Gary M. Heidnik: The Real-Life 'Buffalo Bill' Who Kept Women In A Pit
Buffalo Bill—the unhinged villain of Silence Of The Lambs, not the greatest showman of the wild west—feels too evil to be real. However, the most frightening thing about this character who keeps women in a pit until he skins them is that he's based on a real person. Gary M. Heidnik carried out a series of grisly crimes that inspired the nightmarish actions of Thomas Harris's famous character, but the truth is so much worse than fiction.
(All That's Interesting)
Obviously, Heidnik Was Horribly Abused
It's hard to understand what kind of life could lead to a such a gruesome series of crimes, but Gary M. Heidnik's childhood certainly does fill in a few pieces of the puzzle. Of course, a bad childhood doesn't excuse the monstrous acts of Heidnik's adult life, but his early years outside of Cleveland, Ohio were abhorrent. He and his brother were raised by their mother throughout the late '40s before she sent the boys away to live with their father, which proved to be a tragic mistake as far as Heidnik's mental state was concerned, as her ex-husband wasn't exactly a doting parent. Heidnik, a lifelong bed-wetter, claimed that his new guardian forced him to hang his soiled sheets from his bedroom window for the entire neighborhood to see. Things weren’t better when he was outside the home: Despite an I.Q. of 148, Heidnik experienced nothing but misery in his academic life. He claimed it was because he was teased about his oddly shaped head, but his refusal to wear anything but military clothing probably didn't help.
Heidnik Was Briefly In The Army
Heidnik's penchant for the military was apparently not limited to fashion. After an on-again, off-again relationship with the educational system, he gave up on it altogether in 1960, joining the U.S. Army at the age of 17. For the next 13 months, Heidik flourished in the military. After basic training, he was sent to San Antonio, Texas, where he was trained to be a medic. Unfortunately, after he was transferred to Germany, things went sideways for the promising young military man. In August 1962, he started complaining about headaches, blurred vision, and nausea. A military neurologist reported that Heidnik was showing symptoms of mental illness, and two months later, he was transferred to a military hospital in Philadelphia and honorably discharged from military service.
He Was A Nurse And A Cult Leader
Following his discharge from the military, Heidnik continued his medical training, eventually becoming a licensed practical nurse. For all his vocational progress, however, his mental health took a turn for the worse, and no level of devotion to medicine could fix it. He briefly worked at the Veterans Administration hospital in Coatesville, but his bad attitude left him out of a job. He began checking in and out of psychiatric hospitals following multiple suicide attempts and the death of his mother.
In this era of Heidnik's life, he hadn't yet acted on his sadistic urges, but he was working his way to it. In 1971, he incorporated a church called the United Church of the Ministers of God that only had five followers and held services in his home. Four years later, he opened an account with Merrill Lynch under the church's name, likely as a kind of tax shelter. By 1986, he had made $500,000.
(All That's Interesting)
One Of His First Victims Was His Wife
With all of this craziness going on, Heidnik somehow found the time to woo Betty Disto, a woman he had met though a dating service. The couple married in 1985 only a month after they met (though they had corresponded for two years), and things got bad pretty much immediately. Aside from constantly cheating on her and forcing her to watch while he slept with other women, he also assaulted her regularly. She managed to procure a hasty divorce within months of the marriage, but whether she got out in the nick of time or if their split pushed Heidnik into a whole new realm of depravity is unclear.
Heidnik Started Kidnapping Women After His Divorce
Shortly after Disto ended things with Heidnik in 1986, he began kidnapping women and keeping them locked in his home. The women, who were all black and some intellectually disabled, were either kept chained to pipes or held in a pit beneath the house. According to one of his victims, he appointed one of the women to be in charge whenever he left the house. If he found out that someone had been "bad" while he was away, they were beaten; if the woman in charge said that the women were "good," she was beaten.
Some of Heidnik's victims soon died from the lengthy assaults and brutal conditions to which he subjected them. After Sandra Lindsay died of starvation and an untreated fever, Heidnik dismembered her body and hid most of it in a freezer, but he boiled Lindsay's head in a pot. The smell was so bad that his neighbors called the police, but he told them he had simply fallen asleep while cooking a roast.
He May Have Forced His Victims Into Cannibalism
Heidnik's gruesome psychosis knew no bounds. He allegedly fed the bodies of his dead victims to the survivors by grinding them up and mixing them with dog food. No one knows if this actually happened or if it was just a rumor, but it's not outside the realm of possibility, considering the rest of his crimes. Three of his victims were bound to chairs and forced into a pit beneath his home, after which his other victims were forced to fill the hole with water and electrify the women's chains. A woman named Deborah Dudley was electrocuted to death, and her body was dumped in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
His Final Victim Outwitted Him
On March 24, 1987, the day after Heidnik kidnapped his final victim, Josefina Rivera convinced Heidnik to let her visit her family. He dropped her off at a gas station and waited while she walked to a pay phone a block away, where she called 9-1-1. Police officers found Heidnik waiting at the gas station and arrested him on the spot.
Gary M. Heidnik Was Sentenced To Death
After his arrest, Heidnik tried to convince the police that the women were in the house when he bought it. Perhaps that should have proven the defense's case that he was legally insane, but the prosecution countered that anyone who could make half a million dollars on the stock market had their full mental faculties about them. As arguable as that might be, Heidnik was found guilty of first-degree murder on July 1, 1988 and sentenced to death. In 1997, his daughter attempted to obtain a stay of execution after claiming that he wasn't competent to be executed, but the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania stuck with the original ruling. He was executed on July 6, 1999.