Gary Heidnik, The ‘House Of Horrors’ Killer Who Inspired Buffalo Bill From The Silence Of The Lambs

Published September 27, 2023
Updated October 29, 2023

Gary Michael Heidnik kidnapped, raped, and tortured six women starting in 1986, keeping them prisoner in the basement of his Philadelphia home.

Gary Heidnik was every bit as twisted as the infamous movie character he inspired: Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. He used his victims as sex slaves, forced them to torture each other, and even ground one of their bodies up and forced the other women to eat her flesh.

And yet, to the 50 members of his Philadelphia congregation in the 1980s, the real-life Buffalo Bill Killer was the honorable and charismatic Bishop Heidnik, head of the United Church of the Ministers of God. They would meet every Sunday inside his home to hear his unique spin on the Bible.

Could they have ever imagined that, in the basement under their feet, Gary Heidnik, the real-life Buffalo Bill Killer, had six women chained up in a pit?

The Troubled Young Life Of Gary Heidnik

Gary Heidnik

The Ecletic Collection/YouTubeGary Heidnik’s mugshot, taken after his arrest in 1987.

Gary Heidnik — born in Eastlake, Ohio on November 22, 1943 — eventually learned how to control people after having a rough start to his life. He’d suffered through a brutal childhood, during which, he claimed, his father abused him and mercilessly mocked the young boy’s bedwetting.

His troubles continued throughout high school, where he remained isolated from his peers and socially stunted before joining the Army after graduation. Following his discharge due to mental health issues (namely, schizoid personality disorder) after just 13 months, Heidnik worked briefly as a nurse before finding a way to control other people via religion.

Gary Heidnik started the United Church of the Ministers of God in 1971 in Philadelphia with just five followers and a $1,500 investment — but things grew wildly from there. He eventually raised more than $500,000 for his cult. Furthermore, he learned how to manipulate people — and he put that skill to use on the women he’d started keeping locked up in his basement.

Heidnik had been charged with crimes related to sexual assault before, but never served any significant time for them. He’d even been charged with the spousal rape of Betty Disto, a Filipino mail-order bride he wed in 1985 and who left him in 1986, but not before bearing him a son, Jesse.

In fact, Heidnik had two other children with two different women, both of whom had also complained of his deviant sexual practices and penchant for locking them up. But those tendencies were about to reach new depths — as he would soon kidnap six Black women to rape and torture.

The Beginning Of Gary Heidnik’s Abductions

Josefina Rivera

Grace Cords/YouTubeGary Heidnik’s first victim, Josefina Rivera, talks about her time with the real-life Buffalo Bill Killer in 1990.

Gary Heidnik captured the woman conventionally cited as his first victim, Josefina Rivera, in 1986. And it’s hard to imagine, but he actually turned her, by many accounts, into an accomplice of sorts. The way he initially captured her, though, was as brutal as the capture of any of his other victims.

Like all of the women that the real-life Buffalo Bill Killer targeted, Rivera was a sex worker, lured into his home by the promise of money. While Rivera was getting her clothes back on after they had sex, Heidnik came up from behind and choked her. Then, he dragged her down to his basement, shackled her limbs together with chains, and sealed the bolts in with superglue.

Her life flashed before her eyes. “All I could remember was, like, a film projector of things that were going on in my life,” Rivera would later say of the experience. “It was, like — y’know, just flipping back.”

Gary Heidnik then beat her with a stick until she stopped screaming for help. Then, he threw her into a pit, boarded it up, and sealed her in. The only light that seeped in came through thin cracks in a wood covering overhead.

He would kidnap five more women in just three months, all in the same way that Rivera was abducted. All of the victims were Black because, as Heidnik’s lawyer would later reveal, “He was trying to enslave 10 [Black] girls to have a baby with all of them, and he was going to create a perfect race.” Much like Rivera, the other victims were choked, chained up, thrown into the pit, and boarded up inside, only pulled out to be raped or tortured.

Stockholm Syndrome Takes Hold Inside The “Monster Preacher’s” House Of Horrors

“Anytime that you’re cut off from the world outside,” Josefina Rivera admitted after she escaped her captor’s clutches, “whoever’s holding you captive… you’re going to grow to like him regardless, because he’s your only contact to things that are outside. He’s your only source of survival.”

Rivera eventually convinced Heidnik that she was on his side, and he made her the “boss” of the other women. It was his way of pitting the women against each other. If Rivera did what he said, he’d bring her hot chocolate and hot dogs and let her sleep outside of the hole. But he made one thing clear: If she disobeyed him, she could lose all of her privileges.

Going against him was dangerous. When one of the women displeased him, Heidnik would put them “on punishment”: They would be starved, beaten, and tortured. Sometimes, he would wrap duct tape around their mouths and slowly jam a screwdriver into their ears, just to watch them squirm.

If Rivera was going to keep her privileges, she understood, she had to aid in the torture of the other women. Once, he had her fill the pit full of water, attach a stripped extension cord to the other women’s chains, and electrocute them while he watched. The shock was so painful that one of the women, Deborah Dudley, was electrocuted to death.

Heidnik barely reacted. “Yeah, she’s dead,” he said, after checking her body. “Now I can get back to having a peaceful basement.”

Gary Heidnik Forces The Women To Eat Their Dead Friend

Excerpts from a 1991 interview with Gary Heidnik, the real-life Buffalo Bill Killer.

After Dudley’s brutal murder, another horrific death occurred in the basement: the murder of Sandra Lindsay, a mentally disabled woman whom Gary Heidnik had lured in shortly after he abducted Rivera.

Lindsay couldn’t handle the abuse as long as the others did, so Gary Heidnik put her “on punishment” and starved her for days. When he tried to give her food again, she didn’t move. He released her chains and she collapsed.

The women were only allowed a few moments to panic. When they started screaming at the sight of their friend — who they now realized was dead — Heidnik told them to “cut out [their] bullshit” or they would die next.

He then dragged Lindsay’s body upstairs and cut it into pieces. He cooked her ribs in the oven, boiled her head on the stove (neighbors’ complaints of the smell prompted a police visit, but he claimed he’d just absentmindedly burned a roast), and put her arms and legs in a freezer. Then, he ground her flesh up, mixed it with dog food, and brought it down to the other women.

Three of the women were still “on punishment.” A few days before, he’d let them watch TV and one had angered him by saying she was so hungry that the dog food in an ad looked “good enough to eat.” She’d get dog food, Heidnik told her, and she and the other two women would eat it — with Lindsay’s body parts mixed in it (though some sources refute this account and say that Heidnik made it up to support an insanity defense later).

It would plague them for the rest of their lives — but they didn’t have much of a choice. They had to either cannibalize their dead friend or they would die. As one of the women, Jacqueline Askins, would later say, “If it wasn’t for me eating her or eating dog food, I couldn’t be here today.”

Josefina Rivera Cleverly Escapes From Gary Heidnik’s Clutches

Gary Heidnik The Real-Life Buffalo Bill Killer

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesGary Heidnik heads to court in Pittsburgh, dressed in a brightly colored Hawaiian shirt. June 14, 1988.

Ultimately, accomplice or not, Josefina Rivera saved the surviving victims.

Toward the end, Heidnik was using her as bait to catch more women. He’d let her enter the outside world to help him pick up other potential victims and lure them into his home, always keeping her close by his side.

She used the goodwill she’d earned to get these temporary trips out of the basement. And then, on March 24, 1987, after helping Heidnik abduct a seventh victim, Rivera managed to convince him to let her go for just a few minutes so that she could briefly visit her family members. He would wait at the gas station, they agreed, and she’d come right back.

Rivera walked around the corner and out of his sight. Then, she rushed over to the nearest phone and called 911. Officers promptly arrested Gary Heidnik right there at the gas station and then raided his house of horrors.

After four months of imprisonment, the women were finally free — and furious with Rivera. Even though she had freed them, they were still angry about the role she played in their torture, especially Dudley’s death. Some even wanted Rivera to be charged as an accomplice. But in the end, Rivera was recognized as a victim as Heidnik was forced to face the court.

The Church Of The Real-Life Buffalo Bill Killer Lives On

Gary Heidnik's House Of Horrors

David Rentas/New York Post Archives/(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty ImagesGary Heidnik’s house, where he held his church services and kept six Black women as prisoners. March 26, 1987.

Despite his attempts to get off on an insanity defense, Gary Heidnik was convicted in July 1988 and sentenced to death. He tried to kill himself in prison, and his family tried to get him off death row, but all to no avail.

Finally, on July 6, 1999, Heidnik received a lethal injection and became the last person to be executed in the state of Pennsylvania.

A decade earlier, while he was still in prison, Heidnik’s infamous legacy in pop culture was secured when he inspired the character of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. The character’s house of horrors and penchant for keeping women confined in a basement pit recalled Heidnik’s crimes.

A scene from The Silence of the Lambs, featuring Buffalo Bill.

As for Heidnik’s cult, it’s hard to say how much they knew. Even after he was arrested, they kept coming to church. While every news channel was blaring stories about Heidnik’s den of victims and the way he abused them, his followers kept coming out to his house for Sunday services.

At least one follower, a man named Tony Brown, helped Heidnik torture the women. He thought of himself as Gary Heidnik’s best friend. He was there when Heidnik starved Lindsay to death and when Heidnik dismembered her body and wrapped her limbs up and labeled them “dog meat.”

Brown, however, was mentally disabled. He was a victim of Heidnik’s manipulation, according to his lawyer, a man who fit “the pattern of Heidnik’s victims — he’s poor, retarded, and Black.”

According to Heidnik’s neighbors, the members of his cult fit this description as well. “He held these church services on Sunday. A lot of people came,” one of his neighbors recalled. “They were usually mentally retarded.”

Like Rivera, Gary Heidnik’s followers were victims of his manipulation.

But in a way, that’s perhaps the most terrifying part of the story. Gary Heidnik wasn’t just an unhinged sadist, willing to rape, torture, murder, and even cannibalize a basement full of women. He got people to help.


After this look at the crimes of Gary Heidnik, the real-life Buffalo Bill Killer, read about Robert Pickton, the murderer who fed his victims to pigs, or Ed Kemper, the serial killer whose crimes are too disturbing to even describe.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.