Fifteen years after the most ghastly crime in the city's history, a survivor breaks her silence about Gary Heidnik.
"It didn't scare us straight," she says. "A lot of us went back up to Front Street [an open-air drug and prostitution market at the time]. I guess we just figured this is the worst thing that could ever happen to us, so why not go back up there to make money and get more drugs?"
Rocking back and forth with her lion slippers dangling over the edge of the bed, Rivera puffs on a Marlboro 100 and makes direct eye contact with a reporter. She says she reached her breaking point after watching too many people die on the streets of North Philadelphia.
"My friends were dropping like flies," she says. "I just had to try something different. I had to get the hell out of Philadelphia."
Her husband Theron listens as Rivera tells her story. He didn't know of her past when they met five years ago, but one day he says Rivera just sat him down and told him. They're only now planning to tell his parents about it.
For the past five years the couple has called a series of hotels and motels home. Rivera says she's happy now living close to her family. The reminders of Heidnik are just an hour up the expressway. Whatever the distance, she says, the past is impossible to avoid. Today the reminders come in the form of hearing problems and aching shoulders from being bound in the basement.
When she sees someone digging a hole, she sees Heidnik. She sees him every time she sees a guy with a beard. When she notices generic food in a supermarket, it reminds her of the hot dogs, bread, rice and other cheap food Heidnik fed them--when he fed them at all. The memories of eating dog food and biscuits are only as far away as the dinners she buys her kitten.
Rivera has read that the serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs was partially based on Heidnik, but she's never seen the movie.
"Sometimes I'll just see somebody and think to myself, 'It's a nut! It's a nut!'" she says. "The shrinks told me that I'd never function normally again."
There are two things Rivera says she'll never reconcile: The deaths of Heidnik victims Sandra Lindsay and Deborah Dudley.
Lindsay was the first to join her, the helpless one who never stood a chance; Dudley was among the last, the one "who just wouldn't give in."
Had Heidnik killed Dudley on his own, it would have been hard enough. But the fact that he ordered Rivera to commit the crime with him makes it all the more haunting. Not only did she electrocute the woman (she believes Heidnik would have killed her had she not obliged), but he forced her to sign a confession before the two drove to New Jersey to dump the body.
"I remember putting the wires on her chains," she says. "People don't think that it bothers me, but it really, really does. Her family might not be as understanding. I wanted to go to her funeral but the DA's Office told me not to. I haven't spoken to them to this day."
Rivera says the court pit the survivors against each other, just like Heidnik did with his sadistic mind games.
When the case went to trial, Rivera faced accusations that she was "the boss of the basement." To some, she was a co-conspirator who, according to Heidnik's attorney, "fed a sick mind."
To others she was the "pet captive" whom he afforded the special treatment of sleeping in his bed and even leaving the house with him on occasion. It was alleged she suggested methods of torture, helped inflict punishments and even ratted when the others planned to attack Heidnik. There was even talk of charging her as a conspirator.
In court, victim Jacqueline Askins contended, "They'd [Heidnik and Rivera] come back and tell us how wonderful their day was."
Fellow victim Agnes Adams bitterly announced how "[Rivera] helped him" when Heidnik attorney Charles Peruto Jr. asked why Rivera never screamed out for help when in a public place.
Fifteen years later Rivera remains true to her story and her plan to save as many of the women as she could when the right time came along. When the chance to get away from him--without drawing suspicion--presented itself, she'd take it. Then she'd call the police so they could nab him before he could return to the house or escape.
PW's 2015 Gift Guide
Dinner with Luke Palladino