top of page

Gary Heidnik and His House of Horrors

Written By: Naomi

Trigger Warning: Graphic torture, Sexual assault, Abuse of a person with a disability, Kidnapping, Suicide, Child abuse, Racism (Specifically violence against black women)


On March 25th, 1987 police surrounded 3520 North Marshall street in Pennsylvania. It was an unassuming house that in no way could have prepared the police for what they were going to encounter. The neighbors were not surprised when the police arrived, they just knew their neighbor was a creepy guy with emotionless eyes that they felt could snap at any moment. The kitchen walls had pennies glued to them, the hallways upstairs were decorated with $1 and $5 bills. There was no indication that this was the place a serial rapist and murderer was holding six black women hostage, chained to the ceiling in a pit in his basement with pots on the stove of human flesh and other body parts stored in the fridge. This was the place that would be known as a Phillidelphia’s House of Horrors.


Gary Micheal Heidnik was born November 22nd, 1943 to Micheal and Ellen Heidnik in Cleveland, Ohio. When Micheal and Ellen divorced Gary and his younger brother Terry lived with their mother for four years before being taken away to live with their father and his new wife. Gary claimed that his father would emotionally abuse him and he had a problem with wetting the bed that would continue through his life, his father would use this to humiliate him and would hang the soiled sheets in his bedroom window for the neighbors to see and lock him outside in urine stained underwear. Family would years later also say that Micheal was an alcoholic and would physically beat Gary when he wet the bed as well. Micheal however denied any claims that he ever abused his son when questioned later.

Gary Heidnik did not interact with other students in school and would refuse to make eye contact, he was often bullied for the odd shape of his head which the family explained was because he had fallen out of tree when he was young. When a student did try to speak to him, Heidnik shouted at them saying that they, “were not worthy enough” to speak to him. Heidnik tested with an I.Q of 148 and enrolled in the Staunton Military Academy in Virginia after his father heavily urged him to at the age of 14. He remained there for two years, leaving right before graduation and returned back to public school for a period of time before dropping out and joining the Army at the age of 17.

Heidnik was in the Army for 13 months and was praised during training for his excellent work but when he applied for specialized positions including the military police, he was declined. He was transferred to San Antonio, Texas to be trained as a Medic where he exceeded expectations and did well with his medical training. He transferred to West Germany but began to experience bad headaches, nausea, dizziness, and blurred vision so he visited a neurologist who diagnosed him with gastroenteritis but also noted that he showed signs of a yet undetermined mental illness. He was put on an anti-psychotic medication as he was transferred hospitals and finally diagnosed with Schizoid Personality disorder which presented as a lack of desire to form social relationships, detachment and apathy, thus he was honorably discharged from the military. As to not put his training to waste, he became a licensed practical nurse shortly after discharge at a veterans hospital and was even a psychiatric nurse for a short time but was fired for his poor attendance and rude behavior to patients. In the following 25 years he would be in and out of psychiatric hospitals and attempt suicide at least 13 times. It is a possibility that depression ran in the family as his brother Terry also spent time in mental institutions and also would attempt suicide, their mother who had been struggling with alcoholism, was in an abusive relationship, and was battling bone cancer, would commit suicide in 1970.

In 1971, Heidnik now 28, found religion after supposedly hearing the voice of God as he drove telling him to start a church, and thus he started the United Church of the Ministries of God who had five members. Heidnik opened a bank account under the church and was able to gain of $500,000 dollars in 15 years (todays dollar: $1,166,000), the church grew to be wealthy and influential with Heidnik hiding his wealth under the churches name to avoid paying taxes on it. Heidnik apparently appointed himself a bishop, invested in playboy, and owned three cars, including a Rolls-Royce. Bishops are Catholic and bishops are a rare breed as there are 400,000 catholic priests in the world and only 5,000 bishops. You must be at least 35 years old, be on a secret list of bishops that are waiting for other bishops to die to take their place, be a priest for at least five years, and have a doctorate in theology (YT: CGP Grey). Heidnik obviously did not meet any of these requirements.

In 1976 Heidnik began his run-ins with the law when he was carrying a pistol without a license and shot at a one of his tenants who was an ex-police officer. The bullet had only grazed the tenant's face and they ended up fighting on the front lawn of the home. When the cops arrived they originally arrested the tenant, neighbors were able to clear up the situation and Heidnik was taken away to the police station as well. He was charged with aggravated assault and the tenant and his family moved out the following morning, leaving Heidnik in the home alone. Then in 1978 he had signed out the sister of his then girlfriend from the institution she was in for a mental disability for day leave but kidnapped her and locked her in his basement. She was found and returned to the institution where it was discovered he had sexually assaulted her. During his hearing he remained silent because he was supposedly convinced that the, “devil had put a cookie in his throat”. He was charged with sexually assaulting the woman and false imprisonment but his sentence was overturned with an appeal so he instead spent 3 years in mental institutions and was released April 1983. Neighbors reported that he would often visit institutions and would bring young black women with what appeared to be mental or developmental disabilities to his home begging the question how many other victims he possibly had that went unnoticed.

After his release he then began to communicate with Betty Disto. Heidnick used a bride service to find Betty Disto, communicating with her for 2 years before she came from the Philippines in September 1985 to marry him. Things fell apart almost immediately, Betty found Heidnik cheating on her on multiple occasions with three women in their bed and he would also force her to watch as he had sex with other women. Betty was sexually assaulted by him on multiple occasions during their marriage but thankfully with the help of the Filipino community she was able to leave Heidnik a year later and he was arrested on charges of sexual assault and spousal rape.

Heidnik was unaware until Betty eventually demanded child support that he had impregnated her and they had a son. Heidnik had two other children with different women before he had even met Betty, both had been taken away to foster care quickly. The mother of one of the children was disabled leading me to ask if it had been consensual especially since the mother of this child was the sister of the woman he had taken from the institution and neighbors could tell that she was being abused by Heidnik and had called the police on many occasions out of concern for her safety.

These crimes, already atrocious and extremely violent, were just the start. The same year Betty fled, Heidnik abducted Josefina Rivera on November 25th, 1986 at the age of 25. Josefina had lust left her home after getting into an argument with her boyfriend and had decided to do some sex work to buy Thanksgiving dinner for her family. Heidnik picked her up in his Cadillac and Josefina noticed that he was wearing an expensive watch but his clothing was soiled. When they arrived in the run down neighborhood there was a Rolls-Royce in the driveway and he proceeded to unlock a series of locks, explaining it was to keep people from getting in. As she was getting ready to leave shortly after, Heidnik came up from behind her an choked her until she passed out. He restrained her with handcuffs then led her to his basement when she woke up, he chained her ankles and connected the chain to the ceiling. He sealed the cuffs with bolts coated in super glue and told her that he planned to kidnap ten girls, impregnate them, and have a, "big happy family". From her makeshift cell in the basement she could see a window and screamed for help but her cries were drowned out by a radio set to play loudly by the window. She would make multiple attempts to escape but all would fail.

Sandra Lindsay, age 24, was kidnapped on December 3rd, 1986. She had a mental disability and had known Heidnik since he would buy her food and from his work at the church. The day of her disappearance she left her home to go to the store but never returned. When Sandra's family went to the police they were shot down since the police felt that Sandra was too old to be kidnapped and had likely gone off on her own. Detectives checked with Sandra's friend Tony Brown who also had a disability who gave them Heidnik's phone number, they didn't know at the time it was because he and and Heidnik would often have sex with Sandra who had become pregnant with Heidnik's baby but had an abortion as she was afraid of having a child. This put Heidnik into a rage and he bribed her with $10,000 to have his baby but she still refused. When police checked in with Heidnik he of course told police that Sandra wasn't there and when police visited the home he pretended no one was home. He later had Sandra write a Christmas card to her family telling them she was ok and he drove out to New York to mail the letter. With the letter the police decided that Sandra has gone missing voluntarily and ceased looking for her.

Lisa Thomas, age 19, was kidnapped 20 days later on December 23rd. She was on her way to her friends house when she was approached by Heidnik who made a sexual proposition to her. He then apologized to her when she was offended and offered her a ride to her friends house. Lisa felt safe getting a ride from him since he had apologized so kindly to her and drove an impressive car. He suggested that after she was done at her friends house that he should take her out to dinner to which she agreed and he waited outside her friends house for her to be done. They went to dinner and he suggested that they go on a trip to Atlantic City the following day. Lisa argued that she did not have anything to wear for a trip and so he took her shopping and handed her money to buy what she wanted. They then returned to his home where she had a drink and played a movie. They had sex but he then choked her as he had his other hostages and took her to the basement, telling her he was going to introduce her to two of his friends, chaining her up with Sandra and Josefina.

Deborah Dudley, age 23, was kidnapped January 2nd, 1987 and put up the biggest fight against Heidnik upon her abduction and captivity. Not much is known about Deborah's history other than she might have been experiencing homelessness when Heidnik kidnapped her.

In three months, Heidnik had abducted four black women and were keeping them captive in a pit in his basement where he beat, tortured, and sexually assaulted them. The behavior became increasingly more violent and he forced the women to beat each other and preform sexual acts on each other as he watched, often picking one girl to lead the beatings as he sexually assaulted her. This reached a peak when he beat them until they agreed to crawl on the floor on all fours and eat dog food.

On January 18th, 1987 18 year old Jacqueline Askins was abducted and was the youngest of Heidnik's victims. She was a sex worker and Heidnik picked her up, took her to his home where he sexually assaulted her, placed her in the basement with the others and tried to chain her up but the shackles were too big for her small frame so he used handcuffs on her instead. The following day he brought Chinese food and champagne down to the girls to celebrate Josefina’s 26th birthday as she had become his favorite and he believed she and on Sandra were pregnant with his children. When Jacqueline reflects on her time in the house of horrors, she cites clearly that Heidnik had wrapped their mouths with duct tape then proceeded to stab them in the ears with a screwdriver to pierce their eardrums, he did this when he realized that the girls could hear when he would leave the house and would make noise to try and get someone's attention. Each woman was left with varying levels of hearing loss.

Sandra Lindsay was tortured heavily and hung from the ceiling by a single shackle on her wrist that forced her to stand and she was force fed. She died from starvation, the torture she endured, and a fever two months after she was kidnapped. Heidnik took Sandra’s body and dismembered her in front of the other girls as well as making them participate in the dismembering. When he couldnt figure out what to do with one of her arms and legs she put them in the freezer marked as “dog food”. He put her ribs in the oven and put her head in a pot on the stove to boil. The neighbors began to notice a foul odor from this and called the police who arrived to the home to confront Heidnik on the complaint but he simply explained that he was, “cooking a roast, fell asleep and it had burnt”. The police left the premises without doing any additional search as there was no reason for them search the house. Several accounts later would say that Heidnick ground up Sandra’s flesh and mixed it with dog food before feeding it to the other victims, however when utensils in his kitchen were examined in court there were no signs of this and that this rumor was created to help the insanity plea he would try to make.

Deborah Dudley who had already been fighting Heidnik was taken upstairs, shown the head in the pot, and told she would end up like Sandra if she did not behave. Heidnik would use electroshock as a form of torture, and on March 19th he put Deborah Dudley and two other girls who were all bound in chains in a pit, filled it with water, and put an electric current from a stripped power cord to the women’s chains. The women were electrocuted and Deborah Dudley died, he forced Josefina to write a letter saying she had electrocuted the women so that if he was arrested, she would be found guilty as well and became a significant part in Heidnik's plans from then on. She helped him take Deborah's body out to the Pine Barrons and Heidnik told her that they would need to find a replacement for Deborah. She became his companion and went with him on outings to continue to build his trust; on these he would tell her that if he was ever caught he would pretend he was crazy, that he was smart enough to trick any instruments they would use on him and he had been doing it for years to get disability and fool authorities.

On March 23rd, 1987 Heidnik and Josefina abducted 24 year old Agnes Adams. Josefina had known Agnes from working in strip clubs together and Heidnik had picked her up in the past for sex work. They took her back to the home, discussed prices and Josefina waited in the living room as Heidnik assaulted Agnes upstairs and took her down the basement. She convinced Heidnik that now that she was a part of his plans, they had a special bond. The following morning, Josefina convinced Heidnik to let her visit some family and that she would return with another wife for, “their collection”. He agreed and took her to a gas station where he told her he would be waiting for her. She walked a block away and called 911. Officers responded and could see chafing on Josefina's ankles from the chains she had been kept in, they then went to the gas station and arrested Heidnik.

The following day Josefina went with police back to the home. The front door was broken down and she led them to the basement where the girls were held hostage. The women screamed in fear until the police were able to calm them and reassure that they were there to rescue them and they were all taken out to an ambulance to receive medical attention.

After his arrest Heidnik attempted to hang himself in his cell but thankfully he was not successful and in Heidnik's arraignment, he claimed that the women in his basement had already been there when he moved in. During the trials his lawyer pushed that Heidnik was legally insane, neighbors who had known Heidnik almost couldn't recognize him on TV - he normally kept his facial hair carefully groomed and his hair short but now since the defense were trying to make him look crazy they were purposefully trying to make him look like Charles Manson. The defense lawyer, Chuck Peruto, later would reportedly smile when asked why they did that and just say, “isnt it wonderful? If you want to demonstrate that someone is insane, then they gotta fucking look insane. During the trial, he looked like a total whack-job. Did I do that? Yes. But doesn’t Women Organized Against Rape dress up their victims”. (A/N: Seriously fuck this guy)

Prosecutors were able to rebuttal this by showing that he had earned about $550,000 in his brokerage accounts, his financial advisor proved Heidnick's competence and that he, “knew exactly what he was doing”. While Heidnik was in jail, the church he founded was still having services and people were showing up where they always had, Heidnick's home, the same place he kept his victims just a few floors below where he did his services. There is debate if the church knew what was going on or if they had a part in it but neighbors noticed that many who attended the church were individuals with mental disabilities and were all likely victims of Heidnik's manipulation.

Heidnik was charged with two counts of first degree murder on July 1st, 1988 and was sentenced to death. The following year Heidnik would again try to commit suicide by overdosing on his prescription anti-psychotic medication. He was executed on July 6th, 1999 by lethal injection and currently is the last person to be executed in Pennsylvania.

Sources: The Hex Files Collective, Most Evil, CGP Grey, Pittsburg Post - Gazette, Sword and Scale, 6ABC news, and Murderpedia.

bottom of page