CRIME HUNTER: Real Silence of the Lambs killer’s haunting legacy


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In the iconic serial killer horror movie Silence of the Lambs, the monster named Buffalo Bill committed unspeakable horrors on young women.

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His real-life inspiration was worse.

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On July 6, 1999, at the Pennsylvania death house in Bellefonte, Gary Heidnik had a final meal of black coffee and two slices of cheese pizza.

And then, officials from the Keystone State rigged up the death apparatus and a lethal cocktail was injected into Heidnik’s arm. In minutes, the killer was dead.

Killer Gary Heidnik was the inspiration for Silence of the Lambs. PHILADELPHIA POLICE
Killer Gary Heidnik was the inspiration for Silence of the Lambs. PHILADELPHIA POLICE

One witness shouted: “Thank you, Jesus!”

Heidnik left a trail of tears that persists to this day. Among his victims was Sandra Lindsay.

“I wanted him to spend some time incarcerated to see how it feels being imprisoned where no one could release him from his misery,” her sister, Tracey Lomax, recently told CNN.

Lomax said she still recalls every detail of the case against the man who kidnapped her sister, Sandra Lindsay, and five other Black women and kept them as sex slaves in his basement in Philadelphia.

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She remembers the agony of learning how he’d held them in a water-filled pit and abused them before killing Lindsay and one other victim. She’ll never forget the women’s vivid trial testimony about how Heidnik handcuffed a starving Lindsay to the rafters and mocked her.

Victims of Gary Heidnik. PHILADELPHIA POLICE
Victims of Gary Heidnik. PHILADELPHIA POLICE

Born in Ohio in 1943, lingering mental illness squelched whatever ambition he may have had. He was honourably discharged from the U.S. Army when his mental health became an issue.

An attempt at nursing was also short-lived. But in 1971, Heidnik appeared to find his calling.

That year, he incorporated a church called the United Church of the Ministers of God. The church prospered amassing a $500,000 fortune by the 1980s ($2.7 million in 2023 figures).

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And he also married a mail-order bride named Betty Disto from the Philippines in 1985. For two years the pair had been pen pals but the marriage imploded fast, which tends to happen when your wife catches you in bed with three other women.

Disto later told cops she was frequently forced to watch while Heidnik had sex with other women. Worse, he was beating and raping her. She was out within three months.


Heidnik had a type: Poor, Black, often mentally challenged women who he would lure to his house of horrors with the promise of cash in exchange for sex.

Between late 1986 and March 1987, Heidnik kidnapped Lindsay and five other women: Josefina Rivera, Lisa Thomas, Jacqueline Askins, Agnes Adams and Deborah Dudley.

Both Lindsay and Dudley died in the filthy basement.

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His first kidnap victim was Josefina Rivera who was snatched on Nov. 25, 1986. Two months later Heidnik had kidnapped four more women to add to his twisted menagerie.

Killer Gary Heidnik was the inspiration for Buffalo Bill, right, the maniac in the seminal Silence of the Lambs.
Killer Gary Heidnik was the inspiration for Buffalo Bill, right, the maniac in the seminal Silence of the Lambs. Photo by HANDOUTS /PHILLY PD/ORION

And in the basement of his house at 3520 N. Marshall St. in Philly, he made a pit. There, his coterie of slaves was raped, tortured and beaten.

Lindsay died of starvation, torture and a raging fever.

Heidnik dismembered her corpse but struggled with the arms and legs so he froze them and labelled the macabre contents as “dog food.” More sickening, Heidnik cooked her ribs and boiled her head on his stove.

Heidnik told nauseated neighbours: “I’m cooking a roast. I fell asleep and it burnt.”

The former soldier unleashed a catalogue of horrors on his victims, including electric shocks. This was how Deborah Dudley died.

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On March 23, 1987, Heidnik and Rivera abducted Agnes Adams. Now in the psycho’s good graces, Rivera hoodwinked Heidnik into letting her visit her family. From there, she called the cops, who rescued the tormented women.

On July 1, 1988, Heidnik was convicted and sentenced to death.

Later that year, his fictional alter ego, Buffalo Bill made his debut in Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs. In 1991, it was made into a blockbuster big-screen thriller starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.

Tracey Lomax has never seen the movie.

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“Nobody wants to watch a movie about their loved one being held against their will,” Lomax said.

“I really wanted him to stay in jail. I wanted him to do time because I wanted him to not be able to run away from the women that he killed. Because I know that they spooked him. I know that they came back to haunt him. His death was so much easier than his victims’ (deaths).”

Lomax said that Heidnik’s execution allowed her to move on with her life.

“Once he left this earth, that was it. Everything that he did, hey – you take that with you,” she said.

“Because I’m not going to keep going back and forth with it. I’m gonna stay right here, and I’m gonna always celebrate my sister.”

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