On December 11, 1978, Robert Jerome Piest (1963-1978) was finishing up his shift at Nisson Pharmacy when an older man approached him with the offer of a job in his contracting company. Piest told his mother Elizabeth that he would only be a few minutes. That was last time anyone saw Robert Piest alive. Police would soon learn that the older gentlemen observed conversing with Piest was a local named John Wayne Gacy (1942-1994), a well-respected but peculiar figure who owned a company named PDM Contractors. Gacy initially denied any knowledge of Piest or his whereabouts that night but detectives felt that he was certainly hiding something. Although he was only a person of interest at that time, none of the detectives could have known then that in only two years, the worst serial killer in American history would be convicted of multiple counts of murder. Terry Sullivan was Supervisor of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Third District office and here he teamed up with Peter Maiken (1934-2006) to bring us the inside story of the effort to bring John Wayne Gacy to justice.
I believe that it goes without saying but I will say here that readers should use discretion when deciding whether to read this book. The subject is sensitive and anyone who knows even slightest bit of information regarding John Wayne Gacy, knows that the story does not have a happy ending. In fact, it is dark, disturbing and one of the most extreme true crime stories that you will ever read. But that is also what makes it so appealing. However, if you are not able to read descriptions of violent acts that result in death and post-mortem examinations, then you may want to give this book a pass. But if you prefer true crime and have questions about Gacy’s story, then you have essentially hit pay dirt. The book is a good as it gets and from start to finish, and is a roller coaster ride that will leave readers speechless.
Similar to most serial killers, Gacy was described as successful, charming and sociable. His charm is on full display as he engages with a cat and mouse game with the police officers assigned to tail him as a person of interest. Undoubtedly, much of what she says and does if overly flattering but the seductiveness of his charm when turned on is apparent and gives the book an even darker chill as the descriptions of his crimes come to light. In an almost Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine, John would be friendly, overly helpful and a town role model but the darker John, cruised the streets at night, turning his city into his hunting grounds in which young men were fair game. And between 1972 and 1978, he engaged in a reign of terror that took the lives of at thirty young men.
The book certainly reads like a true crime story and Sullivan moves us along in chronological order. But it is interesting to see how the officers on the case and the district attorney’s office worked together to develop their file on Gacy, whom they all suspected of being in involved with the disappearance of Robert Piest. However, as we see in the book, authorities had no idea at that time, that Gacy was hiding far darker deeds. As their file grew, detectives began to learn more about Gacy and his criminal past which included a sodomy conviction and prison time at Anamosa State Penitentiary. Detectives began to take note of odd things at Gacy’s house, most importantly personal items that did not belong to him and a rancid odor emanating from the kitchen and bathroom area. After obtaining a second search warrant to search Gacy’s house, detectives and forensic personnel made a grisly discovery that changed American history. Coincidentally, Gacy had paid a visit to his attorneys’ office and what he would tell them left both men shaking. The walls were closing in on Gacy and after he was in custody, the true nature of the horror detectives had uncovered became strikingly real.
It was clear to all involved that Gacy had in fact murdered a staggering amount of people, but detectives were also faced with the task of identifying the remains found and finally solving disappearances that had authorities baffled. And although the crimes are horrific, what is really spine chilling is the casual manner in which Gacy discusses his actions. He recalls each crime as if it was part of his regular routine and no big deal. This alone should remove all doubt as to just how cold and calculating Gacy truly was. At some parts of the book, I found myself staring in disbelief at what I was reading. While I knew of Gacy’s actions, there is a wealth of information that might be new information for some readers. The story is simply mind-blowing and far better than any documentary I have seen.
After Gacy was firmly in custody, prosecutors then had to come up with a strategy to secure a conviction in a court of law. Their case was built around Robert Piest but Gacy faced multiple charges of homicide. And while no one doubted that he had killed, including his own lawyers, the defense’s case rested upon the insanity defense. This is the crux of the legal action and Sullivan shows the opposing points of view between the prosecution’s experts and the defense’s experts. As someone who works in the legal field, I am keenly aware of the important of expert witness testimony and how it can make or break a case. And reading their testimony here, sometimes made the hair on my neck stand up not because of any graphic descriptions but because their words would decide whether Gacy would go to a mental hospital and possibly be released or whether he would meet his maker on death row. Today we have the hindsight of 20/20 vision and know Gacy’s fate. But at that time, there was a good possibility that an insanity defense just might work and Sullivan expresses his concern as he discusses the expert testimony. It is a good analysis of trial procedure in what was unquestionably a high profile case.
Sullivan and his squad of prosecutors eventually prevailed and the final moments in their crusade for justice are captured in the book and show just how much effort went into preparing the case against Gacy. And for prosecutors, securing a sentence of death was the “icing on the cake”. On May 10, 1994, John Gacy was executed at the Stateville Correctional Center, near Joliet, Illinois. But surprisingly, the story was not yet over. In fact, Sullivan provides a discussion on DNA evidence examined in 2011 that brought even more closure to the families of Gacy’s victims. Perhaps we may never know the full number of victims and their locations. Gacy took many secrets with him to the grave but he was wrong about one thing, clowns do not always get away with murder.