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The two Minnesotans among 'Killer Clown' John Wayne Gacy's victims, Netflix series chronicles

As viewers rush to binge-watch 'Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes' Netflix’s latest true crime series on John Wayne Gacy, Minnesotans are reminded that two of the Killer Clown’s victims called Minnesota home.

John Wayne Gacy, 36, taken from the Des Plaines Police Station en route to a hospital, on Dec. 23, 1978.
William Yates/Chicago Tribune/TNS
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As viewers rush to binge-watch Netflix’s latest true crime series on John Wayne Gacy, Minnesotans are reminded that two of the Killer Clown’s victims called Minnesota home.

Gacy’s reign of terror may have been headquartered in Illinois, but the devastation of his murder spree was felt deeply by two Minnesota families whose sons lives were lost to the notorious serial killer.

Gacy, known as one of the nation’s most brutal killers, was convicted on charges related to the murders of 33 young men and boys, 29 of whom he buried on his property, the "Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes" documentary series chronicles.

Gacy was arrested in 1978 after police executed a search warrant following the disappearance of a 15-year-old Robert Piest. While in his home, law enforcement discovered the bodies.

Among those bodies were two young Minnesota men: Russell Nelson of Cloquet and James Byron Haakenson of St. Paul.


While Nelson’s remains were identified following the discovery, Haakenson’s true identity was not revealed until 2017, when DNA technology capabilities led investigators to the truth.

Russell Nelson 

Russell Nelson, who was studying architecture at the University of Minnesota, had traveled to Chicago in 1977. He made the trip to visit a friend and to observe architecture related to his studies, according to a 1994 article in the Star Tribune.

John Wayne Gacy
A 1994 article in the Star Tribune highlights one of the Minnesota victims of notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Russel Nelson of Cloquet was a student at the University of Minnesota. While in Chicago visiting friends, he became one of Gacy's 33 victims.
Photo courtesy of Ancestry.com.

His mother, Norma Nelson, was the last to hear from her 21-year-old son. Before disappearing, he called her to say happy birthday.

Russell Nelson’s body was found two years later among the more than 20 bodies discovered in a crawl space in Gacy’s basement.

Norma Nelson testified in Gacy’s murder trial in 1980. In a 1990 Star Tribune article, Norma Nelson said her son was an honor student and was planning to get married.

Russell Nelson’s ashes were spread along Lake Superior’s North Shore by his family.

James Byron Haakenson


James Byron Haakenson, a native Minnesotan, ran away in 1976 when he was 16 years old. Shortly after leaving his St. Paul home, he called his mom and let her know he was in the Chicago area.

Two years later, when investigators discovered the remains of Gacy’s victims, Haakenson’s mother made the trip to Chicago to see if her son was one of them, according to the Associated Press. Because her son lacked dental records, they were unable to determine if Haakenson’s body had been discovered.

However, as DNA technology advanced, investigators in 2011 exhumed the corpses of eight unidentified Gacy victims. A call was put out to those who had known family members missing from the 1970s.

Two of Haakenson’s siblings submitted DNA, allowing law enforcement to identify him as a victim. Due to his body’s placement in Gacy’s crawl space, investigators determined he was killed in August 1976, the same summer he ran away from home.

Gacy was killed by lethal injection in 1994.

Trisha Taurinskas is an enterprise crime reporter for Forum Communications Co., specializing in stories related to missing persons and unsolved crime. Her work is primarily featured on The Vault.

Trisha can be reached at ttaurinskas@forumcomm.com.
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