true crime

As a young lawyer, Karen Conti found herself in a room full of serial killers.

It was a long six and a half hour drive to the Illinois Stateville Correctional Center.

As she arrived at the big old prison in a rural area along the Mississippi River, Karen Conti took a minute to ready herself. 

The 31-year-old was standing in front of one of the most dangerous prisons in America, and the death row section where she was headed, was even more dangerous. The people in there had committed at least one murder, if not multiple, and they had nothing left to lose.

As a woman she was ready for the unwanted attention; the catcalls, wolf whistles and gross remarks. What she wasn't ready for, was the fact she was about to meet the serial killer who had summoned her there in a room with no real security. 

"When you go to visit a prisoner at this place, they're not behind a plexiglass window like you see in the movies. You are in there with all the other serial killers who are walking around free range with their's very very intimidating," she told Mamamia's True Crime Conversations.

There were guards, but they were outside the door and as Conti said, "they probably couldn't get there in time if you needed help". 

"No, it wasn't safe," she said. "But that was the way it was."


Karen Conti had only been a lawyer for a few years when the call came through to her office in 1993. 


John Wayne Gacy - the serial killer convicted of murdering 33 young boys and men in the 1970s and burying them in the crawl space in his home - wanted her law firm to represent him.

She and her partner had argued a case about a First Amendment issue in front of the United Supreme Court that had received a lot of press, and Gacy wanted in. He'd been painting while behind bars, and the prison was suing him over money he was earning doing that. 

"It was a bit ridiculous," Conti told True Crime Conversations. 

"Here he is with seven months left to live and he's worried about civil lawsuits for money damages."

Listen to Karen Conti on True Crime Conversations.

Gacy had been on death row for his unspeakable crimes - the physical and sexual torture, and eventual murder of his victims in the Chicago area - for 13 years. There wasn't much time left, and Conti couldn't resist the opportunity. 

"We have to go down and meet him," she told her partner. "I want to know what it looks like to look evil in the eye."

So they went. They had no real plan to represent him, just to meet him. 

As she walked into his space - the death row wing of Illinois Stateville Correctional Center - it was like she was being invited into his home. 


Gacy was polite, engaging and chirpy. He asked questions about the trip, the weather and how she was doing.

"He was was like meeting your favourite uncle," she said.

"Gacy didn't frighten me," she added. "He was the type of killer who was very compartmentalised. I knew he could control himself because he needed something from me and sociopaths are nothing but manipulative."

Watch: Gacy's crimes have been revisited in a recent Netflix doco. Post continues after video.

Video via Netflix

Conti walked into the prison to talk to Gacy about some civil lawsuits, but she left ready to join his death penalty defence team. While she didn't think Gacy innocent, she was against executing prisoners and this was the ultimate test.

"I thought it was important to use Gacy as a way to say it's wrong, even for that evil person. Put them in jail and throw away the key, I'm not saying release him, just don't execute. It's barbaric."


And so began seven months of regular catchups with a serial killer. Even though Gacy had spoken about his crimes in sickening detail in the past, by this point he'd stopped talking about them altogether. He did however, show Conti his 'Body Book.' 

"He had this notebook that had all the pictures of all his victims and their highschool photos, maybe an article about when they went missing... He said he paid someone to compile it, and on the front it was called the 'Body Book,'" Conti explained.

"I said to him, 'John, bodies?! These are human beings. These are boys and men'. He said 'yeah, well,' and shrugged his shoulders as if to say 'no they're not.'"

In the few decades since her experience with Gacy, Conti gets asked a lot if the experience of representing him made her feel horrible. Dirty. She was, after all, forced to spend quite a bit of time getting to know him as a human.

John Wayne Gacy murdered at least 33 teenage boys and men in the 70s. Image: Des Plaines Police Department.

"I would not say I was friends with Gacy, but was I friendly with Gacy? Absolutely, because I had to do my job," she said. "He did not act evil with me, I didn't see the darkness in him but I knew it was there."


The defence team wasn't successful, Gacy's execution went ahead in May 1994 at the age of 52, and Conti is confident he took plenty of secrets and potentially more victims to his grave.

"I do believe he had people helping him perpetrate the crimes, procure the victims and bury the bodies...I think there were young men who worked for him," she told True Crime Conversations. 

Looking back, Conti didn't overly 'enjoy' the professional experience of representing a serial killer. But it taught her a lot. 

"A lot of things in life, when you're going through them it's not fun. But then you look back and you say 'wow that was a game changer, that turned my whole life around'," she said.

Feature image: Karen Conti/Des Plaines Police Department.