House Of Horrors: Serial Murder in Philadelphia

Serial murder in Philadelphia

  • Strange odors sometimes wafted from the grimy yellow brick house in the Tioga section of North Philadelphia, smells that neighbors likened to burning flesh. Then there were the odd noises: hammering at all hours, and what sounded like an electric saw and other power tools. Heavy-metal music blared day and night. But no one suspected the horrors that Philadelphia police discovered last week . when they raided the house owned by Gary Heidnik, 43, a self-anointed "bishop" of his own church who flashed rolls of money and drove expensive cars.

    Parts of one woman's body were found in the freezer, and pieces of bone were located elsewhere in the kitchen. In the dungeon-like basement, furnished only with a portable toilet and two mattresses, three half-naked women clung to life. Two of them were chained to sewer pipes; the third was imprisoned in a shallow open pit covered with plywood weighted down by bags of dirt. Said Chief Inspector James Gallagher of the Philadelphia police department: "It was ghastly."

    The torture chamber was exposed when another captive, Josephine Rivera, 26, bolted from Heidnik's 1987 Cadillac as it was parked in North Philadelphia. She telephoned the police, claiming she had been held since November. Rivera reported that Heidnik whipped the women with a stick and fed them a mixture of dog food and, it was later learned, minced human flesh. One woman had been electrocuted, the captives said, when Heidnik stood her in the basement earthen pit, used a garden hose to flood it and touched a live wire to her chains. Her body was found in a New Jersey state forest near Camden.

    To neighbors, Heidnik was known as an affable, offbeat sort who held "services" in his house for retarded women. He had a history of violence, however, and was convicted in 1978 of kidnaping a mentally handicapped woman. In 1985 he married a mail-order bride from the Philippines, but she left him after only three months, accusing him of spousal rape. He also had a knack for making good investments: police found documents in his house showing that he owned $500,000 worth of stock. Heidnik and a friend who occasionally in the house, Cyril ("Tony") Brown, 31, were charged with murder, rape and kidnaping, and prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty against Heidnik. Twenty years ago, Heidnik's father, Michael, 74, a former Eastlake, Ohio, councilman, disowned the son, and he has not seen him since then. Last week he proclaimed an even harsher judgment: "Somebody who does something like that ought to be hung."