Lipstick Killer: Murder, they wrote

In 1946, before William Heirens had turned 18, he’d already skipped his senior year of high school, gained admission to the University of Chicago, been elected vice president of the University’s Calvert Club, burglarized dozens of apartments, and gained national notoriety for committing one of the most gruesome killing sprees in Chicago history. .

By Christina Pillsbury

Maroon Staff / The Chicago Maroon

GREY CITY

  /  

November 30, 2010

Early in the morning on January 7, 1946, six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was reported missing from her bedroom. A ransom note demanding $20,000 for her return was found by her bedroom window. Later that night, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) discovered her dismembered body scattered in sewers across the North Side. Newspaper headlines blasted the grisly details. The crime remained in the news for months as authorities uncovered more and more evidence.

At 9 a.m. that January morning, William Heirens (X ’50) was missing from his U of C math class. By 10 a.m., he was in his humanities lecture. The 17-year-old Heirens was a tall, broad-shouldered, dark-haired young man whose academic aptitude allowed him to skip his senior year at St. Bede’s, a Chicago boarding school. After matriculating at the University, he became vice president of Calvert Club, then a Catholic group on campus.

Heirens often spent his nights drinking whiskey with his roommate in Snell-Hitchcock and casually seeing girls. He had also been arrested for a number of burglaries since 1942, and done several stints in juvenile prison. The burglaries continued into his college career.

While Heirens kept up this double life at the U of C, police investigated the Degnan murder. Experts soon matched the handwriting and fingerprint found on the ransom note to evidence gathered from the scene of a murder that took place a month before.

The naked corpse of 31-year-old Frances Brown had been found on December 11, 1945, in the bathtub of Brown’s apartment. Brown’s pajamas were wrapped around her head, suggesting a connection to an Edgewater murder earlier that year, where the victim was left in a similar state. Brown had a butcher’s knife rammed through her neck; a bullet wound in her skull. One bloody fingerprint was found on a doorjamb. But the evidence that would grab the city’s attention was a message scrawled in lipstick on the wall above Brown’s body: “For heavens sake catch me before I kill more I cannot control myself.”

Whether a cry for help or a taunting jab at the police, the chilling message was photographed and splashed across newspapers throughout Chicago. The note gave reporters a moniker for the murderer: the Lipstick Killer.

Degnan’s murder intensified the exhaustive manhunt for the Lipstick Killer. For the next six months the CPD took fingerprints from every person they arrested in hopes of finding a match with the killer. Police detained two suspects in that time, but both were eventually released, and public interest in the case remained high. On June 26, almost six months after Degnan’s murder, the Chicago Tribune called it “one of the most atrocious American murders since the Loeb-Leopold case.”

The U of C reference proved prescient. Later that same day, police apprehended Heirens as he attempted to rob an apartment in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. Almost immediately his fingerprints were deemed a match to the fingerprint in Brown’s apartment. Evidence, including a confession he gave while in custody, began to mount against him.

On September 4, Heirens pled guilty to the three killings. The next day Harold G. Ward, chief justice of the Cook County Criminal Court, sentenced him to three concurrent life terms. Heirens, now inmate number C-06103, was transferred to Stateville Prison in Joliet, Illinois.

*****

63 years later, Heirens has been imprisoned longer than any other person in America.

During an interview with Grey City last month at Dixon Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Dixon, Illinois, Heirens sat hunched, his gray hair slicked back, his face in a gruff, squinting stare. The 82-year-old speaks in a comforting, grandfatherly tone. He shifts back and forth in his wheelchair while reliving his experiences slowly, putting together memories from more than a half century past. He often draws a blank—Heirens has little memory of the ordeal that shaped the rest of his life.

The last thing he remembers before his arrest is his Core humanities class at the University of Chicago. “They had a book reading for that year—I forget the name of the book, The Brothers Karamazov or something like that,” Heirens said. “I wasn’t a fiction reader before. I was only a fact reader, and so that was new to me, fiction reading. And I couldn’t read as fast as the other guys, so I was kind of slow in class.”

Through a furrowed brow, as if trying to remember more, Heirens paused. “And, well, then I got arrested.”

*****

Police chased Heirens out of the Rogers Park apartment he was robbing that June day and through the complex, until an off-duty officer dropped a flower pot on his head, knocking him unconscious. While in custody at Bridewell Hospital, connected to Cook County Jail, police routinely ran his prints. Heirens’ fingerprint was matched by nine points of similarity to the one found on the ransom note and smeared in Brown’s apartment. Officials told the Chicago Sun-Times this was “adequate for identification.”

Meanwhile, detectives searched Heirens’s U of C dorm room in Gates Hall, looking for goods stolen from the murder sites. The Tribune reported there were war bonds, jewels, three guns, cameras, and other stolen items in Heirens’s dorm room. The total value was over $3,400—almost $37,000 when adjusted for inflation.

The most damning items police found were two surgical kits which included knives and saws. Degnan was dismembered with such great precision that investigators believed her murderer had used special tools in the process.

Heirens became the police’s prime suspect, and State’s Attorney William Tuohy began the interrogation process. During an interview with psychologists who later declared him sane but psychologically unstable, Heirens confessed to all three murders.

Then Herbert J. Walker, a handwriting expert, concluded that Heirens’ printing matched that of the lipstick message and the ransom note. It seemed the case was closed.

*****

Today, it seems that the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit exactly. The handwriting expert recanted in early January of the next year; the Herald American reported that he said the handwriting on the ransom note and the lipstick message had “few superficial similarities and a great many dissimilarities.”

Some have questioned the legitimacy of the lipstick note itself. “It would be out of the ordinary for a man to pick up a piece of lipstick and write a message with it.... Others [believe] a sleazy crime reporter scribbled the message on the wall for a cheap headline,” crime historian Richard Lindberg wrote in his 1999 book Return to the Scene of the Crime.

Heirens has maintained for years that the fingerprint evidence was constructed by the police. “A ransom note is very easy to fake a finger print on. You just touch that and you’ve got a fingerprint on you,” he said. “And that’s all there was to it, and it was just one fingerprint.” He also scoffed at the idea that the surgical tools were his. “I think I had a razor blade to go make model airplanes, that’s about it,” he said.

Heirens doesn’t know where the evidence against him came from; he only claims his innocence. When asked who he thought committed the Lipstick murders, Heirens pounded the table. “I can’t be a detective, run up and down and question everybody, put a gun to their head, say ‘You either confess or I’ll blow your head off!’”

He said the police needed a scapegoat to quell an increasingly impatient public. “They were considering me because I was a burglar before that,” Heirens said. “But then they linked it in with a couple of murders—the first one was a woman who was murdered in her room. I [robbed] that building a couple of times myself...then I didn’t think any more of it, and before you know it I was arrested and interrogated by police.”

*****

Some legal and criminal experts are still convinced that Illinois is holding the wrong man.

Dolores Kennedy, author of 1987’s Bill Heirens: His Day in Court and a legal assistant at the Medill School of Journalism’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, has written the Illinois parole board multiple times asking for Heirens’s release. She believes Russell Richard Thomas, a former nurse at the Woodlawn Hospital, was responsible for the crimes that cost Heirens his freedom. Thomas had a history of violence against women and kidnapping, and left ransom notes that Kennedy believes resemble the note found at the Degnan house.

Thomas confessed to the Degnan murder from a Phoenix prison cell the day Heirens was apprehended. But two days later, the Chicago Daily News printed discrepancies in Thomas’s story, and before Thomas could be seriously considered as a suspect, attention shifted to Heirens. Thomas soon recanted.

Heirens thinks Thomas’s confession was more convincing than his own. “He confessed to the murder that I’m accused of. He was in Arizona, and he told the police there, ‘God told me to confess,’” Heirens said. “While I’m sitting in jail, he’s saying that stuff, and his confession was better than what they got from me.”

Some writers claim Heirens’s confession is suspect as well. Kennedy is one of a number who suggest that police brutality and mind-altering drugs used during the interrogation coerced a confession out of the 17-year-old student.

*****

Heirens says that before his interrogation he knew little about the series of murders tied to his name. “It might’ve been mentioned on the radio, but in Chicago, you hear [about murders] all the time,” he said. “It was part of life in Chicago in those days.”

The interrogation lasted several days while Heirens was in Bridewell Hospital, where he was admitted for treatment of the concussion suffered during his arrest. Newspapers reported that he implicated another man during this time, and gave details about the murders. The full transcript from the interrogation was lost between his stay at Bridewell and his day in court.

Heirens said his questioning “was kind of rough,” but he couldn’t remember being beaten or given any drugs. He does remember resisting. “They wanted me to confess to the murder and I refused to, so they kept on grilling me,” he said. “They kept at me until they said, ‘They’re going to kill you if they convict you.’”

Though Heirens himself may not have been abused by the CPD, he knew of the police’s reputation for violent interrogations. Hector Verburgh, a 65-year-old janitor who worked in an apartment building near the Degnan home, was the first suspect arrested in connection with the crime. Police brutalized Verburgh during his days-long interrogation. “They hung him up by his hands over a bar behind him, and they crippled him,” Heirens said, recalling the news coverage of the story. Verburgh later successfully sued the CPD for false arrest and brutality, and won $20,000.

Police believed George Murman, the man Heirens named as an accomplice to the murders, was actually an alter ego. Psychologists submitted a report to Chief Justice Ward: “These conversations regarding ‘George,’ in our opinion, reveal a power for hysterical fantasy, to be expected in a hysterical individual passing through long sustained emotional conflict.” When this detail leaked to the press, it cemented Heirens’s reputation as a psychotic; on June 28, 1946, the Sun-Times printed that he “lived a Jekyll and Hyde existence.”

But Heirens claims that he never named a second person, that George was a police creation. “The police in their interrogations, asked ‘What’s your name?’ and I told them. And they said, ‘No it ain’t, it’s George.’ I said, ‘That’s my middle name, not my first name.’ And then he said ‘Yeah, your name’s George.’ So that’s how George came into it.”

His foggy recollection of the interrogation may be due to drugs administered by the police. The Tribune, Sun-Times, and the New York Mirror all reported that Heirens was given sodium pentothal, more commonly called truth serum, during the interrogation. A sedative then used on veterans to dig up their most unsettling memories from combat, sodium pentothal is most often used today in inducing medical comas and lethal injections.

According to U of C psychology professor David Gallo, the effects of the drug might have influenced Heirens’s memory. “The reliability of information that’s generated during interrogations is questionable, especially when the exact methods that were used are unclear,” said Gallo, who has not studied Heirens’s case specifically. “The social pressure from authority figures can distort the information that one produces, and this can subsequently affect the accuracy of one’s memory. It might not be enough to convince an innocent person that they’re guilty, but it might at least confuse their memory.”

*****

With enough evidence for prosecutors to mount a convincing case against Heirens, his attorneys suggested he accept a plea bargain, which the state also favored because it would keep a minor out of the electric chair. Prosecutors required a public admission of guilt, and on July 30, police officers, Chicago officials, and reporters gathered in court for Heirens’s confession.

By then, few doubted that Heirens was responsible for the murders. A month earlier—and just days after Heirens had been singled out as a suspect—Police Commissioner John C. Prendergast told the Tribune, “He knows he did it, and he knows we know he did it.”

Two weeks later, the Tribune ran a story detailing Heirens’s actions the nights of the murders. Even though Heirens hadn’t yet confessed to anyone, the Tribune was convinced it had a scoop. “For a while, Heirens maintained his innocence. But the whole world believed his guilt. The Tribune had said he was guilty,” the Tribune wrote on August 7, 1946.

But the prisoner was not ready to admit defeat. “They wanted a confession. They wanted all these police officials to hear what it is,” Heirens said. Though he had earlier agreed to plead guilty, once in court, he wouldn’t go through with it. “They asked me [to confess to] the Degnan murders, and I said, ‘I don’t know anything about it but what you people told me.’”

Chicagoans were convinced police had found their man, so Heirens’s very public change of heart caused an uproar. “My attorneys had a fit. Everybody did, really, because everyone was expecting a confession story. They were broadcasting it all over the country.” Heirens added, with a smirk: “And I just messed up their show.”

But the state’s case against Heirens continued. The plea bargain dissolved, meaning he would go to trial, and from his Cook County jail cell, Heirens could feel the electric chair looming large. His attorneys spoke of it; prosecutors threatened him with it.

“When they got me back to my cell, and my attorneys got back to me, they told me how I screwed up by not going through with the confession story for them. They said ‘You’re doomed for the execution now,’ and I was—if the state’s attorney would’ve tried me, with everything going on the way it was, I would’ve been convicted just like that, and there’d have been no appeals,” Heirens said. “So I changed my mind. I went along with them. I said ‘I won’t go back on you.’”

*****

On September 4, William Heirens pled guilty to 26 charges of burglary and three counts of manslaughter. He was sentenced to three concurrent life terms the next day.

Once convicted, Heirens was transferred to Stateville prison, where reporters initially visited him on a regular basis. But media interest slowly faded, and Heirens eventually resumed his education through correspondence courses. His first-choice institution was no longer an option. “The University of Chicago wouldn’t let me take any courses from them—they barred me. After I got arrested and convicted they just wouldn’t have nothing to do with me anymore,” Heirens said. “I wanted to go into philosophy with them, but they wouldn’t let me take it.”

Heirens continued to “shop around for classes” by ordering college catalogues from his cell. “I liked cultural anthropology, because it was about people and how life changes among different people that you live with,” he said. And free from strict graduation requirements or looming job prospects, Heirens could afford to take whatever classes seemed useful. “I took a logic course because I figured logic would help me get out of prison,” Heirens said. “It didn’t do me a darn bit of good.”

On February 6, 1972, at age 43, Heirens walked in the Lewis University commencement ceremony, becoming the first Illinois prisoner to earn a college diploma from jail. Prison security accompanied Heirens to the nearby commencement, as did Heirens’ notoriety; photographers jumped up on chairs in hopes of getting any shot of the killer-turned-graduate.

After graduation, Heirens worked for the superintendent of Stateville Prison to develop a program to help inmates get their degrees. He put together a library and assembled necessary paperwork to jump-start the prison’s education system. One of the teachers from the Stateville program was so impressed with Heirens that he wrote to the parole board. According to Heirens, the teacher singled his program out as one of the best in the country.

*****

Heirens has spent over 60 years in prison and has been the center of a media circus. Fact and fiction have twisted and tangled into one: he claims he based his confession on an earlier Tribune story that trumpeted his guilt, his interrogation was likely a drug-induced dream, and his life has been turned into books, movies, and articles over which he had little control. His life is confined to a cell, but his story is a public spectacle.

Heirens can hardly remember the bare facts of his case. He no longer remembers most of the burglaries he admits he committed. And when he’s been in jail for 63 years, it hardly matters any more.

Gallo, the U of C professor, researches memory function and how people can reconstruct their memories from outside accounts. In addition to normal memory loss, many other factors have shaped the memory of 82-year-old William Heirens, Gallo said. “Because he’s read a lot of accounts of what happened in the media he might not trust his own memory. He might just have convinced himself that he doesn’t know what he did.”

Heirens spent his early years in prison trying to clear his name. But as his faculties failed him, he has come to accept he’ll always be best known as the Lipstick Killer. Gallo thinks this resignation may help Heirens cope with his experiences. “He might have decided a long time ago that he wanted to just put the ordeal behind him and move forward with his life,” Gallo said. “He might be at a point in his life right now where his memory is not that important anymore. That may be true if he did the murders or if he didn’t,” Gallo said.

Except for some praise from a correspondence course teacher, Heirens has few happy memories. “They’re all bad,” he said. “Even my graduation was bad. [Other students] wouldn’t even talk to me.”

Heirens has talked with hundreds of reporters, and each time he surrenders control of his story. When reading over what they’ve written, he laments the details they’ve left out, the explanations that might convince others of his innocence. And with age, Heirens’s memories have only gotten dimmer, sapping what little control he once had over his own story. “There’s all kinds of things I’ll want to have said, but I didn’t say,” Heirens said, before returning to his cell. “I’ll regret that later on.”