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Cellar of Horror – Book Review

CellarofHorroAuthor: Ken Englade

Publisher:  St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 175 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY 10010

Copyright: 1988, ISBN: 0312929293

Cover: AP/Wide World Photos, Michael Gesinger/Graphistock

Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, December 18, 2014

Summary: The 1987 arrest, trial and conviction of serial killer Gary Heidnik. This book reads more like a newspaper article although the author does point out a few noteworthy highlights of the trial. Heidnik died by lethal injection on July 6, 1999.


Was Gary Heidnik insane?

A meaningless question. Anyone who kidnaps, imprisons, mutilates and murders another human being can pejoratively be called insane. The term however does nothing to explain the behavior. The real question is whether such a person really knows the impact and consequences of what they are doing. Despite the science of psychology and out reliance upon these experts to address the issue it impossible for anyone to get inside the head of another individual and determine the perspective that individual has on their behavior and actions. The only way an outsider can approach discerning the motivations behind the behavior and actions of another is to look at patterns of behavior. It is not the decisive approach, but it is the only approach we have. Juries are good at doing that. Ken Englade’s CELLAR OF HORROR provides a small window for the rest of us to make our own judgment about Gary Heidnik.

Through the first half of CELLAR OF HORROR, the author provides a sketchy though sufficiently enlightening history of the life of Gary Heidnik. Reading between the lines, we assume Heidnik took a wrong turn in his mental health sometime between the separation of his mother and father and his entry into the military in 1963. However, as we continue to read the history, we discover only one Gary Heidnik: one personality, one life that defies any effort at rationalizing some break in what it means to be a feeling human being. In other words, the only possible explanation for Gary Heidnik being what he was had to come from Gary Heidnik himself. That responsibility must, by necessity, imply sanity.

Englade does a very good job of presenting the facts and leaving the reader to judge.

During childhood, Heidnik suffered the usual abuse we have come to expect from those who cannot or will not adjust to the society around them. It is a familiar story. The motif running through the lives of serial killers like Hadden Clark (BORN EVIL, reviewed September 2003), or John Weber (DEADLY OBSESSIONS by Clifford Linedecker, reviewed March 1995) have this commonality of child abuse to some degree or another. Yet, some who have struggled through a childhood of abuse go on to rise above and beyond it. This points to the possibility—muted though still a possibility—that there is something within the human spirit that defines life. Life does not define spirit.  For people like Gary Heidnik, something in the spirit is missing. In reading of Heidnik’s life, we find no one event or circumstance eliciting a eureka moment of understanding and empathy. No moment of sympathy. Nothing that mitigates or absolves responsibility for the atrocious acts he committed. Heidnik emerges as an individual like any other individual. The difference is that he chose the pursuit of ego-satisfaction over the pursuit of social acceptance. Of course Gary Heidnik is not explained by the simple epitaph of ego no more than he could be explained calling him insane.

The litmus test for insanity in most jurisdictions is the M’Naghten Rule. The name comes from the 1843 case of Daniel M’Naghten. He shot and killed Edward Drummond while aiming for then British Prime Minister Robert Peel. The broad gist of the M’Naghten rule is that a person may be declared guilty but mentally unable to distinguish right from wrong. This entire discussion, as it relates to Gary Hednik, may be moot. Heidnik is dead. Twelve years after his trial for crimes defying rational explanation, he was put to death by lethal injections. His trial however is a legacy in itself. His sojourn through the American legal system as represented by the State of Pennsylvania is likewise a legacy in itself.

For roughly four months between November 1986 and March 1987, Heidnik kidnapped and imprisoned four young women in the basement of his house in the North Philadelphia neighborhood where he lived. Author Ken Englade provides a complete chronology of the crimes. Of course these kidnappings were not a first for Heidnik.

In 1978, Heidnik received a sentence of three to seven years in prison for kidnapping, rape, and false imprisonment, among other crimes. The judge in the case wanted to impose a greater sentence but was constrained by sentencing guidelines. Heidnik had taken a young retarded woman, the sister of the woman who bore him a son, from an institution for the mentally retarded. By the time he was released from prison in 1983, the woman with whom he had fathered a child and the woman herself had disappeared.

Heidnik’s military service is interesting because it foreshadowed almost everything that lead up to his arrest in March 1987. From November 1961 to January 1963, Heidnik served as a hospital corpsman, though his actual service ended in August 1962. It was in 1962 that he went to the doctor complaining of “dizzy spells, headaches, and blurred vision in his right eye”. According to Englade, a neurologist “noted that Heidnik seemed to exhibit symptoms of a mental illness: he was either schizoid or schizophrenic.”

Stepping through Heidnik’s time in the military, Englade notes that upon entering boot-camp, Heidnik wanted to be a military policeman. He was too young. The author points out later that one of the doctors who examined Heidnik noted that he had a desire for authority over others. His stint in the military also brought out his entrepreneurial spirt. He apparently was something of a loan-shark. When he surrendered his life to psychologists in August 1962, he had pretty much set the pattern for the rest of his life: checking himself into mental institutions and summarily checking himself out; going into a catatonic state in which he refused to speak; using his sanctioned disability to excuse his behavior.

Heidnik was honorably discharged from the military with what turned into a one-hundred percent mental disability. From Englade’s presentation, there is certainly room for questioning Heidnik’s mental condition. Psychotic, anti-social, insane. He definitely had a mental problem. Having an IQ in the genius range (130), amassing a small fortune in stocks of nearly a million dollars, incorporating a church in the State of Pennsylvania in which he was Bishop, and his ability to navigate legal and medical bureaucracies says a lot about his mental acumen—psychotic or not psychotic.

Englade tells us that Heidnik attempted suicide thirteen times between the time he was discharged from the army and the time he was charged with kidnapping and murder. Every event in Heidnik’s life between this period points to a very disturbed individual. It could be argued that by the time Heidnik locked his first victim, Josefina Rivera, in his basement with the intent of producing a house full of children, his mind had become so distorted by the laser focus of his ego that his mind was his world. Did he know that his world was not the real world?

This is the M’Naghten question which the jury answered by saying that yes, Heidnik knew exactly what he was doing. Asking why Heidnik committed the crimes he committed is the wrong question. The real question is why he was committed to the life he lived?  The short answer is because he could. And therein lies the distinction between mental illness and human evil. A mentally ill person lives in an exclusionary world in which no one gains admittance.  Their world is not a world of choices but of imperatives. The spiritually misshapen, ill-willed, evil person not only makes choices, they seek others to make the same choices.

At his trial, the judge limited the amount of evidence Heidnik’s defense was allowed to present pertaining to his mental state. From his time in the army to the trial, Heidnik was diagnosed with various mental illnesses—having a schizoid personality disorder being the most persistent. Judge Lynne Abraham however seemed to go out of her way to preclude any evidence showing that Heidnik had a long term mental problem. Englade notes this. In touching upon highlights in the trial, Englade exposes the underlying rationale of the judge and her rulings. It crystalizes when the defense attorney asks the judge to dismiss homicide as the cause of death of one of the victims. The judge flatly refused. It was a decision to be made by the jury.

CELLAR OF HORROR is good, factual reporting.

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