John Wayne Gacy hit the headlines in 1978 after confessing to the murder of 33 young males over a seven-year period in the state of Illinois. Gacy would later become known as the “Killer Clown” after it emerged he had often volunteered at fundraising events and children’s hospitals in a clown costume during the period of his murders.

The extensive list of John Wayne Gacy crimes, with a death count higher than any other killer in US history at the time, led to his becoming a household name and the subject of numerous documentaries, films and podcasts in the years that have followed. In this article, we’ll be focusing on how Gacy was portrayed by three New York newspapers – the Times, the Post, and the Daily News – at the time of his conviction and sentencing in March 1980, evaluating both cases put forward in court and the reactions of his victim’s families along the way.


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Who was John Wayne Gacy?

John Wayne Gacy Jr. was born March 17, 1942 in Chicago. Like many other serial killers, Gacy was physically abused by his father from a young age, as well as being sexually molested by a family friend. He spent much of his school years in hospital, first due to bouts of blackouts, and then a burst appendix.

In 1962, following a dispute with his father, Gacy left home alone and drove to Las Vegas, Nevada, finding work as a mortuary attendant, observing the embalming of dead bodies. Gacy would later manage a shoe company and three branches of KFC. He was also an active member of the Jaycees. He married his first wife, Marlynn Myers, in 1964, and by 1967 the couple had two children together.

In 1968, the direction of Gacy’s life took a momentous turn, as he was found guilty of sodomizing 15-year-old Donald Voorhees a year earlier and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. The following year, Gacy’s wife divorced him three months before his father died. He was released from prison after just 18 months.

Gacy’s first known murder occurred in 1972, with the stabbing of Timothy McCoy in a self-proclaimed act of self-defense. Gacy is alleged to have later described this as the moment he realized that “death was the ultimate thrill”. Gacy buried the body in the crawl space of his house and covered it with concrete.

Over the next seven years, Gacy went on to murder at least 32 other men, burying most of the bodies in pre-made graves in his crawl space before dumping the final four in the Des Plaines River. Gacy was arrested in December 1978 in connection with a missing person, and over the next week police recovered 29 bodies from his property. He was convicted in March 1980 and later executed at the Stateville Correctional Center in 1994, aged 52.

Gacy clown

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“Gacy Is Found Guilty In the Murders of 33”

Our John Wayne Gacy newspaper coverage begins with the March 13, 1980 edition of the New York Times, reporting on the previous day’s trial and its conclusion. It begins:

“CHICAGO, March 12 – John Wayne Gacy was found guilty today of 33 murders, more than any other mass killer in the history of the nation.”

Gacy guilty

The article recaps the events that led to Gacy’s initial arrest in December 1978. Having already committed all of his 33 murders without being caught, Gacy was initially investigated in connection with the disappearance of 15-year-old Robert Piest, who police believed could be being held against his will at Gacy’s home. When police obtained a search warrant, they found far more than they could ever have bargained for:

“[in 1978] a young man’s body was found in a crawl space under Mr. Gacy’s home in suburban Northwood Township. More bodies were found, and Mr. Gacy was eventually charged with murdering 33 boys and young men… from 1972 to 1978.”

“Twenty-eight bodies were found in the crawl space, another beneath Mr. Gacy’s garage, and four more in the Des Plaines River. Eleven remain unidentified.”

As the article states, Gacy had “confessed on three occasions” and “the evidence of his guilt was overwhelming”. His confessions allowed prosecutors at his trial to paint a harrowing picture of how he committed each murder:

“In closing arguments yesterday [assistant state’s attorney] Mr. Sullivan spent more than three hours dramatically detailing 23 of the killings as he paced the courtroom floor.”

“The prosecutors painstakingly reconstructed the gruesome details of how Mr. Gacy lured his victims to his home with the promise of high-paying jobs, engaged in sex with them, then killed them, most by strangulation.”

The nature of Gacy’s trial, however, was not to ascertain whether or not he was guilty of the crimes – that much was already clear. But rather the jury’s task was to determine whether Gacy had been of sound mind at the time of the killings, or was driven by an uncontrollable mental disease, and thus not wholly responsible for his actions.

The most widely reported tactic of the defense was to compare Gacy to Edward Hyde, the villainous alter-ego in the Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Jekyll and Hyde:

“John Gacy is a madman who has been reaching out, saying ‘Stop me before I kill again,’ [his attorney] Mr. Amirante said.”

The coverage from the same day in the New York Post expanded on this point:

“Defense attorneys, however, insisted the defendant is a Jekyll-Hyde personality, rational in most of his conduct but seized by uncontrollable rages.”

The Post also mentions the other attempts made to somehow explain Gacy’s crimes:

“Defense psychiatrists linked Gacy’s mental illness to his abusive father and said he projected hated feelings onto his male sex partners and then was compelled to kill them.”

Prosecutors, on the other hand, described Gacy as the “worst of all murderers” who knew exactly what he was doing all along:

“They say he stalked his victims, had graves dug for their burial, used an intricate “rope trick” to kill almost all, and then plotted his own insanity defense.”


Gacy worst

Chief Prosecutor William Kunkle Jr.’s closing arguments were relayed as follows:

“If you think you can excuse this man of these crimes… then every hit man and every criminal must be excused, too.”

“If you allow this evil man to walk this earth… God help us all.”

Ultimately, the jury would side with the prosecution, and swiftly at that:

“The jury of seven men and five women deliberated only 1 hour and 50 minutes.”

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“No One Will Be Satisfied Until This Beast Is Dead!”

As well as reporting the details of the insanity trial and verdict, the main part of the Post’s March 13 article actually focuses on the relatives of Gacy’s victims and their reactions to his conviction, as well as their opinions regarding the jury’s upcoming second decision: whether Gacy should be sentenced to death.

The article leads with the words of Robert Piest’s brother, Kenneth, 26:

“None of us will be satisfied until he is put to death. He destroyed my life, my family’s life, my girlfriend’s life, my brother’s life. This involves literally thousands of people whose lives have been shattered, not just my brother alone… to leave Mr. Gacy with a prison sentence is not enough.”

They also quote Eugenia Godzik, whose son Gregory was murdered by Gacy:

“I hope he gets the chair as soon as possible.”

The following day, the Post would also quote Piest’s father, Harold:

“I’d be willing to pull the switch. Of all the families involved, I’ll be the first to volunteer.”

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“Gacy jury settles on electric chair”

And so to the following day, March 13, 1980, when the jury met once again, this time to decide on the death penalty. The details were reported on the morning of the 14th, with the New York Times offering a thrilling glimpse into the argument between defense and prosecution, both utilizing hyperbole and attempting to guilt-trip the jury into agreeing with their point of view.

The defense, which had already unsuccessfully tried to disqualify and replace the entire jury, now appealed directly to their humanity and even attempted to hypothetically place them in the same boat as Gacy himself:

““Each of you must put your signature on the verdict and when you do so you are pulling the switch,” Robert Motta, a defense attorney, told the jury. “The thirst for blood is insane and I ask you to stop it.””

His colleague Mr. Amirante went one step further with this sentiment:

“How can we condemn someone for killing, then turn right around and kill someone ourselves? Are we collective John Gacys?”

Amirante also targeted the supposed greater good, arguing that Gacy should be studied closely in an attempt to work out why he might have committed such atrocities and as a result potentially prevent them for recurring:

“‘The death sentence is not a deterrent,’ [Amirante] said. ‘If you wipe John Gacy off the face of the earth there will be other mass murderers. The death penalty won’t stop them.’”

The prosecution, meanwhile, used the same threat of potential further killings as ammunition, but framed them as a result of not sending Gacy to his death:

“Mr Kunkle said… ‘Who do you think his next victim will be if he gets sent to prison – an inmate, a boy inmate, a guard? Do you want to be faced with a trial four years from now,’ he continued, ‘and have some prosecutor ask why the jury didn’t act at the last trial?’”

Kunkle also aligns himself with the jury from a socioeconomic standpoint in order to persuade them:

“As a citizen, I don’t want to pay this guy’s rent for the rest of his life.”

Kunkle’s fellow prosecutor Robert Egan would summarize:

“John Gacy is the most diabolical human who ever lived… He has killed more people than anybody except in wartime. By his actions he has earned the death penalty.”

Once again, the jury would quickly side with the prosecution entirely. The New York Daily News opened its own article with:

“Chicago (AP)–The same jury that convicted John W. Gacy Jr. of murdering 33 boys and young men decided yesterday that he should die in the electric chair… The jury of seven men and five women took two hours and 15 minutes to reach the decision.”

Gacy chair

 The Daily News described Gacy’s demeanor:

“Gacy was sitting as the verdict was read, staring straight ahead with no expression.”

“Gacy, who stood before the judge flanked by his attorneys and three guards, never spoke. He was led from the room with his lips clamped tightly, looking straight ahead.”

The Times had also mentioned Gacy’s lack of animation:

“The 37-year-old building contractor, dressed in a light-green suit, showed no emotion when the sentence was read.”

“Mr. Gacy sat expressionless during the proceedings, occasionally peering left toward the jury box as the lawyers made their pleas.”

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“Cheers & Tears as Gacy Gets Chair”

The New York Post’s March 14 article focused on the reaction of the rest of the courtroom following the conclusion of the trial, beginning:

“CHICAGO (UPI) – Applause erupted in the courtroom as John Wayne Gacy was sentenced to die in the electric chair June 2 for the murders of 33 young men and boys.”

The Daily News corroborated this, writing:

“When the court clerk read the jurors’ decision there was a burst of applause and hurrahs from parents, relatives and friends of the victims.”

As did the Times:

“There were cheers, sighs and applause in the section of the courtroom in which relatives of the victims were seated.”

The Post even highlighted the effect the decision had on practically everyone in attendance, mentioning Judge Louis B. Garippo’s voice had been “cracking with emotion” throughout, and adding:

“Four alternate jurors huddled together, tears streaming down their faces.”

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Gacy had been sentenced to die on June 2 of that same year, but, as these articles state:

The death penalty automatically is appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.”

The Daily News noted that:

 “Twenty men are now awaiting execution in Illinois. No one has been executed in the state since 1962.”

The Post, more overtly pessimistic, wrote:

“Gacy’s date with the electric chair will be delayed, perhaps for years.”

As it turned out, Gacy would indeed languish on death row, for a total of 14 years. After numerous unsuccessful appeals, he was eventually executed by lethal injection on May 10, 1984.

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