If you know even a little bit about serial killers, I’ve no doubt that you’re familiar with the term “trophies.”  A trophy is basically an item confiscated by a killer – usually taken at the time of the murder – to remind  him of the victim and help him to relive the crime.  Robert Hansen kept jewelry, Joel Rifkin kept driver’s licenses, and Jeffrey Dahmer kept actual body parts.  It’s become so ubiquitous in pop culture references to serial killers that when they’re caught in the movies, it almost always seems like discovery of their stash of trophies is part of the plot.  But what if keeping trophies wasn’t enough? What if your urge was not to collect items, but to collect people? Such was the case with Gary Heidnik.

Gary Heidnik mugshot

Gary Heidnik – HISTORY

Gary Michael Heidnik was born on a chilly November day in Ohio in 1943.  He was the elder of two children raised by Michael and Ellen Heidnik; but the kids weren’t raised in the home with both parents.  Michael and Ellen divorced by the time young Gary was only three.  Then Gary and his younger brother were raised by their mother Ellen (4 years), then their father Michael (7 years), and then a military academy (2+ years).  It was a difficult experience for all involved, and Gary claimed that he suffered emotional abuse by his father, specifically due to his bedwetting.  For whatever reason, Gary continued to wet the bed for years after moving in with his father and his father’s new wife. Supposedly this would so enrage the elder Heidnik that he made Gary hang the soiled sheets from his open window for all the neighbors to see.  Thus, military school, and then the Army, must have seemed like a vacation to adolescent Gary.

In military school Gary’s IQ score was measured at between 130 and 148, which is in the very exceptional range. In the Army, Gary’s drill sergeant rated him as “excellent.”  He trained successfully as a medic in Texas and was transferred to Germany where he served at the 46th Army Surgical Hospital.  All was going well for Gary.  He’d finally put his considerable intelligence to work and he excelled within the structure that the military provided.  But just when everything seemed to be going smoothly, Gary began to feel unwell.  He called in sick to work complaining of nausea, headaches, blurred vision, and dizziness.  Little is known of Gary’s state of mind during this period, but by the time he saw a doctor, he was thought to have full-blown mental illness, was prescribed Stelazine (an anti-psychotic), and discharged from the military with a full disability pension.

Shortly after his honorable discharge, Gary went on to become a Licensed Practical Nurse and even worked at a VA psych hospital for a time before being fired for rude behavior toward patients.  So from 1962 to around 1987, Gary spent the majority of his time in and out of psychiatric hospitals…this time as a patient himself. He was prone to extreme bouts of depression with multiple suicide attempts.  In fact, depression ran in the Heidnik family.  In 1970, Gary’s mother Ellen committed suicide by drinking mercuric chloride.  Additionally, Gary’s little brother Terry also attempted suicide several times and spent some of his adult life in institutions.

But the intermittent institutionalization didn’t keep Gary down.  He went on to marry once and have children with several women.  However, the “relationships” were far from normal.  The first, his marriage to Betty Disto, occurred when she emigrated  to the US from the Philippines to marry him. Knowing virtually nothing about him (except what he’d disclosed via letters), she soon found out about Gary’s proclivities.  On several occasions, Gary forced Betty to watch as he had sex with other women. He also raped and assaulted her numerous times until she was able to flee back to her home country, pregnant with his child.

Betty Disto
Betty Disto

Gary’s previous child (born to Gail Lincow) was given up to foster care shortly after his birth, and the other child was born to Anjeanette Davidson – a mentally disabled woman with an IQ of only 48 – and the child was immediately taken away.  But Anjeanette was more than just a sexual conquest for Gary: she was his official transition into the crimes that would forever define him.

In 1978, Gary Heidnik signed his girlfriend, Anjeanette Davidson’s, sister out of the mental institution where she lived on a day pass. Alberta Davidson was brought to her sister’s home where she was kept for 10 days and repeatedly raped, sodomized, and tortured. When police finally found her, she was bloodied and terrified, hiding in the basement coal bin. Heidnik was charged with kidnapping, rape, unlawful restraint, false imprisonment, involuntary deviant sexual intercourse, and interfering with the custody of a committed person. But his original sentence was overturned on appeal, and Heidnik spent only three years of his incarceration in mental institutions prior to being released in April of 1983 under the “supervision” of a state-sanctioned mental health program.

Now based out of Philadelphia, Heidnik moved through the city with acumen, on the hunt for more victims, determined not to get caught this time.  His first was Josephina Rivera (age 25), whom he abducted in November of 1986. Rivera thought she was committing to a $20 trick, but Heidnik had other plans. He brought her back to his dark cellar, and chained her there.

Within three days, Heidnik showed up with Sandra Lindsey (age 24), who was mentally disabled and went missing on a walk to the store. He chained her in the same fashion as Rivera and forced the women watch each other being raped.

Sandra Lindsay
Sandra Lindsay

On December 22nd, Heidnik picked up single mother Lisa Thomas (age 19) while she walked in the freezing cold by offering her a lift. He bought her lunch and brought her back to his house for a glass of wine.  When she awoke from whatever had knocked her out, she had been raped and chained in the basement too.  Heidnik kindly introduced her to the other captive women and then made them sandwiches – after raping Thomas again, of course.

On New Year’s Day, 1987, Deborah Dudley was brought into the basement.  However she was feisty and confrontational, which forced Gary to make some changes, like purchasing a portable toilet, tampons, and allowing the girls to bathe now and again.

By January 18th, 1987, there was one more victim – Jacqueline Askins (age 18).  And, with this, Heidnik seemed content. Yet, there were times when Heidnik’s plans didn’t go as he wished and he punished the girls for daring to misbehave. As punishment for trying to crawl out of a pit that Heidnik had dug, he hung Sandra Lindsey by her wrists from a beam. A full week later, Sandra was dead. Once Heidnik realized this, he brought her body upstairs and dismembered her with a power saw. He then boiled her and fed pieces of her to his dogs, and to his captives in the cellar by mixing her remains in with other food.  Deborah Dudley was also punished and electrocuted in a pit of water.  [Note: this compelled Heidnik to abduct another victim, Agnes Adams, a prostitute that had been hired by Gary before.]

A drawing of Gary Heidnik's "pit"
A drawing of Heidnik’s “pit”


However, one of Gary’s victims started to figure him out.  Like Gary, this victim was a quick judge of character, she was clever, and she was just as motivated to achieve her goal. While Gary dreamed of having “ten children” with his captive harem, Josephina Rivera dreamed of escape – so she did what any good forensic psychologist would do: she studied. Based on Heidnik’s behavior patterns, Rivera began to realize that – as skewed as it was – Gary had a desire for true connection. Even throughout the torture, rape, and death around her, Rivera saw that Heidnik actually seemed to “care” what the women thought of him. He was “hurt” by perceived misbehavior, and through it all, he held the hope that they would bear children for him. So as revolting as it was, Rivera set out to “befriend” Heidnik. She did as he wished and professed her understanding whenever she had a chance. Eventually Heidnik allowed her up the stairs to cook for him, and watch movies together…before chaining her back in the basement of horrors.

Could Rivera have escaped during those times when Heidnik had allowed her up the stairs? Almost certainly. But that’s not what Rivera did – because Rivera’s goal wasn’t just to save herself – it was to save all the women.  Rivera knew that if she escaped and Heidnik was there, he would immediately kill the other captives, and she felt she couldn’t take that risk.  So, what did she do?  Rivera convinced Heidnik to take her home to her family to “say goodbye” – after all, she was going to be with him forever, right? So Heidnik eventually did as she requested. He took Rivera back into the city and parked at a gas station that was several blocks from her home (she’d told him, smartly, not to pull up in front of the home in case family members identified the car). He told her that she had “15 minutes.”  Rivera then walked calmly around the corner until she was out of sight, and ran to the nearest phone booth to call 911.  Luckily a squad car was nearby, and she was able to convince the officers that if they allowed Heidnik to go home, the other girls would surely die.

On March 24th, 1987, Gary Heidnik was apprehended in his vehicle at the gas station where he sat waiting for Josephina Rivera to return to him.

Josephina Rivera
Josephina Rivera

On July 6th, 1999, Gary Heidnik was executed by lethal injection.  At the time of his death, no member of his family made arrangements to claim his body.

Gary Heidnik – PROFILE

Gary Heidnik represents a very complex case in that he has a multitude of issues that seem to be at play.  First and foremost, he had a continual diagnosis of mental illness during his adulthood and numerous (though unsuccessful) suicide attempts. Other close members of Heidnik’s family also suffered from mental illness, so it’s assumed that there was some  bonafide disease process going on at a cognitive/emotional level.

Additionally, Heidnik claims to have been abused emotionally during his childhood years. While his father later denied these allegations, it’s very likely that there was some family dysfunction going on. Living alternately with his mother, his father/step-mother, and then being sent to a military school suggests that there was at least a level of neglect or misbehavior that warranted several custodial changes.

To add even more confusion to the picture, Heidnik admitted to being given LSD while in the Army, and likely experimented with drugs on his own. His exposure to psychedelic drugs could have had lasting effects and resulted in psychotic episodes that persisted long after he ceased his use.

Lastly, Heidnik was probably fairly high on the psychopathy scale, given his near complete lack of empathy and his idea that he could collect women like objects to do with as he pleased. Apparently, Heidnik always harbored this view of women, even back in his school days, if the reports of his haughty boyhood behavior is to be believed. He also had the ability to keep a house of horrors and invest money in the markets, making him capable of at least some organized thought and planning.

Regardless, it’s clear that Heidnik was a killer who wasn’t satisfied to abduct a victim and dispose of them only to keep a trophy.  He needed to keep them alive – to literally possess his victims in order to carry out his sinister plans.  In this way, he was a rare.  But in the end, Heidnik was outmatched by a person who is perhaps even rarer still:  A woman who refused to accept the label of “victim” and turned into a hero instead.

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