It was 40 years ago — Dec. 21, 1978 — that John Wayne Gacy, one of the nation’s most notorious serial killers, was arrested.
Within hours, investigators began finding bodies buried in his crawlspace.
Then more bodies. And even more bodies.
Gacy’s home in unincorporated Norwood Park Township, just east of O’Hare Airport, became the center of a macabre universe, as the man who was at that time the country’s most prolific serial killer was unmasked.
Gacy was a general contractor who remodeled homes, an active participant in local Democratic Party politics and a clown who performed at children’s parties.
He was also a monster who abducted young men and teenagers, raped and strangled them.
His body count totaled 33, 29 of them found on his property, mostly in the crawlspace. The rest were recovered from the Des Plaines River, dumped there by Gacy southwest of Joliet.
Four decades later, six of his victims remain unidentified.
“The scariest thing about John Gacy is that he wasn’t a scary guy,” Sam Amirante, the criminal defense attorney who unsuccessfully tried to convince a jury that Gacy was insane, said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “He could be anybody. He could be you. He could be an uncle, a brother, a father, an affable likable guy in the community.
“And that’s the scariest thing about him, contrary to how he was portrayed in television and movies. He was a little Santa Claus jolly looking kind of guy.”
Today, countless people — many whose childhoods were affected by parents worried sick about how they could keep them safe in such a world — regularly pass by places that history has inextricably tied to Gacy.
Some are linked to his abduction of vulnerable boys and young men. Others mark his rapid unraveling and arrest. These are among the key locations associated with Gacy:
8213 W. Summerdale Ave., unincorporated Norwood Park Township
The address of the brick ranch home where Gacy lived — and where he killed and buried most of his victims.
The home was razed in 1979 as investigators searched for bodies. The lot remained vacant until 1988, when a new home was built on the land and given a different address: 8215 Summerdale.
1920 E. Touhy Ave., Des Plaines
The location of what was then Nisson Pharmacy, where Gacy encountered Rob Piest, a 15-year-old employee and Maine West High School sophomore who would be his final victim.
A receipt from the pharmacy that the police found in Gacy’s home during an initial search on Dec. 13, 1978 — a search that didn’t lead to the discovery of the bodies — connected Gacy to the boy, who’d disappeared two days earlier.
The pharmacy no longer exists. It’s now Angel Town, a preschool and day-care facility.
222 S. Prospect Ave., Park Ridge
The law office of Gacy attorney Amirante, where, on Dec. 20, 1978, Gacy made his first confession.
The police were closing in, and, during a meeting at the law office, Gacy asked for a drink. Amirante retrieved a bottle of Seagram’s VO Canadian Whiskey from his car and filled a plastic coffee cup.
“He gulped down two shots and looked at me point-blank and said, ‘I’ve been the judge, jury and executioner of many, many people,’ and I didn’t say another word all night,” Amirante said.
Gacy sat on a couch in Amirante’s office and offered a rambling stream-of-consciousness outpouring that stretched into the overnight hours. “It was the longest night of my life,” Amirante recalled.
The office building in downtown Park Ridge still exists, but Amirante’s lease ended decades ago. It’s now the headquarters for the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists.
2323 S. Rockwell St., Chicago
The address of a Cook County sheriff’s warehouse facility where a storage room today houses items of significance that were recovered from Gacy’s home, as well as from the bodies buried there.
Sheriff Tom Dart, who was a sophomore at Mount Carmel High School when Gacy was arrested, reopened the Gacy case in 2011 and undertook the task that previously had led only to dead-ends: trying to identify the bodies of Gacy victims that for years have been known simply by their assigned numbers.
On Wednesday, Dart opened an envelope that he pulled from a cardboard box and held up a small plastic case with a ring in it. It was found on the ring finger of “Victim 28.”
“Victim 28” is among the six bodies to remain unidentified.
“We have a good lead we’re working on right now for one of them,” said Jason Moran, Dart’s lead investigator on the case, who would not elaborate.
For decades, there were eight unidentified victims. Moran’s work has so far led to the identification of two bodies — most recently that of Jimmie Haakenson who, at 16, left his Minnesota home for a cross-country adventure that put him in Gacy’s path. Dart’s office exhumed their unidentified remains in 2011 to extract DNA. Their bones lie in the donated plots of several cemeteries under headstones that read simply: “We remembered.”
Moran has also found five people alive, who, for one reason or another, cut ties with family members who were left wondering if the silence was a result of falling victim to Gacy.
Interstate 55 bridge over Des Plaines River just southwest of Joliet
The bridge carries thousands of commuters every day. It’s where Gacy drove late at night on several occasions to shove the bodies of his victims over the side and into the river.
Four bodies were recovered and identified. Gacy confessed to dumping five. The fifth was never recovered or identified and is not part of the official body count.
Gacy turned to this method of disposing the bodies when he couldn’t fit any more on his property.
161 N. Clark St., downtown Chicago
There previously was a Greyhound Bus station where a high-rise now stands at this site at Clark Street and Randolph Street across from the Thompson Center. Gacy picked up his first victim outside the bus station in January 1972.
Washington Square Park — also known as “Bughouse Square”
The park at Clark Street and Walton Street on the Near North Side where Gacy was known to cruise for victims.
Stateville Correctional Center, Crest Hill
Gacy was executed by lethal injection at the Stateville penitentiary in 1994.
Somewhere on the Northwest Side
Gacy’s brain is stored in a jar in the basement of Dr. Helen Morrison’s Northwest Side home.
Morrison was given permission from Gacy family members to keep the brain and study it. Testing found nothing abnormal about the brain.
“I keep it because we think that, at some point in the future, somebody will come up with a way to look at the brain in a way we don’t even know yet,” Morrison told the Sun-Times.
Morrison is a forensic psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine who has interviewed numerous serial killers, including Gacy, and wrote a book “My Life Among the Serial Killers: Inside the Minds of the World’s Most Notorious Murders.”
Morrison prefers to keep the location of the brain secret — not just where she lives but also where she keeps it in her basement “because there are people out there who would do anything to be able to get hold of any souvenir associated with John Wayne Gacy … his artwork, his letters. There are serial-killer groupies.
“It’s very secure, that’s all I can say. I don’t have it on my mantel . . . It’s a very macabre thing. Who in the heck has a brain in their house?”