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Serial Killer Gary Heidnik Inspiration for Movie Silence of the Lambs

Kym L. Pasqualini is the founder and former CEO of Nation's Missing Children Organization and National Center for Missing Adults.

Gary Heidnik, one of the most brutal and sadistic serial killers inspired the character Buffalo Bill in the movie Silence of the Lambs.

Gary Heidnik, one of the most brutal and sadistic serial killers inspired the character Buffalo Bill in the movie Silence of the Lambs.

Gary Heidnik is one of the lesser-known serial killers but one of the most sadistic and brutal to walk the earth. He inspired the evil character, Buffalo Bill, in the movie “Silence of the Lambs.” However, truth is much worse than fiction.

Heidnik kidnapped, raped, and tortured six women, killing two, while holding them captive in a basement pit in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Early Life

Heidnik was born on November 22, 1943, to Michael and Ellen Heidnik, and raised in the Eastlake suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Both parents were alcoholics. He had a younger brother named Terry. Heidnik’s parents divorced in 1946 and his mother raised the two children for four years, before placing them with their father and his new wife.

Heidnik claimed he was emotionally abused as a child as his father was very dictatorial. A lifelong “bedwetter,” Heidnik was forced to hang his soiled sheets outside his window so the neighborhood could see.

Gary Heidnik’s father would paint a bullseye on his Heidnik and his brother’s pants and kick them, making them wear their jeans to school.

Gary Heidnik’s father would paint a bullseye on his Heidnik and his brother’s pants and kick them, making them wear their jeans to school.

Heidnik’s father would paint a bullseye on the seat of both of his son’s pants and kick them in the behind at home. He would also send them to school wearing the same jeans, inviting others to bully them.

At school, Heidnik was teased about his oddly shaped head that he claimed happened because of falling from a tree. Growing up, Heidnik didn’t make eye contact with others and didn’t interact with his schoolmates, keeping to himself.

Heidnik did well academically and tested with an I.Q. of 148. His father encouraged the 14-year-old to enroll at Staunton Military Academy for two years, but he left before graduating and joined the U.S. Army when he was 17.

Serving in the Army for 13 months, Heidnik’s drill sergeant graded him as excellent. However, following basic training, he applied for several specialist positions, including the military police but was rejected. Heidnik was sent to San Antonio, Texas, to be trained as a medic, and did well in his training. After completion, Heidnik was transferred to the 46th Army Surgical Hospital in Landstuhl, West Germany.

In 1962, Heidnik began complaining about dizziness, severe headaches, blurred vision, and nausea. He was diagnosed with gastroenteritis, and the physician noted that Heidnik also displayed symptoms of mental illness, prescribing trifluoperazine (Stelazine), an antipsychotic medication. Heidnik was then transferred to a military hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he was diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder and honorably discharged from the military.

After his discharge, Heidnik became a licensed practical nurse and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, dropping out after one semester. He worked at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Coatesville but was fired for poor conduct and attendance, including rude behavior toward patients. From 1962 to 1987, Heidnik was repeatedly hospitalized in psychiatric hospitals.

Heidnik’s mother, Ellen, who had been diagnosed with bone cancer and suffering from her years of alcoholism, committed suicide by drinking mercuric chloride. His brother, Terry, also frequented mental institutions and attempted suicide several times.

A self-ordained Bishop, Gary Heidnik started the “United Church of the Ministers of God” in 1971. Photo courtesy of Oxygen.

A self-ordained Bishop, Gary Heidnik started the “United Church of the Ministers of God” in 1971. Photo courtesy of Oxygen.

In October 1971, Heidnik started a church called the “United Church of the Ministers of God.” Initially, he had only five followers and opened an account with Merrill Lynch with a $1,500 deposit. He accumulated over $500,000 and by 1986 the church was prosperous.

Heidnik fathered a child with Gail Lincow and named him Gary Jr. The child was placed in foster care soon after he was born.

Heidnik also had a daughter in 1978 with Anjeanette Davidson who suffered from diminished mental capacity and was illiterate. Their daughter, Maxine Davidson was born March 16, 1978, and they immediately placed her in foster care.

Shortly after Maxine’s birth, Heidnik was arrested for kidnapping and raping Anjeanette’s sister, Alberta, who was also mentally disabled and lived in an institution in Penn Township. He had signed Alberta out for the day and placed her in a locked storage room in his basement keeping her captive for ten days. Police located Alberta in a basement coal bin, bloody and terrified. She was taken to a hospital where she was examined and revealed she had been raped, sodomized, and contracted gonorrhea.

According to the Criminal Code, Heidnik was arrested and charged with kidnapping, rape, involuntary deviant sexual intercourse, false imprisonment, and interfering with the custody of a committed person. He served approximately three years in Atascadero, a prison for the most severely mentally ill convicts. His original sentence was overturned in 1983, and he was released under the “supervision” of a state-sanctioned mental health program.

Gary Heidnik married Betty Disto from the Philippines in October 1985 after corresponding with her for two years.

Gary Heidnik married Betty Disto from the Philippines in October 1985 after corresponding with her for two years.

Heidnik used a matrimonial service to meet his wife and corresponded with her for two years before proposing to Betty Disto who arrived from the Philippines in September 1985. They married on October 3, 1985. Heidnik would force his wife to watch as he had sex with other women and she also accused him of raping and assaulting her during their brief marriage. With help of her Filipino community, she left Heidnik in January 1986. Disto later gave birth to a son she named Jesse John Disto on September 15, 1986. Heidnik had no idea he was even a father until he received papers for child support.

Trolling in Philadelphia

Heidnik lived in Philadelphia and moved about the city with the shrewdness of the evilest predator. He was determined not to get caught this time, and he had a plan.

According to John Douglas with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Heidnik had a scheme to create a “master race” and kidnap African American women to reach his objective.

Gary Heidnik dug a pit in his cellar to punish women he had kidnapped. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.

Gary Heidnik dug a pit in his cellar to punish women he had kidnapped. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.

Heidnik spent hours and hours perfecting his plan by digging a deep pit in his cellar that would hold multiple persons for punishment, complete with muffler clamps he planned to use as shackles. He would place nuts in the clamps and super glue them so the women could not get them off.

He would focus his attention on African American women, a segment of the population that came from poverty, some down on their luck and prostitutes, and those who would not be noticed if they were missing.

Six women were kidnapped by Gary Heidnik during 1986-1987. Josephina Rivera, Agnes Adams, Sandra Lindsay (top), Jacqueline Askins, Deborah Dudley, and Lisa Thomas (bottom). Photo courtesy of Daily UK News.

Six women were kidnapped by Gary Heidnik during 1986-1987. Josephina Rivera, Agnes Adams, Sandra Lindsay (top), Jacqueline Askins, Deborah Dudley, and Lisa Thomas (bottom). Photo courtesy of Daily UK News.

The first victim was Josephina Rivera, 25, who he abducted in November 1986. Rivera thought she was going to turn a trick but Heidnik drug her down to his dark and dingy basement and chained her up. He beat her with a stick until she stopped crying.

Heidnik played the radio and television loud to smother the screams, both in the basement and upstairs.

Sandra Lindsay

Within three days, Heidnik abducted Sandra Lindsay, 24, who had diminished mental capacity and went missing while she walked to the local store. He chained her up near Josephina and would force each of the women to watch the other get raped. Sandra’s family knew Heidnik and began to look for her even bringing police to Heidnik’s home. With loud music inside, they knocked, only to get no answer.

In the case of Sandra, to try to throw the police off, Heidnik had Sandra write a letter that said she was doing fine and not to worry about her, along with a Christmas card. He drove to New York and mailed them from there.

Sandra’s family gave the police information about Heidnik and previous charges for the 1978 kidnapping. Police spelled Heidnik’s last name wrong and they were unable to pull anything up, permitting Heidnik to continue his wicked mission.

On December 22, 1986, Heidnik abducted another woman Lisa Thomas, 19, who was a single mother walking in the cold. He lured her into his car, proceeded to buy her lunch, and invited her to his house for a glass of wine. She lost consciousness and when she awoke, she had been raped and chained in the basement too. Heidnik introduced her to the other young women and made them sandwiches—after raping Lisa again.

Gary Heidnik’s cellar where he dug a hole and chained up missing women. Photo courtesy of Reddit.

Gary Heidnik’s cellar where he dug a hole and chained up missing women. Photo courtesy of Reddit.

On January 1, 1987, Deborah Dudley was brought to the basement. She was gutsy and confrontational and over time, convinced Gary to purchase a portable toilet, tampons, and allow the women to get a bath now and then.

By January 18, Heidnik kidnapped one more victim—Jacqueline “Jackie” Askins, 18, and he seemed happy with that number as he planned to birth ten babies between them all.

Lisa Thomas (front), shackled on the bed in the cellar of Gary Heidnik’s home. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.

Lisa Thomas (front), shackled on the bed in the cellar of Gary Heidnik’s home. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.

Heidnik’s plans, however, didn’t work out so well. He punished the women for daring to behave badly. One day Sandra tried to crawl out of the pit. For the infraction, he hung her up by one of her wrists on a beam, her feet barely touching the floor. One week later, Sandra was dead, having suffocated by the weight of her body on her lungs.

Not knowing what to do with the body, he took Sandra’s body upstairs. There, he used a power saw to dismember her as the young women cried hearing the noise of the saw and imagining the carnage upstairs.

He proceeded to store Sandra's arms and legs in a freezer, but Heidnik was not done. In an act beyond comprehension, Heidnik boiled Sandra’s head in a pot of water and cooked her ribs in the oven. He boiled her head for days until the teeth floated out of the gums. The smell was putrid causing a neighbor to call the police.

The police showed up and knocked on Heidnik’s door. He answered and told the officers he had dozed off and “burned a roast." The police went on their way. Another run-in with the law failed to curtail Heidnik’s abhorrent plans.

Heidnik returned to the kitchen where he put Sandra’s body through a meat grinder and mixed it with dog food, giving it to the women to eat in an act of forced Cannibalism.

At one point, Heidnik took Deborah upstairs and showed him the head in boiling water, and told her that would be her if she stepped out of line.

When Heidnik realized his captives could hear him coming and going from his house, he began to shove screwdrivers in their ears.

He liked punishing his victims when they disobeyed him by starving, torturing, and beating them.

Recollections

According to UK Daily News, Heidnik did not only torture his victims physically, he also manipulated them and pit them against each other, with Josephina ingratiating herself as Heidnik’s favorite.

On Josephina’s birthday, Heidnik surprised her with a birthday cake and a pair of slippers. They all had Chinese food and cake together.

Josephina Rivera was clever and save herself from the clutches of her captor Gary Heidnik. Photo courtesy of Philly Press Review.

Josephina Rivera was clever and save herself from the clutches of her captor Gary Heidnik. Photo courtesy of Philly Press Review.

Josephina was cunning, she had begun to read her captor. She would reprimand the other women and convince him she was his ally. At one point, Heidnik appointed her the leader of the women he had cruelly abducted.

He had placed Deborah Dudley in the water-filled pit and placed an electrical wire in front of Josephina ordering her to touch battery cables to the chain that bound Deborah in the hole. A sudden jolt of electricity went through Deborah’s body and she violently shook and screamed. It didn’t take long before she lay limp in the water. She was dead.

That same night Heidnik loaded up Deborah’s body in his Cadillac Coupe Deville and drove with Josephina to the woods in a remote wooded part of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

“I could hear him walking with the body, the ‘crunch, crunch, crunch’ of the leaves, the twigs breaking,” Josephina told the Philadelphia Inquirer twenty-five years later.

Heidnik opened up to Josephina about how he chopped up and cooked Sarah Lindsay and that he got the idea from the comedy film “Eating Raoul.”

Over the course of a few days, Heidnik took Josephina to Denny’s to eat and took her shopping for clothes. She was also permitted to sleep in his bed.

“He really thought I was on his side and I wanted to make sure he thought that,” Josephina said. “This was my way out.”

While out with Heidnik, Josephina had ample opportunities to run but she knew he would kill the other girls and leave nothing to find.

Josephina actually helped Heidnik with the abduction of Agnes.

To reward Josephina, Heidnik told her she could go see her family. He dropped her off at 6th and Girard and she promised to return in 25 minutes. Instead, she ran and called 911 from a payphone.

“They [police] thought it was so far-fetched,” Josephina told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “They thought it could just be someone upset with her old man.” But she showed the police her scars on her legs and arms. She told police to enter the home and go straight to the basement where they found two women, chained together and naked below the waist. They found a third woman in the pit under the plywood.

Gary Heidnik after his arrest in April 1897 in Philadelphia, PA. Photo courtesy of the Mirror.

Gary Heidnik after his arrest in April 1897 in Philadelphia, PA. Photo courtesy of the Mirror.

Heidnik was arrested in April 1987 and attempted to hang himself in his jail cell. During his trial, he made eye contact with no one. “He looked at no one. I was just glad he wasn’t smarter than me,” Josephina said.

Once freed, Josephina was ridiculed by her fellow captives for being Heidnik’s partner. But Assistant District Attorney Charles Gallagher defended Josephina, arguing that she had been “commanded and encouraged and forced” to help her own abductor.

Gary Heidnik was convicted of murder and kidnapping of six women in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and sentenced to death. Photo courtesy of CBS News.

Gary Heidnik was convicted of murder and kidnapping of six women in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and sentenced to death. Photo courtesy of CBS News.

Heidnik was convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to death. He was executed by lethal injection on July 6, 1999, at the State Correctional Institution-Rockview in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.

Recovery

Josephina returned to the street as a prostitute. She walked away from that life after about a year. “My judgment wasn’t clear. I just couldn’t tell the difference between a nut and a sane person,” she said.

She has worked various jobs, as a clerk, daycare worker, waitress, and security guard.

She reconciled with her three children and is now a grandmother living in Atlantic City. As of 2012, she was in counseling, enjoys her church, babysitting her grandchildren, and her Marlboro Lights cigarettes.

Josephina Rivera recalls moments of her past while held captive by Gary Heidnik for over a year. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.

Josephina Rivera recalls moments of her past while held captive by Gary Heidnik for over a year. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.

Her fiancé, Chris Lyle, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I like her attitude and her strength. She’s a survivor.”

Josephina gets startled easily and has panic attacks. Sometimes she has to turn off the television in order not to be reminded of her own trauma. Also, she can’t stand to hear the sound of leaves crunching under someone’s feet, reminding her of Deborah’s death.

Josephina loves to walk the beach and collect pieces of sea glass—shards of bottles and jars. Like her life, it reminds her that over time, even tumultuous and churning waves can change the sharp jagged edges into smooth gemstones.

© 2021 Kym L Pasqualini

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