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Gary Heidnik

Gary Heidnik was two years old when his parents divorced, his mother charging her husband with “gross neglect of duty.” Two years later, her chronic alcoholism forced her to send Gary and a younger brother back to live with their father, the unstable pattern of Heidnik’s life already well established. Dropping out of high school in October 1961, he joined the army a month later and received medical training at Fort Sam Houston, in Texas. Heidnik was posted to a military hospital in West Germany during May 1962, but he was back in the States by October, committed to a Pennsylvania sanitarium for three months of psychiatric therapy. Honorably discharged from the military with a 100-percent disability rating, his records permanently sealed and classified, he received a monthly pension of $1,355 from the government for his trouble.

Over the next quarter-century, Heidnik was frequently committed to mental institutions at Morristown, Coatesville, and Honesdale, Pennsylvania, sometimes remaining for months at a time. He seemed to profit little from the therapy, professing ignorance about the details of his own condition. “They haven’t given me a technical name,” he told a judge in 1978, “but it’s some kind of schizophrenia.”

In February 1964, Heidnik signed up for a practical nursing program in Philadelphia, successfully completing 12 months of training and a six-month internship at Philadelphia General Hospital. By 1967 he had banked enough money from his job and government pension to purchase a three-story house, occupying one floor himself while he rented the others to tenants. On the side, he began hanging around the Elwyn Institute for the retarded, treating female inmates—usually African- American or Hispanic—to picnics, movies, and shopping trips. The “dates” normally wound up at Heidnik’s house for sex, but if anyone objected, their complaints fell through the cracks and were ignored.

In 1971 Heidnik established the “United Church of the Ministries of God,” drawing his eight-member congregation from the Elwyn Institute’s clientele. His front yard became the repository for a derelict boat and four junk cars, but Gary dismissed the complaints of his neighbors with airy disdain. He preyed on black women for sex but despised their race otherwise, frequently lecturing friends on the imminence of an American “race war.”

In autumn 1976, Heidnik barricaded himself in the basement of his home, armed with a rifle and handgun, daring his disgruntled tenants to deliver their complaints in person. One tried to climb through a window and Gary shot him in the face, inflicting a superficial wound. Charges of aggravated assault were later dismissed, and Heidnik soon moved away, selling his house to a university professor. The new owner turned up collections of pornographic magazines, heaps of rotting garbage, and scores of spent .22-caliber cartridges in the attic. Downstairs, in the cellar, he found an 18- inch hole in the concrete floor, with the soil underneath excavated to a depth of three feet.

In 1977 Heidnik invested $35,000 in the stock market, building his fortune up to a half-million dollars over the next decade. He purchased a fleet of luxury cars—including a Rolls Royce, a Cadillac, a Lincoln Continental, and a customized van—dodging legitimate taxes in the guise of a “bishop” in his nonexistent “church.” He shared his home with an illiterate retarded woman, and she bore him a daughter in March 1978, the child later turning up in a foster home. On May 7 of that year, Heidnik and his girlfriend drove to a mental institution in Harrisburg, picking up her sister for a day’s outing. At age 34, their new companion had the IQ of a three-year-old, and she had been institutionalized for the past 20 years. Authorities found her in Heidnik’s filthy basement on May 17, returning her to the home, and Gary was arrested on June 6, charged with rape, kidnapping, deviate sexual intercourse, endangering, unlawful restraint, and interfering with the custody of a committed person.

Hospitalized himself in August 1978, Heidnik was convicted at trial three months later, drawing a sentence of three to seven years in prison. He served four years and four months of the time, dispatched to mental institutions on three occasions after suicide attempts—via pills, carbon monoxide, and by chewing a lightbulb— before he was paroled in April 1983. In December 1984, Heidnik purchased his last house, on North Marshall Street in Philadelphia, and put up a sign announcing the new location of his one-man “church.” Around the same time, he befriended Cyril Brown, a retarded black man employed by Heidnik as a part-time handy man and general “gofer.”

In October 1985, Heidnik married a 22-year-old Filipina woman, with whom he had corresponded for the past two years. Almost at once, he began bringing other women home for sexual liaisons, prompting his wife to flee their home in January 1986. She wound up in a shelter for battered women, complaining that Gary frequently raped and assaulted her. Police booked Heidnik on charges of spousal rape, indecent assault, and simple assault, while the courts handed down an injunction barring any form of harassment against his wife. Criminal charges were dropped in March when the complainant failed to appear in court, but her affidavits remain, including descriptions of Heidnik performing with three female partners at once.

On Thanksgiving Day 1985, 26-year-old Josephina Rivera left her boyfriend’s apartment following a birthday celebration, bound to do some shopping. A parttime prostitute, she readily accepted Heidnik’s offer of $20 for sex and accompanied him to his house, where he choked her unconscious and shackled her to the bed. Later, she was transferred to the basement, dumped in a pit with a weighted board covering the hole. In captivity, Rivera was raped daily by Heidnik, surviving on a diet of bread and water, with an occasional “treat” in the form of dog food or biscuits.

In early December, Heidnik bagged his second captive in Sandra Lindsey, a 25-year-old retarded friend of Cyril Brown. Chained to a beam in the basement, she was subjected to a regimen of torture, rape, and rancid food, Heidnik dividing his time between the two prisoners. Lisa Thomas, 19, was abducted at Christmas, with 18-year-old Jacqueline Askins joining the harem in January 1986. Heidnik began playing the women off against each other, encouraging them to inform on acts of disobedience. Punishments included beatings and electric shocks, with the occasional refinement of a screwdriver jammed into a victim’s ears. In his reflective moments, Heidnik regaled them with plans for collecting 10 prisoners and fathering as many children as possible before he died.

In February 1987, Sandra Lindsay died after several days of hanging in chains from the rafters. Heidnik and Rivera, who acted under coercion, bore the corpse upstairs, where it was placed in a tub and dismembered with a power saw. Lindsay’s replacement was 23-yearold Deborah Dudley, kidnapped in March, but she proved uncooperative and Heidnik killed her on March 19, hooking electrical wires to her chains as she stood Police search for evidence outside Gary Heidnik’s in a pit filled with water. Dudley spent two days in the freezer before Heidnik and Josephina Rivera drove to the Wharton State Forest, near Camden, New Jersey, dumping her corpse in the woods on March 22.

Two days later, Rivera escaped from the basement prison, seeking refuge at her boyfriend’s home. He called police, and raiders swept through Heidnik’s house on March 25, finding bedroom walls papered with currency, the kitchen decorated with pennies, and Susan Lindsay’s chopped-up remains stored in a freezer nearby. The basement was a bona fide chamber of horrors, with three malnourished women chained to the plumbing, nude from the waist down. Foul-smelling pits in the floor had served as their sleeping quarters. Neighbors belatedly recalled a persistent odor of burning flesh emanating from Heidnik’s abode. Human remains were retrieved from the drains, and searchers made the drive to New Jersey that afternoon recovering Deborah Dudley’s corpse.

Held in lieu of a $4 million bond, Heidnik was hospitalized in April after trying to hang himself in a jail shower stall. Defense attorneys sought to prove their client insane, suggesting that he had been used for military LSD experiments during the 1960s, but jurors rejected the argument, convicting Heidnik of double murder on July 1, 1988. Other charges included six counts of kidnapping, five counts of rape, four counts of aggravated assaults, and one count of deviate sexual intercourse. On July 3 the defendant was sentenced to die by lethal injection, with superfluous prison time totaling 150 to 300 years.

Six months later, on December 31, Heidnik attempted suicide once again, swallowing an overdose of Thorazine in his prison cell. A guard found him comatose on New Year’s Day, but Gary soon recovered and returned to death row. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected his automatic appeal on March 7, 1991, whereupon the “Madman of Marshall Street” ordered his attorneys to forego any further appeals. An execution date was ultimately fixed for April 15, 1997, Heidnik insisting that he wanted to die on schedule, but his daughter intervened at the 11th hour, winning an indefinite stay of execution while Heidnik’s sanity is reexamined. Heidnik was executed by lethal injection on July 6, 1999, pronounced dead at 10:29 P.M., less than an hour after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his final appeal.