This is a brief expansion of the thread I posted on Twitter recently, for anyone who wants a little more information.
William J. Kunkle died in November 2022 after a long career embedded in in the Cook County political system. His exit reduces by a big one the number of people who could fill in the significant gaps in the story of the Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
Though Kunkle was an assistant state’s attorney, judge, and private defense attorney, he’s primarily remembered for his central role in the prosecution of Gacy for the murders of his 33 known victims. As lead prosecutor, Kunkle got his conviction, and in 1994 Gacy was executed. But the recent obits ignore another important part Kunkle played in the case: helping to produce a false narrative about Gacy that persists to this day.
More than ten years ago, troubled by inconsistencies in the case files, film producer Tracy Ullman and I began trying to figure out what might explain them. We found a lot of problems. I blogged about what we discovered as we were learning, and much of that has made its way rather casually into coverage of recent developments in the case–but not into the story officials keep telling.
Eventually our investigation served as the basis for the NBC Universal documentary series John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise, which began airing on the Peacock streaming channel in March 2021.
We found that police had been alerted to Gacy’s likely role in the disappearances of some of his victims years before he was finally arrested. Investigators knew that Gacy worked with accomplices. And after the arrest they knew Gacy was likely to have buried additional victims and where but they never searched for them.
Around the same time we started investigating, Cook County sheriff Tom Dart announced a new mission. He said he had learned recently that eight of Gacy’s known victims had never been identified (another ball the original investigators inexplicably dropped). And he wanted to help the families of those last Gacy victims”get closure.” Families came out of the woodwork to share their DNA in hopes of identifying a lost loved one. So far he has only succeeded in identifying three. What if those families are related to boys buried in those other places?
There are so many questions. Why was Gacy allowed to remain free for so long? Why wasn’t anyone else prosecuted or forced to divulge information about other victims? And why don’t the authorities care about the families of those other victims?
Though Dart and Kunkle both sat for interviews for our series, neither explained why Gacy hadn’t been arrested sooner, nor why no one else had been charged in the murders. But one piece of evidence we can’t get our hands on may hold a key.
Gacy’s “Blackmail Book”
Among the effects the police collected from Gacy’s house were pornography, photography equipment, and meticulous work records revealing a connection to John David Norman, a convicted human trafficker and purveyor of child sex abuse materials. Only the year before, Norman had testified in Chicago about his occupation to a congressional subcommittee investigating child abuse. Norman had been arrested with a massive card catalog containing the names of clients— tens of thousands of them. (We also uncovered a connection between Norman and a lesser-known Texas serial killer, Dean Corll.)
Like the convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who allegedly killed himself in 2019 while awaiting trial at Rikers Island, John Wayne Gacy had information and an address book that could get other people in trouble. He called it his “blackmail book.” Confiscated with the rest of his belongings, it has since disappeared–or at least it’s not accessible to us. Might its contents have anything to do with the woefully incomplete story about Gacy retailed by Cook County officials since 1978?
What Was Kunkle Hiding About Gacy and Why?
Kunkle was a young assistant state’s attorney when he was assigned the job of prosecuting Gacy. Clearly he needed to win, but as the remains of dozens of murdered teenage boys were found in the crawlspace beneath Gacy’s house, he had a pretty good case.
But the process may have been rigged to ensure a conviction. Kunkle made the amazing asmission in our interview that one of his prosecutors met regularly with Gacy’s defense attorney Sam Amirante to strategize.
Now, you can hardly blame these lawyers for wanting to make sure Gacy would never walk free. But nevertheless, some of Kunkle’s other judgment calls demand scrutiny as well. For instance, he refused to let one of the few known survivors of a Gacy attack (there were probably many others) testify against him. Jeffrey Rignall, whom Gacy kidnapped, raped, and tortured in March 1978, may have been the person most responsible for Gacy’s eventual arrest.
Rignall, whose abduction happened long after the police should have arrested Gacy, had seen another person in Gacy’s house during the attack. A roommate? An accomplice? A participant? Rignall reported the kidnapping, but he and his partner, Ron, ended up tracking down and identifying Gacy on their own. They took the information to the police, who wouldn’t arrest Gacy for months, when they brought him in on a moving violation. In the meantime, Rignall and Ron began work on their wrenching book about the ordeal.
Later, Rignall wanted to tell the jury about the hideous assault he’d suffered before Gacy let him go, mental and physcial trauma that would haunt him for the rest of his life. But Kunkle said no, claiming Rignall’s book made the integrity of his testiony too risky. Kunkle took him off the witness list.
Rignall approached Amirante and gave his testimony for the other side. In our many hours of conversation, Ron told me how difficult it had been for Rignall to testify for the defense, but he was committed to telling his story in court.
Who else knew about Gacy’s crimes
Gacy’s implicated associates testified at the trial without being given immunity, and they were never charged, not even as accessories. Another member of the prosecution team has admitted that they told one they’d “go easy” on him on the stand. And they did.
Why bring this up now? Because though Kunkle dined out on his success against Gacy for the rest of his life, he never admitted the truth about the broader story. And even with new documentation and evidence, even having asserted the importance of tying up the case’s “loose ends,” the authorities are stonewalling, and their distortions continue to be repeated in mass media like Joe Berglinger’s recent Netflix smash hit Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes.
Gacy may be dead, and now Kunkle is, too, but it’s not too late to hold others accountable.
And more important, in my opinion, it’s not too late to learn why so much energy has been dedicated to keeping the real story secret. We — and the victims’ families — deserve to know who is being protected and why.