Even inveterate true crime readers might find it difficult to curl up with the likes of John Wayne Gacy Jr., the suburban Chicago serial murderer who spawned two earlier book-length studies, "The Man Who Killed Boys" in 1980 and "The Killer Clown" in 1983. This entry is done from Gacy's point of view -- a technique that is not without risk. The author himself notes that "the reader may feel claustrophobic, may feel trapped inside the killer's mind." Because of this, despite Tim Cahill's fine style of writing and structuring and despite Russ Ewing's able and careful research, "Buried Dreams" all too often becomes more revolting than riveting, giving details that had to be omitted on the evening news, details that can't, even in summary, be recounted here.
To refresh your memory, John Wayne Gacy was arrested in 1978 for the murder of 33 young men, 29 of whose bodies were found buried in the crawl space beneath his home. He called these bodies his "trophies," and he bragged about the little gimmicks he used to heighten the thrill of gaining them. "I did a double with only one pair of cuffs," he boasts from his prison cell, referring to two boys "buried one on top of the other -- one victim lay face up, head to the east -- in positions that suggested sexual activities, as if the killer wished to humiliate his victims, even in death."
About 35 pages of this book are among the most terrifying I've ever read, more terrifying than Cahill's subtitle, "Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer," can suggest. Indeed, this portion might be called "In the Killer's Clutches," for here Gacy, in leg irons, reenacts the capture, torture and murder of one of those unlucky youths. Gacy played this to the hilt, doing his own part as well as that of the boy -- even, Cahill tells us, mimicking a boy's voice.
It is Gacy's contention that he wasn't "himself" for any of the murders, but that a sinister alter ego whom he named Jack Hanley emerged to do these deeds. Hanley, behind the wheel of Gacy's black sedan, purported to be a cop. One of the recreated boy's first pleas is, " 'Hey, man, please . . . don't bust me. Don't take me in." Ironically, the stalking Gacy offers sympathy. "Let's just go over to my house . . . Maybe we can work something out." Later, Gacy even does the boy's final, "Oh, God . . . oh, God, help me."
It is astounding how many times the authorities might have glommed onto this man but didn't. In 1971, Gacy was on parole from a prison in Iowa, where he'd been serving time for a sodomy charge. He was released from parole despite the fact that he'd just been arrested again in Illinois on a similar offense. Cahill estimates that the first murder came 45 days after this release.
Once the bodies were unearthed, several "might haves" were reported, including a premonition in the account of a neighbor: "And lots of times, I heard crying at night. Crying and screaming -- 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock, 3 o'clock . . . At night you can't tell where it comes from, a screaming sound like that. But the dog was always barking and the screams would fade away, so maybe it was just my imagination. The next day and the day after, I'd listen to the news and they never said anything about screams, so I thought, it's my imagination." When neighbors did call police, officers found nothing amiss.
But even before all those bodies were discovered, police had brushed away stories by young men who'd eluded Gacy, some after considerable torture. Most maddening of all, however, is the difficulty Jeff Rignall had in lodging charges against Gacy.
Rignall had been lured into Gacy's car and chloroformed. He awakened in the Gacy home to find he "had been stripped, and he was restrained in a kind of pillory device." Inexplicably, Gacy let Rignall live. Even more inexplicably, Rignall was unable to persuade police to investigate even after he had ID'd Gacy's photo and provided them with Gacy's license plate number. Rignall recalls that "when I started getting into the physical aspect of what the man had done to me . . . they began to make me believe I was the crazy one, that he was quote unquote a model citizen."
Wasn't he? The time of death of one of the victims is fixed by Cahill as "a few weeks after John Gacy posed for a photo with Rosalynn Carter . . . a week after John Gacy was photographed shaking hands with the mayor of Chicago."
Gacy, a contractor who was active in local politics, evidently was not without a certain light-of-day charm. Cahill cites this as part of the difference between the serial killer and the mass murderer, the former being "a colder, more calculating animal . . . whose method was facade, the ability to live an apparently normal life between, and in spite of, the accumulating murderous episodes."
"The serial killer," Cahill tells us and effectively proves here, "is everyone's next-door neighbor."