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End comes for 'House of Horrors' murderer

Wednesday, July 07, 1999

By Gene Collier, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

BELLEFONTE, Pa. -- Gary Heidnik, who would stay mute because he was convinced the devil had placed a cookie in his throat, whose father would lock him outdoors in urine-stained underwear for wetting the bed and whose alcoholic mother killed herself to escape her own mental illness, was put to death last night by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

  Carolyn Johnson, left, and Tracey Lomax were among four relatives of victims to witness yesterday's execution of Gary Heidnik. Each woman had a sister murdered by Heidnik in Philadelphia. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Death for the pathetic Philadelphia "House of Horrors" murderer came at 10:29, less than an hour after the U.S. Supreme Court denied the final appeal to spare him, and some 12 years after a prostitute bolted free from the cellar of his North Philadelphia rowhouse to tell police about four months of torture that resulted in the deaths of two women and the rape of at least three others, some of whom Heidnik had fed a combination of dog food and ground human remains.

The 55-year-old former mental patient, who experts said deluded himself into believing that his two victims had killed each other, that the FBI could help him prove it, and that his perceived innocence in death would end capital punishment in Pennsylvania and perhaps the United States, was walked 20 feet in handcuffs from a holding cell to the death chamber at 10:17 p.m. by officials of the State Correctional Institution at Rockview. Inside the former inmate hospital near the prison, he was strapped to a linen-covered gurney by 10 belts, eight black ones across his body and two brown ones at his head and feet.

In accordance with Pennsylvania law, 12 witnesses, six from the media and six citizens, were assembled in the customized viewing area. In addition, there were the maximum four witnesses associated with the murder victims, Sandra Lindsay and Deborah Dudley.

  More coverage:

Juror waits 11 years for 'right thing' to be done

Opponents hold vigil outside mansion


They were separated by a partition from the other observers, but their reflections were visible in the glass viewing window and their voices were audible.

Media witnesses said one witness associated with the victims exclaimed, "Thank you Jesus" and mumbled obscenities after Heidnik turned red and then ashen just before being pronounced dead by Centre County Coroner Scott Sayers.

In isolation at SCI Pittsburgh since Gov. Ridge signed his death warrant May 12, Heidnik was transported here yesterday morning. He received one visitor at about 4:30, his daughter, Maxine Davidson White, who stayed about an hour and was not present for her father's execution. Heidnik had his final meal, black coffee and two slices of cheese pizza, at about 5:30 and was, according to Department of Corrections press secretary Michael Lukens, "as cooperative as he could be."

Heidnik spent the hours before his death either resting or pacing in his cell. He declined a medical exam and made no requests to see anyone or to issue any statement. His only request on the last day of his life was for a radio to be played outside his cell and that it be tuned to country music. That request was fulfilled.

Last night's execution was the first in Pennsylvania since 1995, when the state lethally injected Keith Zettlemoyer and Leon Moser. Prior to those, the state had not executed anyone since 1962.

"So horrible were [Heidnik's] deeds, a jury of 12 Pennsylvanians determined unanimously that he must forfeit his life," Ridge said in a statement issued at 10:45. "Tonight, he paid that price. In doing so, he suffered far less than the women he tortured and killed. Our thoughts and prayers tonight are with them."

  Gary Heidnik

Outside the governor's Harrisburg residence at about 9 p.m., a dozen protesters quietly recited a prayer written by Sister Helen Prejean, an outspoken opponent of capital punishment. Ridge was at his home in Erie.

"It doesn't heal anything. It just creates more sickness," protester Naed Smith said.

Heidnik was the 353rd person to be executed by Pennsylvania, the third by lethal injection and the first person to have it done at Rockview's new execution facility, a converted hospital outside the prison perimeter.

In Philadelphia yesterday morning, lawyers argued before a three-judge panel of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Lawyers for the Defenders Association of Philadelphia represented Heidnik's daughter and asked the court to allow her to appeal on behalf of her father.

But the Philadelphia district attorney's office argued Heidnik was competent to handle his affairs.

In a 2-1 decision, the court refused to delay the execution. The full 3rd Circuit later refused to hear the appeal.

White's lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court notified the governor just before 10 p.m. that it would not intervene.

At 10:18 p.m., a blue curtain over the witnesses' observation window was pulled back to reveal a side view of Heidnik strapped in a bed bolted to the floor of the execution chamber and covered to his neck by a sheet.

A team of specialists administered a lethal combination of barbiturates from a separate room through an intravenous tube. Heidnik's eyes never opened. The curtain was pulled shut at 10:28 p.m. He was pronounced dead a minute later.

Kathy Swedlow, an attorney for the defender group, said Heidnik's daughter, White, was very upset. "The state has executed an extremely mentally ill and psychotic man," Swedlow said.

White, a student at Temple University, has declined to talk to reporters.

Described as one of four children Heidnik had with as many women, she was placed in foster care as a newborn because of her father's history of mental illness.

Heidnik, a disabled Army veteran who had made a fortune in the stock market and ordained himself bishop of his own church, imprisoned six women in a makeshift torture chamber in the basement of his home in 1986 and 1987.

All six women were black; Heidnik was white.

Heidnik has never raised a single appeal to his 1988 conviction for the murder of Lindsay and Dudley, but nearly every medical professional who has ever examined him has testified that he is a chronic paranoid schizophrenic and that he is delusional.

"I say real or phony, they can execute me, because I am innocent and I can prove it," Heidnik said at his trial.

"That is the end of capital punishment in this state. When you execute an innocent man, knowingly execute an innocent man, you know there will be no more capital punishment in this state and possibly anywhere else in this country. And you know I didn't kill them two women. Go ahead and execute me ... Yes, I want you to execute an innocent man so there will be no more capital punishment."

Heidnik was arrested in 1987 when a prostitute escaped from his house and told police she'd been held there for four months.

Police discovered three other women there, half-naked and chained to beams in the basement.

Survivors said they'd been raped, tortured with an electric prod and forced to eat a combination of dog food and human remains.

Those were the final non-institutionalized days of the son of Ellen and Michael Heidnik who, according to court documents, themselves lived tortured lives they passed on to their sons.

Ellen Heidnik was a mentally ill alcoholic who attempted suicide several times and drank Corby's whiskey and Thunderbird wine so insatiably she sometimes had the children steal the money to provide her with it.

According to Heidnik's brother, Terry, on the night Ellen finally succeeded at suicide, she phoned her husband at a bar to tell him she'd overdosed on medicine.

His father, Terry said, stayed at the bar to have another drink.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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