Get ready for this one, it’s quite long. It also contains the largest amount of photos I’ve ever used on a post, I think. This nickname caught my eye, and it’s not hard to see why. His story inspired the novel “The Bloody Spur”, and the film “While the City Sleeps”, so he’s pretty notorious in America. I find this case fascinating as I do a Uni module in Forensic Linguistics, which take a prominent place in this case questioning the writing of a note and a message. It’s one of the saddest Murderer Monday posts I’ve done, and not for the victims sake.
William Heirens was born in 1928 in Chicago, the son of immigrants from Luxembourg. His family was very poor, and his parents argued constantly. This meant he spent his teenage years wandering the streets and committing petty crimes to release tension. At 13, he was arrested for possessing a gun, and a search of his house found stolen goods and more weapons hidden. He was sent to the Gibault School for Wayward Boys for several months. Not long after his release, he was arrested again and sent to the St Bede Academy, run by monks.
During this time, he excelled in his classes and he was accepted into the University of Chicago’s special learning programme. In 1945 he was accepted, age 16, allowing him to bypass high school. Him and his parents struggled to pay for his tuition, and he eventually turned back to theft. He also turned out to have quite a talent for ballroom dancing during his time there. Who’d have thought a ballroom dancer could be a murderer?
In June 1945, the body of 43 year old Josephine Ross was found in her apartment. She had been stabbed, and her head was wrapped in a dress. Her woulds were covered with tape and she was found in her bath. Dark hair was found in her hand, indicating a struggle, and nothing had been taken from her apartment. Her fiance and exes all had alibis, and the police had no suspects. All they knew was that they were looking for someone with dark hair.
In December the same year, divorced Frances Brown was also found dead in her apartment. She had a knife lodged in her neck, and had been shot in the head. Similarly, she was found draped over the edge of her bath. She was found after a cleaner noticed her partially open door and loud radio playing. Again, no valuables were taken, but the murderer had left a message in red lipstick on the wall:
Sake catch me
Before I kill more
I cannot control myself”
Police found a bloody fingerprint on the door of the entrance, and a witness heard gunshots at about 4 am. The door man in the lobby saw a nervous man age 35-40 get out of the lift and leave. Despite this, days later the Chicago Police released that they thought the murderer was female.
In January 1946, 6 year old Suzanne Dengan (left) was discovered missing from her first floor bedroom. Police found a ladder propped against the window, and a $20,000 ransom note.
GeI $20,000 Reddy & wAITe foR WoRd. do NoT NoTify FBI oR Police. Bills IN 5’s & 10’s. BuRN This FoR heR SAfTY
A man called the Degnan house demanding the money, but hung up before leaving instructions. The Mayor also received a note saying they were sorry they didn’t get Mr Degnan instead. At the time in Chicago, there was a nationwide meatpackers strike. Also, a man involved with black market meat had recently been murdered by decapitation. This led police to consider that the murderer was a meat packer. Acting on an anonymous tip, police discovered Suzanne’s head in a sewer block near her house. Blue ribbons still in her hair. Her right leg was in a basin, left leg and torso in another drain. Her arms were found a month later in another sewer. Blood was found in laundry tubs in the basement laundry room of an apartment block. Police questioned hundreds of people and performed many polygraph tests, but all in vain.
A coroner fixed her time of death as between 12:30 and 1:00 am. It was also determined that Suzanne was already dead before she was taken to the laundry room. She had been strangled. He claimed that it was a “very clean job” of dismembering, and believed it was the work of a meat cutter. This sent neighbours into a frenzy, and many stories of the suspected “lipstick killer” were reported. However, most of these were just innocent people going about their day, mostly with a bag. It just shows how tensions were running high in the area.
Eventually, 65 year old Hector Verburgh, a janitor in Suzanne’s building was arrested. Police announced to the press that “this is the man”. They questioned, starved and beat him for hours, even dislocating his shoulder. He ended up spending 10 days in hospital. It was determined that he could not write English well enough to have written the ransom note, and he was released. He successfully sued the Chicago Police Department for $15,000.
Another false suspect was Sidney Sherman, a recently discharged Marine. Police found blonde hairs in Suzanne’s apartment building, and a wire that they suspected was a garrote. They also found a handkerchief they guessed was used as a gag, which was marked “S. Sherman”. When police went to find him, they found he had left his home and his job at short notice. A nationwide manhunt ensued.
Sidney was found 4 days later in Ohio. He explained that he had eloped with his girlfriend, and passed the police polygraph test. It turned out that the handkerchief wasn’t even his, and the real owner was Seymour Sherman. He had been out of the country when Suzanne was murdered, and had no idea how his handkerchief ended up there.
Back to the ransom phone calls. Police picked up a local boy called Theodore Campbell when looking for persons of interest. He admitted that another teenager, Vince Costello had killed Suzanne. He had been convicted of armed robbery at 16, and was arrested by police. Theodore told police that Vince committed the murder, and made Theodore call the Degnans. However, Polygraph tests revealed neither boy knew anything about the crime.
In June 1946, the now 17 year old William Heirens was arrested on attempted burglary charges. Allegedly, he had fled the building janitor, pointed a gun and shouted “let me out, or I’ll let you have it in the guts!” A neighbour called police, and a scuffle ended when a policeman dropped plant pots on William’s head, knocking him unconscious.
He woke up strapped to a hospital bed with his fingerprints being taken. The photos of this are shocking. The questioning was again violent, William claimed it lasted for 6 days and said he was beaten and starved. He wasn’t allowed to see his parents for 4 days, and was refused a lawyer. Two psychiatrists gave him sodium pentothal (truth serum) without a warrant or consent, and interrogated him further. On his fifth day in custody, he was given a lumbar puncture without anaesthesia and made to take a polygraph test. He was in too much pain to cooperate and it was rescheduled for the next day. Results were “inconclusive”.
Under the influence, he mentioned an alternate personality called “George” who committed the murders. He said he was always taking the fall for everything bad that George did. George was his father’s name, and his middle name.
Police searched through everyone he knew, but could find no “George”. Psychologists explained that William made up George to keep antisocial feelings separate so he could act normal. Much like how young children make up imaginary friends. However, police later admitted that he never incriminated himself in the killings when being interviewed.
Police searched his residence without a warrant, and found a scrapbook belonging to Harry Gold. Harry lived near Suzanne, and was burgled the night she disappeared, again throwing William under fire. Handwriting analysts couldn’t definitively link his writing to the lipstick message. This writing is interesting, as the note and the lipstick differ in writing style. FBI handwriting experts later declared that William’s didn’t match either style.
A fingerprint of his left little finger also partially matched the ransom note. It had 9 similar points, however this meant that so did 65% of the population.
Police sent the note to the FBI for more advanced testing. A palm print was found on the back with 10 points of comparison. Police declared William was the only person to handle the note. It seems that every group who handled the note for prints found a different type of them belonging to different people. Everyone claimed there was a different amount of comparison points. Chicago Police originally found none. It was also given to a reporter at one stage, to examine for hidden indentation writing. This broke the chain of custody and made the note admissible in court. The integrity of the note had been compromised due to the amount of testing. It was evident that it had been handled considerably before it reached the FBI, going against the initial police declaration.
Some believe that the partial fingerprint found on the door looked like it had been rolled and planted. You know the technique on TV where they roll people’s fingers in ink to take prints?
There were 29 inconsistencies between William’s confession and the crime details. To me, this is a clear indicator of a false confession. Despite the lack of evidence, he was put on trial. The killings became a media sensation and he was publicly declared the killer before the trial began; one headline read “The Heirens Story! How He Killed Suzanne Degnan and 2 Women”. State attorneys met to discuss a possible plea bargain, and William’s lawyers pushed him to take it. The deal was that he would serve life if he confessed to all 3 murders, but would avoid the death penalty. He wrote and signed his confession, and a date was set for his official confession.
On the date, he was questioned and appeared bewildered, and gave short answers. Years later he blamed his lawyer for this behaviour. He was threatened with being charged with another murder, and his lawyer changed his agreed sentence from one life term to three consecutive ones. William agreed with this to avoid death, and at this trial, he talked, answered questions, and reenacted Suzanne’s kidnapping. Years later, he claimed “once you’re dead, there’s no clearing things up. When you’re alive, you still have a chance to prove that you weren’t guilty. So I was better off being alive than being dead.”
In his second confession, he said he disposed of the hunting knife he dismembered Suzanne with on train tracks. It had been found by track crew and kept in storage. It was never scientifically determined whether the train track knife was the one used. William confessed to everything, and tried to hang himself in his cell that night but was discovered and rescued. Interestingly, when asked if Suzanne suffered, he responded:
“I can’t tell you if she suffered, Sheriff Mulcahy. I didn’t kill her. Tell Mr. Degnan to please look after his other daughter, because whoever killed Suzanne is still out there.”
Days after his confession, he recounted everything. He claimed that he had been “forced to lie to save myself”. Jane, the daughter of victim Josephine Ross believed him and felt he wasn’t a murderer.
“I have looked at all the things Heirens stole and there was nothing of my mother’s things among them.”
There was another suspect in this case, Richard Russell Thomas, a drifter. Handwriting experts found similarities between his writing and the note, and he even confessed after being questioned. Somehow though, he was released when William became prime suspect. Richard had previously been convicted of attempted extortion, with a ransom note threatening kidnap. He was awaiting sentencing for molesting his own daughter. Coincidentally, he was also known for stealing surgical supplies. Police developed a profile of the killer as someone who had surgical skills, or was a butcher.
After William’s conviction, his parents and brother changed their surname and divorced. Once arrested, he became a model prisoner. He became the first prisoner in Illinois history to get a four year degree. Also, he managed the garment factory and oversaw the work of 350 inmates. He even set up an education programme so inmates could complete their GED (General Educational Development) exam. In 1965 he was discharged from Suzanne’s murder and began serving his second sentence. This meant authorities considered him rehabilitated, and Suzanne’s case could no longer be used as a reason to deny him parole.
He spent 3 years working on a petition to have the evidence reexamined, but this was denied in 1952. For the first time, he cried in the car on the way home. After many attempts, he learnt enough about the law to help fellow inmates with their appeals. Kind of like in The Shawshank Redemption. In 1983, a Magistrate ordered his immediate release. William arranged employment and a trailer to live, and began to prepare for freedom. However Suzanne’s siblings went public to fight the ruling, and had it reversed. He was transferred to a minimum security prison in 1988. Eventually he resided in the hospital ward. He had diabetes, poor eyesight and used a wheelchair.
His most recent parole hearing was in July 2007, where the review board decided 14-0 against parole. In 2012, William suffered diabetes complications and had to be hospitalised. He died in his cell on March 5th 2012, aged 83 and had spent 65 years in prison. After his imprisonment, he had maintained his innocence for the rest of his life.
Personally, I believe he was innocent. It really made me sad looking at all of the old photos of him. There are more specific details surrounding the fingerprint and the confession, but I could write a book on that so I narrowed it down as much as possible. This case reminds me of the Derek Bentley case, a young man without the means to defend himself, used as a convenient scapegoat. The science just isn’t there to prove that he was guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. Some believe a reporter even wrote the lipstick message just for a good story.
After many years, much of the evidence against him fell apart, and he had a sad life. One interview with him said he couldn’t remember the last time he celebrated his birthday. William was the longest serving inmate in the US prison system. He never managed to finish his autobiography, so we’ll never know what he was thinking. Do you think he was the murderer?