Fifteen years after the most ghastly crime in the city's history, a survivor breaks her silence about Gary Heidnik.
By the time police returned to take a morbid inventory, the city's newsrooms were going into overdrive. Officials were at a loss to explain what they were learning. But not Rivera, who was inside the Roundhouse giving a 27-page statement.
Her story began a couple nights before Thanksgiving 1986, when Heidnik picked her up at Third and Girard and drove her back to his house to have sex. She says it was the first time she'd gone to someone's house rather than diverting them to an alley or a parking lot. She figured she'd leave when they were done, but Heidnik--a 43-year-old high school dropout and self-ordained minister who had a knack for making money in the stock market and a history of sexual abuse and mental problems--had other plans: He grabbed Rivera by the neck and choked her into unconsciousness.
She woke up handcuffed to his bed. Later Heidnik led Rivera down into his basement and shoved her into a hole he'd dug in the floor. He placed a board over the pit and secured it with dirt-filled trash bags. Josefina Rivera had become the first of his helplessly trapped victims.
She would not be alone for long.
Within a couple weeks Heidnik had lured 24-year-old Sandra Lindsay, a mentally retarded friend, into his house and imprisoned her in the same sadistic fashion. Around Christmas 19-year-old Lisa Thomas became hostage number three, followed shortly thereafter by 23-year-old Deborah Dudley and 18-year-old Jacqueline Askins. The last victim, 24-year-old Agnes Adams, arrived just days before Heidnik's arrest.
Each of Heidnik's victims entered his house unaware of those who preceded her. But each soon knew the hell the others had faced in the basement torture chamber where they were underfed, beaten, sexually brutalized and forced to sleep on soiled mattresses with their arms chained to sewer pipes.
Rivera's story continues with tales of Heidnik forcing the women to have sex with him, sometimes in front of the others. He was intent on realizing his dream of siring 10 children.
Despite blaring a radio 24/7, Heidnik worried that his victims might call for help when he left the house. To make sure they couldn't contact the outside world, Heidnik jammed screwdrivers into their ears until he saw blood, leaving his victims with the permanent damage Rivera says still plagues her today.
But that, says Rivera, was hardly the worst of it.
When one of his victims began to choke on the bread that Heidnik force-fed her, he dragged her limp body upstairs. The other victims soon heard an electric saw and "smelled a terrible smell." They detected the same smell in the food he brought them for their next meal.
A month later, when another victim wouldn't cooperate with Heidnik, he stuck her in the ditch--the original hole had by now been expanded to sleep three--filled it with water and forced Rivera to hold an exposed electrical wire to the victim's chains until she died.
Though this is the first time Josefina Rivera, today newly married and working as a waitress at the shore, has chosen to publicly share her story in 15 years, she concedes she's had to deal with the public about her past more times than she cares to count.
There have been days, lots of them, when facing the Heidnik demon hasn't been easy for Rivera, whose three children and two stepchildren from her recent marriage all now live in New Jersey.
Rivera's life since walking away from the courtroom after her testimony against Heidnik has had no big happy ending. She tells of how the victims--herself included--were taunted after the trial by people hollering "Alpo" at them (a reference to the dog food they were forced to eat) and how they were classified as "Heidnik girls" for years afterward.
Rivera says she left the courtroom in 1988--her testimony was critical to the prosecution and helped earn Heidnik the death penalty--with no place to live and not even anything to wear until the District Attorney's Office came through with a clothing allowance. The victims each received roughly $30,000 in a settlement with Heidnik's estate--he had turned $35,000 in investments into nearly $600,000--but the money didn't go far.
"In the beginning," recalls Rivera, "there was talk about putting us in mental hospitals or medicating us with antidepressants to help us deal with everything," she recalls. "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."
Rivera says everybody she ran into immediately afterward wanted to hear her story, and for a while she told it over and over again. "[But] I just wouldn't do it," she says of the suggestions she received to get therapy. "I knew I wasn't the crazy one. I wasn't the person who locked women in my basement. I never went to any of that and I still haven't. I don't know if that's good or bad really. I just accepted a lot of things when I was down in that basement."
Instead of seeking treatment, Rivera began to self-medicate. Like several of the other survivors, she fell back into a dangerous lifestyle. She does say, though, she never considered suicide or gave up hope.
PW's Summer Guide 2015