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Gary Michael Heidnik (November 22, 1943 – July 6, 1999) was an Americanmarker murderer who kidnapped, tortured and raped six women and kept them prisoner in his Philadelphiamarker, Pennsylvaniamarker basement. He is often referred to as a serial killer, although having committed only two murders, he would not fit the FBImarker definition of a serial killer as the FBI standard dictates "three or more murders" to be classified as serial killer. However, in the National Institute of Justice's definition of a serial killer, a minimum of two murders is designated.



Heidnik was born to Michael and Ellen Heidnik, and was raised in the Clevelandmarker suburb of Eastlake, Ohiomarker. His brother Terry was younger by one year. When Heidnik was two years old, his father filed for divorce against his wife because of her alcoholism. 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 life-long problem of bed wetting, and his father would humiliate his son by hanging his stained sheets from Gary's second-floor bedroom window, in full view of their neighbors.

At school, Heidnik was frequently bullied and teased by other students because of his misshapen head, which he and Terry claimed was the result of a young Gary 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 13 months. During basic training, Heidnik's drill instructor 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 Antoniomarker, Texasmarker, 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 Landstuhlmarker, West Germanymarker. Within weeks of his new posting in Germany, he earned his GED.

In August 1962, Heidnik reported to a sick bay 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 Stelazine. 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.


Shortly after his discharge, Heidnik became a licensed practical nurse and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvaniamarker, only to drop out after one semester. He worked as a psychiatric nurse at a Veterans Administrationmarker hospital in Coatesvillemarker, 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 committed suicide by drinking mercuric chloride. His brother Terry also 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 made a series of smart investments over the next 12 years, beginning with an investment in Playboy, and eventually amassed over $500,000 (US$ in ). 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 Marylandmarker 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. 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 did impregnate Betty during their short marriage. On September 15, 1986, Betty gave birth to a son, whom she named Jesse John Disto.

Heidnik also had a child with Anjeanette Davidson. 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 retarded in Penn Townshipmarker. In 1997, Heidnik's daughter Maxine and ex-wife Betty filed to appeal her father's death sentence.

Criminal career

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 in her buttocks and her mouth. 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 case went to trial in November 1978; he was found guilty and sentenced to 3 to 7 years in jail. The original sentence was overturned on appeal, and Heidnik spent 3 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 2 years and 3 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. The charges were later dismissed when Betty failed to appear for the preliminary hearing.

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 in Philadelphia. The captives were sexually abused, beaten, and tortured. Heidnik would torture and sexually abuse the women individually or in groups. He dug a four-foot-deep pit that he used as a form of isolation punishment. After placing a captive in the pit, he would then cover the pit with plywood and heavy weights. The victims were encouraged to inform on each other in return for better treatment. Heidnik also frequently forced the women to beat each other.

One of the women, Sandra Lindsay, died of a combination of starvation, excess 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.

Heidnik used electric shock as a form of torture. At one point, he forced two of his captives, bound in chains, into the pit. Heidnik ordered Josefina Rivera and another woman to fill the hole with water and then applied electrical current from a stripped extension cord to the women's chains. Deborah Dudley was fatally electrocuted, and Heidnik disposed of her body in a New Jerseymarker park.


On March 23, 1987, Heidnik and Rivera abducted Agnes Adams. The next day, Rivera convinced Heidnik to let her go to see 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. They looked at her leg and noted the chaffing from the chains. The police went to the gas station and Heidnik was arrested. At his 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 refuted by the prosecution. The fact that he had amassed approximately $550,000 dollars 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 used to prove competence. Kirkpatrick called him "an astute investor who knew exactly what he was doing."

Convicted of two counts of murder in 1988, Heidnik was sentenced to death and incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh. In January 1999, he attempted suicide with an overdose of prescribed thorazine. Heidnik was executed by lethal injection on July 6, 1999, at SCI Rockview. As of 2009, he is the last person to be executed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

List of captives

  • Josefina Rivera, age 25, kidnapped on November 26, 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 22, 1987
  • Jacqueline Askins, age 17, kidnapped on January 18, 1987
  • Agnes Adams, age 24, kidnapped on March 19, 1987


  1. "Serial Killings." Retrieved on May 29, 2009.
  2. Morris, Steven. "Gary Heidnik and his cellar of death." New Criminologist. September 14, 2007. Retrieved May 29, 2009.
  3. Englade, Ken (1988). Cellar of Horror. St. Martin's Press, NY. ISBN 0312929293.
  4. Fiorillo, Victor. "Inside the House of Heidnik." Philadelphia Magazine. July 2007. Retrieved on May 29, 2009.
  5. Gruson, Lindsey. "Strange Portrait of Torture Suspect." The New York Times. March 3, 1987. Retrieved on February 9, 2007.
  6. Bellamy, Patrick. "Gary Heidnik: To Hell and Back." TruTV Crime Library.
  7. "House Of Horrors." Time. April 6, 1987. Retrieved on February 11, 2007.
  8. Hickey, Brian. "Return to the House of Horrors." Philadelphia Weekly. March 13, 2002.
  9. Bowman, David. "Profiler" Interview with John E. Douglas. July 8, 1999.

  • A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers by Harold Schechter and David Everitt, Pocket, 1997, softcover, 368 pages, ISBN 0-671-02074-9

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