Gary Michael Heidnik was an American murderer who kidnapped, tortured, and raped six women.
Heidnik was born on November 22, 1943 to Michael and Ellen Heidnik, he grew up in the Eastlake suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. He had a younger brother, Terry. His parents divorced in 1946 due to his mother’s alcoholism. The Heidnik children were then looked after by their mother for four years before being placed in the care of Michael Heidnik and his new wife. Heidnik and Terry both hated their stepmother, but their father always sided with her when it came to conflicts. Heidnik would later claim that he was often emotionally abused by his father. Heidnik suffered a lifelong problem of bed wetting, and claimed his father would humiliate him by forcing him to hang his stained sheets from his bedroom window, in full view of their neighbours, Heidnik also stated that he even dangled him out the window, shaking him by the ankles. After his son’s arrest, Michael Heidnik denied that he abused his son.
At school, Heidnik did not interact with his fellow students, and refused to make eye contact. When a well-meaning new female student asked, “Did you get the homework done, Gary?”, he yelled at her and told her she was not “worthy enough” to talk to him. While he was still a child, Heidnik fell from a tree, smashing his skull and suffering a misshapen cranium, which is believed to have caused behavioral aberration. His schoolmates called him “football head” because of it. Heidnik performed well academically and tested with an I.Q. of 130. With the encouragement of his father, 14-year-old Heidnik enrolled at the since defunct Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Virginia for two years, leaving before graduation. After another period in public high school, he dropped out and joined the United States Army when he was 17.
Heidnik served in the Army for thirteen months. During basic training, Heidnik’s drill sergeant graded him as “excellent”. Following basic training, he applied for several specialist positions, including the military police, but was rejected. He was sent to San Antonio, Texas, to be trained as a medic and did well through medical training. However, Heidnik did not stay in San Antonio very long and was transferred to the 46th Army Surgical Hospital in Landstuhl, West Germany. Within weeks of his new posting in Germany, he earned his GED.
In August 1962, Heidnik reported in sick, calling and complaining of severe headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, and nausea. A hospital neurologist diagnosed Heidnik with gastroenteritis, and noted that Heidnik also displayed symptoms of mental illness, for which he was prescribed trifluoperazine. In October 1962, Heidnik was transferred to a military hospital in Philadelphia, where he was diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder and honorably discharged from military service receiving a full disability pension.
Shortly after his discharge, Heidnik became a licensed practical nurse and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, only to drop out after one semester. He worked as a psychiatric nurse at a Veterans Administration hospital in Coatesville, but was fired for poor attendance and rude behaviour towards patients. He later received an internship at Philadelphia General Hospital. In 1967, he purchased a three-story house. From August 1962 until his arrest in March 1987, Heidnik spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals mainly frequenting the Elwyn Institute, a house for the developmentally disabled and had attempted suicide at least 13 times. His brother Terry also spent time in mental institutions and attempted suicide multiple times.
In 1970, his mother Ellen, who had been diagnosed with bone cancer and was suffering the effects of alcoholism, committed suicide by drinking mercuric chloride. In October 1971, Heidnik incorporated a church called the United Church of the Ministers of God, initially with only five followers. Heidnik founded the Church of Heidnik as its ordained minister, Brother Heidnik. In 1975, Heidnik opened an account under the church’s name with Merrill Lynch. The initial deposit was $1,500. Heidnik eventually amassed over $500,000 (US$ 1,079,386.76 in 2010). By 1986, the United Church of the Ministers of God was thriving and wealthy.
Desiring to have sex slaves and create a harem, Heidnik began his series of abductions and rapes in 1986. On November 25, Heidnik picked up Josefina Rivera, a part-time African-American prostitute, and took her to his house. After having sex with her, he choked her into unconsciousness before chaining her up in his basement. Heidnik then dug a pit in the basement floor, and Rivera was put into the pit, which was covered by a weighted board if she tried to escape or “misbehave”. On December 3, 1986, Heidnik abducted the mentally-disabled Sandra Lindsay, whom he had gotten pregnant previously, but she had an abortion, which angered him.
Heidnik fed the two women irregularly, kept them half-naked, and raped them repeatedly. On December 23, he brought 19-year-old Lisa Thomas over to his home. He drugged her wine and put her in the basement with the other women. A week later, on January 2, 1987, Heidnik abducted Deborah Dudley. During her period of captivity, she would try to defend herself against Heidnik, but was beaten and put in the pit more than the others.
After Dudley’s abduction, Heidnik further humiliated the four women by forcing them to have sex with each other and made them eat dog food. On January 18, he abducted Jacquelyn Askins. On February 7, Heidnik became angry with Lindsay for unspecified reasons and punished her by hanging her by one of her wrists from a roof-beam for two days; she developed a high fever and with a combination of starvation died the next morning.
Heidnik dismembered her body with a power saw but had a problem dealing with the arms and legs, so he put them in a freezer and marked them “dog food”. He cooked her ribs in an oven and boiled her head in a pot on the stove. Police came to the house due to the complaints of a bad odour, but left the premises after Heidnik’s explanation: “I’m cooking a roast. I fell asleep and it burnt.”
Several sources state that he ground up the flesh of Lindsay, mixed it with dog food, and fed that to his other victims. His defense attorney, Chuck Peruto, said that upon examination of a Cuisinart and other tools in his kitchen, they found no evidence of this. Peruto said that he made up the story to support the insanity defense. The defense attorney said that he started the rumor of cannibalism in public and that in fact there was no evidence of anyone eating human flesh.
After the police incident Heidnik bribed his captives into telling on one another. Josefina Rivera told him that the others had planned to attack him and escape. As a result, he made them deaf by driving screwdrivers through their eardrums. Heidnik started to apply electrocution as a form of torture to all of his captives except Rivera, who started to aid him in torturing the others. She also had other privileges after apparently becoming his favourite, including being occasionally allowed upstairs to watch a movie or being allowed to be raped in a more comfortable environment.
At one point, he forced three of his captives, bound in chains, into a pit. Heidnik ordered Josefina Rivera and another woman to fill the hole with water and then forced Rivera to help him apply electric current from a stripped extension cord to the women’s chains. Deborah Dudley was fatally electrocuted. He and Rivera later disposed of her body in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, later abducting Agnes Adams to replace Dudley on March 23, 1987.
The next day Rivera asked Heidnik’s permission to be allowed to visit her family. Possibly assuming that she had fallen to Stockholm syndrome, therefore believing she would not run to the authorities, he allowed it. He drove her to a gas station and said he would wait for her there.
However, Rivera went home to tell her boyfriend, Vincent Nelson, what had happened and called 911. She told the police the story and they were somewhat unconvinced at first. The police made her repeat the story and she told it exactly the same way again. The responding officers, more convinced after they looked at her leg and noted the chafing from the chains, went to the gas station and arrested Heidnik.
His purported best friend, Cyril (“Tony”) Brown, was also arrested. Brown was released on $50,000 bail and an agreement that he would testify against Heidnik. In part, Brown admitted to seeing Sandra Lindsay’s death in the basement while in chains and Heidnik dismembering her. Shortly after his arrest, Heidnik attempted to hang himself in his jail cell in April 1987.
On June 1988, he first appeared in court. For his defense, Heidnik made the unlikely claim that the woman he abducted had been in his basement when he moved into the house. At trial, Heidnik was defended by A. Charles Peruto, Jr., who attempted to prove that Heidnik was legally insane.
Heidnik’s insanity was successfully rebutted by the prosecution, led by Charles F. Gallagher, III. The fact that he had amassed approximately $550,000 in his bank and brokerage accounts was used to argue that he was not insane. Testimony from his Merrill Lynch financial advisor, Robert Kirkpatrick, was also used to prove competence.
Kirkpatrick called Heidnik “an astute investor who knew exactly what he was doing.” Convicted of two counts of first-degree murder on July 1, 1988, Heidnik was sentenced to death and incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh. In January 1989, he attempted suicide with an overdose of prescribed thorazine but he only fell into a brief coma.
Gary Heidnik was executed by lethal injection on July 6, 1999, at State Correctional Institution – Rockview in Centre County, Pennsylvania. His body was later cremated. As of 2016, he is the last person to be executed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.