News & Features » Our Town

Gacy's Brain

Where is it? Who gets it? Why all the secrecy?

by

comment

John Wayne Gacy's botched execution last month seemed like a fitting end to a macabre tale. But the confusion and creepiness swirling around the late killer clown isn't over yet.

Shortly after his execution, news broke that Gacy's brain was to be sent to the University of Chicago Medical Center for research. Conjuring B-movie images of formaldehyde-filled specimen jars, a Tribune article published two days after the execution said that an unnamed "outside researcher" had requested the study and that the brain would be delivered to the school "in about two weeks."

Who on earth would want Gacy's brain--that grapefruit-sized icon of evil?

The study of the human brain postmortem as a way to account for abnormal behavior is a murky pseudoscience with a questionable history. Scientists in the former Soviet Union preserved and examined the brains of their dead leaders, including Stalin. Albert Einstein's brain was also removed and analyzed after his death. But researchers have drawn few useful conclusions from these cases.

There is one exception: the brain of killer Charles Whitman, the University of Texas bell-tower sniper, offered a possible biological explanation for his crime: Whitman was found to have a brain tumor. Yet, the Tribune reported, pathologists and neurologists think the University of Chicago's study of Gacy's brain "won't reveal much."

So why the secrecy? Where exactly was the brain during the two weeks after the execution? And where is it now? That seems to depend on whom you ask.

Removing and storing the brain in Joliet, where Stateville Correctional Center is located, would have been the job of Will County Coroner Patrick O'Neil, who supervised the autopsy and declared Gacy dead. But O'Neil refused to comment: "I signed an order of confidentiality between him [Gacy], his family, and his attorneys," he says.

Someone, however, must have ordered the brain removed, and given Gacy's penchant for self-exploitation--his overpriced art and 1-900-I-am-innocent line are obvious examples--the possibility exists that he sold his brain to the mystery researcher. One of Gacy's attorneys, John Greenlees, says such a scenario is highly unlikely. "I'm pretty positive that John wouldn't have arranged for it himself. He had a lot of contempt for psychology and psychologists."

Another person who it seems would have known of such a scheme is Nic Howell, the Illinois Department of Corrections spokesperson who knew Gacy for 14 years and strolled with the doomed convict on the night of his death. Howell says he doesn't know how anyone, let alone the university, could have gotten hold of the brain. The state's interest in the body, he says, died with Gacy. "After he died, we didn't have anything else to do with him."

According to Gregory Adamski, another of Gacy's lawyers, the University of Chicago obtained permission from Gacy's family to take the organ only after agreeing to a condition of confidentiality, which it violated by issuing the press release the day after Gacy's death. If they already had possession of the brain, says Adamski, after the news flurry they should have returned it to the family.

Greenlees, who handled many of the details surrounding Gacy's death, thinks the organ remained with the body, which was cremated soon after the execution. "Who knows?" he says half joking, "maybe the university stole his brain." He dismisses the school's claim to the brain. "I think the whole thing is a hoax."

The university's spokesman, John Easton, says the school only released its statement breaking the confidentiality agreement after "someone else" had already leaked information to the press, but AP reporter Paul Driscoll, who broke the story, and the Tribune's William Mullen both say their info came from the U. of C.'s press office.

At any rate, now the school is stonewalling. Pathology refers all calls to Easton, but he appears to have been pulled out of the loop. He says he doesn't know the current whereabouts of the brain. And if and when it shows up at the U. of C., he says, "I probably won't know about it."

Add a comment