Serial killer John Wayne Gacy was a twisted predator who brutally tortured, raped, and strangled young men and boys from 1972 until his arrest in 1978. He became known as the ‘Killer Clown’ due to his alter-ego, Pogo the Clown.
He was convicted of 33 sex-related murders and given the death penalty. Many of the bodies were buried in the crawl space underneath his home in Cook County, Illinois. Four bodies were also discarded in the Des Plaines River.
Like many psychopaths, Gacy was capable of the most heinous crimes, yet he managed to evade capture for so long as he hid behind a mask of normalcy.
Canadian psychologist Dr. Robert Hare, known for his research in the field of criminal psychology, suggests 1 in 100 people are psychopaths who tend to blend in, like cold-blooded chameleons.
Hare said, “All the reading in the world cannot immunize you from the devastating effects of psychopaths. Everyone, including the experts, can be taken in, conned, and left bewildered by them. A good psychopath can play a concerto on anyone’s heartstrings.”
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5. Complete Lack Of Empathy
“That one mother (of the victim) that gets on television all the time, who thinks I should get 33 injections, I think she ought to take 33 valiums and go lie down.”
Born in Chicago on March 17th, 1942, Gacy appeared to have a normal, middle-class upbringing. In 1964, he married and moved to Waterloo, Iowa, where he successfully managed a chain of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants. Although he fathered two children of his own, there was another more twisted side to Gacy.
In 1968, he was charged with sodomy of a teenage boy and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was released after serving only 18 months due to good behavior.
He then moved back to Chicago and remarried. Yet, his sadistic urges to inflict pain on others followed him there. He committed his first murder in 1972.
Typically the most recognizable trait in all psychopaths is a complete lack of empathy. The ability most well-balanced people have is to feel distressed at the distress or suffering of another person; they will also feel moved enough to do something to alleviate that person’s suffering. Psychopaths are very good at reading people’s expressions accurately but they lack compassion to act appropriately.
True crime author Peter Vronsky explained in an interview with The Guardian:
“One common explanation is that psychopaths experience some kind of trauma in early childhood – perhaps as early as their infant state – and as a consequence suppress their emotional response. They never learn the appropriate responses to trauma, and never develop other emotions, which is why they find it difficult to empathize with others.”
Adding, “They grow up not knowing how to “feel”, and learn instead how to manifest what they think are emotions or the correct appearances of emotion. They know the “mask” they should wear.”
Gacy himself suffered a tragic childhood at the hands of his alcoholic and abusive father. He was often referred to as a “sissy” and found himself on the receiving end of regular beatings.
At the age of 11-years-old, he was hit in the head by a swing which caused a blood clot in his brain that was undiscovered until five years later. Due to the blood clot, which caused him to suffer blackouts that resulted in an irregular heartbeat, he was in a hospital bed much of his adolescent life. His father accused the young Gacy of faking the blackouts for attention. He saw his son’s heart condition as just another failure.
Damage to the frontal cortex of the brain can often result in drastic changes in behavior, aggression, and impaired moral judgment. Mix this injury with a traumatic upbringing including often violent parents, Gacy became a boiling pot of rage that he took out on his victims.
4. Pathological Lying
“The idea that I’m a homosexual thrill killer, that I stroll down the streets and stalk young boys and slaughter them… Hell, if you could see my schedule, my work schedule, you knew damn well that I was never out there.”
Gacy would lure the young, male victims to his Norwood Park home with the promise of future work or cash. Many of the vulnerable victims were picked up whilst he cruised the gay hotspots in his car late at night. Other victims, he knew personally through work.
As Gacy was a building contractor with his own successful business; the victims genuinely believed if they kept him company over a few drinks, they would land some lucrative work contracts. Their drinks were either laced with drugs or they were drugged with chloroform.
The serial killer subjected the victims to several hours of torture and then they were killed. His preferred method was to strangle them with ropes or they were asphyxiated with gags – usually their own underwear.
This was, according to Gacy, the personality of ‘Jack Hanley’ committing these horrific murders. He would wake up hours later and realize what had happened. Then he disposed of the body and continued with everyday life in the suburbs.
In the book ‘Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders’, Gacy later told investigators: “There are four Johns.” John the contractor who was the successful businessman; John the politician who was also active in his local community as a Democratic Party precinct captain and who had met with then-first lady Rosalynn Carter; the Pogo the Clown alter-ego, and a fourth personality by the name of Jack Hanley who did all these evil things.
Psychopaths are typically great storytellers. Their pathological lies tend to be very detailed and convincing, even if the lies are obviously over-the-top. Psychopaths are able to tell pathological lies with ease because they have practiced many times before. Often, like in the case of Gacy, they sometimes even believe their own lies.
3. Cunning and Manipulative Behaviour
“A Clown Can Get Away With Murder.”
In 1975, John Wayne Gacy created his own alter-ego as Pogo the Clown. He designed the clown outfit and makeup himself – although he was advised by other clowns at the Jolly Joker Club he joined not to paint on such a sharp smile as it would scare the children.
Gacy would attend kids’ parties for the Easter Holidays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. He never accepted any money for his services, instead choosing to give up his time for free to entertain the large screaming crowds of typically around 600 children. In the book, ‘Buried Dreams’, Gacy explains: “Pogo was like a tranquilizer for me when I was Pogo, I was in another world.”
However, by the year 1975, Gacy had already murdered – 16-year-old Timothy McCoy, 15-year-old Anthony Antonucci, 17-year-old John Butkovitch, and a 14-year-old boy who was never identified.
The alter-ego of Pogo the Clown was Gacy backsliding to childhood. A childhood he likely felt deprived of and bringing joy to the lives of others was self-soothing for him.
But the Pogo personality was pretty evil too and he couldn’t help letting this mask slip – revealing the true evil hidden underneath. Gacy said whilst he was entertaining, he would run over to women in the crowd and grab at their breasts. He joked, “They would think ‘Well it’s ok he’s a clown you know.’”
He also hated greedy children. When handing sweets to a child and they asked for more, he would squeeze their cheek so hard it brought them to tears. Then whispering just so only the kid could hear, he would say, “Now get away from me.”
Later, he stated: “A clown can get away with murder.” This is one of the most terrifying factors about serial killers that still scares people today; they are able to hide in plain sight as a respected member of the local community.
Dr. Jeffrey Walsh, a criminal justice professor at Illinois State University, explained: “(Psychopaths) tend to blend into society relatively efficiently… that’s another thing people are disturbed by. Because of how horrible their acts often are, we sometimes think they look different than us or that we would recognize them. The fact is, many of them have regular lives and blend in, so they don’t meet the stereotypical views of what a monster would be like.”
2. Failure To Accept Responsibility For One’s Own Actions
“All the police are going to get me for is running a funeral parlor without a license.”
It is unlikely you will ever hear a serial killer take responsibility for their own actions. They are quick to blame either their parents, partners, work-related stress, society or even the victim themselves. This was also the case with Gacy.
In 1968, following his arrest for sexually assaulting a teenage boy, Gacy underwent a court-appointed psychiatric evaluation. The report read:
“The most striking aspect of the test results is the patient’s total denial of responsibility for everything that has happened to him. He can produce an ‘alibi’ for everything. He presents himself as a victim of circumstances and blames other people who are out to get him… the patient attempts to assure a sympathetic response by depicting himself as being at the mercy of a hostile environment.”
During his trial in 1980, Gacy opened with pleading guilty by reason of insanity. His defense claimed that Gacy was insane, irrational, and not responsible for his actions. Yet many psychiatric experts who had assessed Gacy testified he had been insane at the times he had committed the murders.
One victim Jeff Ringall was introduced as a witness and recounting the trauma of the attack at Gacy’s hands, he broke down on the stand and had to be removed from the courtroom. Ringall was one of the few surviving victims who could give an accurate account of Gacy’s savagery.
Following five weeks of listening to gruesome and disturbing evidence, the jury only took two hours to reach a guilty but sane verdict. Gacy was sentenced to death.
1. Superficial Charm
“The dead won’t bother you, it’s the living you have to worry about.”
Despite the horrendous and brutal nature of his crimes, Gacy still managed to thrive in the prison environment. During his time on death row at Menard Correctional Center, Illinois, groups of “fans” flocked to visit the serial killer and posed for candid photos as if they were meeting a rockstar.
Gacy, who was always insecure about his handcuffs, would carefully hide his shackled hands behind the back of a visitor or partially out of view.
Many psychopaths like Gacy are able to turn on the superficial charm with ease. Their charm is often characterized by a total lack of shyness, self-consciousness, humility, or self-doubt. He greeted all of his “fans” with a handshake; the same hands that strangled many young, innocent boys.
Gacy appeared completely unsullied or untouched by the suffering he had caused to others, which made him appear more confident and guilt-free. However, his charm was to cover up the identity of the real monster that lurked underneath it all.
Gacy also managed to convince prison officials that he would be a reliable handyman about the place. He landed maintenance work around the prison meaning he was permitted to carry a set of knives and other sharp tools. He also did not have to wear his handcuffs as he was working.
One group that was not convinced the serial killer was a “harmless” guy were his fellow inmates. They signed a 2-page-long petition against Gacy being allowed to walk around in possession of “two putty knives, both sharpened, one 3 inches wide and the other 6 inches wide.”
Yet, despite all of his efforts, Gacy was unable to charm his way off of death row. After he exhausted all of his appeals, on May 10th, 1994, Gacy was executed at Stateville Correctional Center by lethal injection at age 52-years-old.