This rather forlorn-looking vacant lot on North Marshall Street in Philadelphia is the former site of one of the most shocking real-life horror stories of the 20th century. In the house that used to stand here, Gary Heidnik, a former military medic and “bishop” of a self-incorporated church, held six women captive here in late 1986 and early 1987, murdering two of them. Heidnik, obviously quite insane, wanted these women to be his sex slaves and bear his children. He employed horrific and cruel methods of torture against them, such as electric shocks or keeping them cooped up in a hole in the basement half-filled with cold water. The depravities Heidnik committed are simply mind-boggling.

Heidnik, a white man, preyed almost exclusively on black women. Some of his victims were mentally retarded. He tended to lure women, often involved in prostitution, to his house with money or flashy cars; despite being unemployed Heidnik was a shrewd investor, and made considerably money from his “church” which was evidently established as a tax scam. He’d also done this sort of thing–captivity and torture–before. In 1978 he held his girlfriend’s sister captive in a storage locker in his basement and raped her. He was sent to prison for this crime, but released in 1983. He also abused his second wife, a Filipino immigrant he met through a mail-order bride service. His cycle of depraved violence continued to escalate, culminating in the first of the six abductions at this house on November 26, 1986.

Two of his captives did not survive the ordeal. Sandra Lindsay died of torture, starvation and an untreated illness in February 1987. Heidnik dismembered her corpse, hiding part of it in his freezer. Deborah Dudley was killed during one of Heidnik’s sick electrocution torture sessions. He dumped her body in the rural scrubs of New Jersey.

One of his victims, Josefina Rivera, escaped. She managed to convince Heidnik to let her go temporarily to speak to her family. Instead she called the police, who at first didn’t believe her story. Soon, though, they arrested him, and the three other women who were still in captivity were freed.

At his trial Heidnik claimed that the women were already in the basement when he moved in. Yeah right. Though he tried to cop an insanity defense, the prosecution proved that he was not legally insane. (There’s a big difference between being legally insane and being factually insane). Heidnik, executed by lethal injection in 1999, was the last person put to death in Pennsylvania.

Gary Heidnik is one of the inspirations for the “Buffalo Bill” serial killer character in Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs.

I could not determine exactly when the “house of horrors” was torn down, but it was certainly no later than 2004, and might have been shortly after Heidnik’s crimes were committed. This is obviously a rough area of Philadelphia. Knowing what happened here makes browsing around the streets, even on Google Earth, an unsettling experience.

There’s a great article on the Heidnik case here (from Philadelphia Magazine), but it’s not easy reading.