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  • Writer's pictureThe True Crime Edition

The Real-Life Silence of the Lambs

For four months, he shackled, tortured and raped six women in the basement of his Philadelphia home.

To outsiders, Gary Heidnik was the founder of the United Church of the Ministers of God and a cunning investor, but to the women in the hole under his house, he was a murderer and a cannibal.

Heidnik was born on the 22nd November 1943 and was raised in Eastlake outside of Cleveland, Ohio. His parents divorced when he was still a baby, and he and his younger brother, Terry, were mainly raised by his father and his new wife.

Heidnik suffered terribly with bedwetting from a young age, and his father would embarrass him by hanging the soiled sheets outside the window for the neighbourhood to see.

Gary Heidnik via Murderpedia

At school, Heidnik was bullied for his odd-shaped head, which was the result of him falling out of a tree when he was young. However, Heidnik wasn’t underdeveloped. He had an I.Q of 148 and was a good student, although he didn’t have any friends.

In 1957, Heidnik enrolled at the Staunton Military Academy in Virginia, where he stayed for two years, leaving just before his graduation. He went back to high school for a short period but left once again, this time to join the Army.

Just over a year later, Heidnik was excelling within the regimented programme. However, despite praise from his drill sergeant, Heidnik’s applications for specialist roles were rejected, and he was sent to San Antonio, Texas, to train as a medic. After another transfer to Landstuhl, West Germany, Heidnik earned his GED while working in the Army hospital.

In 1962, Heidnik began to complain of terrible headaches, blurred vision and nausea and was diagnosed with gastroenteritis. The neurologist who examined Heidnik also reported that the patient had symptoms of mental illness and prescribed Heidnik anti-psychotic medication, trifluoperazine. Later that year, he was admitted to a military hospital in Philadelphia and was diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder.

Heidnik was honourably discharged from hospital and became a nurse, studying at the University of Pennsylvania. However, he dropped out shortly after enrolling and began a slew of nursing jobs, including Veterans Administration in Coatesville.

In 1967, he began a nursing role at the Elwyn Institute, a hospital for mentally undeveloped adults and children. Throughout his adult life, he would spend time in psychiatric hospitals, as would his brother, Terry, with both attempting suicides multiple times.

Heidnik as “Brother Bishop” via The Twin Files

The 28-year-old formed a church in 1971, the United Church of the Ministers of God, where he was known as Brother Bishop to his five followers. Heidnik opened a bank account in the church’s name with Merrill Lynch, with an initial payment into the account of $1,500. The bank account would eventually contain over $500,000, around $5.4million in 2020.

Like any normal man, Heidnik dated and eventually had a child with his girlfriend, Gail Lincow. Unfortunately, the boy was put into foster care soon after his birth due to the mental capacity of his mother, Gail. He then met Anjeanette Davidson at one of the institutions he worked at. Anjeanette was a patient at the hospital, as was her sister, Alberta. Anjeanette and Heidnik would have a daughter together, Maxine, but she was taken into foster care after her birth due to Anjeanette’s mental disabilities.

In 1978, Heidnik signed Alberta out of the institution on a day pass and imprisoned her in the basement of his house, where he sexually assaulted and sodomised her. She was eventually found shackled behind a disposal unit in Gary’s house and taken back to the institution, where doctors soon realised the extent of her assault.

Heidnik was incarcerated in institutions rather than a prison where he spent four years before being released in April 1983. During his time in prison, Anjeanette vanished, and it’s believed that Heidnik was responsible for her disappearance in some capacity.


In 1984, he bought 3520 North Marshall Street, which would become infamous later on in his story. From here, he ran his church and advertised its beliefs to residents, and the parish began to grow.

Heidnik met his wife, 22-year-old Betty Disto, a Filipino native, through a newspaper advert he posted. Betty arrived in Philadelphia in 1985, and the couple married a month later in Elkton, Maryland, but the relationship began to decline quickly. Betty often found Heidnik having sex with multiple women, which he would make her take part in. He was charged with spousal rape and physical assault of Betty during their short marriage.

Betty Disto via America’s Most Haunted

Betty Disto escaped from Heidnik’s grasp a few months later, with help from the Filipino community in Philadelphia. Betty gave birth to a child in September 1986, safely away from Heidnik. She named the boy Jesse John Disto.


On Thanksgiving 1986, 25-year-old Josefina Rivera was working the streets, trying to earn enough money to put dinner on the table for her estranged children. Before she left that night, she and her boyfriend had a big fight, which ended with Josefina walking out of her apartment in an impoverished north Philadelphia area.

Josefina found herself getting into a white Cadillac, with Gary Heidnik behind the wheel. Shortly after he had paid her for services she’d performed, the pair went to a local McDonalds, where Heidnik bought himself a coffee.

When they left, Heidnik told her they were both going back to his house, and Josefina got back in the car. When they arrived at his home on North Marshall Street, she noticed the strange key Heidnik used on his front door. The key had been cut into two pieces, with the ridged end of the key already in the lock. In order to access the house, the other part of the key was needed. A strange safety mechanism that would work later in Heidnik’s dreadful story.

The interior of the house was just as bizarre. Pennies were glued to the walls, and the upstairs hallway had been covered in $5 bills. What little furniture he had was old and broken, with only a television and tape player being in any working order.

They concluded their business in the main bedroom, and when Josefina got up to put her clothes back on, Heidnik grabbed her neck from behind and began to choke her. She begged him to stop, but instead, he handcuffed her wrists and pushed her down the stairs to the basement, where he left her.

When Heidnik returned, he carried a spade and other digging equipment and began to make a hole in the floor of the basement. He told Josefina that he planned to grow his family, and he wanted to capture ten women for his “harem”.

Josefina tried to escape soon after and managed to lift herself halfway through a small window in the basement, but her screams were only answered by Gary Heidnik. He brought a radio from upstairs and tuned it to hard rock music at full volume in case his captive tried to scream again. Cold and alone, Josefina made a note of the hours that passed until her captor returned. He returned 27 hours later, and this time he had company.


Sandra Lindsay was 25 years old and was a patient at the Elwyn Institute. Heidnik had raped Sandy while she was in the specialist hospital, and she had fallen pregnant. When Heidnik found out she’d had an abortion, he offered her money to have another of his children, but she declined the offer. Heidnik then took her from the institute and brought her to his house. That night, he raped both of them after he continued to widen the hole they were trapped in.

The following day, Sandy’s cousins came to the house to find her, but Heidnik didn’t answer the door, and they eventually left. He then forced Sandy to write a letter telling her mother that she had left the institute and would call her later. He then travelled to New York to post the letter.

Sandy’s mother didn’t believe that her daughter had left home. She reported Sandy’s disappearance to the police and even gave them Heidnik’s address. She told them she believed that this man was holding her hostage but coupled with the letter she’d received from “Sandy” and a follow-up Christmas card containing $5, the police believed she was just another runaway.

In the weeks the women were held hostage, Gary Heidnik’s behaviour became more disturbing and erratic. He would viciously beat them and rape them constantly. They were kept primarily naked and would huddle together for warmth in the cold, damp hole. The women were starving and dehydrated. They were slowly dying.


On the 22nd of December, Gary Heidnik went Christmas shopping for another woman to kidnap. 19-year-old Lisa Thomas was walking to a friend’s home when Heidnik stopped his white Cadillac alongside her. He thought she was a sex worker and tried to pick her up, but Lisa wasn’t working the streets and furious with Heidnik’s suggestion. So instead, he apologised and offered her a ride to wherever she was going, and she accepted. He was driving a fancy car, after all.

Lisa’s visit to her friend’s house was short, so Heidnik waited for her, and when she got back in the car, he took her to dinner. While the pair were eating, he asked her to go to Atlantic City with him the next day. Confused by his hasty suggestion, she told him she didn’t have anything to wear, so he took her to Sears.

When they arrived back at his house, he drugged Lisa’s glass of wine and sat her in front of the television to watch a film. When she awoke, she was naked and being dragged to his bedroom, where he raped her.

As he did with Josefina, Heidnik grabbed Lisa’s throat as she got dressed and began to strangle her. He handcuffed her, hauled her down to the basement, and threw her in the pit with Josefina and Sandy.


Less than two weeks later, Deborah Dudley was brought down to the basement to join the fast-growing group of kidnapped women. The 19-year-old fought Gary Heidnik at every stage of her capture and continued when she was thrown in the pit with the others.

She was viciously beaten because of her attitude to her abductor, and it was soon a daily event for all the women in the basement of North Marshall Street. When Heidnik left the house, he would appoint one of the women in charge. When he returned, he would ask the woman if the others had misbehaved, and if none of them had disobeyed orders, he would beat them all. They couldn’t win in his twisted game.


18-year-old Jacqueline Askins was another sex worker Heidnik had lured to his home as he had with the others. Again, he took her upstairs and had sex with her, and when she was putting her clothes back on and getting ready to leave, he strangled her. She was so little he had to use handcuffs instead of the normal shackles on her ankles.

Jacqueline had been abducted on the 18th of January, which meant Josefina Rivera had now been in Heidnik’s possession for 52 days. She had missed Thanksgiving and Christmas, but she had begun to gain Heidnik’s trust over the time she’d been in his house. She had convinced him that she enjoyed being part of his “tribe” and noted small things about Heidnik’s behaviour that had changed significantly.

Instead of having sex with the women himself, he had begun to watch them have sex with each other. After a certain point, he started to let them have baths in the main house, where he would take advantage of their cleanliness and have sex with them afterwards. He brought a portable toilet into the basement for them to use and provided wet wipes to clean themselves with.

He would also feed the women depending on his mood. Some days, he would give them tins of dog food and on others, like Josefina’s birthday, he bought the women a Chinese feast and champagne. He also brought mattresses downstairs for the women to sleep on outside of the hole.


In February 1987, Heidnik was finally given a reason to punish Sandy specifically. He caught her trying to move the planks of wood that sat on top of the hole the women were kept in. Instead of beating her as he had done in the past, he hanged her from a single handcuff attached to her wrist from a beam in the roof for days.

Sandy was slowly dying, and Heidnik believed that she was now pregnant with his child and tried to force-feed her bread while she was suspended from the handcuff. After days in one position, dehydrated, barely eating and running a fever, she lost consciousness. Heidnik unlocked the cuffs, and when she fell to the ground, he kicked her, but he couldn’t cause her any more pain. Sandra Lindsay was dead.

Death was not the only thing to fear in Heidnik’s house of horrors. When the women heard the unmistakable sound of a power saw, they knew that Sandy wouldn’t simply be disposed of. They turned out to be correct when they saw Heidnik’s dogs devouring an enormous bone covered in meat. He also made Jacqueline Askins cut Sandy’s arms off her body, as he wanted all the women to “play a part” in the murder.

One of Heidnik’s neighbours called the police when the smell became so awful it stank out the neighbourhood. Heidnik blamed the smell on a burned roast dinner, which was enough for the young patrol cop to leave the home without cause for concern.

In reality, he had been pulverising Sandy’s remains in a food blender and feeding it to his dogs and the women, disguised as dog food. What wouldn’t blend, he cooked on the stove, and that was the smell attributed to the sickening stench that filled the air.


Heidnik’s schizoid personality disorder was out of control by this point. He was convinced the women were plotting to kill him and escape. It had all become too much for him, so he devised a plan to keep the women in line.

He stuck sharp implements in their ears to deafen them, as he believed that if they couldn’t hear him coming, they wouldn’t misbehave. If they disobeyed him, he would show them the remains of Sandy that he was keeping in his fridge.

Like Sandy, he hanged them from the beams and gagged them so they couldn’t conspire, but soon this method wasn’t working. Deborah was still defying him, and he needed to keep her in line. So he filled the hole with water and stripped the insulation off of a live wire. He then pushed Jacqueline, Deborah and Lisa into the water and began to electrify their shackles.

Deborah didn’t last long and shook uncontrollably until she collapsed in the water, dead.

Josefina wasn’t in the hole for this torture. By this point, Gary Heidnik believed his first captive was now his ally and was going to help him wrangle the remaining two women. Instead, she showed her loyalty by helping with the electrocution.

He ordered Josefina to write a letter stating that she had helped him punish the women and kill Deborah Dudley. He then made her sign the letter and told her, “If you ever go to the cops, I can use this as evidence that you killed Debbie.”

He told her to go upstairs and to get changed into clothes. Josefina hadn’t worn clothes for over four months, and at this point, she knew she had convinced him that she was his confidante.

Over the next few weeks, she accompanied Heidnik on shopping trips and went to restaurants with him, all the while convincing her abductor that she wasn’t going to run away. He reminded her constantly about the letter she had signed and told her that if he were ever caught, he would plead insanity, and she would be the one locked up, not him.


With Deborah Dudley’s body now safely hidden in the woods with help from Josefina, Heidnik now needed a replacement for his “harem”. So, on the 24th of March 1987, he and Josefina drove around the streets of Philadelphia and found another sex worker, Agnes Adams. Both of them knew Agnes as a colleague and as a customer. Surprisingly, Heidnik had opportunities in the past to kidnap Agnes but had chosen not to.

Once back at the house, the same acts followed. Agnes went to bed with Heidnik, and when she was getting dressed, he strangled her and dragged her down to the basement in handcuffs. The difference this time was that Josefina was in the kitchen upstairs and not in the basement with the others.


Later that day, Josefina had finally convinced Heidnik to let her see her children. In return, she would bring him back another wife that she knew he wanted. Heidnik’s plan to procreate with numerous women at once was failing, and he knew he needed new prisoners.

Heidnik dropped Josefina off at her apartment later that evening, telling her he would pick her up later at a nearby gas station.

Josefina rapped on the door to the apartment she shared with her boyfriend, Vincent, who was surprised to see her, given she had been gone for almost four months. She began to tell Vincent her story, and he assumed that she had lost her mind.

She begged Vincent to call the police, which he did from a payphone. When they arrived, they doubted her story, but Josefina was running out of time, as were her friends in the basement. She pulled up her trousers to show the officers the deep scarring on her legs where the shackles and chains had cut her, and they finally began to believe her farfetched story.


The police arrived at 3520 North Marshall Street quickly, and Heidnik answered the door to them. They immediately smelled the horrific stench from the house, and Lieutenant James Hansen gave the order to apprehend the murderer, and the squad and Josefina headed straight for the basement.

The rescue via OWNTV

The girls were freed from their prison and were given immediate medical treatment in an ambulance waiting on the drive. Next, officers began to search the house for any more abductees and found none, but what they discovered in the kitchen was more horrifying than any of them could have imagined.

Sandy’s forearm was still in the freezer, and charred bones were found in the oven, along with numerous other body parts that would be used as evidence in the trial against the cannibal.


On the 23rd of April 1987, Gary Heidnik walked into the court and sat down next to his lawyer, Chuck Peruto. Heidnik claimed the women were already living in the house when he bought it, and he had nothing to do with their capture.

The hole via The Twin Files

He was charged with murder, rape, kidnapping, assault, involuntary sexual intercourse, indecent exposure, false imprisonment, unlawful restraint, assault, and many other crimes.

Among the evidence presented, the women Heidnik kept prisoner gave testimonials against him. Josefina Rivera gave a graphic recount of Sandra Lindsay and Deborah Dudley’s murders and even admitted to helping with the electrocution.

Lisa Thomas accused Josefina of being part of the torture to more than the extent of trying to escape from Heidnik’s clutches. However, her testimony was rebutted when Jacqueline Askins told the court that Josefina was only building a rapport with Heidnik to get them out of the house.

“In the beginning there was talk about putting us in mental hospitals or medicating us with antidepressants to help us deal with everything. They didn’t know what to do. They never asked what they could do to help us get over it. We were guinea pigs, really.” — Josefina Rivera, Philadelphia Weekly.

The physical evidence found at the house on North Marshall Street read like a perverse grocery list; segments of the thigh, arms, legs, skin and muscle, all neatly wrapped like butcher’s cuts of meat. Over 27lbs in total.

The defence brought in doctors and psychiatrists determined to make Heidnik seem insane. The issue with this scheme was that Chuck Peruto was trying to pass the blame onto Josefina Rivera rather than his client for the death of Sandy and Deborah. The judge presiding over the case told the defence that if Heidnik was capable of enlisting help with the crimes, he was not insane.

The $500,000 he had amassed over the years was also used to prove his sanity. His financial adviser was even brought to court to testify that Heidnik was a shrewd investor.

Heidnik after his arrest via 6abc Philadelphia

On the 1st of July, 1988, after sixteen hours of deliberation, Gary Michael Heidnik was sentenced to death and transferred to the State Correctional Institution in Pittsburgh.


He was executed on the 6th of July 1999 by lethal injection. No one made arrangements to collect his body, and instead, he was cremated. He was 56 years old.


The United Church of the Ministers of God continued to run services for the 50 parishioners in Heidnik’s home while there were women shackled in the basement. The services also carried on after Heidnik was convicted. It’s believed they knew what he was doing in the basement, but no one ever questioned him.

“I was amazed. Usually in cases like this the church is set up as a tax scam. But they really are holding services,’ Peruto said in an interview Thursday. ‘After I took the case, parishioners were calling me and asking if they were still having services.” — Chuck Peruto,

The women began legal proceedings to access Gary Heidnik’s money from Merrill lynch in 1987, as did the IRS. However, it’s unclear if either party were awarded money from his accounts.

In 2014, Jacqueline Askins appeared on Our America and returned to the house on North Marshall Street in a bid to rid her of the demons she still carried inside her.


Josefina Rivera wrote the book, Cellar Girl, to tell her story of what happened down in the basement of Gary Heidnik’s house during those four months.

Over 30 years have passed since the rescue of the four surviving women. Josefina, Jacqueline and Lisa still live with hearing impairments due to Heidnik’s attempts to deafen them, along with the psychological effects of being imprisoned for so many months.

Josefina, Agnes, Sandy, Jacqueline, Deborah, Lisa via


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