Tracey Lomax watched from the viewing room of a state prison in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, as her sister’s killer received a lethal injection.
Convicted murderer Gary Heidnik had received his last meal – black coffee and two slices of cheese pizza – shortly before he was executed on July 6, 1999. Applause broke out and one witness shouted “Thank you, Jesus!” after Heidnik was declared dead, Penn Live reported.
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.
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.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, Heidnik remains the last man to be executed in Pennsylvania. That will likely hold true for a while – last month, Gov. Josh Shapiro said he won’t allow the state to execute any inmates during his term, regardless of their crime.
He also urged state lawmakers to repeal the death penalty, joining a growing number of state leaders making similar calls.
“The commonwealth shouldn’t be in the business of putting people to death. Period,” said Shapiro, a former prosecutor.
Shapiro added that he used to believe the death penalty was a just punishment for the most heinous crimes but changed his views after becoming the state’s attorney general.
“When my son asked me why it’s OK to kill someone as a punishment for killing someone, I couldn’t look him in the eye and explain why.”
Lomax said she still has conflicting emotions about whether Heidnik should have been executed.
“I wanted him to spend some time incarcerated to see how it feels being imprisoned where no one could release him from his misery,” she told CNN.
But she also said her healing journey only started after he was dead.
He preyed on disabled and vulnerable women
Nearly four decades after his grisly crimes, Heidnik remains a part of pop culture.
Buffalo Bill, the serial killer in the 1991 psychological thriller “Silence of the Lambs,” was partly based on him. Metal band Macabre released a song about Heidnik titled, “Morbid Minister.”
Lomax said she hasn’t seen “Silence of the Lambs.”
“Nobody wants to watch a movie about their loved one being held against their will,” Lomax told CNN. “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).”
The details are almost too gruesome to bear. Between late 1986 and March 1987, Heidnik kidnapped Lindsay and five other women: Josefina Rivera, Lisa Thomas, Jacqueline Askins, Agnes Adams and Deborah Dudley. Lindsay and Dudley died in captivity.
He lured the women to his home with promises of money in exchange for sex, according to news reports. Then he overpowered them and chained them to a pit in his basement, often half naked, while feeding them dog food and raping them repeatedly. He also subjected them to physical and mental torture, including electric shocks and stabbing them in their ears with a screwdriver.
Before his capture, Heidnik lived a double life by masquerading as a bishop. He held services in his living room for a congregation that was mostly comprised of mentally challenged people. As the worshipers gathered in his home, they were unaware of the macabre violence playing out in the basement below, Lomax said.
Lindsay was 25 at the time and mentally disabled, Lomax said. Heidnik, she said, preyed on her vulnerability and desire to be accepted.
In their shared room, Lindsay would tell her sister about daytime trips to an amusement park with Heidnik and a group of other young people. After those visits, he would buy them burgers and fries at McDonald’s. She trusted him and joined others for the church services at his house, Lomax said.
“He was like a hero to them,” Lomax said.
Her sister went to the store one day and never returned home
That soon changed. One of the people who attended services at Heidnik’s home later told Lomax’s family that he had imprisoned a woman in his basement.
“At that time, it was kind of far-fetched. We heard it, but we didn’t act on it,” Lomax said. “I’m not going to say it was hard to believe, but it just didn’t apply to us at the time because my sister was at home with us.”
The day after Thanksgiving in 1986, Lindsay went to a store to buy some pain medication. She never returned home.
Desperate for answers, her family tracked down one of the friends who attended church services with Lindsay and got Heidnik’s number. They called him repeatedly to ask if she was at his house, Lomax said, but he hung up on them.
They also went to his home, where a neighbor confirmed seeing Lindsay. But Heidnik denied she was there to both the family and the police.
After the family notified the police and they started asking questions, Heidnik made Lindsay write a Christmas card to her mother telling her not to worry. Her family was not convinced and kept pushing detectives to go back to the house, Lomax said.
Heidnik’s demented secret life was exposed after Rivera gained his trust and convinced him to let her leave the house briefly. She fled and called police. But by that time, it was too late – Lindsay and Dudley were dead.
Lindsay’s dismembered body was found in Heidnik’s home on the day Lomax turned 21. She spent her birthday at the police station, talking to investigators about her sister.
But her nightmare wasn’t over.
During Heidnik’s trial, disturbing details emerged about the women’s ordeal while in captivity, leading media outlets to label him the “House of Horrors” killer.
“No one knows what it’s like to get a descriptive, detailed way of how someone you love died,” Lomax said. “A lot of people don’t get a description of how someone died in hospital. But for us, it was in the news every day. It was very hard to read. But it was unavoidable.”
Decades later, her family still struggles for answers
Lomax said the death of her sister changed the lives of her family members forever and that many of them are still grappling with what happened. Once the trial ended, she decided to put the ugly details behind her.
“After it was over, I made a statement to the press that from now on, I would celebrate how my sister lived and not how she died. That’s a chapter closed,” she said. “But no one else in my family has received closure. They still get angry … my brothers didn’t attend the trial.”
Court records show Heidnik maintained his innocence during his trial and issued a warning about what could happen if he was found guilty. He claimed that putting him to death would signal the end of executions in Pennsylvania.
“That is the end of capital punishment in this state. When you execute an innocent man, knowingly execute an innocent man, you know there will be no more capital punishment in this state and possibly anywhere else in this country,” he said, according to court records.
He was not entirely wrong. In the decades since, the rate of executions in the US has dropped, along with public support for the death penalty. A 1990s Gallup poll revealed that 80% of Americans supported the death penalty for people convicted of murder. By 2022, that support had dropped to 55%.
Currently, 27 states authorize the death penalty, although 13 of them haven’t carried out an execution in a decade or more.
In 1999, the year Heidnik was executed, 98 people were put to death in the US. Last year, states executed 18 people. In its latest report, the Death Penalty Information Center said 2022 was the eighth consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions.
Death penalty supporters believe murderers relinquish their right to life when they kill others, a belief Shapiro said he has had in some cases.
But the Pennsylvania governor said his approach to capital punishment has evolved.
He cited the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were gunned down in the deadliest attack on Jews in US history. Shapiro’s first reaction, he said, was that the attacker should be put to death.
“It’s hard to imagine a more heinous crime than murdering 11 people as they pray,” he said in a statement.
Shapiro said talking to members of the Tree of Life community played a key role in his decision.
“They told me, that even after all the pain and anguish, they did not want the killer put to death. He should spend the rest of his life in prison, they said, but the state should not take his life as punishment,” he said. “That moved me.”
A last-minute appeal failed to spare Heidnik’s life. Decades later, questions remain about his sanity and motive.
Lomax said she relied on her faith for closure and decided that Heidnik had stolen enough from her life.
“I was not going to let him dictate how I was going to spend the rest of my life,” she said. “Once he left this earth, that was it. Everything that he did, hey – you take that with you. 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.”