It has been 22 years since serial killer Gary Michael Heidnik was wheeled into the lethal injection room at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview in Centre County, Pennsylvania. 

Heidnik, the last person to be put to death by this state, was executed on a gurney with a sheet covering most of his body. His last day included a meeting with one of his three children, Maxine Davidson White, a chat with a spiritual advisor and a final meal of black coffee and two slices of cheese pizza. 

The convicted rapist and killer of two women had no final words. Observers noted how after the lethal injection his face turned bright red then went ashen. When his death was announced at 10:29 pm, a woman in the galley shouted, “Thank you, Jesus!” Among the 10 or so witnesses in the room, applause broke out.

Post execution, Heidnik’s remains were cremated, although after his death his legacy lived on in the world of crime novels (what is sometimes termed “tragedy porn”), documentary films, podcasts and as inspiration for the character of Buffalo Bill in the film, “Silence of the Lambs.” 

The scene of Heidnik’s grisly crimes was his home at 3520 N. Marshall Street in North Philadelphia.

From November 1986 to March 1987, Heidnik kidnapped six women—Josefina Rivera, Sandra Lindsay, Lisa Thomas, Deborah Dudley, Jacqueline Askins and Agnes Adams—chaining them to pipes in the basement of his house where he deprived them of food and water while beating and raping them daily. Two of the women died in captivity. Sandra Lindsay died after hanging by her wrist from a ceiling beam for almost a week; Deborah Dudley died when Heidnik filled a pit in the basement with water and then forced Josefina Rivera to apply a live electrical wire to the chain shackled to Dudley’s body. 

Heidnik’s fantasy was the creation of a ‘birthing harem’ but to do that he had to have as many children as possible with the women in his basement. Defense Attorney Chuck Peruto, who represented Heidnik in the late 1980s, told 6 ABC in 2019 that Heidnik “wanted to have a perfect race of children from these women.” 

Heidnik’s victims were mostly mentally challenged African American women he met while trolling for prostitutes near Front and Girard (where he met Rivera). 

Rivera, Heidnik’s first and most “famous” victim, met Heidnik on November 25, 1986. Rivera, who lived at 6th and Girard, says she got “sidetracked” in life when she gave in to a severe weed and cocaine addiction. For Rivera, sex work was an easy way to make extra money.

“I was always on Front Street,” she said in one interview. “It was the day before Thanksgiving. It was raining out, cold, there was no traffic, and as I was making my way to Front Street, Gary pulled up in his Cadillac.”  Rivera, who said that she never went to a client’s home, made an exception in the case of Heidnik.  “The word ‘nut’ is not stamped on anybody’s head,” she said. 

After having sex with Heidnik, Rivera says he came up behind her and started to choke her. He put a handcuff on her wrist and put her into a hole in his basement. 

Heidnik then put Sandra Lindsay into the hole. “For the first month me and Sandra stayed in there by ourselves,” Rivera said. “He would bring us hot chocolate in the morning for breakfast and at night he would bring down maybe two or three hot dogs. He wanted to have a farm and he wanted to have women on the farm. He wanted to have all these kids.”  

As other women were forced into the basement, Rivera reported that Heidnik developed a system of rules. “When you got a punishment you got bread and water. He would take away all your privileges.”

Before the nightmare was over, Heidnik would cook the flesh of one of his victims and mix it with dog food, then feed it to the captives. Rivera eventually worked with Heidnik in what she says was an act of desperation to save the kidnapped women.

What makes a serial killer? That question has haunted experts for years, but the answers are as varied as the style and idiosyncrasies of serial killers themselves.

“Some of the most notorious serial killers of our time have something in common beside their thirst for blood,” Real Crime reported in 2017. “They were all adopted. David Berkowitz (a.k.a. Son of Sam), Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, Joel Rifkin and the Boston Strangler are just a handful of the prominent serial murderers who also happen to be adoptees.”

In 2014, Scientific American asked, Do serial killers have an extra chromosome? “While there is no such thing as a ‘killer gene,’ the article stated, research is revealing genetic tendencies towards violent behaviour.” There are some who believe that serial killers experienced childhood trauma or early separation from their mothers, and as a result of that they learn how to suppress empathy.

Other serial killers have come to be associated with the occult. The Son of Sam wrote letters decorated with satanic symbols. The Zodiac Killer dressed up in ritual garb and made use of the Gnostic cross. Ted Bundy drained blood from his victims and had an interest in Satanism. Jeffrey Dahmer’s dream was to build an occult altar; he was also obsessed with the movie, Exorcist III. Much of Charles Manson’s philosophy came from the Church of the Process, an offshoot of Scientology, and the writings of Aleister Crowley. An interest in the occult and Satanism is a prominent feature in the lives of many serial killers. 

That does not seem to be the case with Gary Heidnik, at least at first glance.

Born on November 22, 1943 in a suburb of Cleveland, Heidnik’s parents divorced in 1946. He was raised by his mother before being handed over to his father, who was then living with his new wife. Life with his father was anything but pleasant. Plagued by chronic bedwetting, young Gary was humiliated as a child when he was made to hang out his urine stained sheets from his bedroom window. His father also beat him on a regular basis.

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Early signs of psychological dysfunction became apparent when the young Heidnik never made eye contact with his fellow students at school. He also had an oddly shaped head, the result of a severe fall from a tree at age 6, although the head injury did not seem to affect his near-genius IQ of 148. A good student, he was enrolled in a military academy at 14 but dropped out at age 17 to enlist in the U.S. Army. His stay in the Army lasted 13 months during which he got his GED and became a medic before his transfer to West Germany.

In 1962, he began to experience headaches—quite possibly a delayed reaction from the fall from the tree—blurred vision, nausea and dizziness. He was prescribed Trifluoperazine and diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder. An honorable discharge from the military followed. 

Heidnik then became an LPN, worked at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Coatesville, Pennsylvania (where he was fired for rude behavior to patients). He moved to Philadelphia where he took courses at the University of Pennsylvania. At the time, he attempted suicide multiple times and was committed to psychiatric hospitals.

In October 1971, Heidnik incorporated a church: the United Church of the Ministers of God. He appointed himself as bishop. This inverted misuse of Christianity was perhaps Heidnik’s entrée into occult practices — but his real interest was financial.  By 1986 his church was wealthy and thriving, with Heidnik conducting bible services in his house while the chained women were in his basement. Ordinarily Heidnik drowned out the screams of the kidnapped women by playing loud rock music. Perhaps he used gospel music on Sunday to camouflage the women’s screams.  

Charles F. Gallagher, Deputy District Attorney, Homicide, worked in the DA’s office in 1976. Gallagher wrote an extensive court summary on Heidnik’s sanity to counter the serial killer’s claim of insanity after his arrest in March 1987. 

Ordinarily Heidnik drowned out the screams of the kidnapped women by playing loud rock music.

The court document profiles a highly competent manipulator who has always known how to work the system to his advantage. The court summary, in fact, classifies Heidnik as “intelligent, clean, competent and humorous.” 

The summary details Heidnik’s confession to Rivera that if he were ever to get caught, that he “was going to go into the court and act crazy by saluting the judge because somewhere in the law it states that if you act crazy for a certain amount of years, that eventually your case gets thrown out.”

Gallagher mentions the photographs of Heidnik taken immediately after his arrest in March 1987.

“There in that first photo after his arrest you can look into his eyes and see the evil,” Gallagher said. In other pictures, Heidnik is unkempt with long hair and a beard, looking, as Gallagher says, “Like Rasputin.” 

“When he was in court everyday he was completely unkempt in that he let his hair and his beard grow wild,” Gallagher recalls. “He saluted the judge often. When he filed the insanity defense they also had to file any reports that they got from his psychiatric specialist. Under the law we [the prosecution] had the right to have our own psychiatric expert interview him.”

The prosecution’s expert, Dr. Robert Sadoff, accompanied Heidnik to the old holding cell room in City Hall after Heidnik’s arrest for first degree murder. Heidnik, who was held without bail, refused to answer any of Dr. Sadoff’s questions. At the trial, Gallagher said that a psychologist from the state prison system testified that it was clear that Heidnik was faking an inability to speak. 

Heidnik’s ‘other’ arrest in 1978 is worth noting.  

After his arrest in June of that year by Detective Patrick Devlin, PPD, for rape (changed later to a misdemeanor in 1979), Heidnik was sent to Graterford to serve 2 and one-half to 5 years. On his first day at the prison he claimed to have attempted suicide by swallowing a light bulb. The ruse worked. Heidnik’s ‘insane act’ enabled him to be transferred to Graterford’s hospital, a much less arduous sentence than the actual prison itself. Psychiatrists there labeled him, “mute and catatonic.”  

“He was brilliant in the fact that he was able to manipulate all of these systems over the years,” Gallagher stated. ”When he impregnated his mail order bride from the Philippines, Betsy Disto in 1985 [Heidnik met Disto through a matrimonial service in 1983 and they wrote letters until their meeting and marriage in 1985], he kept bringing these women into the house and having sex with them when she was there with the baby.”  

Disto walked out on Heidnik but refused to testify against him. She did file for child support, though. “When Heidnik had the women in the basement he was in court fighting the fact that he wasn’t paying Disto what the court ordered him to pay her for support,” Gallagher said.  

Heidnik managed to have three children with 3 different women whom he never enslaved in his basement: Gary Heidnik, Jr., Jesse John Disto and Maxine Davidson White.

Gallagher says that after Heidnik made himself a bishop he would hunt for parishioners at the McDonald’s at 40th and Walnut Streets. Many of the people he met there were from the nearby Elwyn Institute, a school for the mentally challenged. Heidnik would get the people he met to go to services at his home where they would read the bible, after which he would have sex with the women. 

Heidnik’s manipulation of the system included persuading the VA and the Social Security Administration to classify him as 100% disabled because of his fraudulent suicide attempts. The original $1500 he invested in his church mushroomed into a lucrative Merill Lynch portfolio worth $531,700.00 by the time of his 1987 arrest. These resources enabled him to purchase a Rolls Royce, a Dodge and a 1968 Cadillac Eldorado.

It was while driving the sleek Cadillac Eldorado on Girard Avenue that Heidnik encountered Josefina Rivera.

Heidnik’s arrest on March 25, 1987 became national and international news. The Los Angeles Times reported on April 3, 1987 that, “A man charged with murder after police found half-naked women shackled in his basement and body parts in his freezer tried to hang himself in a jail shower during the night.” 

The story went on to explain how Gary Heidnik “used his T-shirt to hang himself from a shower pipe at the Philadelphia Detention Center,” and that the officer assigned “to watch the suspect in the shower temporarily lost sight of him through the steam.” His suicide attempt again failed.

While waiting for his preliminary arraignment after his March 1987 arrest, Heidnik was incarcerated at the Police Administration Building. It was there that he was beaten up—his nose broken—by detainees.  

What haunts Gallagher to this day is what happened when the first degree verdict was read in court. It was then, he says, that he began to wonder about the fate of Anjeanette Davidson, the mildly mentally challenged woman Heidnik was living with in West Philadelphia in 1978. 

“I believe he killed her,” he said. ‘When they were living together they had a baby [Maxine Davidson] but the baby was taken away from them because neither he nor Anjeanette, who was also mentally challenged, had any prenatal care and didn’t go to doctors. After the birth they were told they could not take the baby home with them. But during a trial for his abuse of Alberta, Anjeanette’s sister, Anjeanette could not be found. 

Anjeanette, as it turns out, was never found. 

What haunts Gallagher to this day is what happened when the first degree verdict was read in court.

After Heidnik’s conviction, Gallagher asked the Sheriff to ask Heidnik, who was back in the City Hall holding cell, where Anjeanette was.

The sheriff returned to Gallagher with Heidnik’s answer: “Fuck you.”

While on death row, Heidnik claimed he was innocent of any crime.   

“I say real or phony, they can execute me, because I am innocent and I can prove it […] That is the end of capital punishment in this state. When you execute an innocent man, knowingly execute an innocent man, you know there will be no more capital punishment in this state and possibly anywhere else in this country. And you know I didn’t kill them two women. Go ahead and execute me … Yes, I want you to execute an innocent man so there will be no more capital punishment.”

So the crazy (but not so crazy) genius-level fraudulent suicide-faker, for once in his life…was right. 

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based author and journalist, who has written fifteen books, including: Out in HistoryPhiladelphia MansionsLiterary Philadelphia, From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia. Nickels has written extensively and is currently a regular columnist for City Journal New York, the Philadelphia Irish Edition and the Philadelphia Free Press.

2 thoughts on “Thom Nickels: What Gary Heidnik, the last man executed in Pa., foretold”

  1. Loved this piece. I was a newly minted press secretary in Ron Castille’s DAs office and this was the largest press conference I had ever held with journalist from all over the world. I still can’t recall some of the horrific images from his crime to this day. —Terry Williamson

  2. That is terrifying. It never ceases to amaze me how some people become so evil because of how they were raised. I tend not to believe it as fact. There has to be some other reason, such as something that went wrong in the brain at birth or some scientific reason. we need to do further research in hopes of stopping this horrible phenomenon.

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