Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
He dismembered his victims and stored their limbs in containers labeled “dog food,” allegedly feeding their ground-up remains to those he hadn’t yet killed. When Philadelphia police arrested Gary Heidnik in 1987, they found a dismembered head in a stockpot of water on his stove—and three more women chained up in a basement prison pit, where he’d been torturing and raping them.
His crimes would later help inspire the “Buffalo Bill” character in the film Silence of the Lambs, a serial killer who would hold the women he captured in a pit, later murdering them and removing their skin.
Although Heidnik was the self-appointed pastor of a church he created called the United Church of the Ministers of God, he was the quintessence of evil—but someone had to defend it.
That’s where attorney Charles Peruto, Jr. came in. Ultimately, Peruto’s defense effort failed: Heidnik was convicted of two counts of murder, six counts of kidnapping, five counts of rape, and various other charges in 1988. Heidnik was killed by lethal injection in 1999.
A&E Real Crime spoke with Peruto about what it was like representing one of Philadelphia’s most heinous criminals.
Tell us a bit about your first impressions of Heidnik. What do you remember about your initial meetings with him?
In the beginning, he would skip major parts of what he did when I would try to bring out of him what went on at the house. And he would sweat profusely.
He skipped the part [about the dismembered head on his stove] and I jokingly said, ‘What kind of seasoning did you use?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Man, you’re crazy.’
His take on the case—his attitude towards the whole thing—was that he hadn’t even committed a crime.
All of his victims were Black women. Why?
He was trying to enslave 10 girls to have a baby with all of them, and he was going to create a perfect race. He believed that the races, eventually—hundreds of years from now—would all be mixed and there would only be one race. And that’s when we would find peace.
He believed [white people] should mix with Black people and vice versa so we could get closer to a perfect race. 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.
You used an insanity defense in Heidnik’s trial, which was ultimately unsuccessful with the jury. Looking back on it, do you believe Gary Heidnik was insane?
He didn’t meet the legal threshold for insanity, but he reached the clinical threshold. The more I got into it, the more I realized: This guy was really nuts.
He was severely schizophrenic. His mother was insane, his father was insane, his brother was insane.
[Heidnik] had an excuse for every evil thing he did. A perfectly logical excuse and a calm demeanor.
He also had an IQ of 148, which is genius level. How do you know he was insane, and not merely acting insane because he thought it was his best strategy for avoiding harsh punishment?
It would have been easy for me to conclude he was a manipulator, except there was one example that was really powerful [in contradicting that].
He’d gotten a two and a half to five-year sentence for a prior kidnapping. It was almost the same crime [as the ones he was later charged with], but they got him too early.
In Pennsylvania, you serve the bottom number, and then remain on parole until the top number—so two and a half years in jail, and two and a half on parole. And at his parole hearing, which was rather routine, he said he could not participate because the devil put a cookie in his throat. The parole officer said, ‘You’re not going to answer these simple questions? Mr. Heidnik, we’re not going to release you unless you answer these things.’ And he wrote ‘the devil put a cookie in my throat.’ So he was denied parole. And every six months, he came up for parole again. And he did the same thing for two and a half years. He could’ve been released from jail earlier by simply cooperating.
So you think he was truly insane. Did he also come across as intellectually gifted?
Very much so. He made $20,000 grow into $750,000 in the stock market. One of the people who testified against him was his stockbroker—the broker said he made all of his own calls. He called the shots and came up with these winning stocks.
For trial, you counseled Heidnik to look as crazy as possible. Why?
Well, any trained psychiatrist who works in the field would agree that for a lay jury to decide these [insanity] cases is dangerous. But if that’s who your audience is, if they look at the defendant and he doesn’t look the part, then they won’t accept the testimony. Psychiatrists were the ones who told me: a neatly trimmed beard, a Rolls Royce—a juror is not going to believe that’s insane.
I told him I didn’t want him to bathe for months. I didn’t want him to trim his beard whatsoever—I wanted his mustache growing into his mouth. And he did it.
Did he, at any point, express any remorse for his crimes?
What about fear around his own execution?
No. Which was another thing that pointed to clinical insanity. He didn’t fight the death penalty. He never appealed his conviction. Never. He was the one petitioning to be executed.
Did you attend the execution?
No. I was invited, which was morbid. The governor sent me a very formal invitation. But it was at like 5:30 in the morning, I recall. And it was pretty far away. So I didn’t go.