The Real-Life ‘Killer Clown’ That Terrorized America

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  • Robert Ressler
    FBI agent
Marty Zielinski/Peacock
Marty Zielinski/Peacock

John Wayne Gacy was one of America’s most prolific—and horrific—serial killers, responsible for the deaths of 33 young men, 26 of whom he buried in the crawlspace beneath his Norwood Park Township home in Chicago. An egomaniacal sociopath who ran a remodeling business, had strong local political ties (and aspirations), and moonlit as a children’s hospital clown named Pogo, Gacy was the worst of the worst. He was also, unsurprisingly, a cunning liar, as reconfirmed by a 1992 interview that functions as the centerpiece of John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise, in which he claims that the police and media “created this fantasy monster image” of him, and that “I had nothing to do with the murders of anyone.” Rarely has a cocky killer lied so much, and so brazenly.

In fact, the only true thing he may say in the entire chat, conducted by legendary FBI profiler Robert Ressler, is that “clowning has taken a bad name because of what they’ve used in my case.”

When a Strange Collection of Sex Toys Led to a Dead Body

Premiering March 25 on Peacock, John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise is part history lesson, part psychological inquiry, and part showcase of cold, deceptive inhumanity, treading a fine line throughout between investigation and voyeurism. Its main hook is that 1992 conversation between Gacy and Ressler, which gazes in close-up at the incarcerated killer as he chats amiably and confidently about his innocence—he goes so far as to say that he didn’t even know the dead—while flipping through an enormous tome of research material that, he believes, exonerates him. No one on planet Earth is buying that nonsense, including this docuseries. Yet if anyone comes close, it’s Craig Bowley, a long-time prison correspondent with Gacy who helped set up Ressler’s videotaped meeting with the fiend, and who spent years befriending him, to the point that he recounts being just about heartbroken when he finally had to say goodbye—via a hug—to his long-time acquaintance and confidant.

Bowley’s warped fascination with Gacy is an area into which John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise might have pried much harder. For the most part, however, this six-part non-fiction venture is a bit too comprehensive; like so many of its genre brethren, it could have been at least one episode shorter without losing any key facts or insights. That’s especially felt in its back half, when an inordinate amount of attention is given to the minutiae of Gacy’s trial (and, in particular, his futile insanity defense), as well as on efforts to name the handful of victims who were never officially identified at the time. Such topics are relevant to the larger portrait painted here, but more concision would have strengthened those passages’ impact, as well as improved the proceedings’ momentum.

Fortunately, John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise is otherwise exhaustive, illuminating, and intriguing. The Gacy it reveals is a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic man who grew up with an abusive alcoholic father and a sexual appetite for young men. He was married and divorced twice (fathering kids with his first wife), all while carrying on homosexual trysts with countless individuals (he held firm to the line that he was bisexual). He strove to make inroads with political organizations and power players in Chicago (sometimes via the dissemination and promotion of pornography), and he ran a remodeling business staffed with male teens who had a suspicious habit of disappearing. When one potential recruit, 15-year-old Des Plains native Robert Piest, vanished in 1978 while seeing Gacy about a job—this as the boy’s mother waited for him outside his place of employment—cops began snooping around. What they eventually found was a mass grave the likes of which had never been seen before.

Utilizing interviews with detectives, journalists, relatives, friends, victims’ family members and more, as well as archival news broadcasts, crime scene footage, home movies and photographs, John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise provides a thorough account of cops’ surveillance and arrest of Gacy, and the excavation of his nightmare dwelling. The series eschews formal sensationalism at most turns; dramatic recreations are absent (only staged shots of sets resembling key locations are employed), and images of Gacy as Pogo—a guise he didn’t use to lure victims—are kept to a minimum. There’s a sobering quality to its storytelling, which also looks at Gacy’s checkered pre-Chicago past in Iowa, where he was convicted of sexually assaulting a state representative’s teenage son and was given 10 years behind bars at Anamosa State Penitentiary.

That Gacy was paroled only 18 months into that sentence proves one of many instances in which the criminal justice and law enforcement systems came up short. John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise details how Gacy repeatedly appeared on cops’ radar for various crimes and missing persons cases, and yet always seemed to skirt by, whether due to his personality or the political connections he’d made throughout the area. Moreover, in its epilogue chapter, the series contends that police, fearful of dredging up revelations that would cast a disparaging light on their initial investigation, may have deliberately ignored leads and evidence in subsequent years that would have unearthed additional Gacy victims (he boasted that his body count was closer to 45).

Overt and implied accusations against the police are regular components of John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise, and they’re complemented by a rather persuasive conspiracy theory regarding the possibility that Gacy didn’t act alone, but was instead aided by members of John Norman’s pedophilic sex-trafficking ring that Gacy was linked to via an employee (Phil Paske). Gacy’s familiarity with those individuals, as well as with his shady trench-digging cronies Michael Rossi and David Cram, makes it wholly possible that others helped him carry out facets of his long-running killing spree. Consequently, even though Gacy was executed by lethal injection on May 10, 1994, the case continues to pose uneasily answered questions.

John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise’s conclusion makes a convincing argument that, in some respects, more should still be done—for example, cops digging up the yard at the apartment building where Gacy’s mom used to live, and where he very possibly buried more bodies. What needs no further elaboration, however, is the depths of Gacy’s deviant depravity, which despite his affable 1992 routine to Ressler, can be seen lurking behind his hard, emotionless eyes.

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