Just over 30 years ago, serial killer John Wayne Gacy made headlines in one of the grizzliest news stories of the century. He was a family man—he had a wife and two children—and a respected member of his community, but one day Gacy invited a 15-year-old boy to his home and molested him. In 1968, he was convicted of sodomy and received a 10-year sentence at the state penitentiary. His wife divorced him and took their children.
Gacy was a model prisoner and, despite his decade-long sentence, was released on good behavior after only 18 months. He returned to his hometown of Chicago, where he started a contracting business, remarried and volunteered. But after his second marriage failed, things took a turn for the worse. Gacy began abducting boys and young men, raping and murdering them.
Police didn't suspect Gacy until 1978, when witnesses reported that Gacy was the last person to be seen with a missing 15-year-old boy. Investigators questioned Gacy, who admitted to throwing five bodies into a nearby river and drew a map detailing where more than 25 bodies were buried in a crawl space under his home.
Gacy was found guilty of 33 murders. He received the death penalty and was executed by lethal injection in 1994.
Gacy's younger sister Karen says she and John were best friends growing up. She says Gacy's interests in things like gardening, cooking and baking upset their father, who she says sometimes had a temper. "My father, on many occasions, would call John a sissy. And he wasn't a happy drunk—sometimes he would turn into a mean drunk, so we had to always be real careful," she says. "John felt like he never lived up to Dad's expectations, and this went all the way into his adulthood, until he married and had a son and daughter."
When Gacy was arrested the first time, Karen says he insisted he was innocent, and she believed him. "I stop and think sometimes that maybe if he hadn't been so believable, maybe the rest of his life wouldn't have turned out like it did."
After Gacy was released early for good behavior, Karen says she visited him regularly, and though she noticed a strange smell, she never suspected what was going on. "When [he and his second wife] moved in, there was always this kind of musty smell," she says. "In later years, he kept saying that there was water standing under the house and he was treating it with lime [and] that's what the mold smell was," she says.
Gacy and his second wife divorced about a year before he was arrested the second time. "Something in their marriage just started to break," Karen says. "He always had a way of pushing people away, and I think that that's what he did. Maybe it was a protection mode for her and the children."
Karen says she was in shock when she got the phone call telling her that her brother had been arrested again. "I just sat there and didn't know what to do. I had to talk to my mother," she says. "We cried and we hugged, and neither of us could believe it because it wasn't the person we knew. He was always good and kind and always taking care of us."
After his arrest, Gacy recanted his confession and maintained his innocence until he was executed. Karen says he told her he wasn't guilty of all the murders, but maybe one or two. "I said, 'Well, then you're guilty of all because you can't kill one and not be guilty,'" she says. "I felt kind of cheated in a way because I didn't know part of him."
Karen spent Gacy's last day with him, and she says it seemed he was at peace with it. "He said, 'If I have to live in prison for the rest of my life, I'd rather be dead.' He was very calm about what he had said. It's like he was resigned with the fact because he didn't want to live anymore in a constricted area," she says.
Though she loved the brother she knew, Karen says she hates the part of him that committed the crimes. "I had always said to my husband and my family that if any appeal ever worked, I'd see to it that he never walked the face of the earth again," she says. "That's said because I did love him as a brother, but I didn't like anything about what he did. "
Since her brother's execution, Karen says she has kept this part of her past a secret. "The name Gacy has been buried," she says. "I've never given my maiden name out ... and I feel deceitful about it, and I don't mean to be, but it's a time in my life that for once I have peace. After 31 years of living in a closet not being able to talk about John or anybody—there have been a couple of times I didn't even tell anybody I had a brother because I didn't want that part of my life known. I wanted my children to have a normal life, my grandchildren to have a normal life, and you can't have that."
Karen's daughter Sheri got married about seven months ago to her husband, Jeff, who says he was let in on the family secret over time. "She was afraid I was going to bolt," he says. "I did a little bit more research and, to me, that shows what kind of strength and character this family has," he says.
Karen says she has no contact with her brother's children. "I tried sending gifts to the children. Everything was returned," she says. "I often wonder about them, but if [his first wife] wants a private life. I think she's owed that. I think the children are owed that."
In the decades since her brother's execution, Karen says she's lived with guilt for his crimes but is finally speaking out to end that cycle. "I don't know what I feel guilty about. He was my brother; he did it. They weren't my choices," she says. "I don't want other people that have even a son or a daughter that do something, I don't want them to think that they're a bad parent. People have choices after they're a certain age, and if they make the right choices, their life is good. But if they make the wrong choices, it's not, and I've worked with people in prison, and that was where I got a lot of my healing from."