Forty years ago this week, Chicagoland stepped out of the carefree hustle and bustle of the 1978 Christmas season and into a nightmare.
The city at large had failed to notice the disappearance of dozens of young men and boys. But the last of those victims, a teenager named Robert Piest, changed everything. Piest’s disappearance led Des Plaines police to a contractor named John Gacy. And Gacy’s home near O’Hare yielded a chamber of horrors---the burial site of 29 of his 33 victims.
"Gacy was just pure evil,” says former Des Plaines officer Mike Albrecht. "He was just an evil, evil man."
Albrecht knew Gacy better than most. When Piest disappeared after what should have been a routine job interview with Gacy, Albrecht and his partner were assigned to tail the contractor full time. The man they got to know seemed to know everyone on the Northwest Side, and acted like he enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game of having two cops constantly in his rearview mirror.
"He was quite the braggart," Albrecht recalls. "He was quite impressed with himself."
Gacy was so casual with his relationship with the officers, that he would sometimes introduce them to friends as his "bodyguards."
"He would come up to my car and tell me where we were going the next morning," Albrecht said.
***WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT***
***WARNING: The above documents contain content that is graphic in nature.*** After his arrest in December 1978, John Gacy gave a statement to detectives, describing how he killed Robert Piest.
But everything changed after two other Des Plaines officers were invited into Gacy’s home. One of them, Bob Schultz, was in the bathroom when the furnace switched on. And he made a horrifying discovery.
"That odor from the heat, from the crawl space," he said. "Bob said right away, it smelled like a morgue!"
Eventually, late on the night of Dec. 20, Gacy’s night-time sojourns led police to the office of his attorney, Sam Amirante. With Albrecht and his partner Dave Hachmeister sitting outside, the killer poured out his entire story as Amirante listened in horror.
He couldn’t reveal his client’s confidential admissions, but a shaken Amirante emerged from the office and gave the two officers a piece of chilling advice.
"Don’t let Gacy leave," Albrecht recalled. "He says block his car in. If he tries to leave, shoot his tires out!"
TIMELINE: JOHN GACY'S VICTIMS
Gacy would be arrested the next day, Dec. 21. It was Albrecht who took his initial statement.
"He went into detail on what he had done to Rob Piest," he said. "And Rob Piest and four others were thrown into the Des Plaines River because his crawl space was too crowded."
Investigators would eventually find 29 bodies buried on the Gacy property, most in that crawl space beneath his home. And four who had been thrown from the I-55 bridge over the Des Plaines River. Day after day, live television coverage showed the removal of dozens of bodies from Gacy’s Norwood Park Township home.
It was during an ensuing interview and a discussion of the crawl space, that Gacy even offered help.
"He said give me a piece of paper and I’ll draw a diagram for you," Albrecht said. "It’s amazing how exact that diagram was!"
Prosecutor William Kunkle agreed that the killer appeared proud of what he had done.
"Absolutely, he was the best at what he did and this is what he did," Kunkle said. "He came to enjoy it so he did it again and again. If he was going to be a killer, he was going to be the best killer!"
Gacy ran a successful remodeling business. He worked part-time as a party clown. A self-styled man-about-town who enjoyed forays into Cook County Democratic party politics, he even posed for a famous photo with then-First Lady Rosalyn Carter.
And he chose his victims carefully. Police say Gacy would first promise them a "handcuff trick," convincing them to cuff themselves behind their backs. Then, he would proceed to a "rope trick," strangling them after they were cuffed and unable to resist.
The victims ranged in age from 14 to 21 years old.
Trial and execution
A year after his arrest, Gacy’s trial became one of the most celebrated criminal proceedings in Chicago history. His jury was selected from Rockford because of pre-trial publicity in the Chicago area, although most agreed there were few anywhere in America who hadn’t heard the killer’s name.
During closing arguments, Kunkle bristled at defense pleas for mercy. During his own summation for the jury, the prosecutor tore down the photos of the known victims, and strode to a spot in the courtroom where the trap-door to Gacy’s crawl space sat before the jury.
"You want to show this man mercy?" Kunkle growled. "You show him the same mercy he showed when he took these innocent lives off the face of the earth, and put them here!"
Kunkle then hurled the victims’ photos thru the crawl space opening.
"They hit the front of the jury box and scattered on the floor," he recalled. "It was the best pin-drop moment I’ve ever had."
Gacy was found guilty March 12, 1980, the jury out just one hour and 45 minutes. Sentenced to death, the killer spent the next 14 years on death row at Menard Correctional Center, engaging in multiple appeals before his eventual execution at Stateville Prison in the early morning hours, May 10, 1994.
In 2011, the Cook County Sheriff’s office embarked on an ambitious proposal to finally put names with what were then eight remaining unidentified victims.
"There is no time limit when we stop caring," sheriff Tom Dart observes. "Then the other part is, how do you get around the fact that in the course of 40 years, tremendous advances have occurred in the way we analyze and try to solve crimes?"
That seemingly herculean task fell on sheriff’s detective Jason Moran, and in the ensuing seven years, Moran has managed to put names with two of the victims.
"We were inundated with leads at the beginning," he recalls. "We received hundreds of phone calls and emails."
And the work continues. On a recent afternoon, Moran showed NBC 5 through the evidence he preserves in hopes of making another I.D. Forty-year-old evidence envelopes, yellowing with age, yield jewelry which belonged to Gacy’s victims, a silver ring taken from the skeleton of body #28, a leather key fob from victim #5.
"I still have a leads in the queue," Moran says, noting that he’s currently running the DNA of a potential victim from Louisiana. "It’s a lot of work, because each lead is a cold case in itself."
Ironically, Moran’s efforts to connect missing persons with Gacy unknowns have turned up living people who simply walked off the grid and disappeared.
"There just aren’t enough police departments that have cold case units," he said. "And it’s hard for people to go to their local police department and say, hey, what happened to my missing brother 40 years ago?"
But were there more?
During the ensuing years, there has been speculation Gacy might have had more victims. Kunkle says he doesn’t think so. The only possibility, he says, is one more body tossed from the Des Plaines River bridge.
"He said that he had actually put five bodies in the Des Plaines River. Four were recovered," he said. "He said that the first one had worried him because he didn’t hear a splash and he was worried that it had hung up on the structure of the bridge, and then later thought that maybe it hit a barge."
No such body was ever found. And Kunkle speculated Gacy might have confused the number in the crawl space and the river.
"There’s no evidence of any kind I’m aware of, anywhere else, that suggests any additional victims," he said. "And if there were, I don’t think there’s any question that with his personality, in terms of bragging rights and being in control----when he was facing the death penalty, it’s not unusual for these guys to say ‘well here’s where two more are buried’."
"He absolutely would have done that if he could have, but it didn’t happen!"
Sheriff Tom Dart says he’s not so sure.
"I’m now absolutely convinced that he killed elsewhere," Dart says. "I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that he did that."
He says that after learning of the killer’s extensive travels for remodeling business all over the Midwest. In one case, he says he discovered a past case where Gacy had attacked a man selling pot at a truck stop in Florida.
"You think for two seconds, a guy who’s been surgically murdering, slaughtering people and then burying them, he wouldn’t feel more emboldened when he’s in a foreign state, foreign county, foreign city that no one knows who he is?"
It’s an observation Moran echoes.
"How, when he goes out of town to travel for work or pleasure, does he turn it off?" he asks. "How does he not kill then?"
At the same time, Moran notes Gacy was careful. In Chicago he could control the killings and the disposal of the bodies, right down to a decision to bury them beneath the floor of his house. It seemingly wouldn’t be in character, to get reckless on the road.
But then again, he asks, "How could you put it past someone so evil?"