In 2010, three years after the Reader had been sold by its original owners, two years after the next owner had declared bankruptcy, and one year since the paper had fallen into the hands of a hedge fund, our excellent editor, Alison True, was fired.
True had been at the Reader for 26 years, 15 of them in the editor’s seat, overseeing the work of investigative reporters like John Conroy, Tori Marlan, and Steve Bogira. During that time thousands of story pitches and drafts crossed her desk, but one in particular would stick with her. Submitted by Chris Maloney, a Roosevelt University graduate student, it told of a retired Chicago police detective who thought there could be undiscovered John Wayne Gacy murder victims buried in the yard of an apartment building at the corner of Miami and Elston, on the city’s northwest side.
This submission had come in late in her tenure, after the editorial budget had been slashed and she’d been forced to let staff writers who authored the paper’s lengthy narrative and investigative pieces go. The story was complicated and the author was new to her: sources would have to be reached, information vetted. “The little budget I had left would not support the kind of investigation that this manuscript would have required,” True says. “So I sent it back to him, and offered to help him find another place to sell it. Then I got fired.”
True moved on, but couldn’t shake that story. A year later, she called Maloney to offer free editing advice and help in finding a publisher. After posting the piece online and deciding to sell it as an e-book, he told her he was finished with it, but had no objection to other writers picking up the thread, True says. Thinking she should check it out before pushing it to other reporters, True contacted the former cop. She also called an acquaintance she thought might be interested, freelance television producer Tracy Ullman. Together they met with the retired officer, William Dorsch.
Dorsch told a persuasive story, True says, but what grabbed them was “not that there’s necessarily human remains at that northwest side corner, but that the police didn’t want anyone to think there were—that they knew about the possibility, and were actively suppressing this information.”
When no other reporters picked up on the story, True and Ullman started making calls and filing FOIA requests themselves.
“We were also finding that there was a lot of information already available that did not support the way officials had rolled the story out,” True says. “The story everybody knew about Gacy was the classic lone-wolf serial killer story—a crazy silent weirdo doing this terrible thing in his house and managing to escape notice for most of the 1970s, until, in December 1978, some suburban police stumbled on his burial ground.”
“We learned, in fact, that Gacy was extremely visible and gregarious, that he worked in local politics, had lots of friends, and hosted a huge picnic every year for hundreds of people,” True says. Also, she adds, that the police had ignored information that pointed to Gacy (including a past conviction and arrests), and that there’s reason to believe that he had accomplices, though no one else has ever been charged.
Gacy was convicted of the murder of 33 boys, 29 infamously found buried in the crawl space and yard of his Norwood Park home. But everyone involved in prosecuting the case agrees that there were probably more victims, True says. Given that, she wonders why (two inconclusive attempts notwithstanding) there hasn’t been more interest in thoroughly checking out the places around the city where Dorsch and others think some of them could be found. And why, when the mother of one purported victim wanted DNA testing to verify his identification, the county authorities fought her request to exhume the remains, and then, after she won that fight in court and proved that the remains had been misidentified, refused to accept her evidence.
This was more than just sloppy or lazy police work, True says: “We’ve come to believe that it was a deliberate effort to distort the truth.” Why? Maybe, initially, because Gacy was a precinct captain with political ties; maybe, later, because numerous careers had been built on the resolution of his case; or, maybe because of a connection to a notorious sex trafficking ring operating in Chicago at the time of the Gacy killings.
NBC’s Peacock channel has produced a six-part documentary based on True and Ullman’s research, John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise. Rod Blackhurst (whose previous work includes the documentary Amanda Knox) is executive producer, as is Ullman; True served as executive consultant on the series. Set to start streaming March 25, it includes old and new interviews with everyone from Gacy’s sister and surviving victims to prosecutors Terry Sullivan and William Kunkle. Journalists Jay Levine and Larry Potash are prominent, and True, who’s also writing a book on this subject, is on camera as well. “How many coincidences can you tolerate?” she asks in the final episode, and then reels some of them off: “You have Gacy and his political connection, a connection between Gacy and a sex trafficking ring that’s making pornography, a suggestion of accomplices, more potential victims, the property at Miami and Elston.”
Each episode includes video from an extensive prison interview of Gacy conducted in 1992, two years before he was executed. Responding to questions from a former FBI profiler, and consulting a massive “bible” of his own research on his case, he looks convincingly guileless as he blames his lawyers for what he calls a faulty insanity defense and claims to have “never met” any of the dismembered youngsters found in his crawl space.
As his longtime prison pen pal, Craig Bowley, notes in the first episode, “He comes across as so darn normal.” Just your standard affable schlub, with steady blue eyes and a “who, me?” air of innocence. It’s chilling. v