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When some people commit vicious and horrific crimes, their loved ones are shocked. They say they never saw it coming — the killer was a good neighbor, or a loving husband, or a dutiful employee. But in the case of Gary Heidnik, the pastor who raped and tortured six women he imprisoned in the basement of his Philadelphia “House of Horrors,” there were glaring red flags signaling he would commit such an atrocity one day.
Heidnik, who is the subject of Oxygen’s upcoming special “Monster Preacher,” airing on Saturday, January 16 at 7/6c on Oxygen, had a checkered past and even served prison time for kidnapping before he ever forced six women into his basement pit. However, he only spent a few years behind bars and was soon able to resume life as a wealthy preacher in a North Philadelphia neighborhood where he was well-respected and cruised the streets in a Cadillac. How did this happen when a court psychiatrist even told a judge there was a “high probability” Heidnik would commit more crimes against women?
Heidnik was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1943 to parents who were wealthy but emotionally abusive, according to the Oxygen special.
“The whole family was screwed up and weird. My mom told me how their dad beat Gary real bad with a toy wooden airplane because he peed his pants. His dad was an alcoholic, and his mom took poison. They found her in the basement. She was tired of the abuse. They were really sick parents, and they gave their kids some serious problems. Gary and my dad left Ohio at some point, and I’m not exactly sure how we wound up in Pennsylvania,” Heidnik’s niece, Shannon Heidnik, told Philadelphia Magazine in 2007.
After high school, Heidnik went on to serve in the army as a medic, but was eventually honorably discharged because of mental illness. Why he was discharged is somewhat up for debate, though —some insist he was really mentally ill, while others claim he was faking it to get disability checks.
“Then they sent him to Germany, and I think he didn’t like the assignment, didn’t like being in Germany. So he started thinking, ‘How can I beat this?’ He just stopped obeying orders. He finally got them to give him a medical discharge. Eventually he wound up with 100 percent disability, because he was able to convince the doctors that he was crazy. He’s been faking all his life,” Charlie Gallagher, a prosecutor for Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, insisted to Philadelphia Magazine.
John Cassidy, Heidnik’s best friend in Philadelphia, seemed to endorse the idea that Heidnik truly had a mental breakdown — but did want to take advantage of disability paymments — telling the magazine, “He claimed the Army gave him LSD while he was in Germany. Sometime over there, he had a nervous breakdown. A legitimate, real nervous breakdown. And then he said he got this brilliant idea. He said, when he came out of it, why the hell should I come out of it if I can get disability?”
After the army, Heidnik got a nursing degree and a job at a veteran’s hospital but it didn’t last long: he was fired for his spotty attendance record and serious attitude problem. Heidnik wasn’t down and out for long, though. He decided to devote himself to God and established The United Church of the Ministers of God in 1971. With his family money and sheer charisma, Heidnik was able to gain a significant following in his neighborhood.
What Heidnik wanted more than a vocation, though, was a family. He did eventually father a child in 1978 with his girlfriend at the time, Anjeanette Davidson. She was illiterate and mentally disabled with an IQ of 49, according to “Death By Cannibal: Minds With An Appetite For Murder” a 2006 book by author Peter Davidson (no relation to Anjeanette). The child was promptly put into foster care.
Heidnik was deeply upset by this decision, as shown in the Oxygen special, but he wasn’t done with Anjeanette yet. Some time after their daughter was born, Heidnik signed Anjeanette’s sister, Alberta Davidson, a 34-year-old woman with the mental capacities of a 5-year-old, out of the institution she lived in. After nine days passed and Heidnik failed to bring Alberta back, the institution got a police warrant, according to “Death By Cannibal.”
He allowed the first searcher to look around his home, insisting Alberta wasn’t there as he had sent her back to the institution on a bus. Police came back a second time, though, and finally located Alberta — she had been placed in a storage room in the basement.
After examining the woman, authorities discovered she had a tear in her vagina indicating recent sexual intercourse and that she had contacted gonorrhea. Heidnik was thus charged with kidnapping, rape, false imprisonment, unlawful restraint, and interfering with the custody of a committed person, among other offenses. He pleaded not guilty and waived his right to a jury trial, according to Davidson.
Heidnik’s fate was thus in the hands of Judge Charles P. Mirarchi, who had Heidnik examined by a psychiatrist, who issued an ominous warning: there was a “high probability” Heidnik would commit a similar crime again. However, Alberta was deemed unfit to testify because of her mental disabilities, and without her testimony prosecutors were forced to drop the most serious charges against Heidnik.
Instead, he was found guilty of unlawful restraint, interfering with the custody of a committed person, and recklessly endangering another person. He was given the maximum sentence: three to seven years in the state penitentiary.
“If it had been in my power to give him longer, I would have,” Judge Mirarchi would later say, Davidson wrote.
Heidnik ended up serving more than four years in custody, bouncing between mental hospitals and prisons, the Associated Press reported in 1987. He was released on parole on March 24, 1983. With prison behind him, Heidnik had one goal in mind.
“When he got out, he couldn’t find Anjeanette, and he felt society owed him a wife and family,” Josefina Rivera, one of the six women kidnapped by Heidnik, told Philadelphia Magazine.
For more on Heidnik’s horrifying crimes, watch “Monster Preacher,” airing on Saturday, January 16 at 7/6c on Oxygen.
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