Gacy was known by many in his community to be an avid volunteer and being active in community politics. His role as “Pogo the Clown” the clown began in 1975 when Gacy joined a local “Jolly Joker” clown club that regularly performed at fundraising events.
On January 3, 1972, Gacy commits his first murder of Timothy McCoy, a 16-year old boy traveling from Michigan to Omaha. Claiming that McCoy entered his room wielding a kitchen knife, Gacy gets into a physical altercation with McCoy before stabbing him repeatedly in the chest. After realizing that McCoy had absentmindedly walked into the room with the knife while trying to prepare breakfast, Gacy buries the body in his crawl space. Gacy admitted in the interviews following his arrest that killing McCoy gave him a “mind-numbing orgasm”, stating that this murder was when he “realized death was the ultimate thrill” (Cahill and Ewing 349). Almost 2 years later, Gacy commits his second murder of an unidentified teenager. Gacy strangled the boy before stuffing the body in his closet before burying him (Cahill 349).
In 1975, Gacy’s business was growing quickly and his appetite for young men grew with it. Gacy often lured young men under his employment to his house, convincing them to put themselves in hand cuffs, and raping and torturing them before strangling them (Cahill 169-170). Most of Gacy’s murders took place between 1976 and 1978, the first of this time taking place in April 1976. Many of the youths that were murdered during this time were buried in a crawl space under Gacy’s house. For the remainder of the murders, Gacy admitted to throwing five bodies off the I-55 bridge into the Des Plaines River; however, only four of the bodies were ever recovered (Linedecker 152).
In December 1978, Gacy meets Robert Jerome Piest, a 15-year old boy working at a pharmacy and offers him a job at Gacy’s firm. Piest informs his mother of this and fails to return that evening. The Piest family files a missing person’s report and the pharmacist informs police that Gacy would most likely be the man that Jerome spoke to about a job. When questioned by the police, Gacy denied any involvement in Piest’s disappearance. However, the police were not convinced, and Gacy’s history of sexual abuse and battery prompted the police to search his house. Among the items found at Gacy’s house were a 1975 high school class ring with the initials J.A.S., multiple driver’s licenses, handcuffs, clothing that was too small for Gacy, and a receipt for the pharmacy that Piest had worked at. Over the course of the next few days, investigators received multiple calls and tips about Gacy’s sexual assaults and the mysterious disappearances of Gacy’s employees. The class ring was eventually traced back to John A. Szyc, one of Gacy’s victims in 1977. Futhermore, upon examining Gacy’s car, investigators discovered a small cluster of fibers resembling human hair, which were sent to the labs for further analysis. That same evening, search dogs were used to detect any trace of Piest in Gacy’s car, and one of the dogs indicated that Piest had, in fact, been present in the vehicle.
On December 20, 1977, under the stress of constant police surveillance and investigation, Gacy confesses to over 30 murders and informs his lawyer and friend where the bodies were buried, both in the crawl space and the river. 26 victims were found in the crawl space and 4 in the river. Gacy is arrested, convicted of 33 murders, and sentenced to death by lethal injection. He attempted an insanity plea but was denied, and was executed on May 10, 1994.
There were several forensic indicators that investigators used to tie Gacy to the murders. Some of these involve fiber analysis, dental and radiology records, using the decomposition process of the human body, and facial reconstruction in identifying the victims. Investigators found fibers that resembled human hair in both Gacy’s car and near the crawl space where the bodies were buried. In addition to these hair samples, investigators also found fibers that contained traces of Gacy’s blood and semen in the same area. Blood belonging to the victims was found on some of the fibers, which would later directly tie Gacy to the crimes. The fibers in Gacy’s car were analyzed by forensic scientists and matched Piest’s hair samples. Furthermore, the search dogs that determined that Piest had been in Gacy’s car indicated this by a “death reaction”, which told investigators that Piest’s dead body had been inside of Gacy’s car.
Out of Gacy’s 33 known victims, only 25 were ever conclusively identified. Many of Gacy’s victims had similar physical descriptions and were therefore hard to identify by purely asking the public. To identify the victims, investigators turned to Betty Pat Gatliff, a pioneer in forensic science and facial reconstruction. Facial reconstruction is the process of recreating the facial features of an individual by using their remains. Certain facial features, such as jawlines, nasal structure, and overall face shape can be useful in identifying a victim even long after death. By using these features, and with the help of computer software, forensic investigators are able to create an image of a person’s face, which is instrumental in identifying victims after their bodies have decayed. Facial reconstruction can be done in two or three dimensions.
Two-dimensional facial reconstructions is used with skull radiographs and are based on pre-death photographs and information. However, this is not necessarily ideal because cranial features are not always visible or at the right scale (Downing). In order to get a realistic and more accurate depiction of the victim’s face, an artist and a forensic anthropologist are usually necessary (Downing).
Three-dimensional facial reconstruction is done by sculptures or high resolution, three-dimensional images. Computer programs are able to create facial reconstructions by manipulating scanned photographs of the remains and use approximations to recreate facial features. These tend to produce results that do not look artificial (Reichs and Craig 491).
Sometimes, investigators will use a method called superimposition as a technique for facial reconstruction. Unfortunately, it is not a commonly used method, as it requires investigators to have some knowledge about the identity of the remains they are dealing with. By superimposing a photograph of an individual over the skeletal remains, investigators are able to see if the facial features line up with the anatomical features, allowing them to identify a victim.
In the case of John Wayne Gacy’s victims, experts were able to use facial reconstruction to identify nine of the bodies found in the crawl space. The following graphic shows the facial reconstructions of these nine victims:
Since facial reconstruction was not enough to identify all of the victims, investigators obtained DNA profiles from each of the unidentified victims and actively sought out DNA samples from males across the United States who had been reported missing between 1970 and 1979 (Cook County Sheriff’s Office 3).
The remaining victims were identified using dental and radiology records.
Since dental enamel is harder than bone, teeth outlast tissue and sometimes bone when the body decomposes. Teeth are very reliable in identifying victims, as they tend to reveal habits about the individual, such as nail biting, grinding and pressure habits, lip biting, and clenching (Ryan 254). Furthermore, the roof of the mouth, which forms an arch, is unique to each individual in shape, size, and contour. Teeth also have individual characteristics that are unique to each person in that the relationship of teeth to one another varies, along with size and shape of the jaws and palate (Ryan 255). In order to identify an individual using dental records, forensic dentists must acquire the dental records of the victim or deceased. In cases involving multiple deaths, forensic dentists receive a list of possible individuals and then compare records to the teeth (Freeman par. 2). In many cases, X-rays are considered to be more reliable and provide the best comparisons, but these are not always available to forensic investigators. Once the dental records have been acquired, forensic investigators then look at the individual tooth size, color, and contour, arch sizes and types, and the relationship between the jaws, which is used to help classify facial types (Ryan 256).
Although John Wayne Gacy’s most recent victim was Robert Piest in 1978, investigators in Cook County are still searching for identification for the remaining bodies. The most recently identified victim, William Bundy, was conclusively identified in 2011. The Cook County Sheriff’s department announced the same year that they were renewing their efforts to identify the remaining seven of Gacy’s victims. However, no one has since come forward to conclusively identify them, and their names remain unknown.
John Wayne Gacy was one of America’s most prolific serial killers. With a victim count of 33 young men in a three-year span of time, Gacy was sentenced to death by euthanasia for his crimes. Forensic scientists and investigators were able to tie Gacy to the murders by using dental and radiology records, facial reconstruction, and DNA evidence. Without the use of forensic technology and the effort put forth by the investigators, Gacy would have continued committing murders and many of the victims would have gone unnoticed. While the case has been cold for many years, investigators are still trying to identify the remaining victims in order to give piece of mind to the families of the deceased. John Wayne Gacy has gone down in history for his crimes, but his victims will never be forgotten.