Sixteen-year-old Timothy “Jack” McCoy spent his last Christmas at his aunt and uncle’s home in Michigan surrounded by cousins. On the day he left, just after New Year’s 1972, he promised to call when he arrived back home in Glenwood, Iowa.
The family waited 14 years for the phone to ring.
In December 1978, police discovered McCoy’s body, along with 32 others, buried at the home of Chicago-based serial killer John Wayne Gacy. McCoy was Gacy’s first victim. But it wasn’t until May 1986 that his remains were positively identified and authorities could finally notify his family.
Often called the “Killer Clown,” Gacy is one of America’s most notorious serial killers, one whose story is widely known. In his new book, Boys Enter the House, journalist David Nelson explores the stories of those who are lesser known: Gacy’s victims. Nelson interviewed families and friends to learn more about the men and boys and retrace their steps in the days leading up to their disappearances.
A&E True Crime spoke with Nelson about what compelled him to explore the other side of Gacy’s crimes and why these men and boys may be gone, but never forgotten.
You lived in Uptown, the same neighborhood as many of John Wayne Gacy’s victims. What lasting effects, if any, did his crimes and the death of these men and boys have on the community?
I still live in the Uptown community on Chicago’s north side, which is just one of the neighborhoods where many of Gacy’s victims lived or disappeared from. When you start talking about the Gacy case with people who are longtime Chicago residents, many of them have a story of meeting Gacy or knowing one of his victims.
I was getting my hair cut one time in Evanston, a suburb just north of Chicago, and a person said, ‘I used to live in Uptown and I met Gacy once.’ A friend’s mother knew one of the victims. They went to the same school. A former coworker also went to high school with one of the victims.
[Stream Invisible Monsters: Serial Killers in America on A&E’s site and apps.]
Many of these people also watched the news coverage at the time. They were riveted to it because it was a huge local and national story. People remember the images, and watching the bodies being taken out of Gacy’s house on stretchers. These images are fixed in people’s minds. There are still memories lingering, not just in Uptown but all over Chicago.
This chapter also affected the ways we walk the streets at night, to get from one place to another. If a car slows down, obviously we get a little bit on edge. To some extent, we second guess our neighbors too—because Gacy was a neighbor, the everyday American neighbor.
What are some of the common connections between Gacy’s victims?
One thing that surprised me is that Gacy was a component in many of their lives before they were murdered. A lot of the boys mentioned knowing this contractor who paid really well, and some were employed by him. Some of the victims were involved in sex work, and Gacy was someone coming into their circle. In many instances, these were not chance encounters. He was a figure in their lives for a period of time—as long as several weeks or months before their murders. Yet the cops never looked into him as hard as they could have.
Gacy is mentioned in several of the missing persons reports for these boys as someone the police interviewed, but not as a suspect. Had they just gone a little bit further, they might have discovered what was going on.
From a sociological standpoint, Gacy was preying on some of these kids who were not as well off. These were kids down on their luck, looking for money or a job, looking to better themselves, and here comes this businessman who’s going to help them out. I was also surprised to learn how many of the victims knew and interacted with each other.
We don’t often hear about the victims’ lives outside of police profiling and how they are portrayed in the media. What are some things we don’t know about the victims?
Many of the victims were looking for that next step in their lives, whether it was a job, relationship or school. They were on the cusp of what came next; the age where they were close to getting their own lives going. So it’s unfortunate on many levels.
Many of these boys came from less affluent areas. They were trying to survive on the edge of poverty or looking to get away from something happening in their home lives. I was also surprised to learn how many of these boys and their families had other horrific incidents happen in their lives.
John Mowery was a victim who went missing in 1977. His sister was murdered five years before him in 1972 in an unrelated separate incident. So this family went through multiple [tragedies].
The family of Randy Reffett, who went missing in May 1976, was involved in a domestic altercation in Kentucky that resulted in his father and his mother both getting shot and coming pretty close to death.
Some of these families were dealing with other violent acts that had happened [to them]. There was also alcoholism and abuse in several other families.
Of the friends and loved ones you interviewed, did any know Gacy or come in contact with him? If so, how did they describe him?
Many of them did know Gacy on some level. A couple years after Randy Reffett went missing [on May 14, 1976], his brother Clyde Reffett encountered a man whom he believed to be Gacy. Gacy was trying to give him a ride.
Billy Kindred’s girlfriend Mary Jo Paulus interacted with Gacy at a bar several times in 1978. [Gacy murdered Kindred in February 1978.]
Those who came in contact with Gacy had a bad feeling about him. They wanted to get away. Judy Patterson, the girlfriend of Greg Godzik [who was murdered in December 1976], called Gacy a big ass. He was very egotistical, which you can see in the interactions he had with police and others. He bragged about being a big contractor and was always talking about his connections with people.
Although some time has passed, how are the victims’ family and friends still coping with their deaths?
Things are better for them, but I would say not a day goes by where they’re not affected by what happened or where they don’t think about their brother or their son or their boyfriend. It has manifested itself in a range of issues with relationships among their families. There’s been addiction issues. Some people have had their health issues exacerbated by these events.
One woman I talked with believes her mother and father’s health issues were accelerated because of the case and having to go through the trial. I think most of them would say they’ve been able to have happy moments since then, but the events have taken such a chunk of their lives. They’ve devoted so much emotion and pain to their loved ones’ deaths and waiting for Gacy to be executed that I don’t think it’ll ever truly go away.
Of the loved ones you spoke with, is there a particular person you can’t get out of your head? Or a particular story or memory someone shared that continues to haunt you?
They all have aspects that are unforgettable, but I will say that one of the boys that has stuck with me is the first I came upon. This was Billy Carol, who went missing in June 1976. He disappeared on the night of his older brother’s birthday. He grew up not far from me and I walked over to where he had been living at the time of his disappearance. It felt very vivid.
Unfortunately, his brother died in 1980 in an altercation on the streets of Uptown, almost a month after the end of the trial. The father died a couple years later, and then the mother lived for a couple of decades on her own. I uncovered he had had a sister who had been given away because she had learning disabilities and [the family] couldn’t care for her.
There was something about him that spoke to me. I still think about him. There are [more] things that I’d like to know about him.