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 worked at the Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders on Wisconsin Avenue in Friendship Heights until early October, a specialist in treating troubled, often violent young men. He commuted 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.
A meeting that resonated
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.