Murder is my Beat: Me and Mr Gacy
By David K. Frasier
Reading time 72 Minutes
Oddly enough, it was the sex tabloid
Oddly enough, it was the sex tabloid Screw that led me to John Wayne Gacy. In November 1987, I was thumbing through the latest filthy issue as I usually did in my capacity as Head of Technical Services at the Kinsey Institute library on the campus of Indiana University – Bloomington. Unusual, you say, for an employee to be perusing a hardcore sex rag while on the clock?
Well, you don’t know the requirements of my former job. The Kinsey Institute, of course, is the research facility established by I.U. biology professor Alfred C. Kinsey in 1947. Considered the “Father of the Modern Sexual Revolution,” Kinsey and his colleagues collected the 18,000 sex histories which formed the basis of the so-called “Kinsey Reports,” separate landmark books on American male and female sexual behavior. The large erotica library where I toiled originally sprung from the famed sexologist’s personal collection of research materials.
Here’s a tale that should illuminate: A Kinsey contact in San Diego, California had brokered a donation with the Institute administration that proved unique and challenging. A prominent attorney in San Diego, recently deceased from AIDS, had listed in his will a piece of property and structure unknown to his beneficiary, a devoted wife of several decades.
In the wake of an on-site visit, the stunned woman decided it would be safer to have the unearthed material anonymously sent out of state rather than to risk its in-state destruction possibly being linked to the family’s unsullied name. Besides, as the savvy widow of a $500.00 an hour mouthpiece, she realized there was a tax advantage to be realized by donating material to an educational institution.
The details ironed out, my boss Ross(1) and I jetted out to San Diego and rented a gigantic U-Haul Super Mover truck and two sets of tools. The deal’s broker, a university professor, handed Ross a well-worn key and directions to a trailer park in Chula Vista (which translates to “beautiful view,” ironic as it seems now). The park, a few miles from the Mexican border and within shouting distance of the questionable cultural delights of Tijuana, wasn’t in danger of being featured by Robin Leach on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Located in a seedy part of town, the park was populated by dingy trailers in various stages of disrepair indiscriminately tossed together in a street layout designed by a Rube Goldberg on acid. Dodging the occasional down-on-the-heel octogenarian and economically disadvantaged younger folk of varying ethnicities, Ross threaded the Super Mover through a rabbit warren of various tortured turns narrowed by parked junkers.
At the end of a row, flanked on three sides by street lanes, we located “Eldorado” – an 8 x 40 foot shabby trailer with an eternally lit, unblinking blue ship’s light on its prow. Precariously parked, we reviewed the donor’s charge prior to turning the key in the lock. Whatever material, paraphernalia, furniture, toys or structures within the unit that could be used to identify the trailer’s purpose must be removed. This protected the family and the deceased’s reputation, but perhaps more importantly, then allowed the trailer to be rented out or sold to an unsuspecting tenant.
Key click, turn, open door. A mephitic blast of scalding stench filled air, Lovecraftian in intensity, launched itself at us from out the trailer’s stygian darkness. A combination of aromas unsubtly blended from disproportional parts of sex sweat, semen, urine, feces, and blood assailed us as we finally found the light switch inside the door. Floor to ceiling the interior was draped with black naugahyde, perfectly design hangings for a one-time working homosexual S&M dungeon now covered over in an undisturbed layer of reeking, sticky dust.
Down a short hallway to the right in what would’ve been a living room and dining area in an unconverted trailer was now a larger space containing a floor-to-ceiling reinforced rack installation of horizontal wooden rods bolted to the wall. Affixed from pegs near the rack were pairs of blood smeared handcuffs and diverse restraints, leather zip masks, leather with rubber ball mouth gags, nipple clips, sharpened metal cock rings, and other accoutrement that no self-respecting Dungeonmaster would be without.
Next to the rack along the wall was a 4’ x 8’ waist high (again, black naugahyde) work bench with three evenly spaced one foot diameter holes in its dried blood, cum, and shit-stained surface. Suspended above the bench from the structurally reinforced ceiling was an intricate network of chain and heavy wire cables, pulleys, winches, and enema bags from which drooped lengths of tubing coiling on the floor below. Beneath the toilet seat sized openings in the bench yawned industrial sized buckets still filled with excreta lurking beneath a noxious membrane reminiscent of a brown pudding skin.
In a homemade video later recovered from the scene, the deceased Dungeonmaster was seen expertly thredding the tubes through the bench’s aperture into his willing recipient’s orifice while a cohort dropped hot wax on the submissive’s genitals. Other than the occasional scream, the taped proceedings had all the industrial impersonality of a workman hanging a car door at a GM plant in Dearborn.
Back to the mission at hand. Across the room a desk was littered with razor blades, a bag of weed, hundreds of dollars in quarters, and a phone that rang throughout the day which was eerily “answered” with a message from the deceased promising a call back.
An alternating black and white checked linoleum floor running the length of the trailer wasn’t chosen for ease of cleanup. Interspersed on the white checks in a black spray paint military stencil were commands like “SUCK,” “FUCK,” “LICK,” “SWALLOW,” “BEG,” “OBEY,” et al.
Used condoms, like Coney Island whitefish washed ashore after low tide, had been peeled, dropped, and congealed where they fell. Spatters of blood, semen, and feces completed the scene and added to an overall ambiance and stench that clung to one’s hair, skin, clothes, and lungs like a wet shower curtain at a Motel 6.
Midway down the hall en route to the main room at the opposite end of the trailer was what could be charitably called the “bathroom.” Suffice it to say, that if the DungeonMaster and his Merry Men chose to leave buckets of shit and used rubbers lying about the place like toss pillows and hanging ferns in a hippie’s pad they’d show little compunction in failing to flush a toilet after its use. In the eleven hours we worked in stifling 100-degree heat, socket wrench and screw driver in hand, to dismantle and “clean” the trailer we never once deigned to use the toilet, opting to piss on the outside of the trailer or in a conveniently located Hardee’s nearby. The bathroom did, however, contain a small shower stained with a congealed brown ichor and a collection of heavily used butt-plugs and an array of dildos on a rope (to be confused, at one’s peril, with soap-on-a-rope).
If the foregoing could be likened to a Vegas lounge where lesser luminaries like Johnnie Bachemin and Keely Smith entertained vacationing coupon clutching hicks at bargain prices, what loomed down the short hallway was the scintillating showroom where Sinatra and the Rat Pack held court nightly to the highest of rollers. Dominating the center of the room was a raised mattress (fitted, of course, in black naugahyde) inset between four unfinished 4” x 4” posts that were securely anchored to the floor and ceiling.
Twining around each post were strings of small Italian Christmas tree lights that disappeared into the structure’s wood-planked canopy. An intricately webbed leather sling-swing at waist height from the mattress was fastened hammock-like from heavy industrial strength chains securely anchored into each post. A full-length mirror functioned as the interior ceiling of the canopy, its un-Windexed surface irregularly spattered with ejaculate, reflected a God-like view of any action below.
Littering the stained mattress beneath the fist-fucking swing were fecally-encrusted rubber dildos of various makes and models, home-made and professionally produced videotapes, an aquarium aerator, and a scattering of ping pong balls. In keeping with the rest of the Dungeon, the floor near the “Altar of the Fist” was dotted with used rubbers, buckets of ordure, nipple clips, various restraints, leather zip-up masks, and buckets of shit encrusted Crisco.
A later viewed video of an initiate’s introduction into the mysteries showed a group of men observing the masked Dungeonmaster insert a length of tube from the aerator into the willing submissive’s ass, pumping in air, then surgically inserting one ping pong ball after another. One tape chronicled a painfully orgasmic fisting session concluding with the five or six leather clad Dungeonaires in attendance welcoming the freshly blooded member into their fraternity. After watching the up close and personal sphincter spelunking drama unfold and witnessing the ejecta discharged during the fisting I gained a new appreciation for the utility of the endured Dungeon’s enema station.
Not to linger, Ross and I endured the modern day equivalent of an half-day stint in the Black Hole of Calcutta gasping in the stifling heat and stench amid eerily swirling dust motes to dismantle the Altar, enema bench, racks and pulleys, box the various paraphernalia by size and type, and to rip down the black naugahyde draping from the walls and ceiling. Secreted in a wall alcove near the enema bench was a cache of Polaroids documenting various activities in the Dungeon ranging from branding, whipping, coprophagy, restraint, and fan favorite fisting.
Throughout the long day and night not one denizen of the trailer park expressed the slightest interest in our activities. No one even looked in our direction. In retrospect, when one lives in a rundown low-income mobile home park eleven miles from Tijuana, the cheapest life insurance policy available is to mind your own fucking business.
Shortly after midnight, the truck loaded to the gunnels with every incriminating piece of sex paraphernalia that could be dismantled and/or boxed, we locked up the trailer. While we were able to leave bags filled with various fouled lubricants and cum-stiffened condoms inside the home and place the buckets of shit outside the trailer, the attorney handling the estate would still need to earn his hefty fee.
To make the place even vaguely habitable for the next unsuspecting tenant/victim, the Lion of the Law would need to hire a minimum wage work crew to restore the floor, deep clean outside and in, and lastly, fumigate the place. Shell-shocked, we drove to Yuma, Arizona, showered, changed clothes, and spent a few hours sleeping in a Motel 6, then drove straight to Bloomington. The dismantled devices, paraphernalia, and tapes were stored in a room at the Institute and the rest (naugahyde draping, etc.) was tossed at the city dump. The donor received her tax deduction, Academia was served, and, perhaps, a young married couple found the home of their dreams in a trailer park in Chula Vista. Win, win, win.
So this was the nature of my employment
So this was the nature of my employment. And that November of ‘87 I was scanning the latest issue of Screw as I usually did. A weekly perusal of Al Goldstein’s legendary sex rag often proved to be a rich place to find nontraditional items to purchase for Kinsey’s extensive pornography (or, as academics prefer, “erotica”) library collection, arguably the largest on the planet.
The life-size Ginger Lynn poster--the XXX film goddess Charlie Sheen once described having oral sex with as being “Beyond fucking Thunderdome”--was a welcome counterpoint to the Institute’s more staid scholarly studies on marital sexual satisfaction and penile length in a dwarf population in the New Hebrides archipelago. Nothing, however, remotely compared to the ShitHead, a three-inch bust of a Teddy Roosevelt (sans spectacles) wannabe, composed entirely of cow manure via some high pressure alchemical molding process and finished with a non-sticky pleasantly scented shellac veneer. A perfect gift for a trying boss or a hard-to-buy for brother-in-law, it shamed my “People are Shit” desk plate.
That cold, raw November day, however, held in store an even more profound potential acquisition for Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey’s sexatorium. After checking out the Peter Meter rating for the current crop of hardcore features, I turned to the page Screw reserved for the review of new products for sale. Among descriptions of sex aids like kickstarter dildos, pliable polymer pocket pussies, hydromatic accu-jacks, and rooster-headed French ticklers was an article reporting on clown paintings for sale by “artist” John Wayne Gacy. The Institute collected “convict art” and I thought, “Why not object d’art from one of the world’s most notorious serial killers?”
Gacy. Who could forget the nightly news images of law enforcement and forensic personnel during the dark, cold, snowy weeks before Christmas 1978 parading a seemingly endless stream of body bags from the general contractor’s home in Norwood Park, then an unincorporated part of Chicago? Day after day, stunned viewers tallied with grim fascination the number of sheet-covered victims’ remains hustled to waiting ambulances. The body count at 8213 West Summerdale topped out at a mind-boggling twenty-nine, the murdered in various states of decomposition, pulled from the home’s crawl space and other areas on the property. The total number of victims leveled at thirty-three after authorities located four more corpses in the Des Plaines River.
In custody, Gacy, 36, confessed to the homosexual rapes and sex slayings of the teens and young men (often employed by his contracting firm) and demonstrated to sickened detectives in stomach-churning detail his method for gaining physical ascendancy over some of his victims. In his clown personae of “Pogo” and “Patches” Gacy performed at various store openings, children’s hospitals, and charity events.
As part of his schtick, Pogo often instructed an audience member to handcuff the clown’s hands behind his back, then after a monumental struggle, Pogo would free himself. The comedy skit, however, took a deadly turn when his young male victims found themselves alone with the contractor in his home on West Summerdale. Unable to free themselves from the cuffs, Gacy revealed the punch line: “You need the key, asshole.” The Big Finish to the Rope Trick? As the doomed young man fought to free himself, Gacy looped a rope around the victim’s neck, inserted a hammer handle through the loop, then turned it to tighten the noose as he ostensibly had sex with the dying victim. On March 13, 1980, the so-called “Killer Clown” was convicted of his heinous crimes and subsequently received twelve death sentences and twenty-one natural life sentences.
At the time of the Screw piece Gacy had been on Death Row at Menard Correctional Center outside Chester, Illinois for eight years. For just $50.00, read the promo piece, Gacy would send the buyer a signed “Patches the Clown” oil portrait as well as a color photograph of him as his signature creation. All queries to be addressed to “John Gacy N000921, Lock Box 711, Menard, Illinois 62259.” The purchase of the painting for the Kinsey Institute’s collections began a personal correspondence and “relationship” that lasted long after I left that facility in October 1989 and sputtered along until his execution at the Stateville Correctional Center on May 10, 1994.
Gacy was a monster, and while I don’t kid myself that I ever got to know the “real” man (everyone who did, with a few exceptions, are dead) I must admit that I still miss him occasionally.
Now, to understand the nature of our association and the tone of Gacy’s responses to questions I posed in print and in person, permit me to momentarily assume the role of the narrator in Charles Dickens’s immortal masterpiece, A Christmas Carol. In reference to the fact that Marley, Scrooge’s business partner, was dead: “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am about to relate.”
Likewise, it must be distinctly understood that even though Gacy now steadfastly maintained his innocence I still considered him to be guilty of the sadistic sex killings for which he was convicted. As such, all written and verbal statements made to me promoting his innocence I viewed as attempts to lie, obfuscate, or convince me that he was just a normal, ordinary fellow wrongfully convicted of crimes he couldn’t and didn’t commit.
Not surprisingly, JWG’s favorite movie was An Innocent Man, a 1989 Tom Selleck vehicle in which an ordinary Joe, framed by a corrupt system, adjusts to the demeaning rigors of prison while fighting to prove his innocence. Note in what follows Gacy’s trick of diverting every discussion on almost any subject back to himself and his innocence. Gacy firmly believed he was the “34th victim.”
It must also be understood that there was no great distinction in being a “pen pal” to John Wayne Gacy. Basically, he’d respond to anyone who contacted him for any reason. Time weighs heavily on a Death Row inmate who spends twenty-three out of twenty-four hours a day alone in a 7’ x 9’ cell. Gacy, a Type A personality and supreme narcissist, wasn’t psychologically built to sit idly by all day watching television and listening to Cubs games on the radio (which, nevertheless, he did religiously).
How driven was JWG? Convicted of sodomy in Iowa in 1968 and sentenced to a ten-year stretch, the “model prisoner” was paroled in June 1970. During that two-year stint at the Iowa State Reformatory for Men at Anamosa, Gacy earned his high school equivalency diploma, took college courses in psychology, became active in the prison’s Jaycee chapter, and (during his spare time) constructed a miniature golf course for the prisoners. Obviously, JWG wasn’t going to waste his time at Menard waiting to be executed. Gacy threw himself into painting clowns (plus related themes) and tirelessly worked on his appeal, all the while conducting a person-by-person letter writing campaign to prove his innocence (earlier, but since recanted, graphic confession be damned).
Gacy received an average of ten to fifteen letters a day and wrote to people in twenty-five states and four foreign countries. In 1987 alone he received and answered nearly 1,500 pieces of correspondence “From Rock stars to grave diggers, from students to doctors, from age 12 to 77, men and women.” By order of his attorney, Gacy responded only through typed (badly) letters to avoid having handwritten ones sold for his autograph. A sampling of responses on this theme:
“I know everyone thinks I would get a lot of hate mail, but in the past eight years out of the thousands of letters it’s less than one percent. This year (1988) I think I have received two in that group. It’s not so much hate as blowing off at me or saying that I should be dead for what I did and I am so used to people having opinions of me based on the media accounts. I just feel sorry for them.
“But I enjoy writing to people, plus if you want to call it a selfish reason, it helps fill the time out. I also have to admit I love receiving mail, too…I don’t pre-judge anyone…or even look for bad in people, nor do I hate or get mad at what they do…I mean they never amounted to nothing in their lives, so they write to someone infamous or famous to feel important…People say I’m interesting, but is it me or this media image that they got of me? I don’t consider myself that interesting, just a plain person. Not infamous, not a celebrity, nothing like that. I enjoy sharing myself with people who share themselves with me [he asked all potential correspondents to fill out a questionnaire], no matter what the subject is, that’s the real me, not all this garbage that is made up of me. I just feel that I’m nobody special and if they take the time to write me then I should respond to them.”
John Wayne Gacy knew he wasn’t a great artist
John Wayne Gacy knew he wasn’t a great artist and that the vast majority of his sales were to people that either wanted an autograph (he signed all his work), a creepy conversation starter, or the notoriety of owning something created by a notorious sex killer. The Illinois Criminal Victims Act prohibited Gacy from profiting from the sale of his paintings and all proceeds were intended to be used solely to buy more art supplies, pay postage for his voluminous correspondence, or purchase essentials and treats (candy, cigars) from the prison commissary.
Gacy neatly skirted the law by selling direct to dealers or gallery owners from the price list he included with most every written response. Once dealers purchased original Gacys from the source they could resell them for any price, or galleries could exhibit them independent of any involvement by the artist other than the notoriety generated by his name. A gallery in Los Angeles exhibiting Gacy’s work in the mid-1980s offered an “About the Artist…” bio JWG liked well enough to include on the verso of his Hi-Ho series paintings of the dwarf crew from Disney’s Snow White:
“With no formal training, and never drawing before coming to prison, just by reading art books, [Gacy] has developed a unique style all of his own. While he is most critical of his talent, he views his artwork as a gift from God--by sharing it, it is his gift to God. His art seems to imitate parts – but not all – of his life. Generally, the darkest corners are eerily absent, lost in riotous colors and often whimsical themes. Since once being a clown, he paints a lot of clowns, and children type paintings, along with landscapes. But [he] will paint anything a customer may want in his unorthodox bold style.”
However, when I requested a self-portrait, his self-deprecating reply went beyond a polite refusal: “I don’t consider myself an artist and portraits are the hardest to do…I look at it this way, I know what I look like and don’t have an ego which needs feeding, so I just stay away from that. You know a lot of people think I enjoy all this attention and I don’t…I would rather be known for the many good things I have done in my life and not this fantasy monster the news media has made of me. No matter what I say it’s taken out of context or slanted to serve someone’s needs for sex and gore sensationalism. As that’s what the public wants to read about.” Gacy, however, did do a self-portrait that is included on the cover of his 1989 book, They Call Him Mr. Gacy, a poorly edited collection of letters received and replied to by the serial killer.
At the outset of our correspondence, I told JWG that I was very familiar with his case having voraciously read the news accounts and books written on it. He quickly set me straight in what became the Gacy party line: “You say you’re quite familiar with my case from reading the books written about me. Well, I hate to poke a hole in your balloon but nearly 75% of what has been written about me is fantasy, things taken out of context…and when they say they are quoting me that’s garbage.”
Gacy was insistent that the public had been so hopelessly brainwashed by the media, “I just let people think what they want,” he wrote, adding “I know who I am and what I haven’t done.” Still, he reserved his most damning appellation for those who‘d investigated and/or written “non-factual” books on his case. In the Gacy universe “ASSHOLE” was the Mark of Cain. Introducing the starting five for Coach Gacy’s TEAM ASSHOLE: Clifford Linedecker (The Man Who Killed Boys), Terry Sullivan (Killer Clown), Tim Cahill (Buried Dreams), Joel Norris (Serial Killers), and team captain and MVP Joseph Kozenczak, lead detective on the Des Plaines Police Department and co-author of The Chicago Killer. Surprisingly, he respected Robert K. Ressler the F.B.I. profiler who wrote Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives (a book JWG found to be of interest).
Gacy and Ted Bundy were hetero and homo sides of the same evil trick coin. Like ciphers glad-handing you at the VFW club or handing out leaflets for the mayor, their bland, unshiny surfaces gave no hint of what actually lurked below. In correspondence conducted in February 1989, I asked Gacy if he felt there was a link between pornography and violence. Ted Bundy, the infamous Chi Omega Killer executed at the Florida State Prison in Starke on January 24, 1989, had hours before his electrocution spoken with evangelist and anti-porn crusader James C. Dobson.
“Regarding Bundy, hell, that’s all I have been asked; ‘What do I think of Ted Bundy?’ Hey, his statements were taken out of context as I talked with FBI people who were there. I have no comments about Bundy, he did his own thing.” Gacy was unimpressed by Ted’s pornography defense. “Well, they won’t get that from me. That stuff about porno being his down fall that was bullshit, he said that to please the guy who was interviewing him, since he knew he was a strong advocate of porno being linked to criminal behavior. That’s bullshit, just something to insight [sic] the public more. [Bundy] had already made another statement saying that it didn’t have anything to do with it, that his reason for killing was for power over his victims, as he felt he was abused by women, and that’s a fact. He didn’t love women, he hated them. His execution should have no affect on my case. For one thing I’m not Ted Bundy nor am I in Florida. There wasn’t much about me and him in the media, and [I’m] glad of it.”
To Gacy (facing his own slow, but inexorable date with state-sanctioned death) the fact that Ted Bundy had murdered at least thirty women (most probably many more) was self-servingly secondary to the deleterious effect capital punishment had on society. “It’s not so much Bundy that [sic] was a sad day for the American people (but) the way they carried on outside the prison, just think of what other countries think of American people? Blood lust and sensationalism, revenge that’s the kind of people Americans are. It’s a sad day for our society.”
Not a surprising observation from a man who had “Execute Justice…Not People!!!” stationery.
And what did JWG have to say in regard to the gay and straight porn found in his home on West Summerdale?
“I wonder what they would say if they knew I had never subscribed to any books or magazines, the ones found at my home were mostly sex education, and most didn’t belong to me. I have read more since coming to prison than I ever seen [sic] on the street. I enjoy XXX porno novel(s) dealing with younger and older women taking on young boys, or taking on older women either way. First encounters, things like that, or true stories in those areas …conquests by women, same with older men taking on younger women, virgins if there is such a thing…but mostly not incest-type things as I don’t believe in that--but you know it happens.” As far as his other reading material, Gacy was a bit of an Inspector Clouseau who liked “reading factual things. Like, what makes them do it.”
JWG spent all but one hour a day in his cell. I wondered how someone as ambitious and driven as he had been in his professional and personal (not to mention predatory) life adjusted to the monotony of prison. While disingenuously downplaying his Death Row celebrity, he still shared the average con’s contempt for the institution and its staff: “…this place gets to me, they are so used to dealing with these dumb bastards and blacks, that they think we all play games with them. Hey, if Illinois had to find a place to pick out the location of the asshole of the state, Chester-Menard Illinois would certainly be the place.”
In 1981 convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott’s book In the Belly of the Beast was published to great critical acclaim. In a collection of letters addressed to literary heavyweight Norman Mailer, Abbott graphically and poetically described prison life and the effects of long-term incarceration. Gacy offered a dissenting opinion.
“About In the Belly of the Beast, yes, I have read it but it was a bit of fantasy and sensationalism. But clearly one point is fair, that is the people they have working here are people who could never make it in an honest job. Living down here [I] can’t see how they got so many people as dumb as they are living in one part of Illinois. I don’t say that to be insulting, but it’s like most of them have I.Q.’s equal to there [sic] shoe size. Hey you realize when I first came in they had guards just 18 or 19 years old and with men under a lot of stress you know these guys working here couldn’t have had much training in Psychology or human frustration. But death row is more like P.C. (protective custody) for officers who have been beaten up or run out of the main prison for mixing it up with an inmate. You have to chalk that up to not knowing how to deal with men under pressure.”
Nor did Gacy spare criticism when writing of his fellow Death Row inmates. In doing so, he leavened his full-blown persecution complex with a respect born of fear for what these “men under pressure” could do to him. “You can’t play games with guys in prison or they will kill you. That’s why you have to mind your own business. That’s an unwritten code…I don’t have all the answers because I don’t think like a con having never done time before [factual note: JWG served 2 years of a 10 year ride for a sodomy conviction in Iowa] I just don’t get involved with their way of thinking. No, I don’t consider myself better than them, just that I can’t get into their level of thinking. If you think women can be bitches, men are worse. I have never been around men who act like bitches and this place is full of them. No matter what happens everyone has an opinion, and they live on rumors, too. Hell, you would think this place should be named Gacy’s Row rather than death row, because no matter what happens it’s because of Gacy. They tighten security, it’s my fault. They take away a privilege it’s my fault, too. And I have nothing to do with, yet my name is used by everyone, same with getting special treatment, which I don’t, but you could never get anyone to believe that since my name gets all the publicity good or bad. Being the infamous one does that to you and it can be dangerous because you’re dealing with guys without much education, if you know what I mean.’
Gacy’s fear was based on fact. In February 1983, he and fellow Death Row inmate William Jones--convicted in 1982 of the stabbing death of an elderly woman--were outside their cells on a routine cleaning detail during the movement of Henry Brisbon--the “I-57 Killer”--to the law library. Called by one prison official “a walking testimonial to why we should have the death penalty,” Brisbon had racked up convictions for three shotgun murders as well as a death sentence for the 1978 stabbing death (with a blade fashioned from a sharpened soup spoon) of a fellow prisoner at Stateville Correctional Center.
Raised by a strict Black Muslim father, Brisbon told authorities, “I was raised to be a racist and not like whites. As I grew up, I decided I didn’t like nobody.” On that day in February 1983, Brisbon, 27, broke free from guards accompanying him to Menard’s law library and stabbed Gacy in the upper left arm and Jones in the head with a slender piece of metal removed from a manual typewriter.
There was nothing personal in the attacks. Earlier, Brisbon had confided to guards that committing murders against inmates and corrections staff was his master plan to generate more ongoing legal proceedings to delay his execution date. At Menard in 1985, Brisbon threw a cup of boiling water in a guard’s face adding to a prison rap sheet documenting nearly thirty other violent incidents committed against his captive audience. In 2003, then Illinois Governor George Ryan issued a clemency order changing all death sentences (affecting some 155 inmates) to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As of June 2, 2017, the I-57 Killer is serving his life sentence at the Pontiac Correctional Center. Gacy had more to say about Henry Brisbon during our first visit in December 1988.
Meeting Mr. Gacy
MEETING MR. GACY
My correspondence with Gacy deepened to the point where he asked me to visit him on Death Row at Menard Correctional Center in the small Southern Illinois town of Chester. Picturesquely situated on the banks of the Mississippi River, Chester is best known as the birthplace of E. C. Segar (1894-1938), the cartoonist who created Popeye, the Sailor Man.
At that point in the late 1980s Menard, was divided into two prisons. The main facility housing general population inmates was built almost into the side of a rock quarry. The sheer rock face towering above the exercise yard formed an imposing natural escape barrier. On the pastureland atop the bluff milk cows once grazed and prisoners were known to have to be on the lookout for falling Holsteins. The medical unit housing Death Row and (if memory serves) Protective Custody inmates was housed on a hill overlooking the main prison facility. By his own admission, Gacy would’ve survived less than an hour had he been placed in gen pop.
The criteria for visiting Gacy as explained by the man himself: “…I am the one who decides that even if a person asked to see me I don’t always say yes. I have to be writing them for some time and get to know them before I decide if we have anything in common to talk about of if I feel they are interesting. Keep in mind I don’t consider myself someone special, just someone caught in the system. This celebrity bullshit I ward off, and if that’s the reason a person is thinking of coming then I discourage it as they won’t see me. Secondly, the prison has to review who I OK, and they can turn them down, too. But as a rule I am the one who says yes or no. As they have cleared some people and I have refused to see them.”
One such distinguished visitor Gacy took particular relish in inconveniencing by first granting, then denying, access was noted University of Louisville Criminal Justice professor Ronald M. Holmes, author of several books on serial murder and sexual violence. Prison authorities once turned Professor Holmes away at reception because JWG informed them he was “busy.” Though Dr. Holmes didn’t make first Team Asshole, Coach G would probably have played the good prof off the bench. (Part of their tortured correspondence is included in the 1989 tome They Call Him Mr. Gacy.)
Gacy recommended I stay at the nearby Royal Motor Lodge, renowned for its beautifully furnished, ultra-modern units featuring individually controlled heat and air conditioning. All this and free phone and color TV. The inn, on Route #3 in downtown Chester, was a short stroll from shops selling Popeye themed t-shirts, shot glasses, and kitchen magnets. Attached to the motel was a modest restaurant and cocktail lounge where locals and prison visitors freely mingled.
Visiting hours for Death Row inmates were from 8:00 A.M. – 2:00 P.M. Monday through Saturday, although visitors could show up at reception as early as 7:30 A.M. to begin the routine of pat down and x-ray scans. Only ten dollars in quarters, dimes, or nickels could be brought in for use in the commissary machines for various microwaveable meals, chips, and drinks.
Gacy and I arranged a swap whereby I’d buy pizza, candy, and chips he couldn’t get in stir in exchange for the Iron Hotel’s standard fare. This, he explained, would give me a sense of what hard time was like. Also, if I wished, I could put $14.77 in his commissary account to gift him a box of fifty House of Windsor Palmas, the cigars he’d smoked for over twenty-five years.
In mid-December 1988, I drove to Chester, checked into the Royal Motor Lodge, and spent the rest of the day reviewing the case, then swilling Stroh’s in the motel bar prior to meeting Gacy bright and early the next morning. Menard’s Medical unit housing Death Row was a short drive outside Chester. Near the base of the turn-off to the hilltop facility overlooking the “Big Muddy” was E. C. Segar Park. I stopped briefly to admire the Popeye statue honoring the now largely forgotten cartoonist.
At reception, I told a friendly officer the prisoner I wished to visit, he checked my name against Gacy’s approved list, then patted me down and had me remove my shoes and belt to be x-rayed. Afterwards, I was handed off to another guard who led me (under intense scrutiny by prison personnel and trusties) through a labyrinth of hallways past administrative offices and a barber’s shop, the journey pausing in a large room filled with vending machines.
I fed ten bucks in change into pizza, chips, candy, and sandwich machines to fill JWG’s fast food order and was led by the guard out of the main building for a short walk past a high chain link fence topped with razor wire to a joyless 3-4 story building set off from the main unit.
“You Gacy’s attorney?” asked the guard.
“Good,” he grinned and brightened considerably.
Buzzed in through a heavy steel door in the side of the building, we walked up a few flights of metal stairs. On each landing a door on the right opened onto a long dimly lit hallway of cells filled with noisy inmates. The staircase on the top floor (either third or fourth) abruptly fed into a guard station for the Death Row visitation area. Again presenting my credentials, another guard unlocked a wire security door and led me down a short, narrow hallway with open rooms on either side.
Forget movies where visitors and prisoners are separated by bullet proof glass and speak to each other on telephones. Menard, a very old, outdated, and overcrowded prison obviously couldn’t blow its budget on this type of cutting edge set-up. Instead, the small interview room contained a bolted-down table and a couple chairs. In lieu of staff pulling sentry duty in the room, a video camera placed in a corner of the ceiling fed into monitors in the guard station down the locked hall. By law, conversations between prisoner and visitor couldn’t be recorded.
A few minutes later, the guard led John Wayne Gacy, the convicted killer of 33 boys and young men into the room. It’d be a more psychically comforting world if humans were equipped with a sharpened sixth sense enabling them to instantly detect dangerous people. Sadly, this isn’t a factory setting for most of us. Take away the guard, the lock downed environment, and Gacy’s blue prison garb and handcuffs and what’s left -- a short, dumpy, gray haired and bearded guy that you’d pass on the street without a second glance. Like Ted Bundy, the ability Gacy had to “hide in plain sight” made him an incredibly efficient killer. While I was never fearful of Gacy in his present environment, I also never forgot that this was a man who had perpetrated some of the most shockingly heinous sex murders in the history of crime.
He carried a notebook in which he registered his daily meals, visitors, amount of mail received, artwork orders, and game scores of his beloved Cubs and Bears. We shook hands (they weren’t oversized) with Gacy apologizing for having to remain in handcuffs. The guard left after explaining a few rules (no contact, no leaving the room) and we spent the first half hour sizing up one another.
Gacy never took his eyes from mine and when he spoke was always assessing my reaction. He was obviously bright, but downplayed his intelligence by affecting the demeanor of the work-a-day Everyman who couldn’t believe, as a trusting innocent, how he had been duped and screwed by the System. Gacy spoke in a bluff manner heightened by a Chicago accent. Had it not been for the handcuffs he probably would’ve slapped me on the back after sharing a particularly funny ethnic joke or pithy observation regarding his case. At one point, he wished we could go in town and share a beer. “Imagine the looks on the faces of those dumb hillbilly fuckers when I walked in.”
My initial thoughts – Gacy was a glad-handing bullshitter who, after many years on Death Row, would have a ready, if not plausible, answer for every question. Never once, however, did he ask me if I thought he was guilty. Pleasantries aside, Gacy gave the go ahead to ask him anything although he couldn’t comment, by advice of legal counsel, on issues directly affecting his appeal.
I pressed him on the bodies found on the West Summerdale property and the type of victims. Gacy explained that his home functioned as a combination residence and work office for his contracting business PDM (Painting – Decorating – Maintenance). Several employees had keys and he was often out of town on business. He strongly insisted there was forensic proof that many of the victims found in the crawlspace beneath his home had been killed during his absences.
What about the schematic he drew for authorities at the time of his arrest and confession showing the placement of bodies on the property, I asked. Gacy laughed and drew a rough sketch of the floor plan, maintaining that the so-called marked body sites were nothing more than locations of electrical junction boxes, air ducts, and other systems within the house. What about the smell that even his neighbors complained about? The house, he admitted, had a “musty” odor due to drainage problems that even he, a skilled contractor, couldn’t eliminate by installing an industrial sump pump or spreading lime in the crawl space.
Gacy was proud of PDM and the work ethic he insisted proved he couldn’t have done the murders: “I took a borrowed six hundred dollars,” he bragged, “and in four years turned it into a corporation doing over a million dollars a year with just seven employees. But if I was working that much,” he asked incredulously, “then how can I be the same person who was cruising around for young men or even hiring them? Another thing, my income was better than $70,000. Theories in my case that I killed because I didn’t want it to be known I was gay or bisexual? I didn’t have to kill them as I could afford to buy whatever prostitute I wanted.”
In our correspondence and meetings
In our correspondence and meetings, JWG always made a great distinction between homosexuality and bisexuality. “Hey Dave” he winked conspiratorially, “if some guy wants to suck my cock when there’s not a chick available am I stupid enough to tell him no? It’s all the same in the dark.” When he told me Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were his favorite artists he felt compelled to quickly add, “I would guess the media might say the reason I like them both is because they were both gay guys but I didn’t know that until long after I was in here.”
The state argued Gacy used PDM as a honey trap for teens and young men offering them higher pay than other area contractors. Not so, said JWG, ever the shrewd businessman. “Hey, I wasn’t successful because I was doing stupid things. Yes, we hired some young people early on, and yes I paid some eighteen/twenty-year-olds as much as four hundred a week installing fixtures for drug stores. Hey, you would pay ten dollars per hour to someone if for every hour they worked you were getting twenty dollars for their time on the job. That was just good business, and that is what I was about.”
When I continued to press him on the victims and how the cartoons and jokes about teens he often included with his letters could be seen as incredibly insensitive, Gacy countered, losing patience, “Well, Dave, you’ve got to remember that most of these guys weren’t choir boys.” Still, didn’t they have a right to live? “Well, yes, obviously,” he replied as though speaking to a child who just “couldn’t see the shot.” Recovering his friendly demeanor, he tried to show his compassion for others yet never forgetting he was still the ultimate victim:
“I feel sorry for the victims’ families, too. Would you believe only six victims are a positive identification? The rest are not so many of the families got what they believe are their sons or husbands. None of them got the hands or heads as they are still holding them. You’ll never see that pointed out anywhere or that John Gacy wasn’t even in Illinois when 16 of them disappeared.”
How shrewd a businessman was Gacy? Remember the news coverage back in December 1978 showing search teams carting sheet covered decomposed bodies out of the contractor’s house at 8213 West Summerdale in Norwood Park? Well, to access the remains of the twenty-six bodies buried in the crawlspace recovery teams had to tear up the floor.
Gacy filed a civil suit against the state for destroying his house. “Dave, I had nothing to hide so when they started to dismantle the house I offered to sell it to them. They could’ve gotten it for $80,000, but they refused.” Although Gacy sued and was awarded $300,000 in damages the court blocked him from receiving and using the money for his defense until after his appeal. “See, Dave,” playing his trump card, “these are the things the public never got to know. If I was so guilty like they would like everyone to believe,” he reasoned, “then why block my defense?”
After the guard microwaved my pizza offering to JWG and delivered Gacy’s fare (Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes) to me, we spent the next few hours spitballing on a wide range of topics. Despite his protestations, Gacy enjoyed his Death Row celebrity. According to him, visiting dignitaries always stole a glance out of the corner of their eyes whenever they walked by his cell.
What about Henry Brisbon’s attack? Nothing personal, said Gacy--Henry just wanted to create more cases to stall his execution date. Brisbon, according to JWG, did lose his visitation privileges when he allegedly tried to rape a woman in an interview room. Gacy once tried to teach an illiterate inmate to read (even making flash cards of simple words), but the young man broke off the lessons after fellow inmates cautioned that Gacy was trying to “queer” him.
Was sex available on the Row? No, maintained Gacy. The prison had a hard R-rated television service, and horny inmates relieved tension by masturbating. Inmates were allowed to stretch a “privacy” sheet across the lower bars of their cells to a height of three feet off the floor.
While some Illinois residents might balk about their tax dollars being used to supplement a Big House spice channel, it’s probably more fiscally responsible in the long run to subsidize jacking off in lieu of hiring additional medical staff to remove pencils from the necks of guards and convicts. One fellow-prisoner, a real “perv,” in Gacy’s opinion, watched young girl Olympic gymnasts on television and repeatedly screamed how much he’d like to fuck them.
How was prison health care? Getting sick in Menard could be its own death sentence. “Hey,” he said in disgust, “they get all these foreign doctors and most of them can’t even read your name let alone know what’s wrong with you. If they do tell you, you can’t understand what the hell they’re saying anyway.”
Gacy’s dad was a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic. What about him? “You know,” Gacy said in what appeared to me to be a rare moment of true self reflection, “nothing I did was ever right to him. I was always dumb and stupid. But I never let him get the best of me or stop trying to prove him wrong. I can just bet now if he were around he would come up with: ‘I told you so.’ I ever wonder if fathers know what they are doing to their sons.”
With the visit drawing to a close, I asked Gacy if waiting years to be executed was the most difficult thing he’d ever experienced. “No, I was once a marshal at the Polish Day Parade in Chicago. Trying to get 20,000 Polacks to march in time down State Street is a lot tougher.” Laughs all around. “Let’s do this again,” JWG enthused. “It’s probably easier for you to come here than have me come to Bloomington for a visit.”
The guard snapped a $2.00 Polaroid of us side-by-side and I bid Gacy adieu. Over the years, I saw him a couple of more times at Menard.
Our correspondence continued and in mid-1989 I informed Gacy that my wife and I were expecting a child. JWG took the opportunity to wax philosophic on the impending event.
“I’ll tell you one thing, there is no better feeling than to be there when it’s time to witness one of God’s many wonders. The birth of human life will give you a feeling that nothing can compare to. To know that you’re a part of what just happened. It’s an elated feeling of joy more so than when you got married, or, the first time you had sex with an organism other than your hand.”
As the time drew nearer to the anticipated February 1990 birth, “Uncle John” began his letters “Hi Ho Expectant Father” and spoke of his own experience of fatherhood (two natural children, two stepchildren). Informed of the birth of my son, Hayden Daniel, Gacy, the one-time Bressler Ice Cream Company clown, was enthusiastic, and—quizzically enough—compared my newborn to a car.
“CONGRATULATIONS!!! So you got a 9 pound, 15 ounce model, male style, with the following extras: double ball, single water spout pump, changeable seat covers, active movement, with good lungs and a strong sound system…I understand it runs on bottle fluid for now, with burp effects to relieve the gas…
“H. D. Frasier, is that H. D. for hydromatic? I thought most of those model(s) were made shiftless? 22½” long, and I thought compact models were hear [sic] to stay…Sorry I can’t get out to get a card, but you know how they are at this place. Seems they say anywhere I go I draw too much attention.”
Instead of a card, JWG was thoughtful enough to send my son a personally inscribed painting of clown great Emmett Kelly as “Weary Willie.” It was a better choice for an infant than the pick-and-shovel wielding Disney dwarves marching off to a mountain mine portrayed in his “Hi-Ho” series. My wife still forbade me to hang it above the crib.
My most notable professional achievement
My most notable professional achievement, however, signaled the end of my active correspondence with Gacy, although it continued spasmodically up to his execution. By 1990, the university had removed the librarians from the Kinsey Institute and I had been reassigned within the Indiana University library system. Since 1986, I’d been researching and writing a bio-bibliography of famed sexploitation director Russ Meyer, the universally acknowledged auteur of such timeless classics as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Vixen, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
Over the years, Russ and I had developed a close friendship and I was a frequent houseguest at his manse at 3121 Arrowhead Drive in Hollywood. Nestled in the hills below the Hollywood sign, Casa Meyer (painted in the loud, green-and-orange colors of his home video boxes, much to the annoyance of his wealthy neighbors) served as RM’s business and home address--as well as a monument to his professional career and the big-titted women he’d filmed and fucked. During the years writing the book (and beyond) I’d met several stars in the Meyer galaxy, none more noteworthy than the incredible Francesca “Kitten” Natividad, the Great Man’s one-time lover.
A premiere stripper who frequently headlined The Body Shop, her erotic bath in an outsized champagne glass enacted to the peppy strains of Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash,” was a not-to-be-missed Sunset Strip sensation. Kitten, a pleasant surprise in Meyer’s Up! and the star of Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens, possessed a vibrant spirit and personality as imposing as her outrageous 44-25-35 configuration.
Gacy’s initial reaction when I mentioned my work on, and association with Russ Meyer was predictable. “Does he know who I am?” I didn’t have the heart to tell JWG that RM considered him a “piece of shit” who should’ve been executed long ago. Gacy, gazing at his own reflection in Meyer, saw much to admire.
“Sound[s] like he is my kind of person, says what he thinks, thinks what he feels. You can’t knock him for that. I think the same way, yes my lifestyle isn’t for everyone, nor some of my values, but that’s for me to decide, not some sick son-of-a-bitch who has never tried it, putting a label on me or saying it’s wrong. What the fuck does he know? I am me, and what you get is what you get, nothing phoney [sic]. Say “Hi” to Meyer [and] tell him I am a fan of his works and free expression and fuck the conservative gullible society.
“If Russ Meyer has any good XX novels laying [sic] around, don’t forget my address as you know this old man needs new fantasy to keep him going. Haha.”
Courtesy of Menard’s in-house softcore channel (undoubtedly better offerings than what was available on my free color TV at the Royal Motor Lodge), Gacy was familiar with Kitten Natividad’s art, but wasn’t attracted to her. “I didn’t know she was that short,” noted JWG.
“Right after I got your letter they showed a video on her again. By the way, I am not a tit man, so she doesn’t impress me in that area. I like a nice firm ass on a woman that’s class. Big tits don’t turn me on. Hell, anything over a mouthful is too much, right?”
Our relationship fundamentally changed following the late 1990 publication of my book, Russ Meyer -- The Life and Films. Convinced I routinely rubbed shoulders with publishing magnates like Knopf and Schuster, Gacy stepped up his campaign to have me rep him in the world of belles-lettres, most notably to place his massive typescript apologia, Question of Doubt. The fact that the publisher of my Meyer tome was a small reference house based in the backwoods publishing mecca of North Carolina which never gave an advance and spent pocket change on promotion didn’t faze him.
To Gacy, I was Bennett Cerf, and he expected me to hawk the manuscript (filled with his irrefutable proof of innocence), which he felt certain would win him a life- prolonging appeal.
Prior to my book on Russ Meyer, Gacy had only referenced his book briefly. “I wrote a book a couple years ago, covering everything that happened from the time of my arrest right up to when the whole trial ended. But that was for my attorney, explaining everything and how its been taken out of context. Maybe some day it will get published, as that’s the real story. But for now it’s for legal use only.”
As a “serious reader” Gacy could supply me a photocopy of Doubt for the oh-so-reasonable price of $150.00 so I’d be able to judge for myself the merits of the 156 issues raised by his attorneys based on the trial records and the further 65 pending issues raised during the post conviction. Numerous publishers had turned him down flat when--expecting an admission of guilt with sensationally graphic descriptions of his kills--Gacy had supplied them with cobbled-together snatches of trial transcripts larded with self-serving rebuttals. No one, it seemed, but a rube like me (and the FBI) would actually spend money for this thing.
I supplied Gacy with addresses for a couple of contacts like the now-defunct Loompanics, a publisher on several controversial topics, but was unwilling to act as a convicted serial killer’s go-between to the outside world. Still, others were happy to assume that role. One person managed his artwork, another his publishing ventures, while yet another true believer helped him set up 1-900-622-GACY where those willing to pay $2.00 a minute could hear JWG argue his innocence.
His appeals nearly exhausted in 1993-1994, Gacy understandably wrote only to those he felt could help him. As I no longer fell in that number, our correspondence in the final two years of his life was limited. Gacy’s execution date was finally set for May 10, 1994 in Stateville Prison and a final letter I posted to him at Menard was returned unopened. He’d already been helicoptered to Stateville.
Throughout the years of our association, JWG had always insisted, “…if I can’t get a new trial I do not want myself saved for a natural life in this jungle.” He got his wish. Gacy’s final hours awaiting the lethal needle prick were spent mentally strolling down memory lane.
His last meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken, butterfly shrimp, and fresh strawberries washed down with Diet Coke must’ve taken him back to the hope filled days in the mid-1960s when he was a KFC manager in Iowa. Minutes before being strapped onto a gurney and wheeled into the death chamber, John Wayne Gacy enjoyed a final House of Windsor Palma, his favorite cigar, in Stateville’s exercise yard.
Ever the charmer, the unrepentant serial killer reportedly uttered the memorable exit line, “Kiss my ass.” Due to a problem with the chemicals, Gacy’s lethal injection execution took eighteen minutes rather than the expected ten. Those relative few who mourned his passing as either a matter of principle or expression of morality were lost among a vocal multitude who felt he got off a fuck of a lot easier than any of his victims. At the end of nearly sixteen years incarceration spanning arrest to execution, the elusive Gacy had finally been one-upped by a legal system running its own state sanctioned rope trick. In the end, Pogo, the Killer Clown, might even have appreciated the trick’s cruel irony, had he not been the last to hear its punch line: “You need the key, asshole.”
Special thanks to Zachary Downey.
David K. Frasier, a retired reference librarian at the Lilly Library at Indiana University, is the author of the books Russ Meyer – The Life and Films, Murder Cases of the Twentieth Century, Suicide in the Entertainment Industry, and Show Business Homicides. He was the associate editor of Russ Meyer’s three-volume autobiography, A Clean Breast, and wrote the booklet for the Arrow Films 13 DVD box set retrospective, The Russ Meyer Collection. Frasier is currently serving a life sentence in Bloomington, Indiana.
(1) A pseudonym.