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‘John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise’: The killer speaks in the definitive history of a Chicago horror

Peacock’s fascinating six-part docuseries includes many incredible details about what led up to the murders and how they were carried out, some from the monster himself.

John Wayne Gacy is pictured during a 1992 interview with FBI profiler Robert Ressler that is at the center of “Devil in Disguise.”
Craig Bowley Inc./NBC News Studios

Gacy. Which one was that again?

When I mentioned the new documentary series about the notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy to a family friend who lives in Florida and was born six years after Gacy was arrested in 1978, the response was: Gacy. Which one was that again? The question was a reminder of how long it’s been since the Gacy murders — and how many documentary films and limited series we’ve seen over the last half-decade about serial killers, from “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children” to “Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer” to “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” to “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” to so many more.

Now the NBCUniversal streaming platform Peacock is making its first venture into the true crime genre with the six-part series “John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise,” arguably the most comprehensive and fascinating — and yes, disturbing and sometimes macabre — telling of one of the darkest chapters in Chicago and American history.

More than a quarter-century after Gacy was put to death by lethal injection in the Stateville Correctional Center in Will County as a mob outside cheered and sang, “Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye,” we see this stunningly ordinary-looking man looking calm and comfortable as he gives an extensive interview to legendary FBI profiler Robert Ressler in 1992 — an interview that is parceled out over the course of the series, reminding us of what an infuriatingly deceitful monster Gacy was, as he matter-of-factly gives details of particular murders one moment, and then posits obscenely absurdist theories and alibis the next.

Prosecutors Bill Kunkle (from left), Robert Egan and Terry Sullivan leave court after a jury found John Wayne Gacy guilty on all counts in 1980. Kunkle and Sullivan recall the case on “Devil in Disguise.”
Sun-Times file

Producer Rod Blackhurst (“Amanda Knox”) and the NBC News Studios documentary team have delivered a consistently engrossing work that follows the now familiar docuseries blueprint, starting with the elegant but haunting opening titles. In addition to the 1992 interview with Gacy, there’s a bounty of archival news footage, much of it from the late 1970s when Gacy was arrested; old photos and video and film of Gacy as a child and a young man; well-researched profiles of some of Gacy’s victims, and new interviews with more than a dozen figures who played key roles in the story, from retired Des Plaines investigators to prosecutors Bill Kunkle and Terry Sullivan to Gacy’s sister to surviving siblings of victims to respected Chicago journalists such as Jay Levine, Alison True and Larry Potash. (We also hear a recording from Gacy’s second wife, who recounts constantly prodding her then-husband to do something about the awful odors emanating from beneath their house in Norwood Park Township. Chilling stuff.)

Whether you’re well-versed in the Gacy story and are old enough to remember how it played out in horrific fashion over the years, or the case is barely familiar to you, “Devil in Disguise” stands as the definitive history.

John Wayne Gacy is arrested by Des Plaines police in 1978.
Sun-Times file

Some of the most stunning chapters in this story are set a decade before and then more than a decade after the events of 1978.

Gacy had pleaded guilty to sodomy in Iowa and was a convicted sex felon by the time he moved back to Chicago — but “Devil in Disguise” shows how Gacy gamed the system while in the Anamosa State Penitentiary. He became the top cook in the commissary, reserving the best cuts of meat for the warden and other officials and currying their favor; was lauded for recruiting hundreds of inmates to a chapter of the Jaycees, and even facilitated the installation of a miniature golf course in the prison yard. Often featured on local newscasts and in newspaper articles as a model prisoner, Gacy served just 18 months of his 10-year sentence — despite psychiatric reports saying he could not be rehabilitated. This killer should have still been in prison when he was committing dozens of murders of Chicago area boys and young men in the 1970s.

Later chapters in the series look at the very real possibility Gacy committed more than the 33 murders we know about. Legitimate questions are raised about the thoroughness (or lack thereof) of digs at a property where Gacy had worked as a maintenance man for years and had been spotted numerous times engaging in suspicious activities. We also learn much about later efforts to identify victims with technology that didn’t exist in the late 1970s. And we revisit questions about whether Gacy had one or more accomplices, if not for the killings then in the disposal of remains.

Bodies found in John Wayne Gacy’s home are stacked up in the Cook County Morgue, awaiting identification by Dr. Robert Stein, the county’s medical examiner, in 1978.
Sun-Times file

As you’d expect, though, “Devil in Disguise” is primarily about the investigation, arrest, conviction and execution of John Wayne Gacy, and there’s never a misstep as we’re told the incredible and often disturbing details of how Gacy committed his crimes, how police often ignored or downplayed reports of missing boys and young men (dismissing them as runaways or hustlers or teen prostitutes), how Gacy toyed with investigators and even invited a couple of them into his house for dinner as they tailed him the days leading up to the arrest — and how a jury came back with a verdict of guilty in just two hours.

In the interview with Ressler, Gacy’s eyes dart around as he spins his B.S., whines about media coverage, criticizes investigators and complains about his defense attorney, but we know Ressler isn’t buying this killer’s twisted version of events. And neither do we.