Gary M. Heidnik
Gary Michael Heidnik
Gary Michael Heidnik
November 22, 1943
Eastlake, Ohio, U.S.
|Died||July 6, 1999 (aged 55)|
|Cause of death||Lethal injection|
|Other names||Brother Bishop|
|Spouse(s)||Betty Disto (1985–1986)|
|Conviction(s)||First-degree murder (July 1, 1988)|
|Criminal penalty||Death (July 6, 1999)|
|Victims||6 kidnapped, 2 killed|
Span of crimes
|November 26, 1986–March 19, 1987|
|March 24, 1987|
Gary Michael Heidnik (November 22, 1943 – July 6, 1999) was an American murderer who kidnapped, tortured, and raped six women, killing two of them, while holding them prisoner in a pit in his basement in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Heidnik was sentenced to death and executed by lethal injection in July 1999.
Heidnik was born on November 22, 1943, to Michael and Ellen Heidnik, and was raised in the Eastlake suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. He had a younger brother, Terry. His parents divorced in 1946. The Heidnik children were then raised by their mother for four years, before being placed in the care of their father and his new wife. Heidnik would later claim that he was often emotionally abused by his father. He suffered a lifelong problem of bed wetting, and claimed his father would humiliate his son by forcing him to hang his stained sheets from his bedroom window, in full view of their neighbors. After his son's arrest, Michael Heidnik denied that he abused his son.
At school, Heidnik did not interact with his fellow students, and refused to make eye contact. When a well-meaning, new female student asked, "Did you get the homework done, Gary?", he yelled at her, and told her she was not "worthy enough" to talk to him. Heidnik was also teased about his oddly shaped head, which he and Terry claimed was the result of a young Heidnik falling out of a tree. Nonetheless, Heidnik performed well academically, and tested with an I.Q. of 148. With the encouragement of his father, 14-year-old Heidnik enrolled at the since-defunct Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Virginia, for two years, leaving before graduation. After another period in public high school, he dropped out and joined the U.S. Army when he was 17.
Heidnik served in the Army for 13 months. During basic training, Heidnik's drill sergeant 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 Antonio, Texas 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 Landstuhl, West Germany. Within weeks of his new posting in Germany, he earned his GED. In August 1962, Heidnik began 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 trifluoperazine (Stelazine). In October 1962, Heidnik was transferred to a military hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he was diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder, and consequently honorably discharged from military service.
Shortly after his discharge, Heidnik became a licensed practical nurse, and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, only to drop out after one semester. He worked at a Veterans Administration hospital in Coatesville, 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, who had been diagnosed with bone cancer and was suffering the effects of alcoholism, committed suicide by drinking mercuric chloride. His brother, Terry, also spent time in mental institutions, and 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 eventually amassed over $500,000 (US$ 1,180,000 in 2010). 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 Maryland on October 3, 1985. The marriage rapidly deteriorated after she found him 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. Disto also accused him of repeatedly raping and assaulting her. With the help of the Filipino community in Philadelphia, she was able to leave Heidnik in January 1986. Unknown to Heidnik until his ex-wife requested child support payments in 1987, he had impregnated Betty during their short marriage. On September 15, 1986, Disto gave birth to a son, whom she named Jesse John Disto.
Heidnik also had a child with Gail Lincow, a son named Gary Jr. The child was placed in foster care soon after his birth. Heidnik had a third child with another woman, Anjeanette Davidson, who was illiterate and mentally disabled. Their daughter, Maxine Davidson, was born on March 16, 1978, and 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 disabled in Penn Township.
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 the man's face.
1978: First imprisonment
In 1978, Heidnik signed out Alberta, the sister of his then-girlfriend Anjeanette Davidson, from a mental institution on day leave, and proceeded to imprison her in a locked storage room in his basement. After she was found and returned to the hospital, examination revealed that she had been raped and sodomized, and that she had contracted gonorrhea. 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 original sentence was overturned on appeal, and Heidnik spent three years of his incarceration in mental institutions prior to being released in April 1983, under the supervision of a state-sanctioned mental health program.
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.
1986–1987: Serial rape and murder
On November 25, 1986, Heidnik abducted a woman named Josefina Rivera. By January 1987, he had kidnapped another four women, whom he held captive in a pit in the basement of his house at 3520 North Marshall Street in North Philadelphia. The captives, who were all black women, were raped, beaten, and tortured.
One of the women, Sandra Lindsay, died of a combination of starvation, torture, and an untreated fever. Heidnik dismembered her body, but had problems dealing with the arms and legs, so he put them in a freezer and labeled them "dog food." He cooked her ribs in an oven, and boiled her head in a pot on the stove. Police officers came to his house after his neighbors complained that a bad odor was emanating from his residence, but they left the premises after Heidnik explained: "I'm cooking a roast. I fell asleep and it burnt."
Several sources state that he ground up the flesh of Lindsay, mixed it with dog food, and fed it to his other victims. His defense attorney, Chuck Peruto, said that upon examination of a Cuisinart and other tools in his kitchen, they found no evidence of this. Peruto said that he made up the story to support the insanity defense. The defense attorney said that Heidnik started the rumor of cannibalism in public, and that in fact, there was no evidence of anyone eating human flesh.
Heidnik used electric shock as a form of torture. At one point, he forced three of his captives, bound in chains, into a pit. Heidnik ordered Rivera and another woman to fill the hole with water, and then forced Rivera to help him apply electric current from a stripped extension cord to the women's chains. Deborah Dudley was electrocuted to death, and Heidnik disposed of her body in the Pine Barrens in New Jersey.
On January 18, 1987, Heidnik abducted Jacqueline Askins. The youngest of the six victims, Askins was only 18 years old at the time of her abduction. On May 5, 2018, a special report titled "Gary Heidnik's House of Horrors, 30 years later" was aired, and featured an interview in which Askins recounted that Heidnik wrapped duct tape around the mouths of the victims, and stabbed them in their ears with a screwdriver.
On March 23, 1987, Heidnik and Rivera abducted Agnes Adams. The next day, Rivera convinced Heidnik to let her go, temporarily, so she could visit her family. He drove her to a gas station, and said that he would wait for her there. She walked a block away, and called 9-1-1. The responding officers, noting chafing from chains on her leg, went to the gas station and arrested Heidnik. His purported best friend, Cyril ("Tony") Brown, was also arrested. Brown was released on $50,000 bail and an agreement that he would testify against Heidnik. In part, Brown admitted that he had witnessed Lindsay's death in the basement and he also admitted that he had witnessed Heidnik's dismemberment of her body. Shortly after his arrest in April 1987, Heidnik attempted to hang himself in his jail cell.
Trial and appeals
At Heidnik's 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 rebutted by the prosecution led by Charles F. Gallagher, III. The fact that he successfully amassed approximately $550,000 through his brokerage account was used to prove that he was an astute investor, and therefore not insane. Testimony which was given by his Merrill Lynch financial advisor, Robert Kirkpatrick, was also used to prove Heidnik's mental competence. Kirkpatrick called Heidnik "an astute investor who knew exactly what he was doing." Convicted of two counts of first-degree murder on July 1, 1988, Heidnik was sentenced to death, and incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh. In January 1989, he attempted suicide with an overdose of prescribed thorazine.
In 1997, Heidnik's daughter, Maxine Davidson White, and his ex-wife, Betty Heidnik, filed a suit in federal court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, in which they requested a stay of execution on the basis that Heidnik was not competent enough to be executed. After two years of legal proceedings in various courts, on July 3, 1999, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued its final ruling, clearing the way for Heidnik's execution.
Heidnik was executed by lethal injection on July 6, 1999, at the State Correctional Institution – Rockview in Centre County, Pennsylvania, and his body was cremated. As of 2021, he was the last person to have been executed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He remains the third of only three people to be executed in Pennsylvania since the resumption of the death penalty. The others were Keith Zettlemoyer in May 1995, and Leon Moser in August 1995.
List of victims
- Josefina Rivera — age 25, kidnapped on November 25, 1986.
- Sandra Lindsay — age 24, kidnapped on December 3, 1986; murdered on February 7, 1987.
- Lisa Thomas — age 19, kidnapped on December 23, 1986.
- Deborah Dudley — age 23, kidnapped on January 2, 1987; murdered on March 19, 1987.
- Jacqueline Askins — age 18, kidnapped on January 18, 1987.
- Agnes Adams — age 24, kidnapped on March 23, 1987 (rescued the same day).
In popular culture
The plot of the 2012 movie The Factory is inspired by Heidnik.
On January 16, 2021, the Oxygen Channel aired a two-hour special titled "Monster Preacher," in which two of Heidnik's victims recounted his crimes.
Murderous States Of Mind - Episode #3: "Gary Heidnik AKA The Monster Preacher"
The Minds of Madness - Episode #100: "Pit of Darkness"
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- Capital punishment in the United States
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- List of people executed in Pennsylvania
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