Patrice O'Neal and the Pepsi Cola Killer (Animated)
A Serial Killer, a Receipt, and My Mom: Haunted by the Murder of 33 Boys
I was on a run when my mom called to tell me John Wayne Gacy, the prolific serial killer from Des Plaines, Illinois, who raped and murdered 33 boys, was all over the news. Advanced technology was surfacing, with hopes of identifying two of the final six unidentified victims. It’s been almost 40 years since his capture, and he’s been dead for more than two decades, but somehow he still finds a way to haunt her. And me.
My mom first met Gacy on December 11, 1978, a particularly cold evening in suburban Illinois. That night, my mom, then 17, and her friend and co-worker, Rob Piest, were working a shift at Nisson Pharmacy. A large strange man thudded to work a contracting job at the pharmacy. My mom thought he seemed out of place and asked her boss, “Who’s that?” It was slow, typical of a Monday, so Rob spent time restocking shelves and my mom worked the cash register. At some point she developed a roll of film. She had forgotten her jacket that night, so she asked to borrow Rob’s favorite blue parka. Every time the front doors opened, a frigid cold wind would swoop in. So he lent it to her. At around 8 p.m., when his shift was almost over, when Gacy asked to speak with Rob out back about a summer job that would pay him double what he made at the pharmacy, he took his jacket back, went outside, and was never seen again.
In the pocket of Rob’s parka my mom had placed her film receipt. She had first crumpled it up and thrown it in the trash, but then had an odd feeling to save the receipt. It made no logical, rational sense, but she followed the cues anyway.
My mom had told police the last thing she knew about Rob: he took his blue jacket and went out back to speak with Gacy about a summer job. Gacy initially denied ever speaking with the boy, making it difficult to get a search warrant. But as Gacy cleaned up his murder scene, he either didn't see the film receipt slip from Rob's pocket, or he paid no attention to it. But in a superficial search of Gacy’s home, the receipt would be found by lead detective, Joseph Kozenczak. He’d see Kim Byers, my mom’s name, on it along with the name, telephone, and address of Nisson Pharmacy. Proving Rob had been there, even when Gacy denied ever speaking to him. The receipt would be the leading piece of evidence to uncover the multitude of bodies buried under Gacy’s home, in his crawl space.
It would also make my mom the key witness on a national serial killer trial. When Rob’s egg-white pale body was found floating along the Des Plaines River in April 1979, she had to testify,yesthat was her friend. Andyes,Gacy was the last one seen with him.
Last December, my mom and I visited Gacy’s home. I wanted to be in the last place all those 33 boys once stood. I had been obsessed with the case since a child, when my mom first told me about her friend who was murdered by a serial killer. She used this story as a forewarning: if a man invites you to see his puppy, or offers you candy, you say no. If he takes you anyway, you fight, you call out, you kick him right in the balls. If he says he will kill your parents if you scream, you scream anyway. And once I became a mother, my obsession turned into a haunting. I became consumed with the boys Gacy killed because I feared the same thing happening to my own boy. My body imagined the pain all those families went through.
"Once I became a mother, I became consumed with the boys Gacy killed because I feared the same thing happening to my own boy."
I thought if I visited the house I’d get some closure, some kind of answers, but if anything, I got a strong desire to change the narrative of how we see killings. I wanted the world to remember the victims, not the man who killed.
While there, we spoke with a mailman who drove through the neighborhood. He told us something that shocked us: people still send Gacy mail. As in, they write a dead serial killer’s name on paper parcel packages. Pay for postage. And mail them. The mailman seemed just as petrified by this fact as us—maybe because he actually has to deliver them.
And it made me wonder. How do we evict the dead who haunt us?
Although I’ve never met Gacy, it feels like I have. He’s been the face to my bogeyman and the root of every bad feeling I get from crossing paths with a man in the dark. He’s taught me: bad things happen. And sometimes we can’t know why or how. But we can choose how we respond.
This past summer, I had the chance to sit down and chat with my mom, Kim Byers-Lund, about the famous case that has recently peeled itself back open. Cook County, IL police are working hard to identify the final six unidentified victims. It is a Wednesday in early August when we share a couch and a conversation. We open a bottle of Chardonnay, share smoked almonds, and unfold the past to try and make sense of the insensible. Murder. Survival. Monsters. Motherhood. And what it all means.
Courtney Lund O’Neil: A lot of people know who John Wayne Gacy is. But they know him from a distance. “The Killer Clown” or the nice neighbor with a dark side, but no one knows what it was like to see him on the night he took your friend, Rob Piest, his final victim. It seems like it was this act of Good vs. Evil. You saving the receipt, which would link Gacy to Rob. It was the end of an era for Gacy.
Kim Byers-Lund: Funny you should say that. I had a high school counselor, Mr. Tanner, who I credit with helping me through all of this. I held spiritual beliefs. I attended church. I was a Methodist. But there was this other dimension. This power outside of our world that drove me to take the film receipt out of the trash, put it in the parka pocket. Mr. Tanner helped me arrive at the idea that Rob and I were a team, working together to stop the cycle of evil. He helped me see the good around the evil.
Courtney: It’s unfathomable. When I think of this case, it is comparable to school shootings today. You’re in class with someone, and all of a sudden, they’re dead on the floor next to you. How do you find meaning in that? How do we find meaning in the darkest of evils?
Kim: I think that we, as humans, are surrounded with evil. As you know, I’m in the military so I know evil.
Courtney: Tell us what you are again?
Kim: I’m a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves as a physician.
Courtney: You’ve come a long way from Section 8 housing in Chicago.
Kim: (Laughs) Yes, a long way from Section 8 Housing. But, what I was saying about good and evil: it’s everywhere. It’s the monster. It’s the bogeyman. Sometimes it doesn’t have a name. Sometimes it’s an action. There’s something that drives positives and negatives. Before Rob disappeared, I had bad things happen to me. I was molested by a parent I babysat for.
Courtney: And even after Rob, you still experienced bad things: losing your mom at a young age, your own cancer, raising my brother, who was during his first year of life. It’s a lot.
Kim: I learned, you can either take these things and be a victim, or take these things and try to dissect them. And figure out how this event can make you stronger, more aware. I just feel really gifted and lucky to have listened to the message that was sent to me about the film receipt on the night Rob disappeared. Because there could have been many more victims after Rob. Again, that’s what Mr. Tanner helped me see, that we stopped the train. There would be no more victims. That empowered me as an individual to live a purposeful life, working for the greater good, instead of being a victim.
"The biggest thing I took from this experience was to stay in tune to signals and powers outside of this world."
Courtney: Bad things happen all the time, and it’s what we do with these things that defines us.
Kim: I think the biggest thing I took from this experience, was to stay in tune to signals and powers outside of this world.
Courtney: Like intuition?
Kim: Something like that. I call them whispers. They’re as simple as subtly examining someone’s abdomen and all of a sudden getting a stomach ache when your hand passes over a certain area. Then you order a test and next, you’re diagnosing somebody with colon cancer, over an incidental finding.
Courtney: You’ve called it women’s intuition before. I think it’s a powerful tool. How do you think being involved with Gacy influenced your mothering?
Kim: I would tell you girls, when I sent you to school: “Never hit first. Always hit back.”
Courtney: (laughs): Yes. I remember. You taught us to defend ourselves. Because our family’s bogeyman was Gacy.
Kim: My eternal bogeyman has always been Gacy. I was able to shelf that stuff for a long time and then when I became a mom, I was able to see it just a little bit differently. The threat of someone taking your child unpredictably with no warning became more real to me when I became a mom. I had to have bedrooms on the second floor. Property that was thoroughly locked. A little borderline paranoia. Because, statistically, girls were the taken ones.
Courtney: Except Rob.
Kim: Right. But when I raised you, girls were the ones being raped and stolen. No girl of mine was going to be raped or stolen without one hell of a fight. And so I raised you guys to be tough because I never wanted you to be the victim.
Courtney: When I became a mom to a boy, Gacy’s case haunted me. And I had the opposite reaction as you, maybe because my first child was a boy. I had known only kick-ass women. So, to me, boys were more fragile. Rob was the taken one. Then, there was my only brother, Gavin, who was sick. So I became anxious over my boy’s safety in the world.
Kim: It’s this fear of Monsterdom.
Courtney: When Gavin’s disease showed up you called it “visits from the Monster.” What did you mean by that?
Kim: What I learned from Gavin is that monsters aren’t just murderers and serial killers. Monsters are diseases and mental states. Monsters are anything negative we don’t have control over. And everybody has a monster.
Courtney: The ugly parts of all of us. It could be depression. It could be anxiety.
Kim: And Gacy unfortunately made us very raw and aware. My role as a mom was to build strong women, no matter how hard life was. No matter what bad thing you’ve been dealt, you can turn it into a positive, good thing. Evil things haunt us, but they don’t make us. We all have tool belts to manage our curveballs, to have a more positive experience with our time here on Earth.
Courtney: You are right. We only get this one fragile life, we want to make it count. I want to go back to Gacy for a second. Remember when we visited the house?
Kim: That experience was so creepy for me. I couldn’t be there.
Courtney: I know. You were so scared. I couldn’t believe someone actually lived there. On the land 33 boys died. When I stood there, I felt all the energy of those boys.
Kim: For me, my friend lost his life on that property. And it’s still so raw 40 years later. How could some man, for whatever reason, become a monster and steal my friend’s life in a heinous, horrendous way?
Courtney: Until every boy is identified this case will not rest. It can’t.
Kim: Our culture needs a shift. We need to shift our attention and love to the boys who gave their lives, and not the man who murdered. For so long Gacy has held celebrity-like status. Our culture worships the criminal, not the victims. These boys gave their lives. We should pay respect to the victims and I don’t think these boys were ever paid their respect.
"The threat of someone taking your child unpredictably with no warning became more real to me when I became a mom."
Courtney: And not much has changed in almost 40 years. Six weeks after the Parkland shooter was arrested, people from all over the world . Some sent suggestive pictures of themselves in lacy bras and panties. Most felt sorry for him and wanted to be “there” for him if he needed a pen pal, someone to talk with. It makes me think something is really wrong with the true crime narrative.
Kim:What do you mean by that?
Courtney:The media celebrates the murderer, not the victims, by showering the public with the bad guy’s image. We see it on the news, and in film and TV.
Kim:What if the media just referred to him as “Nameless Shooter” and didn’t show a picture?
Courtney: says we should do that. Shootings are similar to suicide. The media has guidelines on reporting suicides out of concern that it produces a butterfly effect. Copycat syndrome. Why doesn’t the media weigh similar concerns on reporting horrific crimes like shootings? People see pictures and names on TV of criminals, and want the same attention. The Columbine shooters became cult-like icons, just like serial killers in the decades before. In a way, school shooters are the new serial killers. And my guess is that history will continue to repeat itself—people will continue idolizing the bad guy—unless we pull their power away. And change the true crime narrative for good.
Kim:Our job should be to prevent crimes, not talk about them after the fact. People are victims of circumstances they did not sign up for.
Courtney:How do you heal from this?
Kim:Part of my healing has been imagining what went through Rob’s mind on the night he died. Did he know he was not getting out alive? Did he drop the receipt on purpose? Was it our job to use the tiniest detail, a film receipt, to stop a monster? I visualized how he was so smart to leave a little morsel of a clue to let the truth be known. The lesson being: sometimes if you just pay a little bit more attention, the impact can be life-altering.
Video: "run" - bts but you're in an empty mall hiding from a serial killer + ⚠️ PLEASE READ TW BELOW ⚠️
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