If you're from Chicago, or have lived here for any significant length of time, the three-part Netflix documentary "Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes" is little more than a repackaging of the well-known, if disturbing, story of this serial killer. For anyone else — and especially perhaps for viewers born in the decades after he committed at least 33 murders of teenage boys and young men in his Norwood Park, Ill., home throughout the 1970s — the horror show that was Gacy might be more obscure, and director Joe Berlinger's series is as decent a retelling as any. There is no shortage of TV and film about Gacy. This is just one more.
The show relies on audiotapes of Gacy himself, culled from interviews with his defense team that took place between November 1979 and April 1980, while he was awaiting trial. The tapes are what's new here, but they offer no revelations. Gacy is matter of fact, self-serving and frequently arrogant; he never contemplates the magnitude of what he has done or why. It isn't compelling. Nearly half a century later, it's not unreasonable to wonder if friends and families of the victims are exhausted by the prospect of Gacy having his say once again, as he has so many times before.
There are present-day interviews throughout as well, and the stories of two men who managed to escape Gacy's clutches are deeply moving and they go a long way toward humanizing the experiences of all the victims. "I could have been one of those skeletons they found," one of them says. The darkness of Gacy's facial expression haunts him to this day. Gacy's crimes, which included rape and torture, are profoundly disturbing; the remains of 29 bodies were found buried in his basement, as well as in his garage, before he ran out of space. "For days and days, we kept digging them out," says one of the police officers.
"Our only defense was insanity," Gacy's attorney Sam Amirante tells Berlinger (who previously made "Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes"). Though Amirante talks about being disturbed by his client's crimes, he offers little insight into how this affected him at work or at home — and how (or even if) it shaped his thoughts about his career going forward. In the tapes, Gacy tells his defense team, "You weren't fighting my case, you were fighting society." And yet Amirante doesn't really talk about what it means to contend with these kinds of appalling delusions within a professional context. (Presumably, he covers that in his 2011 book "John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster.")
How did Gacy's crimes go undetected for so long? The series delves into some of that as well. Convicted in the late '60s in Iowa for sexually assaulting a teenage boy (he served 18 months of a 10-year sentence), he was able to shed that past when he moved back to his native Chicago. Being white and male, with modest political connections, meant he moved through life with the benefit of the doubt — until he didn't. Berlinger doesn't examine that too deeply: "Just because somebody looks and acts a certain way doesn't mean you should trust them," he recently told Entertainment Weekly. "He was the neighborhood guy who threw all the parties. So, to me, that's a very important lesson to give the next generation." It's not that Berlinger is wrong, but the series glosses over the reality that certain people — because of how they look, and a lot of times that comes down to race — are treated with suspicion, while others are not. Why is that? Gacy's targets were often gay, and in one case, a survivor went to the police, who weren't particularly alarmed by his grisly story, shrugging it off as a lover's quarrel.
Gacy was executed in 1994. In October, DNA testing and genealogy information helped Cook County investigators identify a North Carolina native named Francis Wayne Alexander as one of Gacy's victims. According to his siblings, who spoke to reporters last fall, Alexander was a "fun-loving, sensitive young man whose disappearance after November 1976 was out of character."
My colleague William Lee covered the story and noted that when "Cook County investigators first contacted Alexander's family last June, they did not mention that the case was connected to Gacy." But Alexander's sister had a suspicion, due to the year of the body's discovery and its Chicago area location: "It did cross my mind, yes," she said, "that was my first thought."
Five victims still remain unidentified.