John Wayne Gacy terrorized Cook County, Illinois, in the 1970s, murdering no fewer than 33 individuals in just six years. But even after the serial killer’s capture, the family of one Harold Wayne Lovell still felt fear and despair. They in fact believed that Lovell, who had vanished during Gacy’s reign of terror, must have been among the killer’s unidentified victims. However, 34 years after Lovell’s disappearance, his family saw a picture that added a dramatic twist to the story.
The tale begins in May 1977 when Harold Wayne Lovell, at 19 years old, had a thin frame and shaggy, sandy-blonde hair. But according to the Daily Mail, the teen had “never felt wanted” by his mom, Kathy, and her husband. And so Lovell decided to pack up and leave his house in Aurora, Illinois, in search of a better life.
Lovell in fact left behind his mother and stepfather as well as two siblings: brother Tim and sister Theresa. The then-19-year-old had also apparently told some of his family members that he had departed in order to find a building job. And it was this little detail that actually led Lovell’s loved ones to believe that he had fallen victim to serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who also hailed from Cook County, IL.
Gacy had once lived a life that had appeared picture-perfect, though. After all, in 1966 his wife’s dad gave Gacy the reins of three KFC franchises that he owned in Waterloo, Iowa. And as a result, Gacy later started raking in at least $15,000 a year, which would be more than $117,000 today. This was more than enough to support his partner and their two children. And what’s more, the man apparently finally earned the respect of his father, who had long subjected Gacy to physical and emotional torment.
However, Gacy’s idyllic facade soon began to crumble. In the summer of 1967, in fact, the serial killer sexually assaulted Donald Voorhees, a 15-year-old whose father knew Gacy through a local training organization. And after Voorhees divulged the details of the terrible crime to his dad the following year, the father called the cops on Gacy.
Gacy, of course, initially denied the allegations that had been made against him. Then, when doctors later examined the man pre-trial, the medical professionals determined that Gacy had antisocial personality disorder. Those with said condition, it is believed, typically ignore other people’s feelings. And what’s more, sufferers’ reduced moral compasses can sometimes lead them toward lives of impulsion, crime or violence.
Gacy’s condition was seemingly so severe, though, that doctors reportedly claimed that medical care would be of no benefit to him. And instead the medics apparently declared that the man’s behavior would continue to put him at odds with the rest of the world – a statement that would, unfortunately, turn out to be all too true. So a few months later, Gacy pleaded guilty to sodomy, and on the same day his wife filed for divorce.
Then, after a year and a half behind bars, Gacy left prison in mid-1970 with a year-long parole sentence to complete. And part of the criminal’s probation agreement required him to move back to Chicago and reside with his mom. Gacy later purchased his own home – with his mom’s monetary aid – and started over with a new partner, Carole Hoff, whom he married in July of 1972.
Gacy’s marriage to Hoff was not the only noteworthy event of that year, though; 1972 also bore witness to the first of Gacy’s 33 convicted murders. According to reports, Gacy took teenager Timothy Jack McCoy to see Chicago’s tourist attractions in January 1972 before luring the boy back to his house. Then, the next morning, the man stabbed McCoy to death and hid his body in the crawl space.
According to Tim Cahill’s 1986 book, Buried Dreams: Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer, Gacy’s first murder gave the killer a rush – the likes of which he had never experienced before. “That’s when I realized that death was the ultimate thrill,” Gacy reportedly said in an interview. And two years after Gacy’s supposedly first taste of blood, the man murdered another teenager, whose identity remains unknown to this day.
None of this was known at the time, though. And after moving to Chicago and marrying Hoff, Gacy had built his own company: PDM Contractors. PDM provided services such as redesigning, maintaining and decorating properties. Many of Gacy’s laborers happened to be boys at or just out of high school too. Horrifically, then, the man’s workforce became a pool from which he plucked his victims.
In his off hours, meanwhile, Gacy picked up a curious hobby. The man became a member of the Jolly Joker clown club, in fact, and traveled to parades and fundraisers to entertain the little ones in attendance. But several individuals in the clown industry have reportedly noted a sinister detail about Gacy’s act as “Pogo the Clown.” He apparently took a scarier approach to applying his makeup than the other Jolly Joker members, you see, adopting harsh lines rather than soft edges.
Yet between 1976 and 1978, Gacy committed the majority of his slayings. He had the house to himself, you see, since his second wife had left him and moved out in February of 1976. Just four weeks after the divorce, in fact, Gacy kidnapped and later killed Darrell Samson, who was 18 years old. And just over a month following that, the man murdered two teenage boys on the same afternoon before storing their remains side-by-side in a crawl space grave.
The next two years saw Gacy horrifically repeat much the same gruesome routine. Upon being arrested in December of 1978, in fact, the man reportedly admitted to having killed up to 30 young men – all of whom he alleged had either run away from home or had been prostitutes. It was later concluded, however, that Gacy had snatched some of his victims using force or trickery to lure them into his car.
In other cases, meanwhile, Gacy would apparently entice individuals to come into his home under the pretence of offering them construction work. But no matter how the killer got his victims there, the murders nearly always went down in almost identical ways: Gacy would rape and torture the young men before throttling them. And then he would bury most of the bodies in the small, dark space beneath his house or dump them in the Des Plaines River.
Once Gacy’s abhorrent crimes came to light, then, his red-nosed hobby lent itself to a memorable – and rather disturbing – moniker for the murderer: the Killer Clown. And according to books by Clifford L. Linedecker, Terry Sullivan and Peter T. Maiken, Gacy once chillingly told detectives, “You know, clowns can get away with murder.”
Of course, however, Gacy did not get away with his crimes. He was found guilty of 33 homicides in March 1980, in fact, and officials carried out his death sentence in 1994. And yet after the Killer Clown was executed, many questions still lingered – especially because several of the bodies that had been uncovered at his home had never been identified.
In 2011, then, Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart revealed that investigators would re-examine the Gacy case after having gathered DNA samples from the victims who remained nameless. And so Harold Wayne Lovell’s family jumped at the chance to confirm what they had long thought to be true: that the remains of their loved one, who had mysteriously disappeared in the 1970s, were among the bodies.
After all, many of the details surrounding Lovell’s disappearance aligned with the style and timing of Gacy’s killings. For one thing, Lovell was just the type of victim that the Killer Clown had sought out. Gacy had typically abducted and killed boys and men between 14 and 21 years old, you see – and Lovell had been 19 when he had vanished.
Plus, Lovell had supposedly said that he had wanted to leave his hometown of Aurora, IL, in order to find a construction gig. And since Gacy had been working in the same industry in Aurora at that time, Lovell’s sister, Theresa, believed that her brother must have encountered the serial killer – and thus met a grisly fate.
But the most damning link between Lovell and the Killer Clown came with Gacy’s 1978 arrest. According to the Cook County Sheriff Department, you see, authorities had searched through the suspect’s home and found an item of jewelry that Lovell’s mother, Kathy, later confirmed had belonged to her son. He had disappeared just the year before too.
But in 2011 Theresa and Lovell’s brother, Tim, would finally learn the truth. It seems that they and 120 other families had reached out to the Cook County Sheriff’s Department to send in their DNA to be tested against that of the unidentified bodies. Yet while Lovell’s family members awaited their turn for tests, they uncovered a shocking twist to the story on their own.
One of Lovell’s nephews had, you see, happened upon the site Mugshots.com and searched the name Harold Wayne Lovell. This had then brought up an image of a Hillsborough County, Florida, man, who had been arrested for possessing marijuana back in 2006. And remarkably, the pictured individual bore a striking resemblance to Tim, Lovell’s brother.
Unsurprisingly, then, the Lovell family wasted no time in getting in touch with the man in the picture. And after multiple phone calls, they finally confirmed that the man in the mugshot was indeed their long-lost relative. They later purchased Lovell a bus ticket from his home in Tampa, Florida, to Dothan, Alabama – and the man saw his siblings for the first time in 34 years.
With the family – and the media – abreast of Lovell’s fate, the once-missing man then finally revealed what had happened to him back in 1977. Shockingly, Lovell confirmed that he had indeed worked for Gacy, having been hired to help him with yard work every now and then. And looking back, Lovell realized just how easily he could have become one of the Killer Clown’s victims.
Lovell recalled his chillingly close escape from Gacy to People in 2011. “A few times, he actually tried to get me into the house, but I wouldn’t go,” Lovell said. “And thank God that I didn’t.” Thankfully, Lovell’s work with Gacy didn’t pad his pockets enough to keep him in Aurora, and he left for good in 1977 – moving well away from the serial killer’s clutches.
Lovell left town with only $56 to his name, in fact. Apparently, you see, the teen had had an argument with his mom and her husband, which had spurred his departure. He then headed to Florida, where he spent three years making ends meet in a myriad of diners and hotels. Yet while Lovell built himself a new life and partied on the coast, he had no idea that his family were fearing that the worst had happened to him.
“I feel bad that [my family] had to go through life thinking that I’d been killed like that,” Lovell, who was 53 years old at the time of his reappearance, told Florida’s Sun-Sentinel in 2011. “I feel terrible. But I was a teenager, and who didn’t want to go to Fort Lauderdale, where it’s nice, sunny and hot?”
Eventually, however, Lovell did leave the sunshine and beaches of Florida. He fell in love with a girl he met in Miami, you see. And when Lovell’s flame went back home to Wisconsin, he followed her there. The pair then tied the knot and welcomed two children. And Lovell stuck around in the Midwest for several years afterwards.
Then, faced with divorce, Lovell headed south again. And this time, he settled on Florida’s West Coast, where he made another fresh start for himself. But from time to time, the man’s mind would drift back to the home in Aurora that he had left behind. “I never stopped thinking about my mom or my brothers and sisters,” Lovell told the Sun-Sentinel.
Of course, Lovell’s family hadn’t stopped thinking of him, either. Tim, for one, had always believed and prayed that he’d find his brother, who had vanished when he was only 14. “I always had that inkling of hope he was alive. I would say, ‘God, let me see my brother one more time,’” Tim told the Sun-Sentinel.
As for Lovell’s mother, however, she never got to see her son’s safe return home. Sadly, Kathy died in 2001, still believing that Gacy had murdered her 19-year-old. Even more upsettingly, Lovell had once come back to Chicago to try and find his mom. But he had been too late, as she had already passed away.
“It’s heartbreaking, because the mother never gave up,” Cook County Sheriff Dart told People in 2011. “We would love to have been able to talk with his mom before she died and said, ‘Your worst dreams about him being a victim of this monster? It didn’t happen! He’s alive, and we found him.’”
Fortunately, though, Lovell still has his siblings. And inevitably, their reunion was a heartwarming one. “This has all been so emotional,” he told the Sun-Sentinel. “I need to get some work and be part of the family again. And I need rest. There is 33 years of catching up to do, and you can’t do it in two days.”
So when Lovell’s astonishing story broke in 2011, Tim offered to give his long-lost brother a job in his Alabama construction business so that he could live closer to the family. According to his Facebook page, though, Lovell currently lives a few states away from his brother in Greenville, Kentucky.
Regardless, the family is understandably happy to have Lovell back. “All those years, I thought for sure Gacy got him,” Tim recalled. “I thought for sure he was dead and gone.” What’s more, he had a poignant piece of advice for other people who are searching for missing family members: don’t give up.
Lovell concluded, “I imagine there are other families out there who have felt the way we have all those years. But maybe your loved ones out there are alive. Don’t quit looking.” His advice has likely given hope to other individuals related to the Gacy case, some of whom also got answers once authorities reopened the investigation in 2011.
In November 2011, for instance, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department’s DNA tests put a name to another of Gacy’s victims. William George Bundy’s family had last seen him on October 26, 1976, when he had left for a party. And they had long feared that Bundy might have been one of the Killer Clown’s victims. However, Bundy’s dentist had destroyed his dental records, so the family had not been able to identify him. But in 2011 the genetic tests revealed his tragic fate.
Six years later, in July 2017, DNA testing also allowed authorities to identify another previously unknown victim of Gacy’s. Saint Paul, Minnesota, native James Haakenson had last spoken to his family on August 5, 1976. And more than 40 years later, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that the 16-year-old had in fact succumbed to Gacy’s evil exploits.
Tragically, however, the identities of six of Gacy’s victims remain unknown. But there is still hope. Authorities have created facial reconstructions from the unidentified bodies, in fact, and hope to spark memories that could lead to matches. As for Lovell’s story, Sheriff Dart told the Daily Mail that he is “proof of some good coming out of the investigation.” And Lovell and his family doubtlessly feel the same way.