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John Wayne Gacy, Runaways, and the Decline of the Serial Killer

Cook County sheriff Tom Dart has put out an open call for people who believe they may be related to Gacy’s eight unidentified victims. A look back at what we used to assume, and now know, about serial killers, and how we got there.

John Wayne Gacy house 8213 W Summerdale

 

According to Cook County sheriff Tom Dart, about 70 families have responded to his office’s open call for possible relatives of John Wayne Gacy’s eight unidentified victims. One detail in the AP writeup jumped out at me:

“In one case the young man had perfect teeth (and) never went to a dentist,” the sheriff said. In another instance, the man’s parents had tracked down their son’s retired dentist only to find the records had been destroyed.

Dart said in both those cases, the families’ descriptions did not suggest young men who would have willingly disappeared.

“One young man went to a wedding and dropped his date off and was never seen again,” he said. “(That is) not the behavior of someone taking off to start a new life somewhere.”

If you read a lot about serial killers—not that I do—the frequency with which victims are assumed to be “runaways” is striking. For instance, here’s Texas Monthly staff writer and true-crime genius Skip Hollandsworth writing about Houston serial killer Dean Corll (h/t Longform.org), who murdered at least 27 young men before being shot to death at his home in 1973, five years before Gacy’s crimes were revealed. Most of the victims lived in, or disappeared from, the same Houston neighborhood—11 from one junior high alone. As Hollandsworth asks, how did no one know something was happening? There was one assumption:

Although the Waldrops’ home was only half a mile from the church where Jimmy and Danny disappeared, the police still did not investigate. The Waldrop brothers’ father, Everett, a burly, divorced construction worker, later told the Houston Chronicle that he filled out missing persons reports at the police department, then “camped on that police department door for eight months. I was there about as much as the chief was. But all they said was ‘Why are you here? You know your boys are runaways.’”

Even after Corll died and his victims were found, the cops stuck by the “runaways” assumption for any further potential victims, quickly closing the investigation.

Furious, the city’s domineering police chief, Herman Short, held a press conference in which he suggested that the boys were mere runaways whose parents didn’t do their best to look after them. He angrily declared that reports of “links” among the victims and the killers were a myth “created by the media.”

[snip]

Mayor Louie Welch defended the chief, bluntly declaring that “the police can’t be expected to know where a child is if his parents don’t.” Welch simply didn’t know what he was talking about. Though it was true that some of the boys had run away from home for brief periods and others had gotten into minor trouble (Mark Scott had once been arrested for carrying a knife, for example), none of them had gotten into serious trouble. Many were just like David Hilligiest, straight-arrow, all-American kids who rarely missed a day of school.

Nevertheless, the teenage runaway story got traction. Governor Dolph Briscoe appealed to runaway teenagers in Texas to contact their parents and let them know they were “alive and well,” and a young senator from Minnesota, Walter Mondale, asked Congress to allocate $30 million over three years to set up a nationwide system of halfway houses for runaway teenagers so that they would have a safe place to go and not end up in the hands of a killer like Corll.

This assumption by officials can also be found in the wake of Gacy’s arrest. From “Missing boy’s family always feared Gacy” (12/25/78) by Eileen Ogintz in the Tribune, about the Butkovich family, whose son John disappeared in 1975 shortly after arguing with Gacy, his employer, about money; later, he was identified as one of Gacy’s victims:

Every week for more than two years the couple called Chicago police to ask about their missing son—sometimes to ask about Gacy. But police kept insisting that Johnny must have run away. If he were dead, police would know, they said.

The family wanted to believe the police officers, but they just knew that their handsome, blond son would never have voluntarily disappeared. He was close to his parents and sisters and would always call home if he were going to be late. He had many friends, plenty of money in the bank, and was in the midst of fixing up his first apartment, having spent $2,000 on carpeting, his father said.

Not to mention that Butkovich’s wallet, jacket, and identification were found in the front seat of his car, the keys to which were in the ignition.

I remembered Hollandsworth’s piece when I read this morning’s update on the Gacy story, as well as a passage from Popular Crime, a new book by Bill James—yes, the same Bill James who revolutionized baseball stats. It’s an odd book, like a one-man Wikipedia of notorious crimes shot through with James’s contrarian, analytical streak. And he makes a good point about how, before Ted Bundy, Americans couldn’t really conceive of serial killers, even though there were a handful of famous cases like Corll and Gacy:

As I have mentioned numerous times in this narrative—and probably failed to convince you—police forces until about 1980 all “knew” that stories about strangers who ran around killing people as a kind of mad sport were just that—stories.

[snip]

This is a constant theme. If you checked out 50 serial murder cases before 1980, I would bet that in 45 of them, the police would be quoted in the newspapers insisting that the crimes were not linked, even as the newspapers suggested they were.

The capacity of mankind to misunderstand the world is without limit. The external world is billions of times more complicated than the human mind. We are desperate to understand the world; we struggle from the moment of birth to understand the world—but it is beyond our capacity. We thus sign on to simplifications of the world that give us the illusion of understanding. Experts are not less inclined to sign on to these simplistic explanations than outsiders; they are more inclined to sign on to them. They have more need of them. Thus, an explanation like “real homicide investigators know that virtually all murders are committed by someone well known to the victim” can gain currency among professionals, and become something that everybody “in the business” knows.

James argues that it took many years for “serial killer” to go from reality to imagination, not the other way around, and it was really a matter of the concept going back and forth between law enforcement and the media before it became “real” in the minds of the public, and more importantly, in the minds of law enforcement. The failure to identify Gacy for what he was—Butkovitch was likely either Gacy’s second or third victim—was in part of a failure of the imagination. That’s one of James’s arguments for the genre of “popular crime,” though he’s aware that the media phenomenon has its coarsening and amplifying effects:

According to Schmid, “once a serial killer became a type of person, a new form of behavior became visible, along with a typical perpretrator of that behavior, in ways that had previously been impossible. Judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and the police could now ’see’ serial killers in a way they could not have done before because the serial killer was a recognizable, legible type.”

Another semi-local example is Michael Swango, a Quincy native and graduate of the SIU medical school who may have killed as many as 60 people… as a doctor. In this case, the officials who let Swango slip through the cracks were hospital administrators, as the journalist James Stewart argues in his book Blind Eye: How the Medical Establishment Let a Doctor Get Away with Murder:

Stewart lays the blame for Swango’s success at getting job after job on the medical peer-review process, which accepts only the judgment of experts — i.e., other doctors — as to whether a practitioner is guilty of malpractice or, in this case, malevolence. The notion is fatally undermined, he argues, by the siege mentality that rising numbers of malpractice suits have brought on: “The loyalty among physicians makes police officers’ famous ‘blue wall of silence’ seem porous by comparison.” He also excoriates the American Medical Association for opposing the National Practitioner Data Bank, a federal clearinghouse for information on disciplinary actions against doctors.

It’s an extreme case of a real problem; for less extreme cases, the Tribune’s watchdog series on predatory doctors is a good example.

And there’s some evidence that this conceptual change has made something of a difference (in an admittedly small sample—James estimates that there were at least 100 American serial killers between 1960 and 1980, and that their victims “had to total more than a thousand,” a small number in the annals of American homicide). Earlier this year Christopher Beam, in Slate, noted “The decline of the serial killer”; numbers are somewhat hard to come by, but according to Northeastern criminologist James Alan Fox, the number of serial killers active in the previous decade are about two-thirds lower than in the 1980s:

There are plenty of structural explanations for the rise of reported serial murders through the 1980s. Data collection and record-keeping improved, making it easier to find cases of serial murder. Law enforcement developed more sophisticated methods of investigation, enabling police to identify linkages between cases—especially across states—that they would have otherwise ignored. The media’s growing obsession with serial killers in the 1970s and ’80s may have created a minor snowball effect, offering a short path to celebrity.

But that obsession may cut both ways—perhaps planting the seed in the minds of the criminally insane, but also in the minds of law enforcement and mental health professionals. It’s an interesting example of the perils and promise of information, and how we collectively figure things out.

 

Graphic: Chicago Tribune

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