Heidnik was born to Michael and Ellen Heidnik, and was raised in the Eastlake suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. He had a younger brother, Terry. His parents divorced in 1946. The Heidnik children were raised by their mother for four years before being placed in the care of Michael Heidnik and his new wife. 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 his son by forcing him to hang his stained sheets from his bedroom window, in full view of their neighbors. 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. Heidnik was also teased about his oddly shaped head, which he and Terry claimed was the result of a young Gary's falling out of a tree. Heidnik performed well academically and tested with an I.Q. of 130. With the encouragement of his father, 14-year-old Gary enrolled at Staunton Military Academy 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 (Stelazine). In October 1962, Heidnik was transferred to a military hospital in Philadelphia, where he was diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder andhonorably discharged from military service.
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 inCoatesville, but was fired for poor attendance and rude behavior towards patients. From August 1962 until his arrest in March 1987, Heidnik spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals and had attempted suicide at least 13 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. His brother Terry also spent time in mental institutions and attempted suicide multiple times.
In October 1971, Heidnik incorporated a church called the United Church of the Ministers of God, initially with only five followers. In 1975, Heidnik opened an account under the church's name with Merrill Lynch. The initial deposit was $1,500. Heidnik eventually amassed over $500,000 (US$ 1,060,109.29 in 2010). By 1986, the United Church of the Ministers of God was thriving and wealthy.
Heidnik used a matrimonial service to meet his future wife, with whom he corresponded by mail for two years before proposing to her. Betty Disto arrived from the Philippines in September 1985 and married Heidnik in Maryland on October 3, 1985. The marriage rapidly deteriorated after she found Heidnik in bed with three other women. Throughout the course of their brief marriage, Heidnik forced his wife to watch while he had sex with other women. Disto also accused him of repeatedly raping and assaulting her. With the help of the Filipino community in Philadelphia, Betty was able to leave her abusive husband in January 1986. Unknown to Heidnik until his ex-wife requested child support payments in 1987, he impregnated Betty during their short marriage. On September 15, 1986, Disto gave birth to a son, whom she named Jesse John Disto.
Heidnik also had a child with Gail Lincow, a son named Gary, Jr. The child was placed in foster care soon after his birth. Heidnik had a third child with another woman, Anjeanette Davidson, who was illiterate and mentally disabled.Their daughter, Maxine Davidson, was born on March 16, 1978. The child was immediately placed in foster care. Shortly after Maxine's birth, Heidnik was arrested for the kidnapping and rape of Anjeanette's sister Alberta, who had been living in an institution for the mentally disabled in Penn Township. In 1997, Heidnik's daughter Maxine and ex-wife Betty filed to appeal her father's death sentence.
1976: First legal charges
In 1976, Heidnik was charged with aggravated assault and carrying an unlicensed pistol after shooting the tenant of a house he offered for rent, grazing his face.
1978: First imprisonment
Heidnik signed his girlfriend Anjeanette Davidson's sister, Alberta, out of a mental institution on day leave and kept her prisoner in a locked storage room in his basement in 1978. After she was found and returned to the hospital, examination revealed that she had been raped and sodomized and that she had contracted gonorrhea. Heidnik was arrested and charged with kidnapping, rape, unlawful restraint, false imprisonment, involuntary deviant sexual intercourse, and interfering with the custody of a committed person.
The original sentence was overturned on appeal, and Heidnik spent three years of his incarceration in mental institutions prior to being released in April 1983 under the supervision of a state sanctioned mental health program. In 1980, Heidnik gave a note to a guard stating that Satan shoved a cookie down his throat that prevented him from talking. He was silent for the next two years and three months.
1986: Spousal rape
After his wife Betty left him in 1986, Heidnik was arrested yet again and charged with assault, indecent assault, spousal rape and involuntary deviant sexual intercourse.
1986-1987: Serial rape and murder
On November 25, 1986, Heidnik abducted his first victim, Josefina Rivera. By January 1987, he had five women held captive in the basement of his house at 3520 North Marshall Street in Philadelphia. Heidnik and his friend, Cyril "Tony" Brown, would generally lure women back to the home by displaying his wealth and driving fancy cars. The captives, who were all African-American women, were sexually abused, beaten, and tortured.
One of the women, Sandra Lindsay, died of a combination of starvation, torture, and an untreated fever. Heidnik dismembered her body 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 odor, but left the premises after Heidnik's explanation: “I’m cooking a roast. I fell asleep and it burnt.”
Heidnik used electric shock as a form of torture. At one point, he forced three of his captives, bound in chains, into the pit. Heidnik ordered Josefina Rivera and another woman to fill the hole with water and then forced Rivera to help him apply electrical current from a stripped extension cord to the women's chains. Deborah Dudley was fatally electrocuted, and Heidnik disposed of her body in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
On March 23, 1987, Heidnik and Rivera abducted Agnes Adams. The next day, Rivera convinced Heidnik to let her go, temporarily, in order to visit her family. He drove her to a gas station and said he would wait for her there. She walked a block away 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.
Shortly after his arrest, Heidnik attempted to hang himself in his jail cell in April 1987.
At Heidnik's arraignment, he claimed that the women were already in the house when he moved in. 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 prescribedthorazine.
Heidnik was executed by lethal injection on July 6th, 1999, at State Correctional Institution – Rockview in Centre County, Pennsylvania. His body was later cremated. As of 2011, he is the last person to be executed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
List of captives
- Josefina Rivera, age 25, kidnapped on November 25, 1986
- Sandra Lindsay, age 24, kidnapped on December 3, 1986, murdered in February 1987
- Lisa Thomas, age 19, kidnapped on December 23, 1986
- Deborah Dudley, age 23, kidnapped on January 2, 1987, murdered on March 19, 1987
- Jacqueline Askins, age 18, kidnapped on January 18, 1987 (featured on The Steve Wilkos Show "I Survived A Serial Killer")
- Agnes Adams, age 24, kidnapped on March 23, 1987
In popular culture and fiction
In film and literature
- Blind Faith, a 1989 direct-to-video feature film directed by Dean Wilson, was "based upon the true story of Philadelphia sex killer Gary Heidnik."
- Heidnik's defense attorney, A. Charles "Chuck" Peruto Jr., told Philadelphia magazine: "Eventually Gary’s story wound its way into Silence of the Lambs. If you watch that movie, you can see a lot of Heidnik in the Buffalo Bill character. The way he has the girl in the pit."
- Heidnik's methods of captivity and torture were used for inspiration in Dan Wells' young adult thriller novel "Mr. Monster." In this novel, a killer keeps his victims locked in the basement or put into "the hole" for extra punishment, which is a dug-out hole in the floor (partially filled with soiled water) where a victim is kept, covered with boards and water barrels to ensure captivity. The killer also employs the use of shock torture in a situation similar to the experience used with Josefina Rivera.