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 had his last meal – black coffee and two slices of cheese pizza – shortly before he was executed on July 6, 1999. Applause erupted and one witness shouted “Thank you, Jesus!” after Heidnik was pronounced dead, Penn Live reported.
Lomax said she still remembers every detail of the case against the man who kidnapped her sister, Sandra Lindsay, and five other black women and held them as sex slaves in his Philadelphia basement.
She remembers the pain of learning how he had kept them in a water-filled pit and abused them before killing Lindsay and one other victim. She will never forget the women’s vivid testimony of how Heidnik handcuffed a starving Lindsay to the rafters and taunted her.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, Heidnik remains the last man executed in Pennsylvania. That’s likely to be 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 should not be in the business of killing people. 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 attorney general.
“When my son asked me why it’s okay to kill someone as punishment for killing someone, I couldn’t look him in the eye and explain why.”
Lomax said she still has conflicted feelings about whether Heidnik should have been executed.
“I wanted him to spend some time in prison to see what it feels like to be incarcerated where no one could free him from his misery,” she told CNN.
But she also said that her healing journey only started after he died.
Nearly four decades after his heinous crimes, Heidnik remains part of pop culture.
Buffalo Bill, the serial killer in the 1991 psychological thriller Silence of the Lambs, was partially based on him. The metal band Macabre released a song about Heidnik entitled “Morbid Minister”.
Lomax said she has not seen “Silence of the Lambs.”
“No one wants to see a movie about their loved ones being held against their will,” Lomax told CNN. “I really wanted him to stay in prison. I wanted him to do time because I didn’t want him to be able to escape from the women he killed. Because I know they scared him. I know they came back to haunt him. His death was so much easier than the 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. He then overpowered them and chained them to a pit in his basement, often half-naked, while he fed them dog food and raped them repeatedly. He also subjected them to physical and psychological torture, including electric shocks and stabbing their ears with a screwdriver.
Before his capture, Heidnik lived a double life by masquerading as a bishop. He held services in the living room for a congregation that mostly consisted of mentally disabled people. When worshipers gathered in his home, they were unaware of the macabre violence unfolding 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 told her sister about day trips to an amusement park with Heidnik and a group of other youths. After these visits, he bought them hamburgers and fries at McDonald’s. She trusted him and joined others in the services at his home, Lomax said.
“He was like a hero to them,” Lomax said.
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 the time, it was a little 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 home with us .”
The day after Thanksgiving in 1986, Lindsay went to a store to buy pain medication. She never came home.
Desperate for answers, her family tracked down one of the friends who attended 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.
They also went to his home, where a neighbor confirmed seeing Lindsay. But Heidnik denied that she was there for both the family and the police.
After the family notified the police and they began asking questions, Heidnik had Lindsay write a Christmas card to her mother, telling her not to worry. Her family was unconvinced and kept pushing detectives to go back to the house, Lomax said.
Heidnik’s demented secret life was revealed after Rivera gained his trust and convinced him to let her leave the house for a short time. She fled and called the police. But by then 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 the media to label him the “House of Horrors” killer.
“Nobody knows what it’s like to have 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 difficult to read. But it was inevitable.”
Lomax said her sister’s death changed the lives of her family members forever, and many of them are still struggling with what happened. When the trial was over, 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. It is a closed chapter, she said. “But no one else in my family has had closure. They still get angry … my brothers did not attend the trial.”
Court records show that Heidnik maintained his innocence during the 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.
“It is the end of the death penalty in this state. “When you execute an innocent man, knowingly execute an innocent man, you know that there will no longer be the death penalty in this state and possibly anywhere else in this country,” he said, according to court records.
He wasn’t entirely wrong. In the decades since, the number of executions in the United States has fallen, along with public support for the death penalty. A Gallup poll from the 1990s revealed that 80% of Americans supported the death penalty for people convicted of murder. By 2022, this support had fallen to 55%.
Currently, 27 states authorize the death penalty, although 13 of them have not carried out an execution in a decade or more.
In 1999, the year Heidnik was executed, 98 people were killed in the United States. Last year, the state executed 18 people. In its latest report, the Death Penalty Information Center said 2022 was the eighth consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions.
Supporters of the death penalty believe murderers surrender their right to life when they kill others, a belief Shapiro said he has held in some cases.
But the Pennsylvania governor said his approach to the death penalty 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 to kill the attacker.
“It is hard to imagine a more heinous crime than murdering 11 people while they were praying,” he said in a statement.
Shapiro said speaking with 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 didn’t want the killer killed. He should spend the rest of his life in prison, they said, but the state shouldn’t take his life as punishment,” he said. “It touched me. ”
A last-minute appeal did not save Heidnik’s life. Decades later, questions remain about his sanity and motive.
Lomax said she relied on her faith for closure and decided Heidnik had stolen enough from her life.
“I wasn’t going to let him dictate how I was going to spend the rest of my life,” she said. “When he left this earth, that was it. Everything he did, hey – you take that with you. Because I’m not going to keep going back and forth about it. I will stay here and I will always celebrate my sister.”