The character of The Chopper in Causes Unknown – an ambiguously sexual serial killer with a chameleon-like ability to lure his victims – might seem to be an exaggeration if it weren’t for the existence of real-life pathologic al killers like John Wayne Gacy. Gacy, some of you may remember, raped and killed at least 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 76 – and got away with it for many years. He used to be known as the ‘Killer Clown’ because he liked to dress up as Pogo the Clown at charitable events and children’s parties. The Chopper was inspired, if that’s the word for it, by two cases that provoked outrage and horror in the Philadelphia area in the 1980s.
In one case six bodies were found decomposing in a rundown apartment on the third floor of a building in North Philly. Some of the corpses had been dead for so long that they were nothing more than skeletons. One victim, found in a closet, had been dead for at least a year. The tenant had disappeared after the landlord had asked him to leave because of the stench. The tenant took the precaution of nailing the door shut from the outside, warning the landlord not to enter until he returned for his possessions. Needless to say, he never did. Eventually the landlord wised up and called the cops. The police knew the building in question; it was a shooting gallery that they’d raided several times in the past. A day after the grisly discovery, officers found a green duffel bag on the roof filled with more human bones. By coincidence, the apartment was less than two miles from a house where in the previous spring, remains of two women and three living, half-naked young women chained in the basement were discovered. In that case, the suspect -- Gary Heidnik – was apprehended. Parts of one woman were found in the kitchen and the body of another was found in a New Jersey state forest. Evidence suggested that he’d tortured six other women. Heidnik pleaded guilty by reason of insanity – and he had some legitimate grounds for doing so. He was a psychiatric patient who’d been convicted of kidnapping a mentally handicapped woman. He was subsequently allowed back on the street. He lived in a grimy, two-and-a-half story house in one of the most rundown sections of the city, yet drove around in a Rolls Royce and a Cadillac and liked to flash a fat wad of cash. He had a securities account with a brokerage worth about $500,000. Police were baffled as to how he could have accumulated so much money since only two years before he’d worked as an orderly. He apparently met his victims, all of them black, through a friend who worked at a treatment center for the mentally handicapped. He also picked up women on street corners and in fast-food restaurants, places where an expensive car and a display of cash were certain to make a powerful impression. One neighbor complained about the smell of “burning flesh” coming from the house and hearing what sounded like an electric saw and hammering in the middle of the night. She said that the police never responded to her pleas to investigate. Most of Heidnik’s neighbors, however, described him as “very kind” and “very patient.” One woman who escaped unharmed, but dehydrated and semi-starved, told police that this very kind man had held her prisoner for five months, tortured and raped her. He’d given her nothing to eat but dog food. The basement where Heidnik kept his captives was furnished with two mattresses and a portable toilet; it was there that police rescued two women, 19 and 24, both naked below the waist, chained together and attached to pipes with handcuffs. Another victim was discovered alive in an open pit in the concrete floor, which had been concealed with plywood weighed down by sandbags. In addition, police found 24 pounds of frozen limbs in plastic trash bags in the freezer and small pieces of bone and flesh in the kitchen. One survivor told authorities that she saw Heidnik string up a victim from a beam in the ceiling as punishment until she died and then cut her up with an electric saw in the basement. Heidnik later boasted that his captives inadvertently ate parts of her body in their dog food.