“There was a loud bang. And we all knew Gary was involved,” said Alice Harrison, a former resident of 4705 Cedar Ave in West Philadelphia. The neighborhood of Garden Court, filled with its fair share of prying eyes, was generally pretty quiet.
When Gary Heidnik arrived, he brought something else with him.
“Everyone knew Gary was nuts,” Alice said of her former neighbor. “He had a very scary, expressionless face. Intense, but expressionless. You had the feeling that he could fly off the handle at any moment.”
In 1967, Heidnik purchased a three-story house on Cedar Ave, directly across the street from Alice and her family. He rented out the top two floors, the second floor rented by Robert “Big Robert” Rogers and his new family. Rogers, a former police officer, didn’t get along very well with his landlord.
In 1976, after what can only be accurately described by multiple sources as a nuisance, Heidnik shut off the power to Rogers’ second-floor apartment. It was when Rogers entered the basement through the window that he was greeted by a shot to the face.
The “bang,” Alice spoke of.
Rogers, only having been grazed, went into a rage. Heidnik was a big guy, but Rogers was bigger. The dispute erupted out onto the front lawn of Heidnik’s property when the cops arrived and promptly put Rogers in handcuffs.
“No! It’s not Robert, it’s Gary!” Alice recalled yelling to the police. To them, Rogers, a black man and former police officer, was the obviously the aggressor while Gary, a white man, was defending himself via his Second Amendment rights.
Thanks to Alice and other neighbors and a conversation with both Rogers and Heidnik, the dispute was eventually settled. Police charged Heidnik with aggravated assault and hauled him off to the station.
Rogers was released from custody that night. Rogers and his new family left the next morning.
Shortly after the incident, Heidnik moved out and up to a new residence in North Philadelphia. Upon exploring the now vacant residence, neighbors sifted through the rubbish-filled home to find stacks upon stacks of pornography and a pit dug through the concrete basement floor.
“It was very peculiar. We joked about it at the time. It was just Gary being creepy,” Alice said of the discovery. The community felt relieved to be rid of his presence. Arguing with tenants wasn’t the only reason neighbors were wary of Heidnik.
Starting around the time he first purchased the property on Cedar Ave, Heidnik began to frequent the Elwyn Institute, today known just as Elwyn, a school for the developmentally disabled. According to Alice, “child-like” women would come in and out of the residence all the time.
One woman stood out in particular for Alice and others. Her name was Dorothy.
Dorothy was described as a quiet, meek woman who didn’t talk much. Residents of Cedar Ave. would bring her clothing, food, or other charitable amenities out of concern for her well-being. While Dorothy wasn’t covered in bruises or screaming for help, it was apparent to Alice and others that she was likely being abused by Heidnik.
“Gary owned this boat that had an open top. And sometimes Gary would punish Dorothy by making her sit out in the boat for hours at a time.” Alice and others reported these incidents to police. They would arrive, inspect, and leave.
But that didn’t stop Alice and other neighbors from reporting the abuse whenever they saw it. Their persistent reporting, plus the Rogers incident, are what finally drove Heidnik to leave Garden Court.
The memory of Gary Heidnik soon drifted as lives went on. But in 1987, he soon came back to Cedar Ave. Figuratively speaking, that is.
“I came home from work and they were sitting there,” Alice walked into her house to find two detectives sitting with her kids. Gary Heidnik had just been arrested. He was holding six women prisoner in his basement. Two were dead.
On March 24, 1987, Philadelphia Police received a call from Josefina Rivera, 25, who claimed that she had been held captive for the last four months and that there were three other women being held in the same house. Her captor was named Gary Heidnik.
When police arrived, they found Rivera to be “visibly shaken” and repeatedly stated “you have to help me” to officers on the scene. She told them that she had convinced Heidnik to take her out of the house and that he was nearby. Officers found Heidnik parked in his car at a nearby gas station and apprehended him.
Following Rivera’s information, officers went to Heidnik’s North Philly residence where they discovered two women lying on a mattress, naked from the waist down and bruised. They were shackled to the wall with a long chain. Underneath dirt bags and a board was a woman lying in a hole, naked, handcuffed, and shackled. Back on the first floor, officers found six plastic bags in the kitchen. They contained human body parts.
Each of the women, Josefina Rivera, Sandra Lindsay, Lisa Thomas, Debra Dudley, Jacqueline Askins, and Agnes Adams, were taken back to Heidnik’s home where they engaged in consensual sex before they were choked out and knocked unconscious. He then carried his victims to his basement where they were chained up and kept for Heidnik to beat and rape as he pleased.
Lindsay had starved to death. When Heidnik discovered this, he took her body up to his kitchen where he decapitated and dismembered her body. He placed her head in a large pot on the stove and boiled it. Other body parts were shredded in a food processor, mixed with dog food, and fed to the other women.
Dudley, who had been a difficult captive for Heidnik, was shown Lindsay’s severed head. She was told to change her attitude or end up like Lindsay. Heidnik apparently considered Dudley to be “a pain in the ass” and that he aimed to get rid of her.
While electrocuting Dudley and two other captives, Dudley suddenly died. Heidnik then placed her body in his freezer and later disposed of her body in a state forest in New Jersey. After her death, Heidnik forced Rivera to write the following: “Gary Heidnik and Josephina Rivera electrocuted Debra Dudley on March 17th in the basement of 3520 North Marshall Street by electrocution.”
Heidnik believed that the incriminating note would act as leverage to keep Rivera from going to police. He was wrong.
Now that Heidnik was in police custody, and after reviewing old police reports, one name came up again and again: Dorothy. The two detectives in Alice’s home were looking for Dorothy. What she looked like, where she might have gone, if she had any family, the usual rundown.
Was Dorothy another victim of Heidnik’s abuse?
Alice had no new information to give them. She didn’t even know her last name. Eventually, police contacted Alice to inform her that Dorothy was alive and in a mental institution. There was relief to be felt, not just for Dorothy’s safety, but for the safety of the residents on Cedar Ave.
“I can’t tell you how relieved and shocked we were,” Alice said.
In 1988, Heidnik was convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to death. He apparently refused any and all appeals he could, despite their automatic filing, wanting to hurry his death sentence along as quickly as he could.
On July 9, 1999, Gary Heidnik was executed by lethal injection. He is the last convict put to death by the state of Pennsylvania.
For Alice, the realization of Heidnik’s monstrosity was shocking, despite the unease that was felt by neighbors. “You can think someone is scary, or nuts, but it never occurs to you that they’re a serial killer.
“Luckily we were a nosy neighborhood, and that scared Gary off.”