On November 26, 1986, Philadelphia resident Gary Heidnik dragged 25-year-old Josefina Rivera into the basement of his Tioga home, beginning what would become nearly a year of intense physical and psychological torture. Now, for the first time, Rivera has addressed the events that transpired in her book, Cellar Girl.
Heidnik’s actions ultimately went on to inspire the multi-Academy Award-winning hit, The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 in the form of Buffalo Bill, cementing the ordeal in our pop culture consciousness for years to come. Rivera, for her part, has stayed out of the public eye since the trial concluded in 1988, with spectators to the case accusing her of being Heidnik’s co-conspirator in the violent plot.
However, given the intense torture to which Rivera was subjected, the truth seems to be anything but. Alienated due to years of false accusations that came after four months of abject misery, Rivera has declined the chance to tell her story in detail until now. Those details, perhaps not surprisingly, are extremely disturbing, as evidenced by the exclusive on the UK’s Mirror published earlier this week.
The result is a shocking, heartrending piece that explores in-depth the type of horrors Rivera and her five fellow captors suffered until March 1987. For example, scribe Katy Weitz explains Heidnik’s ultimate plan:
“I want to have kids,” he snarled. “Lots of them. I got kids already but the state keeps taking them off me. Well, I got a way now of having kids so nobody can take them away. You’re just the start.
“You gonna have my baby down here. But not just you. I want to get 10 girls down here so you can all have my kids.”
It was craziest thing Josefina had ever heard in her life – Heidnik was planning a baby farm in his cellar in a rundown part of Philadelphia.
The torture the girls endured:
One day, after Heidnik realised the girls could hear him coming and going out the front door, he shoved screwdrivers into their ears to puncture their eardrums.
Captive Sandra Lindsay, an old friend of Heidnik’s, died of starvation, torture and a fever after Heidnik suspended her from the ceiling by her wrists for two days.
Thinking she was pregnant, his first reaction when he realised she was dead was: “Oh man, what a waste of a baby.”
Realising that dumping her body could throw suspicion on him, Heidnik dismembered her, boiled her head on the stove, roasted her ribcage and wrapped the rest of the limbs in sandwich bags and put them in the freezer.
He then started grinding up Sandra’s remains, mixing them with dog food – and feeding them to the girls in the cellar.
And Rivera’s ultimate escape, after tricking Heidnik into thinking she was actually on his side:
Amazingly, she managed to fool Heidnik into believing she was on his side. “Heidnik was lonely,” she says. “That’s the first thing I realised about him. That’s why he wanted all those babies.
“After convincing him I was on his side he gradually let me out of the chains and upstairs. He thought I was his partner – that’s how I escaped. I had no idea what I was doing. I just went by my instincts and prayed to God for guidance.”
After fleeing, Josefina alerted the police, saving the lives of the remaining captives Lisa Thomas, 19, Jacqueline Askins, 18 and Agnes Adams, 24.
Though the ensuing trial essentially ruined Rivera’s life a second time, pushing her back into drug addiction and dire financial straits, it would appear she’s back on track today—or, at least as on track as someone can be after surviving Gary Heidnik:
Now a 53-year-old grandmother of six and close to all her family, she has found peace at last living near the sea in Atlantic City. Last year, she married her long-term partner Chris Lyle, 51. “You don’t ever totally get over an experience like mine,” says Josefina. “You just have to learn to live with it.
As Weitz notes, however, Rivera still regularly must sleep with the lights on, and has a number of triggers coming from the ordeal that make her life difficult to live every day, even 27 years after it all ended. Heidnik was the last person executed in Pennsylvania back in 1999.
Rivera’s book, Cellar Girl, is out now.