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Gary Heidnik

Notable Fact
Indeed, Heidnik was cooking something; it was not his dinner but the rib cage of a human being.

With a little luck, lives might have been saved. On November 26, 1986, Sandra Lindsley, a mildly mentally disabled young African American woman who lived in northern Philadelphia, went to the corner drugstore to pick up a package of Midol. Hours went by and she didn’t return, and her mother, Jeanette Perkins, went searching for her. She spent an anxious weekend trying to find her daughter.

On Monday, Perkins contacted a close friend of Sandra’s, Cyril “Tony” Brown. Brown didn’t know where Sandra was, but he asked Jeanette whether she had tried the home of Gary Heidnik, a white man in his early forties who was a friend of both Sandra and Tony. Sandra had been to Heidnik’s house on numerous occasions.

Jeanette Perkins went over to Heidnik’s house at 3520 North Marshall Street, a run-down house in a neighborhood that vaguely resembled Berlin after World War II and was nicknamed “OK Corral” because of the numerous gunfights drug dealers had there. Heidnik had only paid $15,500 for the single-family home, and it would be appraised at only $3,000 less than a year later.

When Jeanette knocked on Heidnik’s door, no one answered, so she went away. She returned a couple of times that day, but there was still no answer. In fact, as she knocked, her daughter was inside the house. If only Sandra had screamed, or if Jeanette had called the police.

And then, later, there was the smell. An atrocious, gagging kind of smell was coming from the house on Marshall Street, and it was so powerful that it could be smelled along the entire block. Because Heidnik had not been seen for quite some time, the neighbors assumed that the smell might be his rotting corpse. They called the police, and a Detective Aponte went to the house. He pounded on the door, and this time Gary Heidnik, a good-looking man with dark hair and eyes, opened up.

Aponte inquired as to the stench. Heidnik said that he had just burned his dinner.

Astonishingly, Aponte accepted this explanation, even though the stench had been permeating the neighborhood for days. If only he had not accepted the explanation, but instead had insisted on being let in.

Indeed, Heidnik was cooking something; it was not his dinner but the rib cage of a human being.

The Colony
The details, as they were revealed later, were to be some of the most shocking that Philadelphia could ever have imagined. In essence, Gary Heidnik ran a mini–slave colony of African American women in his basement, keeping them chained, abusing and beating them, feeding them a blend of dog food and human flesh—which the starving women were ultimately forced into eating by their hunger—and sexually abusing them.

It all started with Josefina Rivera, a slim prostitute with a pretty, hard face. On November 26, 1986, she was working the corner of Third and Girard streets and hoping to meet a john. All told, it had been a miserable night for Josefina. She had had an argument with her boyfriend, Vincent Nelson, she was broke, and in an hour or so it would be officially Thanksgiving Day. The night, too, was miserable, cold, damp, and windy. She was wearing a thin jacket and her thin legs were encased in skin-tight jeans.

She hoped she would turn at least one trick, but as time went by, her prospects got dimmer; there were few johns cruising by that night. Then she noticed that a Cadillac Coupe DeVille stopped. The window lowered electronically and the driver, a middle-aged white man, asked her what she charged.

She gave him a high figure, and they eventually settled on $20. He invited her into the car and she got in. He was dressed in a fringed leather jacket and wore a Rolex. The car was fairly new and heavily customized with chrome. Josefina figured that the man had money to spend. He told her he was going to take her to his house. They stopped to buy coffee, and then he drove at Daytona 500 speed through the empty, wet streets to his house on North Marshall.

Heidnik’s house was different from many homes in the area. Although the house was also run-down, it stood alone from most houses, which were attached to another home on one side, and it had a dilapidated garage, which other homes did not. Astonishingly enough, in that garage was a 1971 RollsRoyce. The garage doors were lined with steel to protect the car against errant shots from drug dealers’ shoot-outs. A few years earlier Heidnik, who had a genius IQ and was brilliant at playing the stock market, had paid $17,000 cash for it, a withdrawal that hardly dented his money market account with Merrill Lynch of more than $500,000.

In the house, Heidnik brought Josefina upstairs to a bedroom, the dominant feature of which was a waterbed. He paid her the agreed-on $20, then took off his clothes and got in bed with her. They had intercourse for a while, and then suddenly Heidnik changed: He grabbed Josefina around the neck and started to choke her. Terrified, she said she would do whatever he wanted her to do if he would let her live.

He led her downstairs to the first floor, then down another flight of stairs into the basement, a dark and dingy place with a dirt floor. Suddenly, he had cuffed her hands; the cuffs were secured to a chain, which in turn was linked to a metal bar that ran the length of the ceiling. She was like an animal in a pen. Then he went upstairs and went to sleep.

Three days later, Heidnik brought another woman downstairs. She was African American, too, and plump. Her name, Josefina learned, was Sandra Lindsley. Like Josefina, he cuffed and chained Sandra to the metal bar.

Then the sex started. Every day from that point on, Heidnik had sex with both of them, including intercourse and other acts. He seemed insatiable and liked humiliating and dominating the women. A particular favorite was forcing one to fellate him while the other watched. He also abused them physically, beating them for no apparent reason with his hands and sticks. It wasn’t long before the women were totally cowed and completely terrified of him.

He didn’t exactly lay out a regal repast for them, either. Sometimes he gave them oatmeal for breakfast, or Pop-Tarts, or crackers. For lunch there would be sandwiches—some-times. A special treat was take-out chicken. He also offered them sandwiches made with dog food, which they rejected. But then, as their hunger deepened because Heidnik refused to feed them, they accepted the dog-food sandwiches.

To compound their grief, it was winter and the basement was chilly and damp, and neither woman was dressed warmly. Indeed, at one point they were bare from the waist down.

More Prisoners

Three days before Christmas in 1986, Heidnik captured a new girl. Her name was Lisa Thomas, and she was nineteen years old, a nice-looking young woman. She was walking down Lehigh Street when her life intersected with Heidnik’s. He was cruising along in his Cadillac and pulled up beside Lisa and asked ingenuously, “You want to see my peter?” Lisa responded that she was no prostitute, that she was just on her way to her girlfriend’s house.

Heidnik assured her that he was not dangerous and that he would be happy to give her a lift. After some discussion, Lisa decided he was harmless and got into the car.

Before they got to her destination, Heidnik took her to a restaurant for a cheeseburger and fries, flashed a roll of bills, and asked her if she wanted to accompany him to Atlantic City. When she responded that she had nothing to wear for such an outing, Heidnik said he would be happy to buy her whatever she needed. He took her to a store and bought her an armful of jeans and blouses. After that they went to his house and had sex on his waterbed, where eventually she fell asleep.

When she awoke, she asked Heidnik to take her to her girlfriend’s apartment. Again Heidnik changed from a seemingly harmless man to something else. He grabbed her around the throat and choked her. (Later, court wags would dub this the “Heidnik maneuver.”) Lisa begged him to stop and said she’d do whatever he wanted. So he took her down to the cellar and introduced her to Josefina (who had told Heidnik her name was Nicole) and Sandy.

Then he humiliated Lisa in front of the other women. He told her to kiss his behind, which she did, and he then forced her to “suck my balls,” which she also did, then to “suck my peter,” which the girl also complied with. Afterward, Heidnik served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, something of a treat, and completed his day’s work by cuffing and chaining Lisa to the metal bar.

Heidnik’s fourth captive was Deborah Dudley, and his fifth was eighteen-year-old Jacquelyn Askins, taken just four days after Dudley. Askins was a prostitute; Dudley was not.

It was midday when Heidnik, driving a blue Dodge van with imitation-fur interior, picked Askins up. When he got her to his house, he dragged her into the basement and, with the other captives watching, thrashed her with a plastic switch and then chained her up. He now had five African American female prisoners in his basement, and some of them had been in there for months.

Sometime during all this, Heidnik had devised a special punishment for the slaves who did not obey him—or whom he decided did not obey him. He dug a hole in the cellar floor and covered it with a plywood panel. To discipline someone, he would make her get into the hole; he would then cover the hole with the plywood and weigh it down with sandbags. It was an ordeal within an ordeal. (It also may have served as inspiration for the author Thomas Harris, who had his fictional psychopath in the book The Silence of the Lambs hold women captive in a deep well-like hole in his basement.)

Heidnik’s sexual activity continued, and it often involved humiliating the women. For example, he would occasionally force the women to have sex with one another while he watched. Dog food eventually became a staple in the women’s diet, but all still lost weight. And, of course, hunger was with them all the time.

They certainly didn’t lack for music. Heidnik kept the radio blasting rock music twenty-four hours a day. This was one reason why they had determined screaming would not have helped them—no one would be able to hear them above the music.

Despite all of Heidnik’s sexual activity, none of the women became pregnant, though there were a few false alarms when two missed their periods (Heidnik had been forced to buy tampons for all the women). Later it would be determined that Heidnik’s main goal was to impregnate them—he viewed the basement as a kind of baby farm—but he was unable to achieve that goal. There is no telling how he would have reacted if one of them had become pregnant.

A Death

Something eventually occurred that made the situation in the basement particularly terrifying for the abused women: Sandra Lindsley died. On February 7, 1987, she had a fever and was feeling very washed out; she seemed to have no energy. Heidnik tried to force her to eat, and he suddenly realized that she was not moving—in fact, she had died.

If the event bothered him, he didn’t show it, merely commenting that she had choked on a piece of bread. But he had to get rid of her body. He carried it out of the room, and the next thing the prisoners heard was the sound of a power tool. They imagined he was cutting Sandra up, and they were right; Heidnik dismembered Sandra Lindsley, packed parts of her in white plastic bags and put them in the freezer, and used a food processor to grind up some of the body. The parts he couldn’t use—the head, feet, hands, rib cage, and bones—he tried to cook away. (It was this burning-flesh smell that neighbors had complained about.)

The cooked flesh did not go to waste. He started mixing it with dog food and fed it to his two dogs, Bear and Flaky—and to the prisoners. It is not known whether they knew that they were eating human flesh.

Of all the girls, Deborah Dudley was the most rebellious, and she battled Heidnik’s dominance daily. Heidnik realized he needed a “special” lesson to get Dudley to obey him. So one day he took her upstairs, opened the freezer, and showed her Sandra Lindsley’s head and other body parts. He told her that if she didn’t acquiesce, she would end up the same way. But Dudley was tough. She continued to fight his will, and Heidnik finally devised a special torture for her.

One night he put her in the hole, which he had partially filled with water, then plugged a wire into a wall outlet and touched her hands with the bare end of the wire. The pain was excruciating, and he repeated the torture as often he wished. Ultimately, the pain ended her life; Deborah Dudley took one too many shocks and died. Instead of cutting her up, Heidnik dumped her body in the pine barrens in a New Jersey park, far from North Marshall Street.

Dudley’s death had a softening effect on Heidnik. He started to treat the women better and supplied them with blankets, pillows, and a television.

This did not mean he stopped kidnapping, though. On March 23, 1987, he captured twenty-four-year-old Agnes Adams. Heidnik had paid Adams for sex on two prior occasions. The first time he could not get her into his house because someone had parked their car in front of his driveway, and the second time he paid her $35 for oral sex and, for some unaccountable reason, let her go. The third time they met, she was working Fifth and Gerard streets. This time he brought her home and she was forced to stay.

An Escape

During the women’s captivity, Heidnik’s first prisoner, Josefina Rivera, using all her street-smart ways, had gradually won over Heidnik’s trust. Indeed, she had shown her loyalty when he abducted Agnes Adams—Josefina was in the car when Heidnik encountered Adams for the third time. Agnes knew Josefina as “Vicki” from the Hearts and Flowers strip joint. Josefina made no attempt to warn Agnes that she was dealing with a madman, so Agnes felt that it was safe to go with them.

So when Josefina asked Heidnik if she could see her children and family, he said she could, but that if she didn’t return all the other women would die. Heidnik drove her into town, and she agreed to meet him at a gas station at midnight at Sixth and Gerard streets. She also promised to bring another woman with her.

After Heidnik released her, Josefina Rivera immediately ran four blocks to the apartment of her boyfriend, Vincent Nelson. He was there. Hysterically, she blurted out the story of where she had been and the horrors at 3520 North Marshall Street.

The boyfriend was skeptical, but after a while he began to believe her and told her to come with him—he would confront Heidnik at the gas station and beat him up. On the way over, though, he had second thoughts about the solidity of this plan, and they called 911. The responding uniformed officers doubted Rivera’s story, too—until she showed them the marks made by the chains and cuffs. They all went to the gas station and found Gary Heidnik in his car. He was arrested without incident.

On March 25, 1987, Philadelphia detectives, armed with a search warrant, entered Heidnik’s house. Downstairs they found three women in the basement. Two of them (Lisa Thomas and Jacquelyn Askins) were huddled under a blanket trying to keep warm. They screamed hysterically, and when they stood up, the blankets dropped off and revealed that they were nude from the waist down. The cops found Agnes Adams in the hole. She was nude, her hands cuffed behind her back.

During the search of Heidnik’s house, one detective got an unpleasant surprise. He found the packaged human flesh, the human fatty remains in a burned pan, and on a shelf in the freezer, a human forearm.

Heidnik's Story

Heidnik was born in Cleveland in 1943 and had one sibling, a younger brother Terry. His mother, Ellen, a nice-looking woman who was part Native American, was an alcoholic who slept around. When Gary was two years old, his parents divorced. After the divorce Gary and his brother lived with their mother, but she soon seemed incapable of taking care of them. Around the time they entered the first grade, the boys went to live with their father, Michael, who had remarried.

They would not live with their mother again, who married three more times before committing suicide by ingesting mercury in 1970.

Gary had described his father as cold and uncaring, a strict disciplinarian, but a psychiatrist who spoke to Gary said that this description of his father is a gross understatement. For example, when Gary or his brother wet the bed, his father would hang the sheets out the window to show the world what “piss asses” they were. Or he would paint bull’s-eyes on the brothers’ pants to show the other boys at school where to kick them. And if Gary or Terry were really bad, punishment could be just about anything, including being hung out the window by the ankles.

Gary’s father was totally uncaring when it came to his sons. Indeed, when Gary was arrested his father acted as if Gary had brought all his troubles on himself. And when Gary was sentenced to death, his father—who had not talked to Gary in twenty-five years—said, “I’m not interested. I don’t care. It don’t bother me a bit. All I want is for you people to leave me alone. I don’t care what happens.”

Gary and Terry were in and out of mental institutions throughout their lives, and both brothers had tried to commit suicide on a number of occasions. Terry had tried it just a few times, but Gary had tried it thirteen different times, using everything from driving his motorcycle into a truck to stockpiling Thorazine while he was in the hospital and trying to overdose on it.

Growing up, Gary was extremely interested in the military and finance. He actually attended a military high school for a couple of years. He had been reading the financial pages since he was a kid, and as an adult, he used his intellect and experience to amass a small fortune in stocks.

He was arrested a few times for assault and did prison time, but overall he spent the bulk of his years in mental institutions, and just about everyone who examined him considered him dangerous—schizophrenic and incurable. One particularly startling symptom was that he sometimes went mute—did not utter so much as a word—once for almost two years.

Afraid of Women

Heidnik also seemed to be afraid of women who were his intellectual equals, and even women of average intelligence. Except for a brief marriage to a woman of average intelligence, for years before he abducted women to be his slaves he became involved with women only who were very intellectually inferior to him. One, for example, had an IQ of 49; a person with an IQ of 70 or below is considered to have mental retardation.

This was part of a broader pattern of constantly getting involved with people whom Heidnik could feel superior to. Where his father had power and superiority over him, Gary associated with people over whom he could feel powerful.


Gary Heidnik was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to die in the electric chair. Before his execution, he was housed in the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh because of a change of venue granted to the defense during the trial. Since the age of fourteen, Heidnik had been in twentyone different mental institutions and had tried to kill himself thirteen times. People who knew him well predicted that he would go for number fourteen, but he never got the chance. He was executed on July 6, 1999.
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  1. “My name is Ricardo Sepulveda and my sister Zornae Sepulveda are looking for our mother named Josefina Rivera. She was one of the surviving victims of the serial killer named Gary Heidnik. Twenty four years ago my sister and I were put up for adoption, approximately, one month after I was born was when my mother was abducted. Any information that you can give me in my efforts to find her would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
    email address': ricardosepulveda97@yahoo.com, Zornaesepulbeda@yahoo.com, Uniqu309@yahoo.com.”

  2. On Christmas eve 2010 Josefina will be reunited with her children for the first time since her kidnapping.

    Good luck Ricardo!!

  3. Hi yall doing my mother jacquelyn askins was one of the girls in the gary heidnik house and she been trying to get in touch with Josefina for the longest. plz email me at youngpacman_215@yahoo.com thank you


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