Fifteen years after the most ghastly crime in the city's history, a survivor breaks her silence about Gary Heidnik.
The door to Josefina Rivera's motel room sits wide open, sending music clear across the parking lot.
The room snugly holds a dorm-sized refrigerator, a microwave oven and a dinner table with enough space for two small settings. The television is bolted to the wall, closer to the ceiling than the floor. In the bathroom, the new bride's wedding dress hangs from the shower rod.
Josefina Rivera's whole life has been governed by confinement. But unlike her past digs, this cramped roadside motor lodge near Atlantic City is no claustrophobic way station--it's her home. Rivera says she's happier here than she's been in years; happier than she was roaming the streets of North Philadelphia after fleeing a foster home at 12; and far happier than she was when she was living in Girard Avenue flop-houses, turning tricks and shooting cocaine.
Sitting on the double bed that monopolizes the space she calls her own, Rivera is about to replay the story of her lifelong nightmare.
It is the first time she has chosen to share her story at length in 15 years. (Rivera did grant one television interview regarding Heidnik's sanity around the time of his execution).
Having previously announced she'd only tell her story for money--a request she did not make during a recent series of interviews for PW--Rivera now hopes her account will help those who may be making the kind of mistakes that nearly ended her life.
"My story could benefit a lot of girls, the ones that only see one side of prostitution," she says. "They think they can run outside, make some money and then--boom--they're on their way. They don't think anything can go wrong. Well, guess what? Something can go wrong."
Leaning forward to be heard over the music videos playing on the television, the petite 41-year-old says it all turned out better than could be expected.
Grabbing the remote, she lowers the decibels on P. Diddy.
"I still have problems with my hearing," she apologizes. "Can't even hear myself talk sometimes because of what he did with the screwdrivers. It's just one of those things I still have with me. One of those things I'll always have with me."
Rivera looks out the door to her motel room just as an F-16 fighter jet from a nearby air station roars out to sea. As it trails off into the sky, she starts to talk about the night that changed her life.
The night a $20 hour of sex became four months of life-shattering hell.
The night she met Gary Heidnik.
Fifteen years ago this month "House of Horrors" became the trademark designation for what may be the most gruesome crime in Philadelphia history.
On March 25, 1987, a hysterical prostitute called the police, ranting about how she'd just escaped a madman who'd held her and five other women hostage inside his N. Marshall Street rowhouse, near Broad and Allegheny.
At that moment three women were still chained to Gary Heidnik's basement pipes, naked but for their shirts. Body parts from another victim were stored in his refrigerator. Two days earlier, he had dumped a woman's electrocuted corpse in the Pine Barrens.
The woman showed the police the scars on her ankles from the muffler clamps Heidnik had used to tether her to sewer pipes in the dirt-encrusted basement. Responding to her claims of brutality, police drove to the nearby gas station where she said Heidnik would be waiting for her to show up with another victim. It was the promise she made to hatch her escape.
At the gas station police found Heidnik sitting in his Cadillac Coupe DeVille. When they went to his house and knocked down the front door, they faced a horrifying crime scene.
PW's 2015 Gift Guide
Dinner with Luke Palladino