Jack Apsche is one of the few people in history happy to have crossed paths with a serial killer.
That was Gary Heidnik, who tortured six women and killed two, and was one of the inspirations for the Buffalo Bill character in "The Silence of the Lambs." Heidnik, who was arrested in 1987, was considered inscrutable even by sociopathic standards. More than 150 mental health workers in 22 hospitals interviewed him during his life. But perhaps the individual Heidnik most revealed himself to was Apsche.
The interactions of the two men are a bizarre and intriguing tale of depravity and redemption, resulting in the creation of an experimental psychological technique that Apsche now touts as a treatment for others whose lives have spun out of control.
Now 65, Apsche works at the Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders in Washington, a specialist in treating troubled, often violent young men. He commutes from Shepherdstown, W.Va., where he lives with his daughter, wife and seven dogs. Apsche has a gruff demeanor nurtured by years of drug use, violent outbursts and 20 months of service in the Vietnam War. Though now an esteemed psychologist, when he was hired as a researcher for Heidnik's defense, Apsche, who had just received his PhD in counseling psychology, says he was addicted to sex, suffering from nightly combat flashbacks and battling a cocaine addiction.
These days, Apsche looks back on the case as a lifeline. "Gary Heidnik and September 1987 was an absolute turning point for me," Apsche writes in a book he recently completed and is hoping to publish about his relationship with Heidnik. Immersing himself in the proceedings gave Apsche a sense of purpose and spurred him toward self-reflection. "By looking into my own scared and desperate experience, I could better understand what was driving Heidnik's obsessions and sexual violence," Apsche writes.
Perhaps it was Apsche's own coarseness that appealed to Heidnik. The first time they met, in a small room at Holmesburg prison in Philadelphia, Apsche remembers being annoyed by Heidnik's evasions.
"Listen, when I was in Vietnam, I killed more people than the Manson family, so let's cut the s---," Apsche says he told the murderer.
Perhaps their similarities resonated. Both were poor husbands and fathers, Apsche now recalls, prone to grandiose thinking and depressed, disturbed, violent individuals who engaged in obsessive sexual behavior.
Whatever the reasons, over the next three years, while on death row, Heidnik exchanged 26 letters with Apsche. The more than 150 handwritten pages of letters provide harrowing insights into the mind of one of the most perverse killers in U.S. history. Among Heidnik's writings are drawings of the torture chambers he dug under his house, as well as descriptions of his crimes. They are now the basis for Apsche's book, tentatively titled "Greetings From the Crypt" - an opening line in one of the condemned man's letters.
The letters changed Apsche's life. He quit cocaine, booze and womanizing, got remarried and regained custody of his daughter. He is now the pioneer of a psychotherapeutic approach known as mode deactivation therapy, a technique for treating angry, sexually disturbed patients. There is no doubt, Apsche says in a series of interviews, that the MDT approach depends, to some extent, on the understanding of human nature he gained through interacting with Heidnik.
Apsche encountered Heidnik shortly after completing his doctorate in counseling psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, the city where Heidnik committed his crimes. In September 1987, Heidnik's attorney hired him as a researcher on the case. (Apsche was friends with the lawyer's cousin, "and they saw that I was smart," he says.) He spent three months poring over two boxes filled with Heidnik's arrest records and psychiatric reports in an attempt to ascertain the killer's mental state.
Apsche was convinced that he could understand Heidnik as nobody else. "To make up for my lack of experience, I determined that I would become the consummate expert on Gary M. Heidnik and serial murderers," he writes in his book. "I dedicated myself to learning and knowing more about the subject than anyone else in the world. And I did." Thousands of experts across the globe study sociopathic killers, of course, and it says something about Apsche that he rates himself the best.
Heidnik's attorney claimed insanity, and Apsche testified to that effect for a day and a half. "I was originally only hired as a researcher, but because I knew more about Heidnik than anyone else, I was asked to testify," he says with characteristic bravado. But Heidnik's intelligence and articulateness, combined with the premeditated nature of his crimes, convinced the jury of his competence, and he was sentenced to death. Apsche, who maintains that Heidnik was, indeed, mentally ill - says jurors rarely accept the insanity defense for people such as Heidnik because they are "so seemingly adept at finding victims and concealing their grisly crimes, and so skilled and diabolical in their detailed planning and deception, that ordinary people cannot believe the killer was not clearly in control of his actions."
After the trial, the young psychologist proposed writing a book on the killer, and Heidnik agreed to cooperate. The men had a "unique trust," says Apsche, who admits he empathized with the killer, whom he viewed as beset by powerful internal demons. They met five or six times in prison, for two-hour sessions, and traded the letters. Ranging from one to 28 pages, the condemned man's letters are penned in blue ink on yellow legal-size paper. Their tone oscillates between hostility and friendliness, and they are filled with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and smiley faces.