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'Smelled Like A Morgue!' The Brazen (And Stupid) Way That John Wayne Gacy Got Caught
As investigators were searching for missing teen Robert Piest in 1978, they began trailing John Wayne Gacy. He wasn't shy about interacting with them.
Serial killers aren't generally known for being modest. It takes a high degree of narcissism to live outside the scope of basic human decency and John Wayne Gacy was no exception. Throughout his adult life, he positioned himself as a pillar of the community and basked in his supposed political connections, all while living a twisted double life as a mass murderer. But it turns out that the brazenness with which he operated played a critical role in how he ultimately got caught.
Gacy was convicted of murdering 33 young men and boys between 1972 and 1978 in the Chicago area, and was sentenced to death in 1980. At the time, it was the most murders any American had been convicted of. Twenty-nine of those 33 victims were found by investigators buried in the crawl space beneath his Des Plaines, Illinois home.
You might expect that with the evidence of his depravity sitting literally just below the surface of his home, Gacy would be careful with who he let into his house, especially if they were cops. But Gacy wasn't. As explored in the new six-part docuseries “John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise”, available now on Peacock, Gacy displayed a seemingly limitless ability to explain away things. When his second wife, Carole, whom he'd divorce in 1975, would complain about the smell emanating from beneath their home, he would chalk it up to a sewage issue, enlisting workers at his contracting company to spread hundreds of pounds of lyme in the crawl space in an effort to conceal the stench.
Gacy also may have believed his political connections placed him above suspicion. He was a member of the local Democratic Party and often hosted parties and dinners where he’d rub elbows with the Chicago elite. He was a member of the local Moose Club and by the mid-1970s, he was appointed the director of Chicago's annual Polish Constitution Day Parade. In the course of organizing that parade, Gacy was photographed with then-First Lady Rosalynn Carter. In that picture, he's wearing a pin indicating he'd been granted Secret Service clearance, even though he'd already been to prison in Iowa the previous decade for sexually abusing a minor. And perhaps most infamous in Gacy lore, he was celebrated for doing charity work that included dressing up as a children's clown.
So when Des Plaines police first contacted him in December 1978 regarding the disappearance of 15-year-old Robert Piest, Gacy didn't appear flummoxed. The honor student vanished from the pharmacy where he worked after school, telling his mother that he wanted to talk to a man he'd met there about a construction job. Police learned that man was Gacy, who told them he knew nothing about the boy's whereabouts. In the course of their investigation, however, detectives learned about Gacy's prior sex crime conviction in Iowa in 1968 and decided to scrutinize Gacy further.
Detectives began monitoring Gacy and obtained a search warrant for his house, in hopes of finding any links to Piest. While they didn't find the boy, they did find other alarming items, including a high school class ring that didn't belong to Gacy, shackles and chains, and a pair of driver's licenses, which also didn't belong to Gacy. Suspicious, Des Plaines officers continued to keep tabs on Gacy around the clock, working 12-hour shifts in pairs.
At times, the cocky killer, aware of the surveillance, appeared to delight in the officer's presence. He explained in a 1992 prison interview, footage of which is included in the docuseries, that he would even approach the officers as they waited outside his house and inform them of where he was going that day.
Former Des Plaines officer Mike Albrecht told Chicago outlet WMAQ-TV in 2018 that Gacy even referred to them as his “bodyguards,” jokingly introducing them to his friends. At one point, when cops trailed him into a Moose Lodge, Gacy bought them beers and invited them out to breakfast. During breakfast, the investigators describe how he bragged about his political connections.
Then, one fateful December night, the serial killer approached two of the Des Plaines officers — Albrecht and Bob Schultz — as they sat outside his home in their unmarked car and invited them inside to warm up. They took him up on the offer.
While inside, Schultz used Gacy’s bathroom, at which the heat in the house kicked in, bringing with it the unmistakeable stench that Gacy had tried in vain to conceal.
"That odor from the heat, from the crawl space," Albrecht reflected to WMAQ-TV. "Bob said right away, it smelled like a morgue!"
As the docuseries details, the officers' testimony about the odor was crucial in obtaining a second warrant to search Gacy's home. That's when investigators made the gruesome discovery of dozens of sets of human remains underneath the house and were able to arrest Gacy.
As Albrecht told Oxygen.com, Gacy believed he'd "never be caught" because of his connections. But that over-confidence played a key role in his undoing. Gacy was executed in 1994.
Watch "John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise" now on Peacock. You can also catch the first episode of the six-part series on Oxygen on Sunday, April 18 at 12:30 a.m. ET.
Oxygen correspondent Stephanie Gomulka contributed to this report.