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The John Wayne Gacy Murders
By Terry Sullivan, Peter T. Maiken
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Terry Sullivan with Peter T. Maiken
All rights reserved.
December 11, 1978
Kim Byers couldn't decide what to do with the photo receipt. Had it been a customer's order, she simply would have given that person the stub from the envelope. But these were her own photographs, which she could easily identify when they came back from the lab. They were prints she planned to give to her sister for Christmas, now just two weeks away.
It was 7:30 P.M. when Kim, one of several teenagers working at Nisson Pharmacy in Des Plaines, Illinois, had used a brief lull in customer traffic to process her order. Nisson's was in a nondescript, one-story building in a small shopping center. Its glass front was papered with signs advertising sale items. Among its neighbors were a 7-Eleven, a Gold Medal Restaurant, and a liquor store. Across busy Touhy Avenue lay the northern perimeter of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Inside Nisson's, you smelled the usual drugstore aroma of candies and scented notions, while your ears absorbed the recurring thunder of jets.
Kim logged the order number in the record book and tore off the receipt. After a moment's thought, she stuck it in a pocket of the parka she was wearing. While she was working at the cash register she had borrowed the coat to protect her from the drafts at the front door.
Rob Piest, whose parka Kim had on, was now midway through his after-school shift at Nisson's. Rob was a fifteen-year-old sophomore at Maine West High School, and he'd worked at the pharmacy since the previous summer. Although Kim was two years older, Rob and she had dated occasionally. Mature for his age, Rob usually went out with older girls, and Kim was attracted to the handsome boy with the trim athletic build, shaggy brown hair, and wide smile. Tonight, however, the smile was not in evidence as he stocked shelves in silence: Phil Torf, one of the owners of the pharmacy, had just turned down his request for a raise.
"I'm going to quit and find another job," Rob told Kim.
"Don't quit now," Kim advised him. "You'll probably get a Christmas bonus."
"Yeah," Rob answered, "but I need the money now."
Rob would turn sixteen in March, and he wanted to buy a Jeep. He had saved $900, but he knew he couldn't afford the payments on the $2.85 an hour he was earning at Nisson's.
Rob had just broken up with the first special girlfriend in his life, but he hoped for a reconciliation, and having his own wheels would help. He wanted a Jeep, too, because of his interest in camping and the wilderness. Three merit badges shy of Eagle rank, he was tiring of the Boy Scouts but not of the outdoors. He had become a skilled nature photographer, and with a tough vehicle he could explore country that roads never crossed.
A dedicated athlete, Rob was training for the sophomore gymnastics team, but on that Monday afternoon he'd left practice early: he wanted to stop at K-Mart to buy fish to feed his snakes. (Snakes were only some of the pets the Piests kept. Several years earlier, much to the delight of Rob and his brother and sister, the family had inherited a relative's menagerie of several dozen animals.)
As usual after school, Rob's mother, Elizabeth, was waiting in her car for him, and as usual they were both on a tight schedule. She had just come from her job as a telephone operator in a chemical company to drive him home for a quick meal. After that, she or Rob's father, Harold, would drive him to Nisson's shortly before 6 o'clock and pick him up after he finished work at 9. Tonight's routine was different only because of the stop at K-Mart (which was unsuccessful — the fish, Rob decided, were too expensive).
Tonight was special, though, because it was Elizabeth Piest's forty-sixth birthday. At home, she saw Rob looking at her birthday cake. "We'll have the party when you get home from work," she told him. Rob bent over to hug the family's two German shepherds, Caesar and Kelly, who had bounded into the kitchen to greet him.
"Here's your dinner," Rob's sister said as she scooped a hot ham and cheese sandwich off the grill.
"Thanks, Kerry," Rob said, taking his meal on the run.
He and his mother went out into the winter night and got in the car for the eight-block drive to Nisson Pharmacy. Rob remarked that once he bought his Jeep, his mother wouldn't have to bother driving him to work. She smiled and said she didn't mind the trip at all.
Now the family would wait for Rob's return to celebrate Elizabeth's birthday. The Piests were always together on occasions like this. They were an uncommonly close family, and Rob was the center of it.
When Phil Torf's brother, Larry, had remodeled the drugstore two years before, he had employed P.E. Systems, a firm specializing in pharmacy design and construction. The work had been done by a gregarious supervisor named John Gacy. Although Larry Torf thought Gacy's craftsmanship was merely passable, he was impressed with the man's knowledge of pharmaceutical marketing and his energy in getting the job done. Gacy, working with Phil and several youths, did all the remodeling after hours, allowing the store to remain open for business. During that time, Gacy and Phil Torf became passing friends.
Now Gacy was in business for himself, and Phil had asked him to come in to give advice on rearranging shelving. At 5:30 P.M. on Monday, as agreed, Gacy pulled up in front of Nisson's in a new 1979 four-door black Oldsmobile 98. The car was rigged for CB radio and carried two spotlights, a red one on the passenger side.
A heavyset man with a round face, Gacy, thirty-six, was considerably overweight at 195 pounds and five feet nine inches. His brown hair was graying at the temples and his knobby chin was well cushioned by sagging jowls; he wore a mustache. He was dressed in wash pants, an open-collar shirt, and a waist-length black leather jacket.
Gacy greeted Phil Torf warmly, and the two bantered about old times for more than an hour. He had his own firm now, he told Phil; it was called PDM, for Painting, Decorating, and Maintenance. He told Phil he also did snowplowing and sold Christmas trees.
"Looks like you've got pretty much of a new crew here," Gacy said, surveying the store. His eyes came to rest on Rob Piest, who was sitting in an aisle about ten feet away, stocking shelves.
"They're high school kids," Phil explained. "They go on to college or other jobs. There's always a turnover."
"I hire high school kids, too," Gacy said, turning to Linda Mertes, an employee he recognized from the remodeling days two years before. "You remember Dick, don't you?" Linda nodded. "I was paying him only three or four dollars an hour when he started, but now he's making four hundred dollars a week. Now I start everybody at a five-dollar-an-hour minimum."
"Wow," Linda said. "Hey, Rob. Do you want a job?" she asked, laughing. Rob continued stocking the shelves and didn't answer.
Gacy wandered through the store, inspecting the aisles, measuring shelves, and checking structural supports.
He told Torf that he estimated that the job would run about $1,600. The two talked a while longer, then Gacy left at 7:15, saying he would be in touch. A few minutes later, Torf noticed a brown appointment book, fastened with a thick strap, sitting on the pharmacy desk. It was Gacy's. Phil wondered about calling him, but decided not to. Gacy would probably return for it anyway.
"Hey, I need my coat," said Rob. "I've got to take out the garbage."
It was now 8 o'clock. Kim Byers slipped off Rob's parka and watched him put it on for his trip out the back of the store. As Rob walked into the alley with an armload of cartons and trash, a freshman girl from his high school spotted him. She threw a snowball at him, then retreated with her girlfriend, giggling in delight. When he came back inside, Rob tossed his coat on some cigarette cartons near the front register, which he was supposed to watch while he finished stocking shelves until the end of his shift at 9.
A black pickup truck with a snowplow attached glided to a halt in front of the store. Gacy came inside and walked back to the pharmacy.
"Forget something?" Torf asked.
Gacy smiled and nodded. For the next forty-five minutes he wandered through the store, chatting and once again inspecting the shelving.
At five minutes to 9, Elizabeth Piest arrived to pick up her son.
"Mom," Rob said, "I'm not done stocking. I'll be a few minutes. "
"Take your time," she said. She spoke briefly with Kim Byers then wandered over to the card section.
At 8:58, Rob bounded up to Kim and asked her to watch the register. Then he called to his mother. "Some contractor wants to talk to me about a job," he said, grabbing his parka and rushing out the door.
Moments later, seeing Kim at the register, Torf asked her where Rob was.
"He's outside talking to that guy who was in here," Kim said. "Don't worry," she added offhandedly. "He's a big boy."
Several minutes later, Elizabeth Piest asked Kim if she'd seen Rob come back. Kim had not. Mrs. Piest had a strong feeling that she wanted to be with her son right now, but she didn't know why. She felt a sense of fear she couldn't explain. Nonetheless, she chatted briefly with Kim; then, showing mounting uneasiness, she said she was leaving and asked Kim to have Rob call her at home when he returned. She said she would come back and pick him up. It was 9:20.
A few moments later, Torf walked by the register.
"Who is that construction guy?" Kim asked him.
"You mean John Gacy?" Torf replied. "He's all right. He's a good guy."
Her family was perplexed when Elizabeth Piest walked into the kitchen at 9:25 without Rob. "He went off with some kind of contractor to see about a job," she explained. She went to the phone and called Nisson's. Kim Byers answered; still no Rob. "Do you have any idea," asked Mrs. Piest, "who Rob was going to talk to?" Kim told her that the man's name was John Gacy.
By now the family should have been cutting Elizabeth's birthday cake. This was not like Rob. He was thoroughly a creature of habit, and neither he nor his brother or sister, nor, for that matter, anyone in the family, ever went anywhere without letting the others know. Something was very wrong.
Fifteen minutes went by. The Piests' concern mounted. Kerry, six years older than Rob, and her brother Ken, a twenty-two-year-old premedical student, speculated on Rob's whereabouts. Elizabeth called Nisson's again, but Kim still hadn't seen Rob. She asked Elizabeth to wait a moment and put her on hold. The father and children watched anxiously.
"Phil wonders if you've already bought a Christmas tree," Kim finally said to Elizabeth.
"Why?" Elizabeth asked. She thought Torf was being flippant.
"Because John Gacy owns a Christmas tree lot, and Phil thinks that maybe Rob went there to buy a tree."
Meanwhile the others were checking the telephone listings for a John Gacy, but they weren't sure how to spell the name or which of the numerous suburban directories to consult. They found nothing close. They called several of Rob's friends, none of whom had seen him. Elizabeth called Nisson's one more time. Now she was becoming frantic, and she wished that Torf would show some concern.
Torf assured her that he would have someone check outside the store to see if Rob might have slipped on the ice and was lying unconscious. He said that although the store was now closed, he would be there for a while and gave Elizabeth the night number. "I'll call John and see if he knows anything about Rob," he said.
"What is his number?" Elizabeth Piest demanded.
"It's 457-1614," said Torf.
"Do you have his address?" she asked.
Torf hesitated, then said he didn't.
"Why would he want to be talking with a fifteen-year-old boy at this time of night?" asked Elizabeth.
"Hey, wait a minute," Torf replied. "This guy's no bum." Elizabeth hung up.
Harold Piest dialed Gacy's number and got the contractor's answering machine.
"We're going to the police," he said. Even though they didn't want to admit it to one another, by now they all feared the worst. They knew that if Rob were physically able to get home, he would be home. They knew him too well to think otherwise.
On the way to the Des Plaines police station, Harold and Elizabeth Piest stopped at the house of Rob's best friend, Todd Schludt. Todd had stayed away from home one night and Rob had admonished him for his behavior. Todd was surprised to hear of Rob's disappearance and was sure he wouldn't run away. Rob had been upset because Todd was moving from Des Plaines. They had both been to a farewell party the night before. Todd hadn't seen Rob since then.
Next, the Piests went to Nisson's, where they found Torf and a friend, Joe Hajkaluk, another pharmacist, standing at the door. Torf said he had called Gacy's number without success. He gave the Piests his own home number in Chicago.
Harold and Elizabeth continued on to the police station. The new Des Plaines shopping mall, on the southwest side of the train tracks, had emptied, and the sidewalks were mostly deserted. Two more yellow and green North Western commuter trains from downtown would yet come to a jerking halt, discharge passengers, then move on, like toys under a tree, through the array of street lights and Christmas decorations, to darker countryside and more distant suburbs. Soon the town would be silent.
The police station in Des Plaines is a modern two-story, brick, fortresslike box, mostly windowless on the ground floor, and is connected by an open walkway to the adjacent Civic Center. The complex was constructed in the early 1970s, long after Des Plaines had grown from the quiet little truck-garden and nursery suburb of its German origins into a congested hub of Chicago's suburban sprawl. The station lay at the northern end of the four-block downtown strip built along both sides of the railroad tracks.
The Piests walked up to the desk, manned by Watch Officer George Konieczny. Elizabeth explained what had happened. Konieczny said that he could only take the information for a missing-person report. The police would call if they learned of Rob's whereabouts, and a youth officer would be assigned to the case in the morning; there was nothing for the Piests to do but go home and wait. Suburban police stations are places of limited late-evening activity. Most of their people work during the day, and at night many specialized functions of the department cease entirely. Elizabeth sighed, then recited her son's vital statistics and recounted the events of the evening while Konieczny wrote: "Robert Jerome Piest, male/white, 15, wearing tan Levi pants and T-shirt, brown wedge-type suede shoes, and a light-blue down jacket ..." Rob became Des Plaines police case No. 7835203, one of the department's more than six dozen missing persons of 1978.
The Piests left the station. At 11:50 Konieczny completed his report. He called Phil Torf, who was still at Nisson's. Torf had no new information. Konieczny then took the report to his watch commander.
"The parents are really concerned," Konieczny said to him, "and the kid has never run away before. Still, you do crazy things at age fifteen." The watch commander signed his approval on the report, and Konieczny notified the radio room upstairs that he was sending along a "missing."
At 1:54 A.M. on Tuesday, five hours after the disappearance of Robert Piest, a dispatcher sent out a message from her LEADS (Law Enforcement Agencies Data System) terminal to all police jurisdictions in Illinois. The missing-person report, with a note appended by Officer Konieczny attesting to the Piest parents' genuine concern, was placed with other overnight reports on the desk of the commander of the Criminal Investigation Division, Lieutenant Joseph Kozenczak. Although the Youth Bureau, which would initially handle the case, had officers on duty until 1 A.M., they would not see the report until Kozenczak screened it after his arrival at 7:30 A.M. Missing-person cases were regarded as routine, and this was departmental policy.
The Piest family did as they were told and went home. But they didn't rest. They wanted action, and if the police department wouldn't give them much, they would make their own. They organized a search that took them over virtually every street and parking lot in Des Plaines. They theorized that Rob had been picked up by Gacy and then tried to jump out of the vehicle. They thought he might be hurt and trying to make his way home. They knew he would try as best he could.
Kerry took one shepherd in her Datsun, Ken the other in his van, each taking an article of clothing for the dogs to sniff. Harold went out in his car, and Elizabeth stayed home by the phone and waited. They patrolled the quiet streets and trudged over snowbanks that had been molded by plows after the seven-inch snowfall four days earlier. Periodically they rendezvoused with one another to coordinate their plans. They expanded their search to neighboring Mount Prospect, Park Ridge, and Rosemont. Several times they went back separately to Nisson's, Harold before midnight, Kerry about 12:30, and Ken shortly after 1 A.M. When they saw Phil Torf or his car, they wondered what he was doing. Torf told Ken that Hajkaluk knew where Gacy's house and tree lot were and that he would check them.
Excerpted from Killer Clown by Terry Sullivan, Peter T. Maiken. Copyright © 2013 Terry Sullivan with Peter T. Maiken. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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