• U.S.

Nation: I Do Rotten, Horrible Things

5 minute read

How Pogo the Clown killed more than a score of youths

It was Elizabeth Piest’s 46th birthday, and before a family party, she stopped by a pharmacy in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, Ill., to pick up her 15-year-old son Robert. Just as Mrs. Piest and her son were about to leave the store, he said, “Mom, wait a minute, I’ve got to talk to a contractor about a summer job that will pay me $5 an hour.” That was the last Mrs. Piest saw of her son.

Though the police are sometimes cavalier in dealing with reports of missing teenagers, Mrs. Piest’s call for help reached Lieut. Joseph Kozenczak, whose son attended the same high school as the missing youth. He began investigating, and he soon found the contractor Piest had mentioned, John Wayne Gacy, 36, owner of the P.D.M. Construction Co., which had been renovating the drugstore. There was evidence that Piest had been at Gacy’s brick ranch house—a receipt for a roll of Piest’s film was found there—but Gacy appeared to be a respectable citizen, a father of two, active in politics and charity work.

Undeterred, the police got a warrant to search Gacy’s house. They discovered a trapdoor in a bedroom closet concealing a 40-ft. crawl space. They began poking around in it. By this time, Gacy was babbling. He had murdered 32 young men and boys, he said. He had thrown five into the Des Plaines River, southwest of Chicago; the rest were buried under the house and garage; he even drew the police a map of the graves. By the end of last week they had uncovered the skeletal remains of 28 of the victims, some still with ropes around their necks.

If Gacy was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, his neighbors seemed to recall only Dr. Jekyll. At his home in Norwood Park, he threw an annual block party for as many as 400 people. He delighted in dressing up in a “Pogo the Clown” costume that he had designed for himself, and often he wore it in making the rounds of children’s wards in hospitals. In 1975 Gacy became a trustee of the Norwood Park Township Street Lighting District. Says Robert Martwick, a Democratic Party committeeman: “He was always available for any chore, washing windows, setting up chairs for meetings—even fixing someone’s leaky faucet.”

People in Waterloo, Iowa, had a similar view of Gacy a decade ago. Living there with his first wife and two children, he managed three Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants. He was chaplain in the Jaycees and even campaigned for the presidency of the organization. Then in 1968 he was convicted of sodomy with a 16-year-old boy and sentenced to ten years in prison. His wife divorced him, but he was a model citizen in prison and won parole after 18 months.

Gacy moved on to Chicago and although he was arrested for another sexual offense in 1971, the charges were dropped after the boy failed to appear in court. A year later Gacy remarried. “He swept me off my feet,” said his second wife. But Gacy had a bad temper and sometimes broke up furniture in their home. In 1976 the couple were divorced.

His second wife’s mother, who lived with the couple, remembers often complaining of a foul smell in the house, “like dead rats.” Gacy’s ex-wife admits, “I think now, if there were murders, some must have taken place when I was in that house.” Martin Zielinski, a friend, recalls being puzzled when Gacy once told him, “I do a lot of rotten, horrible things, but I do a lot of good things too.”

Two young men who had encounters with Gacy told reporters last week how he managed to trap his victims. First he would put handcuffs on himself and release them. Then he would put the handcuffs on the boys but refuse to show them the unlocking trick. The two survivors refused to play.

By now, after more than a week of excavations, only a shell of Gacy’s house remains—just the outside walls, roof and some support beams. “We are looking for any scrap of evidence—a ring, a belt buckle, a button—that will help us to identify the victims,” says Dr. Robert Stein, Cook County medical examiner. Gacy cannot help with most of them because he never knew their names. He does recall Robert Piest: he was thrown in the river, and his body has not been found. Gacy—whose confession, if true, would make him the worst mass murderer in U.S. history—is now strapped into a bed at the hospital in the Cook County jail. Before the police came, he had bedecked his home with colored lights. They shone throughout Christmas, until last week when somebody finally turned them out.

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