged(5) crimes and the details of how I came to visit him in the first place in order to get in the mood for more brutal thinking. Then I wrote my conclusions. I had to hit the key lessons from the encounter. Lastly I filled in the blanks with my explanations of everything I felt I had learned. I've always worked that way, believing that if you can't state your conclusions succinctly, then you really don't understand the subject. I'll leave it to my readers to judge both my approach and the substance of my work.

Four Trips to Hell 

I had the opportunity in to visit Gacy on Death Row four times(6) during the last year of his life. I had had many sociopathic clients and colleagues, but I was interested in meeting a real "bad ass" in order to test my perceptive capabilities to the maximum. I was dating a so-called "Riot Grrrl" (an ardent female fan of heavy metal music, who often dressed in black clothes and combat boots) during that time who had come to regard Gacy as a father figure(7) during several years of letters and phone calls. She had the contact, and I had the cash, so we went together for the first two visits in 1993.(8) We broke up in January, 1994, and I traveled with two other women for the last two visits in 1994. All the women were luridly good-looking and eager for action, which delighted Gacy and his inmate "bodyguard" (who always shared in the visits), as well as the redneck prison guards.(9)

The drill was the same each time. My companion(s) and I would fly to St. Louis on Saturday morning, shack up at the Embassy Suites on the waterfront and "party hearty" on Saturday night. A nightclub called Mississippi Nights across the street from the hotel always had good beer and decent bands, some of them well-known groups such as Gwar. I always drove a Cadillac, and after several hours at the club, we'd cruise the dark night on both sides of the Mississippi River. We made a number of side trips to such places as heavily-black East St. Louis, where we saw running mobs in the streets, and dozens of hookers linked up along the curb outside seedy roadhouses (with apt names such as the Discreet Hotel) waiting for anyone stupid enough to pick them up for an AIDS-ridden grope. The slaughterhouses just across the river from St. Louis were also a grim attraction. Anything dealing with death and urban decay was an object of fascination, but we were always safe from the real lessons inside our locked luxury car. We typically ended our Saturday-night fun with pizza and beer back at the hotel anywhere from 4 AM to 6 AM on Sunday morning. Sometimes there was hot, sweaty sex, and we'd fall asleep exhausted.

Rising on Sunday afternoon, we'd play some more and then drive two hours south to the gritty rural redneck town of Chester, Illinois. Its only claims to fame are a statue honoring the creator of the Popeye cartoon, a grim fortress for the criminally insane, and the Menard Correctional Center. Motels were terrible during the first two visits, but a new Best Western was completed in early 1994, and we were among its first guests in its finest room, priced at a reasonable sixty dollars and complete with a Jacuzzi hot tub. There was nothing really remarkable about our stays in Chester, except that my Riot Grrrl companion nearly got me killed on the second trip when she got drunk and tried to provoke a fight in Chester's lone biker bar, but I was able to talk both of us out of that. Cute little waitresses desperate for action and attention would ask why we were in town and perk right up when we told them. Women indeed love "bad boys", as I observed in an earlier footnote.

The Menard Correctional Center is a century-old brick maximum security brick monstrosity on the banks of the Mississippi River. Menard serves as one of two Illinois death rows and is also a maximum security prison for several hundred other felons. We had to be there early Monday morning and could stay until 2:30 PM. Visitors pass through a guard house where they must remove all metal items and store them in lockers. Shoes are x-rayed and a quick patdown done before a guard accompanies the visitors through a half dozen gates and iron doors to a cafeteria. A guard watches closely while visitors buy food, cigarettes and snacks from vending machines. The goodies are stacked on trays which visitors carry through another half dozen barriers to the death row visiting area, an air-conditioned series of small rooms furnished with metal tables and chairs on either side of a short corridor. There are no windows. An ominous sense of loss hits you like a fist in the gut when you pass through so many barriers and are told all the things you can't do.(10) Even chewing gum is forbidden.

Altogether I met with Gacy for almost 20 hours, at least half of it being just the two of us in a room while the women met with Gacy's unofficial "bodyguard" (another death row inmate) in another room across the hall. Unlike many prison meeting areas, there were no bars or windows between Gacy and his visitors, although he was always in handcuffs. A camera in one ceiling corner allowed guards in a room on the other side of a barred gate to watch us. I never worried about Gacy doing anything dangerous, although he once made the comment (as he walked behind me and noticed me watching him very carefully) that he could have broken my neck before guards would have been able to get through the gate from their room down the hall where they watched the television monitors.(11)

Gacy always brought documents from his legal proceedings and explained them, together with the thick log book in which he had been tracking his daily activities and visitors since his incarceration in late 1978. He also brought small gifts such as prison-made cigarettes. I particularly waited with eager anticipation for the paintings which he had done for me at nominal cost. I eventually ended up with four of my own,(12) plus several(13) which I gave to women friends. Much of each meeting was taken up with mundane conversations about life and philosophy, and we always had lunch brought to us by guards -- a decent salad, bread and butter, milk, and overcooked meat or fish. Gacy would always "pig out" on the snacks we brought; he had a real sweet tooth, and the snacks were things he didn't get elsewhere. We'd stay until about 2 PM, have one of the guards take some Polaroid photos at a dollar apiece (one of each pose for us and one for Gacy), and then dash madly for the St. Louis airport for a late afternoon flight back home.

This gives you an idea of the structure of our trips. The last of the four trips was the most remarkable. We saw him on Monday a week before his execution and were his last visitors other than family and appellate attorneys. He'd called and written more frequently in the last few weeks and was plainly nervous, but still full of the old braggadocio.(14) He talked vaguely about an unnamed donor who was going to give him half a million dollars to fund another round of appeals. It all sounded possible, but I when I saw him in person I knew he was just blowing smoke. Ever the con artist, he almost had me convinced, but his unhealthy, beet red complexion and copious sweating even in air conditioning gave it all away. It was and always had been bullshit. He was going down and damn well knew it. He knew I knew it too. I almost felt sorry for him, but the looming image in my mind of his lifetime of lies wouldn't allow it. I listened quietly, shook his clammy hand when it was time to leave, and said that it had been interesting to know him. I said I wished him well, but both he and I sensed the insincerity of everything. He called later in the week for a short chat, cocky as always but definitely edgy, and then once more the weekend before his execution to say good-bye, but luckily I wasn't home to take the call.

Gacy's Life (15)

In the few years before his December, 1978 arrest, John Wayne Gacy killed at least 33 boys and young men and buried most of them in the crawl space under his home near Chicago, Illinois. Gacy, a building contractor, lured them to his home with prospects of employment and sex, and then tortured them before killing them. He had an abusive father, but there was little else in his background to portend such infamy.(16)

Born on March 17, 1942, he claimed his father was alcoholic and frequently beat both him and his mother. John had an effeminate side and could never seem to earn his father's approval regardless of the efforts he made. He dropped out of high school in his senior year and left home for a short time, working in a mortuary in Las Vegas. He returned home to attend a local business college and began selling shoes. At the age of 22, he married a woman whose father owned a chain of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in Waterloo, Iowa. Gacy became a successful manager of his father-in-law's business and a socially-active citizen. He joined the local Jaycees(17) and held key offices and received numerous honors as a Jaycee.

In 1968 he began a tortuous ten-year downward journey of criminality that would culminate in his arrest as a serial killer. Although he claimed to have been framed, he was sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to molesting a teenager employed in the restaurant he managed. His wife divorced him. Gacy was an exemplary prisoner and was paroled after only 18 months, returning to Chicago to become a cook and later to open a construction and remodeling business and become a small-time local politician.

His next arrest in 1971 involved a teenager's accusation that Gacy had tried to force him to engage in sex, but the charge was dismissed when the youth failed to appear in court. He remarried but soon ceased sexual relations with his wife. Gacy had become active in community affairs as a Democratic precinct captain and as a clown ("Pogo" or "Patches") at children's parties and hospitals. He hosted large parties at his home for local dignitaries and neighbors. Gacy answered comments by his wife and others about the peculiar smell in the home by saying that there was a lot of dampness in the crawl space. In fact, he had employed teenagers in his business and had them dig trenches in the crawl space underneath his home. Gacy had been sexually torturing to death some of the young men who worked for him and others that he picked up in downtown Chicago. He lured them by promising them money or employment. One of his favorite routines was to persuade them to participate in his "handcuff trick" in order to incapacitate them. He would then chloroform them and sodomize them. This was followed by his "rope trick" in which he would insert a rope around the victim's neck, insert a stick in the loop, and twist it slowly like a tourniquet until the victim strangled to death. Gacy liked to read passages from the Bible while doing this.

He buried most of his sexual victims in shallow graves in the crawl space under the house, covered them with lime, and left them to decompose. One potential victim was lured into Gacy's black Oldsmobile (complete with spotlight to look like an unmarked police car) on the pretense of police questioning, handcuffed, abused sexually and then released for unknown reasons. Enraged by liver damage caused by the chloroform, the victim staked out freeway entrances until he spotted Gacy's car and then demanded action by authorities. Authorities declined to prosecute Gacy because of lack of evidence.

Gacy's undoing came in December, 1978 when he visited a pharmacy to do a remodeling estimate, and lured away a 15-year-old boy whose mother had dropped him off at the pharmacy to file a job application. Police learned that Gacy had been there just before the boy's disappearance and began watching Gacy closely, especially after learning about his previous molestation conviction. A detective asked to use the bathroom during a visit to Gacy's home and smelled the telltale odor of decomposition when the furnace fan kicked on. A search warrant led promptly to the discovery of rotting corpses in the crawl space. Nationally televised news reports showed heavily-garbed police workers as they went about the grim task of collecting the remains.

Gacy is alleged to have confessed his crimes during interrogation and even to have drawn a map of the bodies' placement, but Gacy signed nothing. He was convicted of murder and all appeals denied. Execution at just after midnight on May 10, 1994 was greeted by a large, enthusiastic crowd outside the prison, tempered by a small number of death penalty protesters. Audio interviews recorded just after his arrest and aired after his death were extremely incriminating, and video interviews in the years just before his death showed him to be extremely callous.

Gacy the Man 

Above all I was struck by the ordinariness of the man. He could be anybody -- your neighbor, co-worker or friend, or even your father (he had two children by two wives). He was somewhat short (5'8") and fat (well over 200 lbs.) with oily skin and greasy, dishwater hair streaked with gray. He was jolly and likable -- perfect for the role he assumed in clown suit and makeup as Pogo or Patches for entertaining at children's parties and visits to children's hospital wards. His demeanor was good enough to get him voted Jaycees Man of the Year, and a minor role in Chicago politics that eventually led to his infamous photo shaking hands with the wife of President Jimmy Carter.

Yet he was a habitual liar.(18) He steadfastly denied any guilt during our my early visits and was quite convincing in his many claims, always presenting himself as a victim of one kind or another.(19) He was extremely garrulous, though, and not nearly as intelligent as he liked others to believe,(20) which led inevitably to his being caught in at least some of his lies. His average intelligence was reflected in his art, which was colorful but as two dimensional as he was. He was crude and brutal about his bisexuality and other matters, and enjoyed trying to shock people that he thought might disapprove of his preference for boys and young men to satisfy his sexual appetites.(21) His lack of sensitivity became particularly evident in a videotaped interview that I saw after his death in which he made the claim, "The only thing I'm guilty of is running an unlicensed cemetery" (referring to the 29 bodies buried in the crawl space under his home and in his yard).

These characteristics were not all immediately evident, and even after listening and watching carefully for hours, I never would have guessed he was a serial killer without being told.


In my younger years, untouched by the hard realities of life, I was in favor of capital punishment -- "an eye for an eye" and all that sort of thing. Four visits to John Wayne Gacy, coupled with extensive reading about so-called criminal "justice", have changed my views. Why?

(1) It costs much less on average to house, feed and clothe a murderer for life than it does to go through the extended legal appeals.(22)

(2) So why not just shortcut the appeals process? The answer is that many innocent people are sent to Death Row.(23)

(3) America seems to be producing more and more serial murderers and other major felons.(24) Why not promise these people life in prison under reasonable conditions in return for a promise of continued co-operation as better tests for genetic and other defects are developed? Let's study the criminal profile scientifically(25) and do what we can to prevent the development of serial killers, i.e., deal with the cause of the problem to save much misery later on.

(4) Capital punishment just doesn't prevent crime. Most murderers and serial killers in particular act in the heat of passion and/or honestly believe they won't get caught.(26) The thought of execution doesn't even enter their minds let alone worry them.

(5) America claims to be a Christian nation. What happened to the forgiveness we preach to others? Is our religion just another of America's many hypocrisies?(27)

There's an old maxim about not judging a book by its cover. While usually applied as an admonition against drawing unfavorable conclusions too quickly, it has its dark flipside too. One need only note the appalling daily media reports to realize the folly of being too trusting. Perhaps any trust is too much, and parents groan as they destroy their young children's innocence by cautioning them with tales of evil strangers. Ultimately we all become strangers to each other, and the social fabric of trust that binds us together first frays and then falls apart.

Gacy confirmed my lessons in the corporate world and life generally that real evil usually is not flamboyant; it does its very best to hide under a cover of respectability.(28) There are many actual and potential Gacy's, and we must always be on guard against them.(29) We can't like our neighbors if we can't trust them; therefore, we have no reason to do them good, and ultimately only a reason to hurt them as our hardness deadens our sensitivity to pain.

This is the bitter, black legacy from John Wayne Gacy, and most of all from our leaders who created the conditions that that spawned Gacy and others like him. Our business, political, religious and military leaders have failed us abysmally.(30)

I no longer believe in anything but the inevitability of death and the need to have as much pleasure as possible beforehand, with the proviso that I absolutely will not take advantage of others along the way, and will help the truly helpless when I can. The latter proviso is at least a matter of expedience, since I have no desire to end up as Gacy did. It's my own private moral standard, but it's the best I can manage. I don't know if Hell exists, but if it does then John Wayne Gacy surely must be there. 
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Interested readers are invited to e-mail the author at or visit the author's web site at 

Fox, James Alan et al. Overkill -- Mass Murder & Serial Killing Exposed (1994). Plenum Press, 233 Spring Street, New York, NY 10013-1578.

Gacy, John Wayne. A Question of Doubt (1991). Craig Bowley Consultants, P.O. Box 225, Times Square Station, New York, NY 10108-0225. This 216 page tome is Gacy's version of events. It was scheduled for publication in a limited edition of 500 copies at $250.00 each complete with deluxe binding, color photo of Gacy, and Gacy's autograph, but I do not know if it was ever published. I obtained a proof copy from Gacy himself.

Hickey, Eric W. Serial Murderers and Their Victims (1991). Wadsworth Publishing Company, 10 Davis Drive, Belmont, CA 94002.

Holmes, Ronald M. et al. Serial Murder (1988). Sage Publications, Inc., 2111 West Hillcrest Drive, Newbury Park, CA 91320.

Kozenczak, Joseph et al. A Passing Acquaintance (1992). Carlton Press, Inc., New York, NY. $12.95. Kozenczak was the chief of police in Gacy's home town of Des Plaines, Illinois and the man responsible for bringing Gacy to justice.

Lester, Harold. Serial Killers - The Insatiable Passion (1995). The Charles Press, P.O. Box 15715, Philadelphia, PA 19105.

Moore, W. John, "The Death Penalty's Marathon Man". The National Journal, December 18, 1993, p. 51.

Ressler, Robert K. et al. Whoever Fights Monsters (1992). $22.95. St, Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.

Sparks, James Arthur. A Case Study on John Wayne Gacy (1996). The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL. Thesis submitted for M.S. in Criminal Justice.

Staton, Rick, ed. More Letters to Mr. Gacy (1992). Myco Associates, P.O. Box 45888, Baton Rouge, IL 70895. $20.00. A sequel to They Call Him Mr. Gacy, this book captures photocopies of several hundred of the more interesting of thousands of letters to and from Gacy.

Sullivan, Terry. Killer Clown (1983). Windsor Publishing Group, 475 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016. $4.99. Gacy hated this book with a passion.

Taylor, Gary, "Fake Evidence Becomes Real Problem". National Law Journal, October 9, 1995, p. A1.

Wallis, Claudia, "Medicine for the Soul". Time, July 11, 1994. p. 64.

Wertz, Marianna, "How Many Innocents Have Been Executed in the United States?" The New Federalist, March 3, 1997, p. 11.

Wilkinson, Alec, "Conversations with a Killer". The New Yorker, April 18, 1994, p. 58.
"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." Nietzsche, quoted in Robert Ressler's Whoever Fights Monsters, p. 35
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