true crime

Josefina escaped from the clutches of a killer. What she had to do to survive haunts her.

The history books have long told of violent, unspeakable atrocities against women. Back in the '70s and '80s, several serial killers unleashed horrific acts of abuse, claiming the lives of many innocent women.

But one of these murderers, Gary Heidnik was stopped thanks to the actions of a woman who risked her life to save herself and others from a terrible fate. But to save herself and others, Josefina Rivera had to see and do things so awful it's hard to believe they really happened.

While the tragic series of events around the killer known as 'The Bishop' (Heidnik had started his own church, fashioning himself as its leader) was widely covered in the media at the time, Josefina was recently spoken about how she made her escape from a depraved monster — an incredible tale which has now been documented in a recent episode of People Magazine Investigates: Surviving a Serial Killer.

Watch the trailer for People Magazine Investigates: Surviving a Serial Killer. Post continues below.

On November 26, 1986 Josefina Rivera was a 25-year-old mother-of-three who had been battling a drug addiction, and had been funding her habit through sex work. She had lost custody of her three children and was told that the only way she would have them returned to her care was if she had a stable financial income and living quarters. 

The only way Josefina knew how to make that happens was to continue undertaking sex work in order to bring in more money.

She had a rule for herself, though, when entertaining clients: she would never go home with them. But one, when a well-dressed man driving a nice car pulled up beside her on the street, Josefina decided to make an exception to her usual practice. 


The man driving the car was Gary Heidnik — and it was a decision that would change her life forever.

The pair drove to Heidnik's Philadelphia home, and once there, Josefina noticed his door had two locks, meaning that you couldn't open the door from the inside without having a key.

Despite this strange details, she followed him upstairs, where they had sex. As she was preparing to leave, Heidnik attacked Josefina, choking her and she struggled to fight back.

"If you stop struggling, I'm not going to keep choking you," she recalls him telling her. Hoping to save herself, Josefina stopped fighting. Heidnik handcuffed her and pushed her down a flight of stairs into what would soon become a basement of horrors.

It was there that Heidnik cuffed Josefina to a water pipe by her ankles and left her inside a hole he had dug in the ground. For three days, she was entombed, terrified and alone before Heidnik returned with his second victim — a woman named Sandra Lindsay, who had an intellectual disability.

One of the 'pits' Heidnik used to imprison his victims. Image: Philadelphia Police Department.


He had abducted the 24-year-old by offering to give her a lift as she walking to the store. He brought her down to his basement, shackled her by the feet and raped her while a terrified Josefina was forced to watch on.

On December 23, 1986 Heidnik brought his next victim, 19-year-old Lisa Thomas, into his basement cell. Then came 23-year-old Deborah Dudley and 18-year-old Jackie Askins. Over the following months, he kept these five women imprisoned in horrific conditions, beating, raping, torturing and starving them when he so chose, especially if they disobeyed his orders.

We now know that Heidnik — who had a long history of mental illness — had imprisoned the women with an intention to impregnate them and raise 'perfect' children away from the eyes of the outside world.


Things took a grave turn when Lindsay disobeyed her captor one day, and the brutal punishment he inflicted led to her death. 

As the days turned into weeks and months, the women began to form a bond. Over agonising hours they shared stories of their lives on the outside, but they also tried to devise a plan to attack Heidnik and escape. When they realised this would be futile as they were chained up, they let that plan go.

However, Josefina had been cooking up a plan of her own. She decided to try to earn Heidnik's trust — and that started with telling him the other captives were planning to attack him and escape, to the other women's horror. As punishment, he forced all the women except Josefina into the hole, filled it with water and electrocuted them, killing Deborah. He made Josefina help him.

"He made me torture the other girls," she said in the People documentary. "Never in my whole life did I think I was going to ever experience anything like that."

But her plan had worked — Heidnik had started to trust Josefina — and, she said, looking back, "there's nothing that I would've done different in that situation". 

"I wanted everybody to make it out. My whole intention was always to make sure I was somewhere safe, the girls were safe."

Come March 1987, Josefina had gained Heidnik's trust. One day, he removed her shackles, took her upstairs and had her go with him to get rid of Deborah's body. 


And though Heidnik's abuse of Josefina continued when they returned to the basement, he didn't force her back into the hole with the other women — something they noticed. "They thought I had joined his side," she said. "That he had converted me to a life of evil crime."

But it was all part of her plan to escape, and save the remaining victims. 

When he abducted his sixth victim, 24-year-old Agnes Adams, Hednik asked her to go with him. She agreed — but said she wanted to go and visit her family. He said yes. 

She convinced Heidnik to wait for her at a petrol station away while she walked down the street, made her way to a pay phone and called the authorities.

When police first arrived, a fearful Josefina explained her situation — a story so unbelievable they struggled to determine whether she was telling the truth. 

"If was crazy because the cops did not believe me."

After verifying her story by identifying the chafing and bruising on her legs from her restraints, police then apprehended Heidnik and took him into custody.

Gary Heidnik's mugshot. Image: Philadelphia Police Department.


Warrants were obtained and law enforcement made their way to Heidnik's home in order to survey the alleged crime scene. "Coming across this scene was something I'll never forget," said Officer Dave Savidge upon walking into Heidnik's basement for the first time.

Police freed the remaining victims, and made gruesome discoveries, removing body parts and boxes of investigative materials that would later go on to help convict Heidnik for his heinous crimes. 

On June 20, 1988, Heidnik's trial begin with his defence team insisting on an insanity plea in hopes of receiving a more lenient sentence. After the jury deliberated over the vast amounts of evidence against him, they found Heidnik guilty of first-degree murder, rape and kidnapping. He was sentenced to death and on July 6, 1999, was given a lethal injection and passed away at a facility in Pennsylvania.


While it has been well over 20 years since Heidnik's death, the horrors of what he did continue to haunt his surviving victims. Josefina had to go to a dark place in order to free her fellow prisoners, and made decisions to gain Heidnik's trust that left the other women with mixed feelings.

"I ain't gonna lie, I did have some hate for you," fellow survivor Jackie Askins told Josefina in the documentary Monster Preacher. "I blamed you for a lot of stuff that happened down there."

All the surviving women have told various publications over the years that they suffer intense flashbacks and trauma after their months living in that basement of horrors. However, Josefina says that she has since found peace.

"For a long time I was haunted by Heidnik, by the women who died next to me. But not any longer. I hope I can inspire other victims to feel positive about the future," she told The Mirror in 2014.

"It's not something I dwell on every day," Josefina said in the new People documentary. "But it's a part of me that I'm never going to forget."

Watch People Magazine Investigates: Surviving a Serial Killer — Surviving the Bishop's Basement here.

Feature image: People.