PHILADELPHIA -- The 50 members of the church founded by 'house of horrors' murder suspect Gary Heidnik continue to hold services even though their self-appointed bishop is in prison, Heidnik's lawyer says.
Charles Peruto Jr., who is attempting to convince a judge to unfreeze Heidnik's estimated $550,000 in assets, said members of Heidnik's United Church of the Ministers of God held services as recently as Sunday.
'I was amazed. Usually in cases like this the church is set up as a tax scam. But they really are holding services,' Peruto said in an interview Thursday. 'After I took the case, parishoners were calling me and asking if they were still having services.'
Church services are held in Heidnik's home, where he allegedly kept women chained in a basement dungeon for months while repeatedly raping and torturing them. He is being held without bail on two counts of murder and also is charged with four counts of rape and kidnapping.
Peruto initially claimed the church had an active membership during a hearing Wednesday to determine whether Heidnik's assets should remain frozen.
Common Pleas Judge Samuel Lehrer, who froze the assets last week, said he would reach a decision about appointing a conservator for the church assets today or schedule a full hearing within two weeks.
Several plaintiffs sought the court action, including one of Heidnik's alleged torture victims who has threatened to sue him for damages.
At the hearing, Peruto introduced a five-page typewritten copy of the church's constitution, which stated Heidnik had full 'control and responsibility' over the church's finances.
It appointed Heidnik as the church's bishop for life and said his 'control is extensive. ... His is the final word on interpretation of the Bible or settling religious disputes.'
The document said the Bible was to be the guiding inspiration for the church, but added the 'divinity of Jesus is questionable ... and is to be played down.'
It also said no money was to be collected at services but could be raised through investments in stocks, loans, bingo and business ventures.
Heidnik had some $330,000 in stocks and also owned three cars, including a Rolls-Royce, according to hearing testimony.
Authorities have contended that nearly all of the money in the church's account belonged to Heidnik, who hid his assets under the church's name to avoid paying taxes on them.