Gary Heidnik and Philadelphia’s House of Horrors

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Gary Heidnik was born in 1943. An intelligent young man with an I.Q. of 130, he never quite managed to fit in growing up in small-town Ohio. Heidnik was a loner who avoided eye contact and made few friends. At the age of 17, he dropped out of high school and joined the Army. In 1962, only 13 months into his military career, he began complaining of severe headaches and dizziness and was transferred to a military hospital in Philadelphia. When he was examined, doctors determined that Heidnik suffered from schizoid personality disorder, and he was given an honorable discharge. His diagnosis finally allowed him to understand why he was so uninterested in friendships and preferred being by himself.

Gary Heidnik was not the only person in his family to suffer from mental illness; his mother committed suicide in 1970, and his brother spent time in institutions and attempted suicide on several occasions. Heidnik worked a number of different jobs in Philadelphia before he founded his own church in 1971 and appointed himself bishop. The United Church of the Ministers of God eventually grew to include 50 members, and, as the church got bigger, Heidnik reaped the financial rewards. By 1986, he had amassed over $500,000. He invested in Playboy magazine and drove a Rolls-Royce.

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During his days at the church he founded, Gary Heidnik was also up to something decidedly irreligious: preying on vulnerable women. In 1978, Heidnik raped and imprisoned his girlfriend’s younger sister, keeping her locked up in his basement. In fact, Heidnik had signed the woman out of a mental institution specifically so he could take advantage of her. He was discovered and arrested, and as punishment he spent three years in a mental institution before he was released in 1983 under supervision of a state mental health program. Heidnik picked up right where he left off, running his church and assaulting women. He went through a mail-order bride service to find a wife, and wound up marrying a woman from the Philippines after a two year correspondence and courtship, but she left him in 1986 amid accusations of rape and assault.

In late 1986 and early 1987, Heidnik abducted six women, all poor and black, and forced them to live in unimaginable conditions in his basement in North Philadelphia. The women were beaten, tortured, and raped in the dungeon-like structure. Unfortunately, two of the six women, Sarah Lindsey and Deborah Dudley, never made it out of Gary Heidnik’s house alive. Sarah Lindsey was the first to die in that basement, succumbing to a combination of starvation and torture. To hide her corpse, Heidnik dismembered her body and cooked her ribs in the oven and boiled her head on the stovetop. Police came knocking at Heidnik’s door because of the foul odors, but he was able to convince them he had simply burned a roast. Dudley was killed in Heidnik’s torture dungeon when he forced her into a water-filled pit and then electrocuted her with a live wire. He dumped Dudley’s body in New Jersey.

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The unbelievable depravity unfolding at the house on North Marshall Street in Philadelphia ended on March 24, 1987. The day before, Heidnik had kidnapped a woman named Agnes Adams – but on the 24th she somehow convinced Heidnik to let her visit her family. While Heidnik waited in his car at a gas station, Adams called police, and Heidnik was arrested. The house of horrors in North Philadelphia was searched, and the remaining captive women were freed. Heidnik’s horrific crimes and inscrutable sociopathic nature served as inspiration for Buffalo Bill, the serial killer in the seminal crime novel (and film) The Silence of the Lambs.

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In what has to be one of the most ridiculous and unbelievable excuses of all time, Heidnik claimed that the kidnapped women were already in his house when he moved in.

Heidnik’s defense attorney tried to claim his client was insane and unaware of the consequences of his actions, but that notion was shot down during the trial.

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Heidnik was found guilty of murder in July 1988 and sentenced to death by lethal injection.

After numerous appeals, Heidnik was put to death on July 6, 1999.

He was the last person to have been executed in the state of Pennsylvania.