For decades, the legend surrounding John Wayne Gacy has seemed solidified: After almost 30 bodies were found buried in his Chicago home, the story emerged that following a brutal childhood, he had been abducting and sexually assaulting teenage boys and young men for years all around Chicagoland. It was facilitated by his standing within the community, the care with which he picked victims who he thought might not be missed, and his propensity to put others at ease. He sometimes dressed as Pogo the Clown to entertain children; this didn’t start the trope of the evil clown, but it came to overshadow his story as a whole, even leading to erroneous suggestions that he committed the murders in costume.
Of course, as we have learned a decade into the golden era of true crime docs, there’s usually more to these legends than we initially thought — as becomes clear in Peacock TV’s new docuseries John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise. Over the course of nearly six hours, the viewer is brought into his world, from his first marriage — which ended after he went to prison in 1968 for sodomizing a teenage boy, for which he managed to serve less than two years of a 10-year sentence — through his life in Chicago, where he started a construction business.
The series details how he used the business to form relationships with local cops, party officials, and other powerful people in his community, and how he used that community trust to put his young employees at ease, even turning his home into a party pad for local teens. It details the investigation into Robert Piest, the 15-year-old whose disappearance in Des Plaines, Illinois, triggered the investigation into Gacy, as well as the gruesome discoveries authorities made when they began searching his crawl space. It follows his life on death row (including footage from an unaired prison interview), the public reaction to his 1994 death by lethal injection, and into the investigations still active in Chicago today.
The series, which was produced by Rod Blackhurst (Amanda Knox), benefits from access to a wide variety of people who knew Gacy, including original interviews with his second wife, his sister, a former friend from prison, multiple cops who worked the case, journalists who covered it, and even a victim who escaped.
To gain that access, they teamed up with Tracy Ullman (no relation to the Simpsons creator) and Alison True, two Chicago journalists who had been digging into the case for nearly a decade . While their work had focused largely on the unanswered questions associated with Gacy — how many people he really killed, where the rest of his possible victims could be buried, why the authorities still haven’t investigated some damning leads — they also brought along incredible access, allowing for one of the fullest pictures of how a serial killer can operate in a close community.
Rolling Stone spoke to executive producer Alexa Danner of NBC News Studios, the showrunner on Devil in Disguise, to discuss who may have been looking the other way, what mysteries still linger, and the challenges of bringing a serial killer’s story to life.
The series is largely framed around an interview that a man named Craig Bowley filmed with John Wayne Gacy a few years before Gacy was executed, which had never been seen by the public. What’s the story behind that interview?
Craig Bowley was a pen pal of John Wayne Gacy, and he started corresponding with Gacy in the mid-1980s out of personal curiosity about the crimes, and what will drive somebody to do that. They ended up exchanging letters and then began to talk on the phone quite regularly. And Craig even began visiting Gacy while he was on death row.
And they just had this friendship; this relationship. And in 1992, Craig was able to arrange this interview with Robert Ressler, who was then a retired FBI profiler. It was about three and a half hours long [and] took place two years before it was executed.
And our relationship with Craig came from one of the other executive producers, Tracey Ullman, and her [reporting] partner, journalist Alison True, who is an executive consultant on the series. They had been working together with a couple other folks in Chicago since about 2011 looking into some of the lingering mysteries around the case. Tracy created the relationship with Craig through her research and was able to organize the acquisition of the interview.
Bowley and Gacy had been close. Were you worried that by presenting so much of this interview that it might be too sympathetic to Gacy?
I think that anybody who watches will see through him. I understand the question — I also think that the more you watch of the interview, the more insight you get into Gacy’s nature and his ability to manipulate and sort of charm and without seeing a lot of it, just a snippet of it might make you think that he’s very believable. But if you don’t see the full spectrum of his behaviors, you’re somewhat limited in your ability to discern truth from fiction the way that Gacy presents it. But the more that you see, I think the more shocked you become at how he was able to masquerade as normal. And I think if you’re going to understand this case and you’re going to understand the trajectory of how Gacy operated through decades, it’s important to be able to see as much of his persona as possible, to have that context.
Were you familiar with the story going in?
I really didn’t know very much about the case at all. And you asked about the interview — the first time that I personally watched it, I really didn’t know what to think. I was very on the fence about whether he was being truthful or not. It was only once I started really digging into the case itself and the history behind it that I realized that he is capable of sprinkling truth amidst his lies, and it can be sometimes very hard to differentiate. I think it’s one of the reasons that there’s still so many questions about the case. He presented information in a way that suits his narrative, and he was able to convince people of things. He was able to convince the police in the 1970s that he was innocent of any crimes and that he wasn’t what he really was, which was a serial killer, killing young men and burying them in his basement. He was able to get away with it because he was so convincing.
The docuseries comes close to being an indictment of the criminal justice system, while, at the same time, there’s the suggestion that people had been looking the other way specifically for Gacy. Was it hard to skirt that line?
I think that there’s still a question whether Gacy was simply manipulating people effectively, or if he had people who were helping him. He was, after all, a politically connected, community-involved person. He wasn’t a nobody in Chicago. He was organizing parades. He was getting his picture taken with Rosalynn Carter. So you can understand people raising the question of whether he might have had some help to get out of trouble with the police. I do think if anyone suspected what he was really doing, they would have pushed harder.
I also would like to say the Des Plaines police who worked the Robert Piest case were incredibly dogged and very thorough in their investigating. And that’s ultimately what brought Gacy to justice. There were so many different jurisdictions that Gacy overlapped with; there’s not one particular body of law enforcement that we can point to and say, “That was a total failure.”
I was also thinking of his early release in Iowa.
There’s definitely questions as to why he was released early, and how he was able to finagle that. It’s one of the mysteries of the series. And certainly, it’s horribly ironic that if he had served his full sentence, he would never have been able to commit these murders in Chicago.
Going back to the making of this documentary, you did an incredible job tracking down all sorts of people from Gacy’s life. What was that process like? Were they hesitant to talk, or eager to finally tell their stories?
We had such tremendous access in this series, and I think it really helps the documentary feel whole. A number of these investigators have spoken before, but what was special about our series, I think, is that we were able to let them tell their stories really in depth, in great detail. And when you’re able to do that, you get these little golden nuggets of storytelling, and you really get a more clear picture of what they were going through.
Some of the folks obviously have never spoken before. For example, Ron Wilder, the partner of Jeff Rignall, who was one of Gacy’s surviving assault victims, who passed away in 2000 and had never spoken before. We were really honored that he shared his story with us. There were so many people who had a story to tell. And this case impacted their lives so tremendously. For those who told it before, telling it again, it’s important — there’s lessons still to be learned. And then for those who hadn’t spoken before, it was a privilege to have them trust us to tell their version of story.
One that stood out in particular was Gacy’s ex-wife.
That audio recording was something that Alison and Tracy had recorded during their research. It was one of their assets that they brought to the table. But yeah, it’s a really powerful and unique interview.
How long had Alison and Tracy been working on this before they brought it to you?
They began looking into the case in about 2011, working with [former Chicago Police Department] Detective William Dorsch, who is also in the series. And over the years, obviously, they had other jobs and other projects that they were doing, but they kept this on the burner. And there are still new developments occurring in this case, which has kept it fresh. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office is still trying to identify some of these victims. So it stays in the public eye because not everything has been resolved. There’s all these little tiny things — and not-so-tiny things — that are still in question.
One thing that stood out in this documentary that I don’t think most people had heard of before is the Delta Project, a Seventies-era child-sex-trafficking ring in Chicago that was investigated by Congress. The series discusses Phillip Paske, who worked for Gacy, and his connection to John Norman, who ran the ring.
Yeah, it’s a tough story to report out because it’s a lot of loose ends that you’re trying to collect into a cohesive picture. What we do know is that Phil Paske worked for Gacy at some point, in some capacity, for his business. So Gacy knew him. We know that Gacy himself references Paske in his 1992 prison interview, and we know that Paske was involved in the Delta project in the preceding years before Gacy’s arrest. It’s a lot of overlapping information, and what it adds up to as a total picture is still a question. But certainly these are questions worth asking. Unfortunately, Paske and John Norman [are] dead, and the reporting is obviously made much more difficult by the lack of their voices. But those are coincidences that you have to look into. And that’s what this documentary does.
The series discusses a building in northwestern Chicago where Gacy’s mother used to live, and where Gacy used to have a contract to upkeep the property. Neighbors later said that they saw Gacy digging unnecessary holes on that property, which they suspected may have been graves. Can you talk a little bit about that property, and what’s going on with that investigation?
Yeah, the building on Miami and Elston was a property where Gacy worked, did maintenance and repairs, and his mother lived for a time. And these neighbors who lived there during his tenure had noticed things. He was doing work at night. He was dragging large garbage bags across the yard in the middle of the night, he was digging trenches and filling them in. And while that may have just seemed like strange behavior prior to his arrest, after his arrest, obviously people were putting two and two together and thinking, well, maybe there’s more to the story. And if he was burying people under his house on Summerdale [Avenue], perhaps he could have been burying bodies on this property [as well].
An early portion of the documentary discusses Gacy’s sexual practices, like how he and his first wife were swingers. Was it difficult for you to navigate that part of the story without demonizing these aspects of his sexuality?
I think we were just very careful all along the way — throughout the documentary — to try to not make anything too salacious or tell any piece of the story just for shock value. We tried to be really respectful and neutral in our telling of the story, because there are so many different people with different opinions within the story, and we really wanted to present information that people can come to their own conclusions about.
But as far as sexuality, it is a big part of the story because Gacy was married a couple of times. Yet, he was clearly having these sexual relationships with men. And in his interview, he claims to be bisexual; says he has nothing against homosexuality. It always seems like he’s playing games a little bit with that. But certainly, homosexuality in the Seventies and the late Sixties, when he was first convicted of a crime, were much more controversial topics [and] much more taboo. And I think that Gacy knew that, and he knew how to play with that and use it to his advantage.
Certainly, the victims and their families, some of them have suffered a lot because of the portrayal of the victims as hustlers, or as being gay. And that was not something that some of the families wanted to even have anything to do with. So some of these victims remain unidentified. Could it be because the families at the time wanted nothing to do with the Gacy case or its association? Investigators did speculate that the way that the victims were being portrayed in the media may have deterred some families from coming forward and reporting their sons missing at the time.
Do you think something like this could happen today? Would someone would be able to get away with this in the same way Gacy did in the 1970s?
You’d like to think that we’ve learned a lot about these types of people, about serial killers, about the possibility of these crimes. And you’d like to think also that technology has advanced to the point where it would be much more difficult to do this, and that law enforcement techniques have also advanced incredibly. That said, I think one of the main accomplishments of the documentary is that we are able to communicate the fact that John Gacy, within his own time and within his own society, seemed very normal, and by all appearances operated as a guy next door, as a successful businessman and family man and politically involved person.
I think if he could hide behind those masks at that time, then certainly I think it’s possible for people to hide behind their public identities — their outward identities — to commit horrible acts. But one of the reasons that some of these investigators and attorneys spoke in our documentary, even though they may have told their story in the past, is to continue to get the message out that these people are out there, and that evil, unfortunately, does exist in this capacity. And the more we can learn about it and the more we can keep our eyes open to it, perhaps we can head it off at the pass much sooner than occurred in the Gacy case.