July 24, 2024

One of America’s most infamous serial killers will forever be linked with Des Plaines, the home of his final victim. Robert “Rob” Piest was a sophomore at Maine West in 1978 when he was murdered by John Wayne Gacy. As far as the police were able to determine, he was Gacy’s 33rd victim. Piest was a person of integrity who was a joy to be around, according to retired Maine West assistant principal Eldon Burk. Well-liked and from a close family, Piest was involved in sports and activities at West and was an all-around top student. In 1978, Piest was working at a pharmacy on Oakton Street when Gacy visited the business to talk to the pharmacy owner about doing a construction project. While there, Gacy told Piest he would pay him $5 an hour to help on the job, which was almost double what he was currently being paid. When his mother arrived at the pharmacy to pick him up, Piest told her that he was meeting with a man for a job opportunity and that he’d take a little while longer. His mother waited there for him to return, but Piest never did. His mother went straight to the police, and his family reported him missing that night. Since the pharmacy owner knew Gacy’s name, the Des Plaines police were able to track Gacy down at his home in Norwood Park. They went there the next day, searching for Piest, but Gacy was able to delay their investigation for several hours by claiming his uncle had just died. He agreed to be interviewed later that night at the Des Plaines Police Station. He arrived at 3 a.m., reportedly covered in mud, according to the Chicago Tribune. What unraveled from there allowed the police to get a search warrant for Gacy’s home and ultimately uncover the extent of Gacy’s crimes. Within days of Piest’s disappearance, police discovered bodies in the crawl space under Gacy’s home. Some of them were never identified. 33 total bodies were discovered, including several that were dumped near Joliet into the Des Plaines River. Robert Piest was among them. Piest’s disappearance and murder caused devastation throughout Des Plaines. Many knew him as a young man of good character. He was working to achieve his Eagle Scout rank, the highest rank attainable in the Boy Scouts of America, earned only based on extensive community service and dozens of merit badges. “Just telling you that he was working toward his Eagle award should be telling you almost everything you need to know,” former Maine West teacher John Carle, who knew Piest, said. “Only three percent of scouts make it to Eagle.” Piest was an involved student at Maine West, being a part of the gymnastics team and working at the Maine West pool during the summer. For many years, Piest’s gymnastics uniform was quietly on display in the Warrior Room, as a memorial to all the good he left behind. He was a determined, kind, and hard-working individual, recalled Carle. “Rob was a top- shelf person,” he said. When Gacy targeted Piest, “he messed with the wrong kid,” Carle said, and that was Gacy’s final downfall. Burk, who was assistant principal at the time, said Piest would have been in the “top five, maybe top three percentile” of students academically. He recalled hundreds of Maine West students fanning out across Des Plaines and nearby suburbs within the first days of Piest’s disappearance, putting up signs with his photo and seeking information. “He was that caliber of a kid,” Carle said. Gacy roamed the streets of Chicago, often preying on innocent young men passing through town, distant from their families,
or looking for work. Piest was the exception, his family leaped into action within minutes of his dis- appearance. Piest, though, wasn’t the only Maine West student who was a Gacy victim. John Szyc, who had graduated from Maine West several years earlier in 1975, was also killed, and his Maine West class ring was found as evidence and used to identify him, according to Burk. He was reported missing in January 1977 when he didn’t show up for work, but his body was not found until two years later, according to the Chicago Tribune. Piest’s disappearance stirred up the investigation that unraveled the disgusting truths behind John Wayne Gacy. Carle said it was “the worst thing for John Wayne Gacy. He picked on the wrong guy.”

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