Thursday, April 26, 2012

Inquirer: U.S. vs. the world in education reform

Last week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the nation’s most expansive school voucher program into law. Since the GOP sweep of statehouses in 2010, similar measures have been introduced by the legislatures of more than 30 states — including Pennsylvania, where a bipartisan school voucher bill was defeated in the House in December.

Few doubt that there is a crisis in America’s public schools. But focusing so much attention on where money is spent — instead of how — oversimplifies a complex problem.

Real reform will require replacing our top-down system focused on arbitrary benchmarks and administrative minutiae with one that places a highly skilled class of teachers at the vanguard. We know this because it’s a long-standing recipe for success in the countries that consistently out-educate us.

A stubborn faith in American exceptionalism — and in the ability of money to solve every problem — has left us mired in industrial-age education policy. Meanwhile, countries such as Estonia, Slovenia, Singapore, and China have bounded ahead. If U.S. officials took notice, they chose to remain silent.

Fortunately, that’s beginning to change. In 2010, at the behest of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a study detailing the strategies of the countries that ranked highest in its educational assessments. Last fall, the National Center on Education and the Economy updated the findings to develop a series of recommendations for U.S. policymakers.

A glance reveals a handful of tried-and-true strategies, most diametrically opposed to America’s. They include diverting resources to students who need them most, putting less emphasis on class sizes and more on teacher autonomy, and keeping standardized testing to a minimum. Continue reading at

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

One From The Stacks: Burning Chrome

My copy of "Burning Chrome" by William Gibson
The future has already arrived. It's just not evenly distributed yet.” - William Gibson

I reserve one shelf of my library for books whose age or condition makes them unsuitable for gen pop. Most of these volumes – which include such gems as a Partisan Review from 1952 (featuring the Camus essay “Art and Revolt”), a tattered Hillman paperback of Cheever stories from 1961, and the original catalogue from a 1953 show of Fauvist art at MoMa – are preserved in plastic report folders with a single black snap. It's a lame strategy, I know; and if it's worked at all it's only because in their sequestered state they are rarely toyed with. A few of these books, however, boil with such literary and/or historic intensity that they demand the occasional fondling (you know the type). William Gibson's story collection “Burning Chrome” is one of them.

Published in 1987, the copy of the Ace Books paperback version of Burning Chrome in my possession is not especially old; but time has not been good to it. The binding is cracked and the metallic silver of the original cover is partially gone, bent and abraded to a soft pulpy white from repeated readings at subway stops, cafes and bars (my three favorite reading haunts). The pages are all intact and they smell like old binding glue and cigarette smoke.

I say “in my possession” because my copy of Burning Chrome does not technically belong to me; as such it stands as a testament to one of my most enduring book rules: Never lend out a volume that you are not willing to lose. (The person who lost this one is an old bandmate and cyberpunk enthusiast who I haven't seen in nearly a decade).
What the book should look like

There are a number of writers who can rightly be called prescient: Aldous Huxley comes to mind, certainly Jules Verne and Orwell would count themselves in such a group. But for those of a certain age, William Gibson is unique; by the time I read “1984” the book was nearly four decades old; Madonna topped the music charts and George Bush the elder was in the White House. Sure, Big Brother had made it into our lexicon, but he wasn't staring down at us from a “telescreen.” And while I remember (barely) “Brave New World” as a jarring and tantalizing read (all that implied sex, you know), life in Huxley's totalitarian World State seemed too far-fetched to be anything but pure dystopian fantasy.

For readers from my generation,William Gibson stands above them all for drawing us a topographical map to our future. Gibson conjured up images of an fully connected, globalized world -- and all the things that could go wrong in such a world -- before most people had ever seen a personal computer and cell phones were the size of shoe boxes.

Gibson's stories are hardboiled affairs bubbling with what Bruce Sterling called a combination of “low life and high tech.” By the time the title story, “Burning Chrome,” appeared in Omni magazine in July 1982, Gibson had already conceived of the Matrix, prophesied the rise of hacker culture, and was sending his own “console cowboys” into cyberspace (a term he coined, by the way) to snatch booty from rival zaibatsus and ethereal crime syndicates. (All this a month before the first Commodore 64s hit stores).
“Bobby was a cowboy. Bobby was a cracksman, a burglar, casing mankind’s extended electronic nervous system, rustling data and credit in the crowded matrix, monochrome nonspace where the only stars are dense concentrations of information, and high above it all bum corporate galaxies and the cold spiral arms of military systems. Bobby was another one of those young-old faces you see drinking in the Gentleman Loser, the chic bar for computer cowboys, rustlers, cybernetic second-story men. We were partners.” 
Burning Chrome contains Gibson's first published story: Fragments of a Hologram Rose – which was written as an assignment for a science fiction class he took at University of British Columbia in 1977 (the same year that Tandy introduced the world's first PC, the TRS-80 Model 1.)
Tandy TRS-80 circa 1977

In Fragments, Gibson paints his archetypical protagonist – the disenchanted nihilist-cum-samurai seeking purity is a diseased world. In this case it's the lovelorn Parker who subsists on a diet of cigarettes, coffee and Apparent Sensory Perception against a backdrop of shantytowns, illegal immigrants, indentured servitude, shadow corporations and unending brownouts known as the “Sprawl.” This toxic megapolis turns up in a number of Gibson's stories; and three of his novels – "Neuromancer" (1984, the first ever novel to win the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick Awards), "Count Zero" (1986), and "Mona Lisa Overdrive" (1988) – are known collectively as the Sprawl Trilogy (none of which I own).

Universally recognized as the father of cyberpunk and for making hacking cool at a time when most hackers couldn't get a date to the prom, Gibson tackles not only the soul-sucking tendencies of technology, but the alienating inequity of globalization and the ascendency of multinational corporations as unfeeling empires feeding wanton profit-lust.

His prose is often juiced with an acetic rhythm and slick vernacular that recalls the Beats – who were an early influence – and 1940s-era dime-store pulp fiction: Sam Spade meets Blade Runner with some William Burroughs thrown in for good measure.
“I took you to Barcelona a week before I took you to Vienna. I remember you with your hair tucked back into a gray beret, your high Mongol cheekbones reflected in the windows of ancient shops. Strolling down the Ramblas to the Phoenician harbor, past the glass-roofed Mercado selling oranges out of Africa. The old Ritz, warm in our room, dark, with all the soft weight of Europe pulled over us like a quilt. I could enter you in your sleep. You were always ready.” – New Rose Hotel.
In his preface to the Ace paperback edition, Sterling opines: “If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, science-fiction writers are its court jesters. We are Wise Fools who can leap, caper, utter prophesies, and scratch ourselves in public.”

Gibson did all of those things (although I'm not entirely certain about the scratching part). And while we may not have drug-addled dolphin warriors, virtual reality “sistim” addicts or a sleep-inducing ASP machine yet, Gibson got it right enough for me. His foresight and creativity places him among a select few writers who are ahead of their time, and yet will never be outdated (unlike my sad sorry copy of "Burning Chrome.")


Burning Chrome (paperback)
By William Gibson
Published by Ace Books (1987)
Originally published: Arbor House (1986)
Introduction by Bruce Sterling
Purchase date/price: N/A Borrowed from bandmate sometime in the late 1990s
Condition: poor (significant cover damage, pages ok)

About this project

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Victims of Pinochet

Los nombres de los Desaparecidos, Villa Grimaldi, Santiago, Chile (2012)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Nightmare on Marshall Street

Twenty five years after convicted murderer Gary Heidnik set out to father an extended family in his North Philadelphia basement, the author revisits his own link to Philadelphia’s most notorious crime.

Kinetoscope Trailer from 1990 interviews with Josefina Rivera

Sometime in the late summer or early fall of 1986, Gary Michael Heidnik, a 43-year-old self-ordained minister and some-time stock trader, descended the basement steps of his North Philadelphia home and began digging a four-foot deep hole in the hard earth floor.

Over the next nine months the hole would grow ― ultimately becoming home to six partially clad women, only four of whom would live to one day stumble back up the basement steps.

So began Gary Heidnik’s spectacular run as Philadelphia’s most reviled celebrity. Long before Hannibal Lecter enjoyed fava beans and Chianti, Heidnik was stockpiling a freezer full of human body parts in his Fanklinville house. For those of us coming of age in the city during the late 1980s, the entire spectacle offered a chilling backdrop to our formative years.

When the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania executed Heidnik by lethal injection on the night of July 6, 1999, after feeding him a last meal of pizza and black coffee, Philadelphia closed the book on one of the most notorious chapters of its criminal history. Some people might call that closure.

But scratch just a bit below the surface and one wonders if, in the end, the sensationalism of Heidnik’s crimes and the urgency of closing a horrendous case didn’t serve to distort ― or at least simplify ― the story of what really happened inside 3520 N. Marshall Street in the winter of 1986-87. 

Never fully resolved are questions regarding the actions of the first woman taken captive, a young prostitute named Josefina “Nicole” Rivera, who after four months as Heidnik’s prisoner managed to escape and notify police. Newspaper accounts of the day describe her as “courageous” and recount her dramatic flight from her deranged captor. But they make little mention of the persistent allegations of the other survivors that as days and weeks passed in the Marshall Street basement, Heidnik’s “senior” captive began to emerge as a key player in the events unfolding there.

Gary M. Heidnik, Philadelphia Police mugshot
Throughout the preliminary hearing and trial, the other three victims leveled one accusation after another charging Rivera with aiding Heidnik despite what they said were several earlier opportunities to run away and get help. Even the accounts of her eventual escape are contradictory and incomplete.

Yet despite these facts, the state chose Rivera as its star witness against Gary Heidnik, overlooking evidence that could have potentially implicated her as a co-conspirator. It's not hard to see why: Heidnik’s penchant for victimizing the mentally disabled meant that trial testimony from his victims would be shaky at best; his defense team, led by Philadelphia super lawyer A. Charles Peruto Jr., would tear them apart on the stand.

But Rivera presented something different. Educated, savvy and well spoken, she had just the right combination of cunning and credibility to ensure Heidnik a trip to the execution chamber. And in the end, that’s just what she did.

As a 20-something sophomore at Temple University, my own involvement with the case began shortly after Heidnik’s trial when I joined my father and a filmmaker friend in purchasing Josefina Rivera’s story with the intention of turning the whole lurid affair into a movie. While that project never managed to coalesce, throughout the process our little group began to suspect that the complexities of trying such a sensational case had led prosecutors to minimize Rivera’s role by any means necessary ― including, as it turns out, at least one allegation of witness tampering.

Like so many other Philadelphia natives, the Heidnik case still haunts me. But at the heart of my unease is a gnawing sense that key parts of the story were never fully explored, and important questions never answered (although Brian Hickey does a pretty good job in his 2002 Philadelphia Weekly story “Return to the House of Horrors”).

This year marks 25 years since Heidnik's arrest and trial, an anniversary the Philadelphia Daily News chose to commemorate with a boilerplate profile of Rivera that, sadly, failed to shed any new light on these enduring questions (despite it being reported by a superb Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter).

Reading the piece brought back a rush of memories about meeting with Rivera, and the hours of videotaped interviews that have spent the last 15 years sitting at the bottom of my bedroom closet. The last time I dug into them, in 2006, I spent two months reporting the case for a graduate course in journalism. I decided this was a good a time to dig out those tapes -- and the box of press clippings, trial transcripts and assorted notes where they are stored -- and offer what I consider to be a more comprehensive version of the events.

I knew from the beginning that the only way out was through Heidnik’s heart. I had to gain his trust.”
- Josefina Rivera

The Court: You have advised her [Josefina Rivera] to testify?
Mr. Grimes (Rivera's attorney): Yes.
Mr. Peruto: Let the record reflect I have several witnesses that could place her at different scenes that may make her a co-conspirator in this case.
- Commonwealth vs. Gary Heidnik, Preliminary Hearing, April 23, 1987

On Thursday March 26, 1987, the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer screamed the headline: “Horror in Franklinville: Captives Found in Chains.”

Police search Gary Heidnik's basement in 1987
Inside a house on the 3500 block of North Marshall Street, police found three women chained together in a makeshift basement dungeon. Even more chilling, during a subsequent search of the house, medical examiners found frozen limbs inside a freezer in the kitchen and charred human remains simmering in a pot on the stove. Investigators arrested the home’s owner, Gary Heidnik, a former nurse and ex-con with a history of mental illness. As details began to surface, Heidnik would prove to be an enticing catch.

This was not Heidnik’s first run-in with the law; and a review of his history reveals that the path leading to Heidnik's basement is one he had been paving for quite some time. 

In the early 1970s, he had begun frequenting the Elwyn Institute for the mentally retarded in West Philadelphia, using the area as a sort of base of operations for cruising disabled women whom he thought made easy targets for sexual exploitation.

In 1971 he formed his own church, the “United Church of the Ministries of God”, naming himself bishop. Over the next seven years he would continue to exhibit strange and disturbing behavior ― he maintained a scrubby appearance, often wearing the same clothes for days in a row, and was said to emit a foul odor. During that time, while collecting disability from the U.S. Army, he would also manage to parlay a $35,000 stock investment into $500,000, evidence of a sharp intellect behind the madman's veneer.

The windfall granted him the leisure to pursue his bizarre mission: to serve as father-god to his own harem of wives and children.

In 1978, Heidnik was arrested after authorities found his then-girlfriend’s mentally disabled sister chained in his basement. The institution where she lived had alerted authorities after the woman failed to return from a visit with her sister and Heidnik. He would spend just over four years in jail for the crime. Upon his parole in 1982, he bought his final home ― on Marshall Street in North Philadelphia.


Throughout the spring of 1987, as the investigation of Heidnik unfolded, it became apparent to police that they were dealing with a deeply disturbed human being. From interviews with the survivors, a picture would begin to emerge of the nightmarish events that occurred in Heidnik’s home in the weeks following Thanksgiving 1986. Over the next several months, the victims would tell harrowing tales of beatings, rape, torture and ultimately murder.

Reading through the trial transcripts, a picture emerges of life in Heidnik’s basement, which by New Years Day, 1987, was becoming increasingly crowded with captive women, prompting Heidnik to expand his hole. Most of the women maintained street personas, and names tend to shift and morph depending upon context and who is speaking. There was Agnes Adams, also called “Vicky”; Jacqueline Askins, known as “Donna”; and “Nicole”, Josefina Rivera’s own alter ego.

Within a short period of time, a strange hierarchy began to develop in the basement as Heidnik placed Rivera in charge of the other girls.

“Since I was the first, I had seniority over the everyone else,” Rivera recalled. It was a responsibility her co-captives insisted she accepted with some relish.

Lisa Thomas
Directly under her was Lisa Thomas ― Heidnik's third abductee, taken three days before Christmas ― but Rivera admits that it was her duty to tell him when the other girls misbehaved, which she says she did “on a couple of occasions” after which the offenders were punished with beatings, torture and starvation.

For the other women in the basement, Rivera soon became an object of fear. The senior member in charge ― Gary’s eyes and ears ― on a whim she could bring his wrath.

“Gary would ask Nicole should he do this, should he do that, and she would tell him yes,” Thomas testified at the preliminary hearing.

In a moment of creativity, according to Thomas, Nicole even invented a new form of torment ― electrocution ― showing Heidnik how, by placing electrical cables on the women’s chains, he could make them writhe and jump.

“She would tell us that she’s gonna put water in the hole,” Thomas explained, “and while she’s doing that, she was laughing and she was putting the wires in the hole with the water.”

Rivera vehemently denies that she instructed Heidnik in electrocution torture. “I’m just not that inquisitive about electricity and stuff,” she said. Yet by her own admission, she was never a victim of this particular abuse.

Abduction turns to murder

Heidnik’s hole was home to five women when, on February 7, 1986, after spending at least 24 hours on “punishment” suspended by a single handcuffed arm from a pipe in Heidnik’s basement, 25 year-old Sandra Lindsay died of apparent asphyxiation. Lindsay was the second woman taken captive ― within ten days of Rivera ― and was mentally disabled. To dispose of the body, Heidnik dragged Lindsay upstairs, dismembered her, and began methodically cooking her body parts in his oven. According to Rivera, the body was later ground up and fed to the other women mixed with dog food. Rivera, however, insists she was never forced to eat the concoction.

As time passed, a strange relationship was beginning to materialize between Gary Heidnik and his senior captive ― one that, in the end, would prove to be his undoing. Experts have a name for what may have been happening: they call it Stockholm Syndrome. The term refers to events surrounding a 1973 failed bank robbery in Sweden during which several hostages perplexed investigators by exhibiting support and even sympathy for their captors. Over the course of five days, strapped with dynamite and under the constant threat of death, the hostages ― three women and one man ― established an emotional bond with the robbers that, in at least one case, continued as friendship even after the ordeal was over.

Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and expert on Stockholm Syndrome, says that this kind of bonding between abductees and their captors is a common theme in social psychology. “In the final analysis, emotionally bonding with an abuser is actually a strategy for survival for victims of abuse and intimidation,” Carver writes.

But the other women would dispute this assessment: they insisted Rivera ― or rather Nicole ― enjoyed what she was doing, and passed up several opportunities to escape and retrieve help.

Agnes Adams
Agnes Adams, the last woman taken captive, told the court that Rivera could have left the house any time she wished and even had a key to the backdoor. Whether Adams was present in the basement long enough to formulate such an opinion notwithstanding (Adams spent less than 24 hours as a captive before being rescued), Rivera herself testified that she left the house with Heidnik on numerous occasions, and in at least one case drove Heidnik’s Cadillac to a body shop while he drove ahead of her in his Rolls Royce. When Peruto brought this fact up at the preliminary hearing, wondering aloud why Rivera didn’t simply drive away, she said she feared for the safety of the other women. Rivera told the Daily News' Barbara Laker much the same thing.
“There wasn't an opportunity for me to run,” she said. “If I had done that, he would have killed the other girls. He wasn't gonna leave nothing for anyone to find.”
During her last month with Heidnik, court records show that Rivera traveled with him regularly to run errands. It’s a fact she doesn’t dispute. “We went to a restaurant, we went to a record shop, and we drove all over the Pine Barrens looking for a place to dump Deborah Dudley’s body,” Rivera told us in 1990. “We did a lot of things.”

I don’t know who’s gonna die here, but I’m not gonna die here.”
- Josefina Rivera

Q: Whose idea was it to give the girls electric shocks?
A: It was Nicole’s.
- Testimony of Lisa Thomas

For more than 10 years the tapes sat in my closet.

Periodically, while rifling through a stack of long-outgrown blue jeans or launching some valiant attempt at forcing a little organizational structure into my fragmented life, the small silver Maxell boxes would reappear, representing something mysterious and, frankly, discomfiting.

I didn’t even have a VCR.

The floor model I finally bought at the local Sears didn’t come with a box, so I carried it to my car wrapped in a plastic trash bag. Later that night, I’m sitting on my bed holding the box marked “Josefina: 1-2” in my hands. With trepidation I place the tape in the machine. For a moment, I’m staring at a black screen, wondering if something isn’t wrong with the VCR or if perhaps a decade at the bottom of a musty closet might have detrimental effects on videotapes.

And then she appears.

She sits before a light gray backdrop. Her skin is the color of bronze and her dark eyes dance nervously across the camera lens as she waits for the interview to begin. She is visibly worn beyond her 29 years, with dark troubled eyes and the reluctant smile of someone who is used to getting over. Rivera was just 25 years-old when Heidnik abducted her and the trauma of her captivity, compounded by years of street life, have etched an element of sadness into her face. And yet the sadness is framed by an unmistakable trace of self-confidence. She wears a homemade cross around her left wrist, but other than that, the halter-top she is wearing makes her appear naked before the camera.

While the story she tells follows closely her testimony at trial, the tapes themselves reveal much about the woman in them. Rivera is simultaneously headstrong and coy, vaguely comfortable in her role before the camera, keenly aware that gestures, smiles and turns of phrase carry a power all their own. If she wasn’t born an actress, she learned to become one, to easily switch between personas when her life depended on it. It's a gift that ultimately saved her from Heidnik's basement: As Nicole, she could live, survive, make it out someday. As Josefina, she was surely doomed.

The birth of Nicole

Josefina Rivera was born and raised just miles from the Marshall Street house where Gary Heidnik would years later hold her captive. An intelligent girl from a working-class family, Rivera recalls a pleasant childhood. Raised by foster parents, she exhibited early on the gift of adaptability necessary for survival in her hard-scrabble Fairmount neighborhood ― today largely gentrified, but at the time a marginal barrio of hard-working, lower-income Latino families mixed with working-class Whites. “My parents were strict,” she remembers, “but we never wanted for anything. They were good foster parents.”

Josefina Rivera
By 1970, when Rivera was nine years old, urban flight, spearheaded by the rapid dissolution of the city’s industrial base, was changing the face of many of Philadelphia’s working-class neighborhoods. Anyone who could afford it moved to the suburbs or the Northeast, leading to increased crime and drugs in places like Fairmount. By 1985, “urban renewal” would push Latinos out of the neighborhood, further up Broad Street into North Philadelphia.

At a young age Rivera learned that a dichotomy existed between the aspirations she was taught to pursue in school and those more immediate goals presented by the streets. She attended John W. Hallahan High School, a Catholic girls’ school in North Philadelphia, and by her telling was a capable student. In fact, on meeting her one is struck by the eloquence with which she speaks and her seemingly innate comprehension of human nature. But the lure of the street was simply too strong to ignore. By the time she was 18, Rivera had moved out of her home and had her first daughter. As Rivera made the transition from girl to woman, what emerged was a street-savvy, fast-talking yet intelligent woman ― a survivor.  Nicole emerged.

On tape, she is noticeably reluctant to talk about her past, and only after being pressed does she offer a glimpse: how she started Go-Go dancing and, after her eldest daughter was taken by her biological father, descended into a life of “hustling.”

“I did it for me and my kids,” she explains.


Just one more thing, I can’t understand how this woman has no deal whatsoever.” 
- A. Charles Peruto, Preliminary Hearing, April 23, 1987

Gary Heidnik was a lot of things, but he was not a serial killer. In fact, to kill the women he kept represented the antithesis of his mission ― to procreate as much as possible, creating an ever-growing family of wives and children in the process. As demented as it was, his was a mission of creation, not destruction. Describing his motives, Rivera testified: “He thought as though society deprived him of a family and he wanted to have a family and children.”

As he was chaining her to a pipe in his basement, Rivera told us, “He kept talking about why he was doing this, like his reason, that they had taken his kids from him.”

He told the other women the same thing. “Gary wanted ten girls, he said, and he wanted as many babies as possible before he died,” Jacqueline Askins, the second-to-last woman taken hostage, told a reporter in 1987.

In Heidnik’s mind, the women he kept were under his care. And while no one would argue that he was adept in his nurturing, the fact that his overall plan necessitated keeping his “wives” alive is indisputable. Heidnik was essentially a pragmatist. His methods were crude, but he doesn’t appear to have gotten any particular enjoyment out of abusing the women beyond the very direct results of solidifying his control over them. He wasn’t even particularly good at it. And this was one of the first weaknesses that Rivera, in her final transition into Nicole, and freedom, was able to exploit. 


Q: Did Josefina Rivera ever strike you?
A: Yes.
Q: Did she strike you when Gary wasn’t around?
A: Yes. And then while he was there she struck me.
Q: When she struck you when Gary was not around, was she doing it just to pretend?
A: No. She enjoyed it.
- Testimony of Lisa Thomas

“Deborah Dudley’s death is what got everyone free.”
- Josefina Rivera

A month and ten days after the death of Sandra Lindsay, Heidnik would once again find himself disposing of a body ― this time of 23 year-old Deborah Dudley, the fourth woman he kidnapped.

While accounts of Dudley’s death are fragmented, several facts are clear: As punishment for some infraction, Askins, Thomas and Dudley were placed in the water-filled hole, which was then covered with a board. Heidnik, with Rivera’s help, began applying electrical wires to a common chain connecting the women, sending a shock through them all. According to Rivera, Dudley, who was in the middle, was getting the brunt of the current.

In her court testimony, Rivera says, “He told me to come over and hold the wire to Deborah’s chain and I held the wire there. And then I took the wire off.”

On video, she describes what happened next. “You could hear Debbie hollering and screaming and then she just stopped,” Rivera recalls. “Heidnik thought there was something wrong with the cord, so he went upstairs to find another one. Then Donna [Askins] started saying that Debbie was dead, that she was face down in the water so when Heidnik came back down, I told him he’d better check on Debbie.”

Speaking to us in 1990, Rivera offered her theory of why things ended so badly for Dudley. “When Deborah Dudley came, she was arrogant, she was loud, determined to do things her way. Nobody liked her,” she said, adding bluntly: “She was one of those people that’s just a pain in the ass. There’s one in every crowd.”
Heidnik in custody, 1987

By helping Heidnik with the torture and murder of Dudley, Rivera gained enough of his trust to begin laying the path to her eventual escape. She says it was only after Dudley’s death that her chains first came off ― after Heidnik made her sign a letter confessing her role in the murder and subsequent disposal of the body. Other witnesses have testified that they saw Rivera on the street before that. But regardless of exactly when Rivera’s chains came off, she seems certain that her escape, six days after Dudley’s death, would not have happened without it. A week after the incident, Heidnik would be behind bars.

Standing in the New Jersey Pine Barrens with her captor as they disposed of Dudley’s body, Rivera says, “everything just broke.”


There are several conflicting versions of Rivera’s eventual escape from Gary Heidnik. According to the account she told us in 1990 (and one she repeated in court testimony), on March 24 -- under the pretense of getting him another captive -- she convinced Heidnik to allow her out on her own. (According to Laker, she had been promised she could see her family; other accounts have her getting permission from Heidnik to phone her mother). While Heidnik waited at a gas station near 6th and Girard, Rivera made her decision to put an end to his bizarre drama.

At trial, Rivera first claimed she went straight to her family’s house to call police, but then admitted stopping at her boyfriend Vincent Nelson’s house first. According to Nelson, who was interviewed on March 30, 1987, by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Rivera suggested to him that they go and rob Heidnik and then exact revenge before they ultimately decided to call the police. According to police reports, Heidnik had nearly $2000 in cash on him when he was arrested.

But those details would not come out at trial. According to Rivera, the prosecution was able to use some form of leverage against Nelson, who had a criminal record and had done prison time. “The DA’s office went down there and told him he was gonna go to jail if he didn’t keep his mouth shut,” Rivera said of Nelson. “A lot of what he was saying wasn’t true.”

Whatever happened, Nelson never testified as a witness for either party during the trial. But according to Heidnik’s attorney, that wasn’t for lack of effort. 

Charles Peruto Jr. is not an easy man to get a hold of; back in 2006, after trading voice messages for more than a week, I finally got him on the phone. As Heidnik’s attorney throughout the case, I sensed he was anxious to set the record straight. Peruto said he planned to call Nelson as a rebuttal witness, hoping to show that Rivera was not in such a rush to get the police involved.

“The day he was scheduled to testify he called me and said he couldn’t do it; that they would lock him up if he testified,” Peruto said. “He disappeared after that, I couldn’t find him anywhere. When he resurfaced a year later, he told me that a detective had visited him and told him that they had something on him and he’d be in serious trouble if he testified.”

While Peruto said that on some level, he believes the victims in the Heidnik case got the justice they deserved, he admitted there are some loose ends that continued to nag him even after 20 years.

“I have always contended that Josefina Rivera was more than just an innocent bystander,” Peruto said.

But Peruto added that as far as he knows, there was never any discussion about pressing charges of any kind against Rivera, despite the incriminating testimony of the other victims. “Only the District Attorney would be in any position to file charges,” he said, “and let’s face it, they weren’t going to have their star witness charged with a crime.”

Peruto speculated that at some point, Rivera ceased being a victim and became at least a quasi-accomplice. Throughout the preliminary hearing, he seemed perplexed that Rivera should testify at all without some sort of deal.

“Do you have a lawyer,” he asked her in court.
“Yes I do,” she replied.
“Did the lawyer tell you you’re not to be prosecuted?” Peruto pressed.
“No,” Rivera answered.

Later in the hearing, Peruto raised the question again. “And you have no idea whether you’re going to be prosecuted or not?” 

At that point the judge put a stop to his questioning. “I don’t think you need to explore that any further,” the court instructed the attorney.

My day with Josefina

It was a hot September day in 1990 when I first met Josefina Rivera.

Our meeting followed several weeks of negotiations and wasn’t ultimately confirmed until that very day.

About six months prior, my father and his friend -- the documentary filmmaker Ronald Hersh -- were driving back from a dinner meeting in Center City. They stopped at a red light on the corner of Broad and Poplar Streets and were approached by a young prostitute. It was early spring, and the car windows were down; in an attempt to engage the men in conversation, she leaned seductively against the open car window. At that moment Hersh, seated in the passenger seat, noticed the clumps of tiny scars that dotted the woman’s forearms. “My God,” he asked, “what happened to your arms?”

She asked them if they remembered the Heidnik case. Both men said they did. “Well, I was one of his captives,” the woman revealed.

At that time, Hersh owned a small independent film company and was working as a director for ABC. Talk began of developing a proposal for a film based on Rivera's experience. For the next several months the two men quietly worked to develop a game plan. When my father asked for my help with the project, I readily accepted.

First, we needed to get Rivera’s story ― the whole story ― in her own words. A formal interview was arranged. For two hours and through two videotapes, Rivera recounted her life, focusing on her four months with Gary Heidnik.

We hoped to get at least one of the other women’s stories too. And so, in an attempt to track one of them down, I was charged with picking Rivera up at her home and driving her on a series of “errands” ― hopefully finding either Lisa Thomas or Agnes Adams in the process.

When I pull up in front of her North Street rowhouse, Rivera is waiting for me. It’s approaching 90 degrees outside, and to make matters worse, the power window on the driver’s side of my silver 1982 Mercury Cougar is busted, allowing me barely two inches of fresh air. The air conditioner has never worked.

Without waiting for me to open the door for her, Rivera hops into the front seat and we begin to drive east on Girard Avenue. Rivera is sparsely dressed in a white half shirt and denim cut-offs. Her frizzy hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail; she wears sandals on her feet.

“Can’t you roll down that window?” she asks. Her face is hardened, yet I can see she was attractive once. I sense that her petite frame and inviting smile mask a potential for fierceness that must come as a shock to those who are experiencing it for the first time. Her arms are dotted with small, soft fleshy spots ― the scars, she tells me, are from the shackles she was forced to wear in her days of captivity. After that, we speak little of Heidnik. Right away, I sense Rivera ― or Nicole ― is in full control. Immediately, it seems, she knows what role to play, which persona is appropriate today. She is flirtatious, but only half-heartedly. I’m not worth the effort. She knows I know her story, but that seems incidental. Her casualness begins to put me at ease.

After driving for several minutes, Rivera tells me she needs to get cigarettes. She’ll show me where to go. Passing several convenience stores on the way, we finally stop in front of a small run-down corner store on Front Street in the city’s “Badlands” section of Philadelphia ― an area infested with drugs and gangs. “I’ll be right back,” she says.

Brian Hickey's 2002 Philadelphia Weekly
cover story re-examined the case
Waiting for her to return, I imagine what Heidnik must have thought of her. It’s easy to see how a man of his mental condition could fall for her. By the end, I think Heidnik must have truly believed she was on his side. Then I think of his hands around her neck and the fear she must have felt as he led her down the basement steps. After barely 30 minutes with her I think I know what she must have been contemplating. “I will get out of this.”

After about five minutes, she’s back. I see no pack of cigarettes. Later, when she asks me for one of my own, I resist the temptation to call her out on her pit stop. At the time, I accepted her inconsistencies as par for the course ― symptoms of a life I could never fully understand.

For the next several hours, we drive around Philadelphia ― making several stops to ask about the other girls before finally winding up in front of the DA’s office on Arch Street where Rivera has a scheduled appointment. While we accomplish little of substance that day, the experience leaves an indelible mark on me.

Over the course of the next year, the movie project slowly dissolved, becoming one of those “if only” memories Dad and I occasionally rehash over dinner and drinks.