Day of Reckoning

updated 05/16/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1994 01:00AM

FOR 14 YEARS, JOHN WAYNE GACY HAS followed the same routine within the grim confines of the Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois. Rising at 7 a.m., he scrubs the floor of his 6-by-8-foot cell. He sifts through voluminous bundles of mail, tallies the latest Cubs score and works on his oil paintings; before going to bed at 3 a.m., he has meticulously logged in a ledger every phone call, visitor and letter received as well as every piece of food he has eaten. Meantime, another routine has been enacted daily at the nearby Stateville Correctional Center. A staff member, heavyset like Gacy, is strapped to a gurney and wheeled from a cell to the execution room, where he is hooked to an IV unit. The dress rehearsal stops just short of releasing lethal chemicals into his bloodstream.

Since December, the state of Illinois has been staging dry runs of Gacy's execution—an event that, after 14 years of appeals, will almost certainly take place on May 10. Yet virtually on the eve of his death, the 52-year-old former contractor and part-time clown who killed 33 young men in the 1970s does not even acknowledge his fate, much less show fear or remorse. After all, Gacy insists he is innocent. "How can a guy who is family-oriented kill somebody, anyway?" he said in The New Yorker last month. "There's no motive here." Whether Gacy truly believes his protestations remains a mystery even to his attorney, Gregory Adamski. "It's hard to tell," he says. "I don't know his reality at all."

The facts of Gacy's life are clear enough. Raised in Chicago, he was the son of a machinist, a drunk who beat his wife and terrorized his three children. Gacy briefly attended business college and became a shoe salesman before being arrested in Iowa for sodomy in 1968. He served 18 months of a 10-year sentence—during which his wife of five years divorced him—before returning to Chicago in 1970. There he became a restaurant cook and opened a contracting business on the side. In January 1972, Gacy killed his first victim, a teenager picked up at a Greyhound bus station.

For the next six years Gacy—who married again in 1972—lured mostly young hustlers and hitchhikers to his suburban, two-bedroom ranch home with promises of jobs, money and drugs. After having sex, he would often drug them and then usually hang or strangle the young men and bury the bodies in the crawl space of his house. Gacy was finally caught in 1978 after he killed 15-year-old Robert Piest, who had told his mother he was going to see Gacy about a job. After noticing a faint odor in Gacy's bathroom, police began a gruesome excavation that unearthed 27 bodies; Gacy had dumped other victims in the nearby Des Plaines River.

Though Gacy initially confessed, he recanted after his 1980 conviction, insisting he was too big to fit into the crawl space. Adamski, among others, believes his claims of innocence are a delusion. "All I see is a likable person who knows how to convey joy or sympathy, but that person is an act. It's as if he saw somebody display those emotions and knows how to imitate them."

During the past year, Gacy and others have turned his notoriety into profit. With his permission, a local attorney set up a 900 number charging callers $1.99 a minute to hear Gacy's claims of innocence; Gacy has sold his jailhouse paintings, including self-portraits, clowns, Jesus and Hitler, for up to $100 apiece (they are being resold for 10 times that); and he has basked in the attentions of the press. Networks and checkbook-waving tabloid shows from around the world are vying for interviews, but the Illinois attorney general has barred them from access. All of that has galled the relatives of his victims. "The anger is long gone," says Rosemarie Szyc, whose 19-year-old son John was killed by Gacy in 1977. "What's annoying is that he's had so many privileges and has manipulated things so he's always in the limelight." After Gacy is given his lethal injection, that too will finally fade to black.

J.D. PODOLSKY
BONNIE BELL and JONI H. BLACKMAN in Chicago

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