Gary Heidnik: The Truth About The Real-Life Buffalo Bill

Since its 1991 premiere, "The Silence of the Lambs" has stood the test of time as a gripping psychological thriller that continues to captivate viewers three decades after the fact. However, one shouldn't mistake the film as solely being about FBI agent Clarice Starling's (Jodie Foster) tense working relationship with serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Clarice, after all, is pursuing another depraved individual — Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb (Ted Levine), a serial killer who kidnaps, murders, and skins young women in order for him to create a "woman suit" for himself.

Although "The Silence of the Lambs" was based on Thomas Harris' 1988 novel of the same name, Buffalo Bill was inspired by a number of notorious serial killers and murderers, including one rather obvious choice, given his M.O. — Ed Gein. But aside from Gein, there was another, far more recent inspiration for the Buffalo Bill character. That man was Philadelphia resident Gary Heidnik, who, over a span of several months in 1986 and 1987, held a total of six women captive in his basement, where he would sexually assault and torture them on a daily basis. According to Murderpedia, he ended up murdering two of those women and was rumored to have fed their body parts to his other victims.

Eleven years after being sentenced to death for the two murders, Heidnik was executed on July 6, 1999. Here's the truth behind the "House of Horrors Killer," Gary Heidnik, and his descent into a life of crime.

Heidnik had a very unhappy childhood

Gary Heidnik had a rough childhood where he suffered various forms of abuse. Born on November 22, 1943, in Eastlake, Ohio, Heidnik and his younger brother Terry were born to parents who divorced soon after they were born. Per Murderpedia, it appears that the abuse really ramped up when Gary and Terry went to live with their father Michael and his new wife. Gary was singled out by his dad for his bed-wetting problem, and the elder Heidnik allegedly took pleasure in humiliating Gary, oftentimes hanging the young boy's stained bedsheet outside for all the neighbors to see. 

Michael Heidnik was supposedly a physically abusive man a well, as Terry told the Philadelphia Inquirer (via AP News) in 1987. ″It got to the point where we'd be afraid to pick anything up because he'd beat us if we dropped something like a glass or something,″ he revealed. ″I was knocked unconscious once.″ Michael would deny these allegations in a separate interview with the publication.

According to Terry Heidnik, his older brother's problems might have been caused by a childhood accident where he fell off a tree and was left with a misshapen head. This resulted in frequent taunts from his classmates, who would call Gary "football head." Terry hypothesized that the injury, combined with the bullying at school and at home, turned Gary into an angry and violent individual as he grew up.

The Heidnik brothers had a history of mental illness

Behavioral problems aside, Gary Heidnik was a good student with a tested I.Q. of 148, though he dropped out of high school and joined the Army when he turned 18, per Murderpedia. He seemed to be doing well for himself at first, but while stationed in West Germany in August 1962, he sought medical assistance for blurred vision, nausea, and dizziness and was ultimately diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder. As such, he was asked to return to the U.S., where he received an honorable discharge on medical grounds a few months later. (This is disputed — Philadelphia District Attorney's Office prosecutor Charlie Gallagher told Philadelphia Magazine in 2007 that Heidnik faked the whole thing.)

Regardless of whether or not he faked his way out of an assignment that he didn't like, Heidnik seemed to show some promise as a nurse in the Philadelphia area following his discharge. However, as the 1970s approached, he began spending more time in mental institutions and attempted to take his own life multiple times. This, sadly, was compounded by his mother Ellen's death by suicide in 1970.

Similar to his older sibling, Terry Heidnik also dealt with mental illness for most of his life and admitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1987 that he attempted suicide on numerous occasions. As quoted by AP News, Terry told the publication that he and his brother turned out to be "schizophrenic" because of their unhappy childhood. ″You see where it comes from?″ he warned. ″To me that's the important message.″

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

A precursor to the 'House of Horrors' crimes

Around 1971, Gary Heidnik took a trip to California, where he apparently had a religious awakening of sorts. Upon returning to Philadelphia, he decided to form the United Church of the Ministers of God, which initially had only five members, including his younger brother Terry and Gary's developmentally challenged girlfriend, as noted by Murderpedia. Thanks to his financial savvy, well-to-do background, and charismatic, yet manipulative personality (via Oxygen), "Bishop Heidnik," as he wanted to be called, turned a $1,500 investment in 1975 into a substantial $545,000 fortune by the time of his 1987 arrest. 

Behind the scenes, this ostensible religious leader was beginning to attract police attention, and in 1978, he was arrested after cops found that he had imprisoned and sexually abused his girlfriend's sister in his basement for nine days after she was signed out of the mental institution she lived in. Heidnik was later slapped with various charges, including kidnapping and rape, and sentenced to three to seven years in jail. He spent most of the next four-plus years in custody, either behind bars or in psychiatric institutions, and was released on parole in the spring of 1983.

Nearing his 40th birthday at the time of his release, Heidnik was desperate to start a family of his own. Tragically, he would go about this in the most twisted way imaginable.

The apparent reason why Heidnik chose his victims

After a short-lived marriage marked by abuse and infidelity, Gary Heidnik started kidnapping women, most of them sex workers, and keeping them in his cellar, where he would rape and torture them. As reported by Oxygen, one of the women, Josefina Rivera, had gained Heidnik's trust during her time in captivity, though this only became possible after she helped the self-styled bishop torture the other victims in his "House of Horrors." As she was the only victim allowed to make calls to her family, Rivera used this opportunity to call the cops on her captor, and Heidnik was finally arrested on March 24, 1987. But why did Heidnik only kidnap women of color, and what motivated him to commit those horrible crimes?

Speaking to A&E Real Crime, Heidnik's lawyer, Chuck Peruto, explained that his client's target was to "enslave" a total of 10 women and have a baby with each of them so he could create the "perfect" race. "He believed [white people] should mix with Black people and vice versa so we could get closer to a perfect race," Peruto said. "He believed tall people should mate with short people, and short people should never mate with short people. He had theories and thought that he was going to improve society."

As he recalled further, Heidnik showed no remorse for his actions and didn't make any attempt to "fight" the death penalty.

Was Gary Heidnik really a cannibal?

One of the biggest talking points of Gary Heidnik's trial was the allegation that he cut up one of the women he murdered, cooked her body parts, and fed them to his victims. According to Charlie Gallagher, prosecutor for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, there was no physical evidence in his kitchen that suggested he mixed human meat with dog food, and the allegations of cannibalism weren't seriously pushed in court because it would have only made Heidnik look crazier, via Philadelphia Magazine.

The person responsible for building up Heidnik's reputation as a cannibal was his lawyer, Chuck Peruto, who told Philly Mag in 2007 that it was all part of his plan to make his client look as insane as possible. "If you make your victims eat human flesh, that's sadistic," he said. "But if you eat it yourself, that's insane. I thought Charlie was gonna blow a blood vessel during that time in the trial when I tried to get that in. But Charlie was correct — there was no evidence of cannibalism. I started all that. I would leak it, and by week's end, he's a cannibal."

When all was said and done, Peruto's wild attempt at backing up Heidnik's insanity defense wasn't enough to save him from the death penalty.