William J. Kunkle Jr., prosecutor in John Wayne Gacy case, dead at 81; UPDATE: Memorial service planned for Feb. 18

He secured the death penalty for the serial killer and later taught about the infamous trial and its legal peculiarities.

SHARE William J. Kunkle Jr., prosecutor in John Wayne Gacy case, dead at 81; UPDATE: Memorial service planned for Feb. 18

William J. Kunkle Jr. was an assistant state’s attorney when he was chosen to prosecute John Wayne Gacy. Kunkle was later chairman of the Illinois Gaming Board and a Cook County judge. He died in November, 2022.

Sun-Times file photo/ Kevin Horhan

UPDATE: A public memorial service for William Kunkle will be held 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, at Northwestern Law School’s Lincoln Hall, 357 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago.

As the prosecutor who secured the death penalty for serial killer John Wayne Gacy, William J. Kunkle Jr. could have coasted on the celebrity of the case for the rest of his career.

Instead, he used the experience to travel the country and teach others about the trial and its legal peculiarities.

The Gacy trial was the first Illinois case to have a jury selected from outside of the district. Jurors were pooled from the Rockford area. Prosecutors were dealing with 11 unidentified bodies and were saddled with the burden of disproving Gacy’s insanity plea.

“I never regarded it as a slam-dunk,” Mr. Kunkle said in an interview with a Chicago Bar Association podcast in 2018.

The case “was a tremendous education that allowed me to go all over the country lecturing to police officers, state’s attorneys, defense lawyers, whoever wanted to hear,” he said.

Mr. Kunkle, 81, was found dead of natural causes Nov. 19, 2022, in his suburban Indian Head Park home, his family said.

Family and friends remembered Mr. Kunkle as a stern yet empathetic man who, while a prime example of the “prosecutor everybody wanted to be like,” also lived a full life outside of work, corralling friends for yearly cross-country motorcycle trips and golf outings in Florida.

“He had some great teachers, but the student became the teacher,” said Daniel Locallo, a former Cook County judge. “We all learned from him many times in the state’s attorney’s office.”

“People loved to hear him,” his daughter Susan Kunkle said. “He had a powerful presence. When he spoke people listened.”

Mr. Kunkle prosecuted several other high-profile cases. He was a special prosecutor of the “DuPage 7” — the seven law officers accused and later acquitted of cooking up evidence to convict Rolando Cruz in the 1983 kidnapping, rape and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in Naperville Township.

He headed an unsuccessful defense of disgraced Chicago Police Lt. Jon Burge, accused of torturing dozens into false confessions. And he helped conduct the congressional inquiry that forced former House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, to resign.

Mr. Kunkle left the state’s attorney’s office in 1985 for private practice. He was chairman of the Illinois Gaming Board from 1990 to 1993, then served as a Cook County judge until retiring in 2014.

Mr. Kunkle was the oldest of three brothers. He was born in 1941, in Lakewood, Ohio, and grew up in Fairview Park, a western suburb of Cleveland, his brother Bob Kunkle said.

He played football and baseball in school, and graduated high school valedictorian, his brother said. “He didn’t have to study that hard. Things came naturally to him.”

They built model airplanes together and took part in a televised soapbox derby, his brother said. “Bill and I did a lot together. I idolized him.”

He attended Northwestern University for his undergraduate degree, then worked for Union Carbide in South Carolina for a couple of years before returning to the university for his law degree, Bob Kunkle said.

Before becoming a prosecutor, Mr. Kunkle worked as an assistant public defender in Cook County for a year or two, colleagues said. Then he was hired as an assistant state’s attorney in 1973 under Bernard Carey, who later chose him to prosecute the Gacy case.

Mr. Kunkle recalled the pressure he felt about the Gacy case at the time: “The absolutely worst thing is to lose a case you’re supposed to win. To win this case you have to get the death penalty,” he said in the 2018 interview.

During the Gacy trial, Mr. Kunkle denied requests by Gacy to visit him, Locallo said.

“He didn’t want Gacy to get any vibes from what he was doing,” he said. But after he secured the death penalty, he consented to see Gacy in prison.

“Bill goes back there and asks, ‘What do you want?’” Locallo recalled. “‘One day the truth will be out,’ Gacy says. Then Bill responds, ‘I have three weeks off. Whatever you have to say I’ll listen.’ Then Gacy starts laughing. He said, ‘I thought so. I’ll see you at the execution.’”

His other daughter also became an attorney. She is sometimes asked if she’s the daughter of Mr. Kunkle because she uses her maiden name professionally.

“They say, ‘Oh, you’re a lawyer too. Those are big shoes to fill,’” Kathleen Del Valle said. “I could never fill his shoes. He was a pillar in the legal community.”

Although she was a small child when her father was prosecuting Gacy, Del Valle remembers learning about the case. “From an early age I knew about Gacy, and the electric chair, and viewing crime scene evidence photos. It wasn’t taboo,” she said.

He imparted a strong sense of ethics in carrying out the law, she recalled. When she was young and told him she was considering being a lawyer, he told her that would mean she’d need to witness executions if she chose to prosecute death penalty cases.

“You need to be there for the family and the State of Illinois,” she recalled him saying. “I took it very seriously.”

Mr. Kunkle was a devoted grandfather to his one grandson, C.J. Gilbert. As an Eagle Scout, he was involved in his grandson’s activities in the Boy Scouts. He attended his grandson’s lacrosse and football games. They spent time working on hobbies like remote control airplanes, Del Valle said. Last year, he built a dog house with his grandson, she said.

Later in life, he enjoyed motorcycles and would often ride his Harley-Davidson, family said. “He looked like such a tough guy, but he was always so kind,” Bob Kunkle said.

Thomas Breen, who represented Cruz in the DuPage 7 case, knew Mr. Kunkle since the early 1970s when they worked together in the state’s attorney’s office. Mr. Kunkle was Breen’s landlord for a time. They lived on separate floors of an apartment at 815 W. Wellington in Lake View.

Breen recalled the cross-country motorcycle trips Mr. Kunkle organized with colleagues and friends; the first he could recall was in 1978. The meticulously planned trips sometimes spanned 1,500 miles, with stops for camping at national parks.

“He planned everything: where you were going to have breakfast, lunch and especially where you’re going to have dinner,” Breen said. Mr. Kunkle could speak about national parks at length. “He knew all about every one of them,” Breen said.

Mr. Kunkle’s wife Sarah Florence Nesti Kunkle died in 2014. He is survived by two daughters and a grandson, C.J. Gilbert. Services have not been announced.

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