Fifteen years after the most ghastly crime in the city's history, a survivor breaks her silence about Gary Heidnik.
Rivera says the media latched onto the accomplice angle to make the story sexier and to get back at her for not talking to them. The media isn't any better, she says, than those who convinced the other victims that they'd get more money by cutting her out of the settlement.
"Yeah, there were times that I could've gotten away and said to hell with everyone else, but if I did, they were dead," she recalls. "He might have gotten away and I would have had to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder not knowing where this nut was. Whatever it took for me to get out alive was what I was going to do.
"I mean, if I ran into a burning building and saved people, I'd get a medal. Even if I ran in to save a cat, I'd be a hero. But I didn't get anything like that. Not even a thank you. I save three lives and I'm the criminal."
Defending Rivera to this day is retired police Lt. James Hansen, who supervised the Heidnik investigation.
"If it wasn't for her, those kids were dead. She was strong, she conned him," he says, pointing to the fact that she convinced him to let her walk the streets unsupervised the night of her escape. "She had guts and controlled him better than he thought he was controlling her."
Even attorney Peruto, today a well-known criminal-defense attorney, now understands what motivated Rivera.
In defending Heidnik, a client he always considered "twisted," Peruto never claimed Heidnik was innocent. In his opening statement, Peruto said that "someone who puts human remains in a food processor ... and calls it a gourmet meal ... has got to be out to lunch."
But Peruto did later mention that Rivera was picked up for prostitution in the months after her escape. He also pointed out that after her escape, Rivera went to her boyfriend at the time before seeking police, presumably, he argued, to exact vengeance--and "roll" Heidnik for money.
Peruto hoped the jury would believe that Rivera wasn't as devastated as she claimed, and that she even played a role in driving Heidnik to do some of the things he did.
That line of defense--which bothers Rivera to this day--made her go after Peruto in the courtroom hallway during the trial.
"She didn't egg [Heidnik] on," Peruto admits with the benefit of hindsight. "She did what she thought she had to do to get out. She was the smartest in the group."
Attempts to reach Heidnik's other victims, and the survivors of those killed, proved fruitless. Several contacted through intermediaries said they'd rather leave it all in the past.
Even Heidnik's daughter, who filed appeal after appeal to stave off the execution he wanted, declined to talk. She has not given an interview to this day.
Not once since their liberation have all the women been in the same room at the same time. Rivera--who didn't want her picture taken for this story, saying it would elicit a new wave of attention--isn't sure whether it would be a good idea for the women to meet even 15 years removed from hell.
Rivera says she can't hear Heidnik's voice in her head anymore, but there are images permanently embedded in her mind. They're so powerful that she thinks Heidnik--who was lethally injected without making a last statement on July 6, 1999--got off too easy.
"Let him sit there, suffering like we did," she says. "The mental fatigue of being in a room and only being allowed out one hour a day. It's exactly what he did to us. Leaving him there would have been worse than killing him. He wanted to die famous and that's just what he did."
Today the whole world's right outside Josefina Rivera's open motel room door. She can come and go as she pleases.
"It's a part of me and it's always going to be a part of me and my family--I've accepted that," she says. "Some people out there think it's all going to kick in any day now and I'm going to be a basket case. Well, guess what? That's not going to happen."
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