Gary Heidnik



Gary Heidnik wanted children, but every intimate relationship he had with women disintegrated. He needed to find a way to make sure they would never leave him, so he decided to keep females in his basement. His sadistic desires were the stuff of horror movies, and would become part of the inspiration behind serial killer Buffalo Bill, portrayed in The Silence of the Lambs.

Lead up to Crime

Michael Heidnik pushed his tyrannical nature and racism onto his two boys. He devised punishments for his sons: forcing them to wear bulls-eyes on the seats of their pants so their schoolmates would kick them; hung their sheets out for their neighbours to see after they wet the bed; and hung Gary by his ankles from a third storey window. When he was six, Gary fell out of a tree and suffered brain damage. The injury led him to have a misshapen skull, and the other children called him “football head.” It was then that his unusual behaviour began to take hold and he would torture his once loved pets by hanging them.

Gary Heidnik’s father disinherited and renounced him in the mid-1960s after he discovered him living with a black woman. He joined the army in his late teens, but was later discharged when he was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He would spend much of his adult life in and out of 21 different mental institutions and he made several suicide attempts.

His alcoholic mother, Ellen Vandervoort, was married five times, twice to African-American men. She committed suicide on Mother’s Day 1971 by swallowing mercury as a way of making sure her sons would never forget her. She was found in the basement.

In 1976, Heidnik owned a house in Cedar Avenue, Philadelphia. He had an argument with his girlfriend and shut off the electricity to the building. Another tenant, Robert Rodgers, climbed through a basement window to find Heidnik sitting on a child’s mattress. Heidnik shot at him, grazing his face. Charges were laid, but dropped a week later. When he sold the rubbish filled house, the couple cleaning the premises found a large amount of pornography. They also found a pit where Heidnik had dug through the concrete basement floor.

On May 22, 1978, Heidnik’s girlfriend, Anjeanette Davidson, gave birth to their daughter. Anjeanette had an IQ of only 49 and suffered a fibroid tumour, not allowing her to have a natural birth. Their child was placed in foster care after Heidnik barely allowed Davidson to eat during her pregnancy.

While the couple visited Anjeanette’s sister, Alberta Davidson, 34, at the Selingrove Centre for the mentally retarded on May 7, 1978, he signed her out with no intention of returning her. Heidnik held Alberta in her sister’s basement for 10 days, where he repeatedly raped her, tearing her vagina and giving her gonorrhoea. Officials from the centre visited the house with a police escort, after a previous attempt failed to find the missing woman. She was found in a coal bin in the basement. Heidnik was charged with a string of offences, including kidnapping, rape, and false imprisonment. The more serious charges had to be dropped, as Alberta was too mentally handicapped to testify. He was found guilty of interfering with the custody of a committed person, unlawful restraint, and recklessly endangering another person. He was sentenced to three to seven years, and spent just over four years moving through a series of mental institutions. He was released on April 12, 1983, with three years supervision.

Gary Heidnik would impregnate several women, including a mail-order bride from the Philippines. He would not have access to any of his children, with them either placed in foster care or living with their mothers. If he wanted to raise a family of his own, he would have to make sure neither the mothers nor his children could ever leave.

Held Captive

Josefina Rivera, 25, was streetwise, running away from a foster home at aged 12 to live on the streets of North Philadelphia, where she would inject cocaine at local flophouses. On November 26, 1986, she had a fight with her boyfriend. She stormed out of the house to prostitute on the corner of Third Street and Girard Avenue, hoping to turn a $20 trick. Gary Heidnik cruised by in his Cadillac Coupe de Ville, the mother of three children hopped inside, and he took her back to his house at 3520 North Marshall Street.

After they completed their deal in an upstairs bedroom, Heidnik choked Rivera, and took her to the dank and dark basement. He fastened a muffler clamp around her ankle and secured the bolt with glue. He left her alone, chained up in the basement.

When Heidnik returned three days later, he brought down his next captive, Sandra Lindsay, 24. She was mentally disabled and went missing while walking to the store. He chained her up in the same fashion as Rivera. He forced the women to watch each other be raped, and used a shovel handle to beat them into submission. Lindsay’s mother visited Heidnik’s house multiple times over the next few days, searching for her daughter, but there was never an answer at the door.

Lisa Thomas, 19, was a single mother on welfare, who had dropped out of high school to have her baby. As she walked down Lehigh Street on December 22, 1986, Heidnik offered her a lift. She hopped in the car with the stranger. He bought her lunch, where she took an allergy pill. Afterwards, he took her clothes shopping at Sears. Promising her a trip to Atlantic City, he drove her back to his house and gave her a wine. As the wine reacted with the pill, she passed out. He took her upstairs and had sex with her. When she asked to go home, he choked and cuffed her, then pushed her down the stairs into the basement.

Heidnik uncovered a pit — a deep hole burrowing through the concrete that he had spent nine months excavating — where Rivera and Lindsay were confined. He introduced the women, had sex with Thomas again, and then prepared the women sandwiches.

On New Year’s Day 1987, Deborah Dudley was brought into the cellar. She made a poor captive for Heidnik — feisty and confrontational. She refused to submit. The cramped and putrid conditions caused Heidnik to do some refining. He bought them a portable toilet, tampons, and allowed them to bathe over consecutive days.

Along with the regular rapes, humiliations, and starvation, Heidnik devised a serious of punishments for any perceived slight he believed the women to be guilty of. He beat them with a shovel handle while stretched on a pool table, forced them into the pit, and suspended them from an eyehook. To prevent them from hearing him move around upstairs, he pushed screwdrivers into their ears to deafen them. Music blared continuously so no one could hear their desperate cries. The already substandard diet was reduced to dog food.

On January 14, while the women were held captive, Heidnik attended court as his Filipino mail-order bride — who fled after only three-and-a-half months marriage and who sent only a postcard alerting him of her pregnancy — sued him for child support. He became evasive when questioned about the finances of the United Church of the Ministers of God, which he ran from his home, estimated to be worth over $550,000. The church provided services to mentally and physically disabled people who didn’t feel comfortable attending regular church.

Jacquelyn Askins, 18, had a slight build and was quiet. She met Heidnik around noon on January 18, 1987, while trying to turn a trick on West Girard Avenue in Poplar. She soon joined the other women in the cellar.

Heidnik thought his plan was unfolding perfectly, believing Rivera and Lindsay were pregnant after they missed their periods, ready to supply him with two of the ten babies he desired. Heidnik was mistaken and the women were not pregnant, which left him disappointed.

Sandra Lindsay was suspended by her wrists from a ceiling beam as punishment for trying to climb out of the pit. A week later, on February 7, she died. Heidnik thought she was faking, so he threw her body back in the pit. He made Rivera, Thomas and himself bowls of ice cream. He retrieved Lindsay’s body and carried her upstairs, where he dismembered her with a power saw. He bagged some parts and placed them in the freezer, gave some bones to his dogs, and minced up flesh and mixed it with dog food to feed his captives and pets. Neighbours soon called the police as the sweet-awful smell of roasting flesh crept its way through the city block. Police responded, but soon left after Heidnik told them, “I just burnt my dinner.”

Besides providing a meal, Lindsay would also serve as a warning. Dudley refused to comply with Heidnik’s authority, so he took her upstairs to show her Lindsay’s head boiling away in a pot. When this made little difference to her attitude, Heidnik came up with another plan.

Rivera had been working on Heidnik, attempting to befriend him so she could plot an escape. The favour she garnered from Heidnik had a price. On March 18 he sought to punished Lisa, Jacquelyn, and Deborah, using Josefina to carry out the act. He ordered Josefina to partly fill the pit with water and he lowered the three women into the sludge. He fetched a stripped electrical cord, and made Josefina electrocute the women by touching the bare wires on their chains. On the final jolt, the wires touched the chain around Deborah Dudley’s neck, killing her instantly.

Dudley’s body was placed in a freezer. A week later Heidnik and Rivera transported the body to New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, where they dumped her in the forest. The next day the pair kidnapped Agnes Adams, 24, a prostitute he had already had sex with in the house while the other women were held downstairs. Like all the other victims, she was also African-American. However, with two women dead and none pregnant, Heidnik would have to work harder to see his plan come to fruition.

Escape and Rescue

Josefina Rivera convinced Gary Heidnik that if he let her out she would visit a friend and bring her back as the next slave. But, first she needed to visit her family. Heidnik had forced Rivera to write a confession, claiming responsibility for Dudley’s death. He believed this protected him from Rivera escaping, as she would incriminate herself.

Parked at a gas station on Sixth and Girard Street, Heidnik left the car running as he waited for Rivera to return. She ran four blocks to the house she shared with her boyfriend, that she had left on a cold November night four months earlier. As Rivera unloaded the details of her ordeal, her boyfriend listened in disbelief. They decided to go an attack Heidnik, but changed their minds, fearing he might return to North Marshall Street and kill the other women. Instead, they called 911.

Police soon arrived at the gas station and approached the car with their guns drawn.

“Didn’t I make my child support?” asked Heidnik.

Police were quick to smash through the front door of Heidnik’s house. They found the three women chained up in the basement: Thomas and Askins were asleep on an old mattress; Adams’ was found handcuffed in the pit and police lifted her out of the hole. In the kitchen, human remains were found in a roasting pan and a forearm discovered in the freezer.

“Gary kept ice cream in the freezer. Can we eat that?” asked Agnes Adams, as police escorted the women from the house.


On March 25, 1987, Heidnik’s nose was broken when attacked by a fellow prisoner. A week later, on April 2, he attempted suicide by trying to hang himself in the shower with a t-shirt.

Heidnik was charged with a slew of offences, including: murder, possession and abuse of a corpse, kidnapping, rape, making terroristic threats, indecent assault, and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.

Throughout the trial, the testimony indicated the other captives felt Rivera received preferential treatment from Heidnik, which caused jealousy amongst the women, though she would be ultimately responsible for their rescue.

On July 1, 1988, Gary Heidnik was found guilty on two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death on each count. He appeared unmoved as the verdict was read, tranquilised by 300 milligrams of Thorazine. Other charges he was found guilty of were: kidnapping – six counts; rape – five counts; aggravated assault – four counts; and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse – one count.

Heidnik was housed at the State Correctional Institute in Pittsburgh, where he waited to be executed by electric chair. On January 3, 1989, he left prison and was admitted to the State Penn Hospital in a semi-comatose state, after he attempted suicide by overdosing on Thorazine.

“The ironic thing is now they’re going to work on him around the clock so he can regain consciousness so we can execute him,” said Heidnik’s attorney.

After a number of delays, Gary Heidnik was executed by lethal injection on July 6, 1999, at Rockview State Penitentiary in Benner, Pennsylvania. A final appeal was made to save his life, claiming Heidnik was mentally incompetent, but it delayed his death by only 45 minutes. He was pronounced dead at 10.29 p.m. Even anti-death penalty activists were notably absent from his execution. No one claimed his body and he was cremated.


Heidnik’s estate was divided amongst his victims and the families of the deceased.

The women made attempts to re-adjust to normal life. Most have remained out of the public eye, though attention was never far away in the suburbs of North Philadelphia. They were known as the “Heidnik girls,” and people regularly called out “Alpo” after the brand of dog food they were fed.

After the trial, Josefina Rivera lost custody of her children, and fell back into drugs and prostitution, rather than seeking therapy. She remains tormented by Heidnik and still sees reminders of him everywhere: in food packaging, in men with beards, and in holes in the ground. She has appeared in print interviews on the anniversaries of their liberation. She was reunited with her children on Christmas 2010. She was last known to live in New Jersey.

Jacquelyn Askins appeared on The Steve Wilkos Show episode “I Survived a Serial Killer,” where she explained her story in detail. She described how the captivity made her unsure of what she would become once she was released, fearing she would turn into a person similar to Heidnik. She spent five years in and out of mental institutions to recover from post-traumatic stress disorder, and still bears the mental and physical scars of her ordeal.

The house at 3520 North Marshall Street has been sold since Heidnik lived there, though the sale price has always remained painfully low. In 2003 the house sat in a state of disrepair, abandoned, and unfit for human habitation. Trash was strewn around the block and filled the basement where the horrors took place. The appearance of the house was altered drastically in an attempt to distance it from its past. As of 2012 it appeared to be somewhat occupied.

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