In December 1978, a young Chicago lawyer named Sam Amirante was starting his own practice as an independent defense attorney. He had recently left a job at the Public Defender’s Office where he’d spent the previous few years “cutting his teeth" and was now eagerly preparing to strike out on his own. Just after moving into his new office, he received a life-changing phone call from a man who would become the first client of his new private practice.
“Sam, could you do me a favor?”
The man on the other end of the call was John Wayne Gacy,a gregarious and boastful 37-year-old who owned a successful contracting business (PDM Contractors) in the Northwest Chicago neighborhood of Norwood Park. Gacy complained that he was being harassed by the Des Plaines Police Department about a missing teenager named Robert Piest. He claimed to know nothing about the boy and insisted that the unwarranted police attention was damaging to his business and image. He needed the cops off his back.
Sam knew Gacy, if only as a passing acquaintance. Gacy, an overweight man of Polish descent, was a minor figure in local Democratic politics, a volunteer clown for children’s functions, and a tireless worker who provided jobs to an ever-changing clan of young boys. Sam thought of him as being “nice enough”—a harmless, self-important, braggart. Sam needed clients, so he agreed to help Gacy and thus became his lawyer.
Over the next several days, what started with a seemingly innocent phone call snowballed into a true-crime nightmare of unprecedented proportions. On the evening of December 20, 1979, a haggard and drunken Gacy spent the night in Sam’s office talking with his new lawyer. Over the course of several hours, Gacy confessed to murdering more than 30 young men (most of whom he had tortured and raped) and burying many of them under his house at 8213 W. Summerdale Ave in Chicago's Norwood Park neighborhood. Sam was horrified.
Gacy was arrested the next day on a minor drug violation. Meanwhile, policemen armed with a search warrant scoured his house and discovered human remains buried in the crawlspace. In all, 29 bodies were found buried on Gacy’s property, and four more were pulled from the Des Plaines River. Most had been victims of strangulation (by a tourniquet method that Gacy would later call his “rope trick”).
Gacy was charged with murder, and Sam became the defense attorney for one of the most bizarre and prolific serial killers in American history: John Wayne Gacy, The Killer Clown. The case went to trial in 1980, and Gacy, who pleaded insanity, was convicted of 33 counts of murder (the most in American history) and sentenced to death.