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25 years later Heidnik captive recalls the horror

IT WAS 11 at night, dark as coal, when kidnapper Gary Heidnik stopped his Cadillac Coupe DeVille in a remote wooded section of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

Josefina Rivera was Gary Heidnik's first sex slave and also the savviest, plotting her escape and leading police to his home 25 years ago. (David Maialetti/Staff)
Josefina Rivera was Gary Heidnik's first sex slave and also the savviest, plotting her escape and leading police to his home 25 years ago. (David Maialetti/Staff)Read more

IT WAS 11 at night, dark as coal, when kidnapper Gary Heidnik stopped his Cadillac Coupe DeVille in a remote wooded section of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

Josefina Rivera, the savviest of Heidnik's captives, sat in the passenger seat, trying to mask her nerves, her repulsion. Heidnik put the car in park, satisfied he'd found the perfect spot to dump a body.

The tall, lumbering man with cold, faraway eyes, hollow cheeks and a scruffy beard, stepped out to pop the trunk.

"I could hear him pulling the plastic off Deborah's body because I could hear the thump of her body," Rivera said.

"I could hear him walking with the body, the 'crunch, crunch, crunch' of the leaves, the twigs breaking."

Heidnik, the most heinous murderer and torturer in Philadelphia history, had ordered Rivera to help electrocute fellow captive Deborah Dudley while she was chained in a water-filled hole in his basement.

That same night, Rivera waited in the car as Heidnik chucked Dudley's naked body into the brush of Wharton State Forest. "It was the longest five minutes of my life," Rivera, now 51, said in an interview last week.

But Rivera had a plan.

Heidnik had grown to trust her. On March 25, 1987 - 25 years ago - Rivera would forge her escape.

Handcuffed in a hole

A few days before Thanksgiving 1986, Rivera was a 25-year-old, rail-thin mom of three working as a prostitute to feed her cocaine habit.

She'd just given birth to her son, Ricardo, a few weeks earlier, and, born prematurely, he was still in the hospital.

Rivera strutted around 3rd and Girard at night when Heidnik pulled up in his new 1987 Cadillac. He told her she looked like Diana Ross. He asked her for a date.

She broke a rule with Heidnik. Usually, she had sex with guys in their cars or in a nearby alley. Heidnik wanted to go back to his house on Marshall Street near Tioga, in Philadelphia's Franklinville section.

He took her to his bedroom, where she had sex with him on his water bed for $20.

"Then he came up behind me and started choking me," Rivera said. "I passed out. When I came to, he had one of my hands in handcuffs and he was trying to get the other one around my back."

Heidnik forced her down the steps to his basement and pushed her into a dirt hole he'd dug under a concrete floor. He chained her to a sewer pipe.

"He put muffler clamps around my ankles. He put nuts on the clamps and he Crazy Glued them so I wouldn't be able to take the nuts off."

He placed plywood over the hole and set dirt-filled plastic bags on top.

"The hole wasn't big enough so I was all bent up," Rivera said. "I couldn't even stand up. He'd pull me out by my hair and beat me with a stick, then put me back."

Rivera turned her hands, palms up, to show the scars, a quarter-century old, that streaked her arms. "I ran out of air so I would take my arms and try to push the boards up. That's how I scratched my arms."

Similar scars mark her ankles.

Rivera, pretty, with smooth, unlined skin, relived her months of rape and torture, matter-of-factly, with little emotion.

Wearing a turtleneck sweater and jeans, big hoop silver earrings and a cross around her neck, Rivera rocked back and forth as if to console herself when certain memories - the painful ones - cracked her tough facade.

He wanted babies

Rivera was Heidnik's first prisoner. She was later joined by five other young women whom Heidnik plucked from the streets.

Heidnik wasn't on a mission to kill, Rivera said. The self-proclaimed church bishop and stock- market whiz who had turned about $3,500 into more than $500,000, wanted children. Lots of them.

"He was trying to get everyone pregnant," Rivera said. Heidnik had sex with the women every day, one after the other, on an air mattress in the basement, saving the women he thought weren't pregnant for last.

Their bathroom was a toilet without plumbing on the basement floor. If they talked back, he beat them with sticks. To make sure they couldn't hear his comings or goings, Heidnik gouged their ear drums with screwdrivers.

"I'd watch him do it to other women and see them cry in pain," Rivera said.

On every floor, he had music blaring from radios at all hours to muffle the women's screams.

Rivera made herself a promise: "My main focus was to get out of there alive and get the others out alive."

As time went by, Heidnik enlarged the 4-foot deep hole, but still only three women could fit. Rivera wanted to make sure, she would be one of the women chained outside the hole. So she began to listen to Heidnik's ramblings about his unhappy childhood and suicide attempts, his time in the Army, psychiatric hospitals and prison. She needed to be his favorite.

"He was doing everything on a rank system," she said. "He was putting people in positions to be in charge."

Heidnik took her out of the hole, chained her to the sewer pipe and told her to watch the others.

By February 1987, Heidnik was most frustrated with Sandra Lindsay, who was mentally disabled.

"Sandra had a problem with her jaws," Rivera said. "They weren't aligned right, so it was a struggle every time she ate."

Heidnik handcuffed Lindsay's wrist to a rafter in the ceiling not far from the hole. Her breathing slowed. She appeared sick and malnourished. "He was trying to get her to eat. He was beating her with sticks, hitting her and hitting her. She started choking. He was like, 'Oh, man!' He went upstairs to get his keys to take her off the handcuffs.

"When he did, her body slammed on the cement like 'wham!' " Rivera said.

Sandra was dead. "I was brokenhearted. Me and Sandra were close. We spent so many hours together in the hole."

Heidnik hoisted Lindsay's limp body upstairs and the women heard what sounded like a chain saw. "All of a sudden we smelled this horrible smell in the house. It was the worst smell I ever smelled."

Then Heidnik ordered Deborah Dudley upstairs. "He showed her Sandra's head in a pot and her ribs in a roasting pan," Rivera said. "He told her that could happen to her if she didn't get it together."

Heidnik blended Lindsay's body parts with dog food in a food processor and fed it to the women. "He would bring down cookies and the smell would be on the food. We smelled it on his clothes, on him. We didn't know for sure what it was, but we couldn't eat it."

Neighbors reported the putrid odor to police. Heidnik told the cops that he had burned a roast. The cops had no reason to disbelieve him.

He deserved a jail cell

Two months later, Heidnik picked Dudley to torture. She stood in the hole, chained, in a few inches of water.

Heidnik handed Rivera battery cables and told her to tap them on Dudley's chains. Heidnik did the same, and Dudley violently shook and screamed. It didn't take long before she died.

Heidnik made Rivera sign a letter confessing that she and Heidnik had electrocuted Dudley. The confession freed Rivera from the chains.

After Heidnik buried Dudley in the Pine Barrens, he took Rivera to a McDonald's in West Philadelphia. "He said he was hungry," Rivera said. "He had a Big Mac and fries." She couldn't eat.

Heidnik opened up more to her. He told her how he chopped up and cooked Lindsay and that he had gotten the idea to blend her flesh with dog food from the black-comedy film "Eating Raoul."

Over the next few days, Heidnik and Rivera ate together at a Denny's. He took her shopping for clothes and she slept in his bed.

"He really thought I was on his side and I wanted to make sure he thought that," she said. "This was my way out."

While out with Heidnik, "There wasn't an opportunity for me to run. If I had done that, he would have killed the other girls. He wasn't gonna leave nothing for anyone to find."

A few days later, Heidnik told Rivera to help him look for another woman to enslave. "We picked up Agnes Adams," Rivera said. "He went downstairs and put her in the hole."

To reward Rivera, Heidnik told her she could see her family. This was her chance, Rivera thought. She told him to drop her off at 6th and Girard and she'd return in about 25 minutes. As soon as Heidnik drove off, she ran to a pay phone and dialed 9-1-1.

At first, cops had trouble believing her.

"They thought it was so far-fetched," she said. "They thought it could just be someone upset with her old man." But she showed them the scars on her arms and legs. She told them to go inside Heidnik's house. In the basement, cops found two women, naked below the waist, chained together, attached to pipes. Another was found in the open pit under a piece of plywood.

Heidnik didn't look at Rivera during his trial. "He looked at no one. I was just glad he wasn't smarter than me," Rivera said, with an uncomfortable chuckle.

Rivera's fellow captives disparaged Rivera for acting as Heidnik's helper. But Assistant District Attorney Charles Gallagher defended Rivera, arguing that she was "commanded and encouraged and forced" to help her torturer.

Heidnik was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. On July 6, 1999, Heidnik picked two slices of pizza and two cups of coffee as his last meal. Sisters of Lindsay and Dudley watched as Heidnik died by injection.

Rivera chose not to go.

"It would have been better for him to sit in a 4-by-4 cell," she said.

Shards of glass

After the trial, Rivera returned to the streets as a prostitute. "Some things are hard to quit," she said, giggling. "It was the money."

She left that life after about a year. "My judgment wasn't clear. I just couldn't tell the difference between a nut and a sane person."

Over the years, she has worked various jobs, as a waitress, clerk, security guard, day-care worker.

She reconnected with her three children and is a proud grandmother. She married in 2001 and divorced four years later.

She's now on welfare and lives with her fiancé, Chris Lyle, a quiet, unassuming house painter who acts as her protector, in a cramped one-room apartment in Atlantic City.

She is in counseling and enjoys her church group, babysitting her grandkids, Marlboro Lights, barbecue and the beach.

"I like her attitude and her strength," Lyle said. "She's a survivor."

She still has nightmares and panic attacks, but they're less frequent. Rivera has to turn off the TV if she sees chains or handcuffs. Outside, she winces when she hears the sound of crunching leaves.

She walks the beach every day and when it's warm, she dances in the surf. "She looks like a kid," Lyle said.

Rivera collects broken pieces of multicolored sea glass - shards of discarded beer and whiskey bottles, jars and windows. She likes the idea that, over time, the turbulent waves, endlessly churning and pounding, transform the jagged, knife-edged glass into smooth gems.