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.
Sam Amirante, who later became a Judge, has now written a long awaited book about his experiences on the case entitled John Wayne Gacy:Defending a Monster. The book offers chilling insight into one of the worst crime sprees in history and also serves as a testament to Amirante’s unflinching dedication to the American justice system and to defending the rights of the accused—no matter who they are.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Judge Amirante by phone as he drove home from the offices of his current law practice in Chicago. We spoke about his book, his love of our country’s judicial system, and his involvement with Gacy. The following is the complete transcript.
You are passionate about the American justice system and the fact that every American is entitled to a fair trial and a capable defense in court. You are so passionate about these things that you defended the most notorious serial killer in American history — placing you in a very controversial role. How did you develop such an intense passion for the law?
No one’s ever asked me that question. I’d say it started with, and was inspired by, my dad who served in the Navy during WW2 in the island-hopping campaign. He was always a very patriotic guy—was so proud to be an American. My grandparents came over from Naples, Italy and were the type people that helped build America.
Dad was hard-working and taught me to be the same. He talked a lot about statesmanship. Ironically enough, he was also an Archie Bunker kind of guy. So aside from inspiring me, he was also one of these old-fashioned Italian kind of guys who didn’t like lawyers and didn’t trust the system. In fact, he wanted me to be a doctor.
I ended up following my father’s footsteps and serving in the armed forces as a Marine, which also helped strengthen my sense of patriotism. After law school, I’d planned on being a prosecutor, but I couldn’t get a job in the State Prosecutor’s office. I ended up working in the Public Defender’s office where I met a guy name Nunzio Tisci, an Italian American like my dad. He was a very passionate lawyer. He would fight so hard for clients — clients who were already convicted.
We were working in post-conviction appeals, writs of habeas corpus, violation of probation — basically, the worst of the worst. He [Tisci] would go in there and fight to win every single case. I learned so much about being a lawyer from him. He would come up with creative thoughts, creative ideas, and creative motions. He taught me to think like a lawyer — to think on my feet — and to really appreciate the system that we have, the presumption of innocence, and individual rights and liberties. I think I’ve maintained that passion throughout my years of practicing law and even when I served on the bench.
You waited many, many years to publish a book about your experiences with Gacy. Why?
Well, for a number of reasons…
Number one, I would have never done it while any of the issues in the case were still pending, because I certainly didn’t want to interfere with the judicial process and issues. I didn’t want to do it back then. A lot of people asked me to, but I didn’t want to. Then, as history and time went on, you see all of the rumors and all the different innuendos and speculation about what happened—different things that really corrupted history.
I had retired from the bench, and I was looking for things to do after retirement. I was practicing law again; in fact, I’m quite busy doing that again. I waited to retire from the bench to do it [write the book], but I always felt that it was a story that had to be told. I wanted to wait until everything was said and done before I proceeded.
When I initially looked for people to help me write the book—I did think about doing it a number of years ago with Bob Motta [the lawyer who assisted with Gacy’s defense]—we could never really find anybody who was able to demonstrate that same kind of passion [for the justice system] that you talked about earlier. Most writers and ghost writers that I talked to had the attitude that I represented Gacy begrudgingly—that it was something I had to do. That wasn’t the case, and I wanted to show that.
Finally, I happened to run into Danny Broderick, whom I hadn’t seen in a number of years. He had been a young associate of mine when he got out of law school. He knew the kind of passion that was involved in my practice and how I felt about things. He was a passionate lawyer in his own regard when he was practicing. He knew the courtroom. I knew that he had written a book, and I thought that maybe he might be able to write the book the way I wanted it.
Sure enough, he did. So, I think the timing was right, and having Danny Broderick to do it was very important.
Your book opens like a novel. It details the frightening story of how Gacy lured his final victim, Rob Piest, to his home and strangled him. As you point out, Rob was very different from Gacy’s other victims. Rob was a popular and well known kid, and Gacy took him from a public place, eventually leading to the arrest. Why, in your opinion, was Gacy so bold or careless in the case of Piest?
One of two reasons: Number one, the most compelling reason: I truly believe in my heart to this day that, subconsciously, Gacy wanted to stop the killing — he wanted to be caught. I think he broke the mold at that point. He was dropping all of those hints to the police. He was doing different things. There was a last bit of sanity he had—sort of like the Jekyll and Hyde from the novel. The evil was completely taking over the good in John Gacy. I really think he broke his MO at that point. It was almost like he wanted to get caught. He did everything differently than he had in the past.
Another thought in that regard is that he was just becoming so… Evil was taking over, and his insanity was becoming so enraging that he couldn’t control himself anymore. He did this to Robert Piest. He’d been “smart” in concealing his crimes before that.
I think he was coming to a point, as defined by law in IL, of insanity when you suffer from a mental disease and cannot conform your conduct to requirements of the law or you cannot appreciate the criminality of your acts. I think he was getting to the point in his mental disease – -which we believed he had—that he couldn’t conform his conduct or appreciate the criminality of his acts.
The argument of the state was, of course, that he could. It was our argument that he was progressively getting worse and worse. So, I think it may have been a combination of really wanting to stop it with the good side of him and not being able to control himself any more—his illness was progressing.
The murders were becoming more and more frequent, and he was being less and less careful with each one. He was going out to the Des Plaines River with the last four bodies and throwing them off the bridge on the highway. Anyone passing in a car could have seen him.
As Gacy’s defense attorney, you spent countless hours sifting through the horrific details of his crimes — all the while having to work with him on a very intimate level. How did you manage to remain professional and keep from being overwhelmed by emotion or revulsion?
I don’t think it’s that difficult when you are a lawyer or a physician who believes in the oath that you take. A physician takes the Hippocratic Oath; a lawyer takes an oath to protect the constitution. You focus on the issues. You focus on the matters at hand. You don’t think about the type of person you are representing. You are not a psychologist or a social worker—you are a lawyer. You are the person protecting that individual.
Just like a doctor, who might treat a person like Gacy at any given time, you’re going to treat that person the best that you can, with the best medical research you can, without considering who the person is. It’s not a difficult thing. It’s a thing you develop.
John Gacy was a man of contradictions. He could be extremely friendly and caring at times, and as we know, he could also be dangerously dark, angry, and violent. Did you ever witness that dark side of his behavior, or did he keep that side of himself hidden from you throughout the ordeal?
Not personally. I witnessed him have a change in personality—a tremendous change in demeanor. But as far as violent acting out, I never personally witnessed that. We tried to get that out. We had alcohol-induced EEG’s done. We had a sodium amatol test done and drug-induced EEG’s.
We tried all different kinds of things. We never could bring out that violent behavior in him. I saw his eyes roll back; I saw his eyelids flutter. I saw him go into somewhat of a fugue state sometimes. But as far as violence, I never saw it. I heard about it but never saw it.
It is interesting that you say you used sodium amatol [truth serum] on him. He always claimed to have undergone that test, but many people accused him of lying about it.
Yes, we did use the sodium amatol on him, which is truth serum. His personality was so strong that he was actually fighting off the sodium amatol.
Would society have benefited more from Gacy having been institutionalized and studied rather than executed? Why?
I believed at the time, and I certainly still believe that more positive things could have come out of him staying alive. However, when it comes to just him personally—by the end, at the time he was executed, he was actually in total denial over the killings.
I don’t know how much we would have learned from him, individually, as a person helping out. But I think we could have studied his personality type and his disease with hopes of preventing things like this. It still happens in the world. It wasn’t a serial killing, but just consider the mass shooting in Colorado recently. We have preventative medicines and theories on heart disease and other physical and mental diseases.
I’m not anti-death penalty, personally, but I don’t know how society ever benefits from killing people. Killing somebody is always a loss to society in one form or another. Here was a guy that had a wealth of information that we could have studied to prevent something like it from happening again. Even if you save one more life of an innocent person by studying this guy, isn’t it worth it? Also, it costs more money to impose the death penalty than to keep someone alive, oddly enough.
To what degree do you believe Gacy’s shame of his homosexuality figured into his crimes?
I believe it figured largely. I don’t know if there would be a John Gacy-like personality today because of society’s norms and values today. He was a classic in-the-closet homosexual. He was really killing himself every time he got involved in that activity. He didn’t do it every time he was involved in homosexuality activity, but he hated himself so much for it. He didn’t want to be that. The one deep, dark secret he held to his death was that. He didn’t want to admit that his was a homosexual. He just lashed out every time he found himself in that situation.
Gacy was a perfect storm of the homosexuality that he denied, his dad’s treatment of him being the way it was — everything just kind of came together: him going to jail for sodomy, his dad passing away while he was in jail. All of these different things came together and created the perfect storm which was John Gacy.
I think his homosexuality had a lot to do with it. I don’t think homosexuality in general did — other than the norms and attitudes of the times in the 1970s. I think him being homosexual and not admitting it had a lot to do with his crimes.
Have you had any contact with family members of the victims since the trial — especially since the release of your book?
Danny and I ran into a few of the victims’ sisters and moms at book signings that we had. They were actually pretty understanding about different things. Those that we talked to felt that the story should have been told and that we had treated the victims and the story with respect—which we appreciated. In one instance, out in Vegas, we actually stopped a protest. Some guy was selling Gacy paintings out there, and there was a protest being led by one or two of the sisters of the victims.
Greg Godzik’s sister was at one of the book signings and asked a couple of questions. We didn’t know who she was until after it was all over and she came over and started talking to us. Randy Johnson’s sister, I think, was leading the protest in Vegas. After they heard us talk… We were invited there to speak, and Danny and I spoke about the book and about how we feel about different issues. They actually stopped protesting the paintings, which was a good thing.
We haven’t had any serious threats or flack or anything from the victim’s families. I was surprised, because I thought that we might hear something. Even Greg Godzik’s sister, whose mom was one of the most outspoken critics at the time—a critic not only of Gacy but also of the government, police, and so on. She [the sister] was very, very cordial to us—very respectful and dignified. Any experience that we’ve had with the families of the victims has been positive.
I remember Robbie Piest’s dad even, this was anamazing thing, at trial, he came
up to me one day—and you know the fear; he might stick a knife in your throat since you are the lawyer of the guy that he hates. But Mr. Piest came up to me and said, “Sam, I just want you to let you know that I have no malice or ill will toward you. Iunderstand that you have job to do, sir, and I had to express that and tell you that.” I thought that was the classiest and nicest thing. It was during a time of… It was in the middle of the trial.
I was never afraid of anything or anybody. The only thing that ever bothered me is that if somebody might have wanted to get John Gacy, I might get in the way of a bullet or something. But any personal threats toward me never bothered me.
The toughest thing about a case like that—any case that involves the victims of horrible crimes—is looking at those family members when you’re the lawyer defending someone accused of doing that and sometimes even knowing that they’ve done it. Seeing the looks on the faces of these people and feeling compassion for them is a very difficult thing to experience. That’s much more difficult than representing the person—facing the victims.
When was the last time you spoke with or saw John Wayne Gacy? Can you tell me a bit about that final encounter?
Oh boy. One of the last times I ever spoke to him, he was down in Menard. We used to communicate, and I went down to see him a few times. He was in Menard Penitentiary in Southern IL. He was executed at Statesville, but they brought him back up to Statesville.
Anyway, he was telling me about this woman he had met — a woman who’d become his pen pal and would come there to visit him. She wanted to marry him. I said, “Oh John, that’s good. Maybe you should marry her.” He said, “What? Are you kidding? Are you nuts? I’d never marry that fat hog!” or something like that. He said, “She’s got two kids in the joint down here. You think I’d want to ruin my reputation by marrying into a family like that?”
That was typical John Gacy. He just had no clue. As smart as he was — almost genius in some ways — in others, he didn’t have a clue. He didn’t want to ruin his reputation!
He was always friendly. He would sort of mimic what we would say about the issues. For instance, that’s how he got the idea that other people may have committed the murders. Bob Motta and I used to ask him, “Hey John, are you sure you did this? Are you sure you weren’t stoned or high or drunk or something and woke up with a body next to you — just assumed you did it? Maybe Rossi did it, or Cram did it?” He’d say, “You know, maybe that’s what happened.” So, he started believing that stuff himself.
We told him that he had to attack us, because in appeals you have to attack your lawyers as ineffective and everything. But the last time I talked to him, we didn’t have any animosity toward each other. One thing I wish — I wish I’d had a chance to talk with him before he died and to try to convince him to show some remorse — to apologize to people and go out in some sort of a dignified way. It never happened; his last words were reportedly, “Kiss my ass.” Actually, he convinced his last lawyers that he was innocent, I believe. He was a pretty manipulative guy.
As far as your experience with Gacy, do you have any regrets?
If I have any regrets at all, it’s not having been able to spend enough time with my young family while working on that case. It’d be on a personal level. I’ve apologized to my two young boys, who are now grown men, and my ex-wife — that’s probably why she’s my ex-wife. I didn’t get to spend enough time with them. That bothers me to this day.
There seems to be a new Gacy story in the media every week even today. Why is the public still so fascinated with this case?
For one thing, he is a great manipulator. He is still manipulating from the grave. He’s got people thinking that there are other bodies to be found somewhere — which there are not. If there were… I would have known about it if there were; I’m about 99.99% sure. And people have a morbid fascination with things like that. It’s one of those things that just doesn’t seem to go away.
Just recently, I don’t know if you read it in the news or saw it online, but his nephew is on trial up in Henry County here. Someone asked me why they didn’t ask me to defend him. I figure his mother thought, My brother got the death penalty! I don’t want him! [chuckles]
He is being charged… He’s on trial on a sexual assault case. He was about fourteen years old, I think, when the [Gacy] trial was going on. That’s his [John’s] sister, Jo Anne’s kid, I think.
I saw that. The nephew and his late uncle share a shocking resemblance.
Wow! Don’t they? I looked at that, and I was kind of freaked out. Except, he looks a lot better than John. John was only in his thirties, and he looked like he was sixty. This guy is 49 and still looks like a kid. Still, he looks a lot like John — even built like him.
Recently, there have been stories in the media about two lawyers who are suggesting, based on Gacy’s own meticulous record keeping, that he may have had accomplices in his crimes, specifically Mike Rossi and David Cram, two young men who worked for his business and spent time living in his house. Having heard Gacy’s confessions first hand, what is your opinion on the matter?
We interviewed everybody at the time. Again, it was my idea, and Bob Motta’s idea, that Rossi and Cram may have helped him or actually committed some the murders themselves. We asked John about that and, as John called it, “planted the seed” in his head. He used to talk about “planting the seed.”
You know, we investigated Rossi and Cram. What they did… They were a couple of kids… They were young kids who were under Gacy’s spell so to speak. They were like his little sex slaves, and they would do anything he wanted them to do. He basically had them digging trenches in the basement—in the crawlspace—knowing that he was probably going to use them for graves and telling them that the trenches were for drain tiles because there was always a water problem in that crawl space. And he had them digging down there.
Did they think he was up to no good? Yeah, I think they thought he was up to no good. Did they think he was a hit man of some sort? Because that’s what he told them—that he was a hit man for the mafia and that he used to help kill people and stuff like that. Did they ever participate in any murder with him? I really don’t believe so. I won’t say it’s completely hogwash, but I just… There is absolutely no evidence of that whatsoever. Did they help him bury the bodies? I don’t think so. Did they dig holes that bodies were in? Absolutely.
I suppose the holes could have been their own graves had things not come to a head.
Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m sure they knew something was going on but sort of turned their heads to it. Because, you know, they got gifts from him. They got items from kids who used to work for him—kids who they thought—who he told them—had run away.
I think they may have suspected something. Even in the end… Well a lot of things Cram told the police are in the book. The night after Gacy was in my office, John went to David Cram and told David—he said, “I was with my lawyers all night, and I told them I killed all these people; I’ve killed over thirty people. I just wanted to let you know that I might be going away.” Cram didn’t know what he was talking about other than he was supposed to be a “hit man.”
The kids, Rossi and Cram, were helpful to the case?
Yes they were—to the state. Rossi went and hired a lawyer—a former state’s attorney. He kind of kept Rossi’s mouth shut after a while. He basically, what they call, “lawyered up”. So he [Rossi] didn’t help anybody too much. Rossi may have known a little more than Cram, but I don’t think either one of them participated in the murders at all or murdered any other people.
Can you tell me a bit about the Missing Child Recovery Act of 1984?
It was 1984. I was running for the state senate. People, you know, didn’t like me because I’d been Gacy’s lawyer. I was looking for some sort of platform to show the kind of person I really am—I’m compassionate. I had asked the jury to do something—to keep him [Gacy] alive and study him. It didn’t happen. No one had ever really done something about the Gacy case and what’s happening. I was a lawyer in it.
I happened to be watching a movie about Adam Walsh, the kid who was missing in Florida, it was called “Adam,” I think. I watched the movie and went to look at my two young boys who were sleeping in bed. I thought, My God, what would I do if my kid was ever missing like that or like one of the victims in the Gacy case—missing? I’d go crazy. What would I do?
I was sitting in court the next day waiting for my case to be called. It was a drug enforcement case where they had specialized drug units to enforce drug laws. I thought, “If they do this for drugs—why can’t we do this for missing children?”
So, I sat there in court and wrote this entire law which did three things. It ended a 72-hour waiting period. Police used to wait… It was an unwritten rule that police used to wait before they would start engaging themselves in looking for lost, missing, or runaway children. It had always been 72 hours. In that 72 hours kids, could fall through the cracks—literally go into the crawlspace and never be found. So it ended that. I wrote a thing for the legislature to end that 72-hour waiting period—to order police departments to act immediately on missing child reports for people under 21 years old.
Secondly, it started a state-wide, central computer system for all information regarding profiling of people. It might be profiling pedophiles and so forth. It included information about missing kids: fingerprints, photographs, dental records and so on. It would all go into this state-wide computer system.
Thirdly, there would be special units created which would specialize in finding lost, missing, and runaway children. These three things were really needed and answered some of the horrors of the Gacy case.
It was drafted into bill form and passed unanimously in the IL state legislature and became ISEARCH: Illinois State Enforcement Agency to Recover Children. It would ultimately become a blueprint for the national version and the forerunner to the Amber Alert.
Early on [in Illinois], after a couple of years, it was responsible for 3,000 children being located and returned to their families. So, it turned out to be a big success. There was state funding for it until the economy went bad and some funds were taken away. There are still some ISEARCH units available.
That was the silver lining to the Gacy cloud. Even with horrible, horrible cases like that—horrible crimes—something good can come of it. I’ve always said, “If you can save one person, it’s worth the effort.” Hopefully a lot of kids were saved and a lot of families were saved a lot of grief by the writing of the law. Ironically enough, the John Gacy case was responsible for that.
Lastly, what does the future hold for Sam Amirante?
Well, there is a documentary coming out in the fall based on the book. I don’t know where it is going to be right now. There is a paperback version coming out on October 6. A director and producer in Hollywood bought our movie rights, and they are planning to do a big screen movie. It’s not going to really be a horror-type movie. It’s going to go into legal history—in the genre of In Cold Blood—a true-crime type thing that carries a message with it but could be entertaining too.
On my front, I’m retired from the bench. I have a young family again; I’m married again. I have a six-year-old daughter who is going to be the first Italian-American president of the United States! Now that I’m older and not involved in a case like that, I’m still working hard, but I’m spending a lot of time with my young family, which is what I should be doing. I’m still going into court every day and defending the rights of the accused.
*John Wayne Gacy was the son of an abusive father. In 1968, John was convicted of sodomy against a minor (a young boy) and sentenced to ten years imprisonment in Iowa. He was released early on parole in 1970 — having served just over one year. His killing spree occurred after his parole— during the years that he had originally been sentenced to prison.
Though he confessed to the murders to police at the time of his arrest in 1978, he later denied responsibility and maintained that stance until his death. He was executed by lethal injection on May 10, 1994.
Seven of his victims were never identified. Below is a list of those who were. Included with each name are the victim’s age and estimated date of death. When covering this sad case, it is important to remember these young victims of violence.
Timothy McCoy (15) January 3, 1972
John Butkovitch (17) July 29, 1975
Darrell Sampson (18) April 6, 1976
Randall Reffett (15) May 14, 1976
Samuel Stapleton (14) May 14, 1976
Michael Bonnin (17) June 3, 1976
William Carroll (16) June 13, 1976
Rick Johnston (17) August 6, 1976
Michael Marino (14) October 24, 1976
Kenneth Parker (16) October 24, 1976
William Bundy (19) October 26, 1976
Gregory Godzik (17) December 12, 1976
John Szyc (19) January 20, 1977
Jon Prestidge (20) March 15, 1977
Matthew Bowman (19) July 5, 1977
Robert Gilroy (18) September 15, 1977
John Mowery (19) September 25, 1977
Russell Nelson (21) October 17, 1977
Robert Winch (16) November 10, 1977
Tommy Boling (20) November 18, 1977
David Talsma (19) December 9, 1977
William Kindred (19) February 16, 1978
Timothy O’ Rourke (20) June 16–23, 1978
Frank Landingin (19) November 4, 1978
James Mazzara (21) November 24, 1978
Robert Piest (15) December 11, 1978
*John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster will be available in paperback on October 6, 2012.