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William Heirens

Mug shot of William Heirens.
Background information
Birth name: William George Heirens
Also known as: The Lipstick Killer
Born: November 15, 1928 (1928-11-15) (age 81)
Evanston, Illinois
Sentence: Life sentence with the possibility of parole.
Number of victims: 3
Span of killings: June 5, 1945–January 7, 1946
Country: U.S.
State(s): Illinois
Date apprehended: June 26, 1946

William George Heirens (born November 15, 1928[1]) is a convicted American serial killer who confessed to three murders in 1946. Heirens has also been called The Lipstick Killer due to a notorious message scrawled in lipstick at a crime scene. He is reputedly the world's longest serving prisoner, having thus far spent 63 years in prison.[2]

He is currently incarcerated at the Dixon Correctional Center minimum security prison in Dixon, Illinois (Inmate No. C-06103). Though he remains imprisoned, Heirens has recanted his confession, and claimed to be a victim of coercive interrogation and police brutality.[3]

Fritz Lang directed his film While the City Sleeps based on the novel The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein which depicts the story of Heirens.


Early life

Heirens grew up in Lincolnwood, a suburb of Chicago.

At the age of 11, Heirens claimed to have witnessed a couple making love. He told his mother, who then told him that all sex was dirty, and would lead to diseases. While kissing a girlfriend he burst into tears, and proceeded to vomit in the presence of the girl.

At 13 years old, Heirens was arrested for carrying a loaded gun. A subsequent search of the Heirens’ home discovered more weapons hidden in a refrigerator and in the loft. Heirens admitted to a string of burglaries and was sent to the Gibault School for wayward boys for several months. He claimed that he mostly stole for fun and to release tension.

Not long after his release, Heirens was again arrested for burglary. This time, he was sentenced to three years at St. Bede Academy, operated by Benedictine Monks. During his time at the school, Heirens stood out as an exceptional student. He was released when he was 16. His good test scores allowed him to enroll at the University of Chicago.

Not long after his release, however, Heirens resumed his serial burglary, even as he studied electrical engineering.


Josephine Ross

On June 5, 1945, 43-year-old Josephine Ross was found dead in her apartment; she had been repeatedly stabbed, and her head was wrapped in a dress. She was presumed to have surprised an intruder, who then killed her. Dark hairs were found clutched in Ross' hand, indicating that she had struggled with the intruder before she was killed.[4] No valuables were taken from the apartment.[5]

Ross’ fiancé had an alibi, as did her former boyfriends and ex-husbands,[4] and police had no other suspects. They looked for a dark-complexioned man who was reported loitering at the apartment or running from the scene,[4] but were unable to identify or locate him.

Frances Brown

On December 11, 1945, Frances Brown, an ex-Wave,[6] was discovered stabbed to death in her apartment after a cleaning woman heard a radio playing loudly and noted Brown’s door partly open. Brown, too, had been savagely stabbed, and authorities thought that a burglar had been discovered or interrupted. Again, no valuables were taken[5] but someone had written a message in lipstick on the wall of Brown’s apartment:

For heavens
sake catch me
before I kill more
I cannot control myself.[5]

Police found a bloody fingerprint smudge on the door jamb of the entrance door. Also, there was a possible eyewitness to the killer's escape. An "eye-witness", George Weinberg, heard gunshots at about 4 a.m. According to John Derick, the night clerk stationed in the lobby of the building, a nervous man of 35–40 years old and weighing approximately 140 pounds had got off the elevator fumbled for the door to the street and left.[5]

Suzanne Degnan

On January 7, 1946, six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was discovered missing from her bedroom. After searching the home and not finding the girl, her family called police.

Her disappearance earned significant publicity, and police vowed to find whoever was responsible. Police found a ladder outside the girl’s window, and also discovered a ransom note which had been overlooked by the family. The note read:

Get $20,000 ready & waite [sic] for word. Do not notify FBI or police. Bills in $5's and $10's.[5]

On the reverse of the note was written,

Burn this for her safty [sic]. [5]

A man repeatedly called the Degnan residence demanding the ransom, but hung up before any meaningful conversation could take place.[7]

Police questioned the Degnan family's neighbors, but no one had seen anything unusual. Someone telephoned police anonymously, suggesting that police look in the sewers near the Degnan home. Police did, and discovered the young girl’s head in a catch basin that was in an alley. In the same alley they discovered the girl's right leg in another catch basin; her torso in a storm drain; her left leg found in another alley. Her arms were found in a sewer a month later.[7] Searches uncovered a laundry tub in a nearby apartment building basement across where her head was found that seemed to have been where she was dismembered. The press called it the "Murder Room".[8][9]

Police questioned hundreds of people regarding the Degnan murder, and gave polygraph exams to about 170. On several occasions, authorities claimed to have captured the killer, but the suspects were eventually released.

Hector Verburgh arrest

Notably, 65-year-old Hector Verburgh, a janitor in the building where Degnan lived, was arrested and touted as the suspect. Police told the press "This is the Man", despite discrepancies between Verburgh's profile and the one that was developed by them as to what kind of skills the killer had, including him having surgical knowledge or at least being a butcher.[10] Police cited such evidence as Verburgh frequenting the so-called "Murder Room," and the grimy state of the ransom note suggested it was written by a dirty hand such as that of a janitor. The police tried to pressure Verbaugh's wife to implicate her husband in the murder.[11]

Police held Verburgh for 48 hours of questionings and beatings that severely injured him, including a separated shoulder.[5] Throughout, Verburgh denied involvement in the murder.[8] Verburgh's Janitor Union lawyer got Verburgh released on a writ of habeas corpus. He said of the experience:

"Oh, they hanged me up, they blindfolded me ... I can’t put up my arms, they are sore. They had handcuffs on me for hours and hours. They threw me in the cell and blindfolded me. They handcuffed my hands behind my back and pulled me up on bars until my toes touched the floor. I no eat, I go to the hospital. Oh, I am so sick. Any more and I would have confessed to anything."[10]

Verburgh spent 10 days in the hospital.[5] It was determined that Verburgh couldn't write English well enough even by the crude standards of the ransom note itself, for him to have written it. He sued the Chicago Police Department for USD$15,000[5] but was awarded USD$20,000,[8] approximately USD$211,000 in 2007 dollars.[12] Five thousand dollars ($52,740 2007 dollars) of the $20,000 awarded to Verburgh was awarded to his wife.

Sidney Sherman Investigation

Another notable false lead was that of Sidney Sherman, a recently discharged Marine who had served in World War II. Police had found blond hairs in the back of the Degnan apartment building and nearby was a wire that authorities suspected could have been used as a garrote to strangle Suzanne Degnan. Near that was a handkerchief the police suspected might had been used as a gag to keep Suzanne quiet. On the handkerchief was a laundry mark name: S. Sherman. The police hoped that perhaps the killer had made a fatal error leaving it behind. They searched military records and discovered that a Sidney Sherman lived nearby at the Hyde Park YMCA. The police went to question Sherman but discovered that he had vacated the residence without checking out and quit his job without picking up his last paycheck,[13] suggesting the actions of a guilty person since someone who is innocent would be unlikely to leave without their last paycheck.

A nation-wide manhunt ensued. Sherman was found four days later in Toledo, Ohio. He explained under interrogation that he had eloped with his girlfriend and denied that the handkerchief was his. He was administered a polygraph test, which he passed, and was later cleared.[13] Eventually the real owner was found; the handkerchief belonged to Airman Seymour Sherman of New York City who had been out of the country when Suzanne Degnan was murdered. He had no idea how it could possibly have ended up in Chicago and the presence of the handkerchief was determined to be a coincidence.[13]

Mystery phone calls solved

On the day of Suzanne Degnan's disappearance several calls to the Degnan residence demanding ransom payment but without leaving further instructions or further conversation were made. The mystery of who placed those calls was answered. While checking out local hooligans to see if they had any connection to the Degnan case, they picked up a local boy named Theodore Campbell. Under questioning, he admitted that another local teenager, named Vincent Costello, had killed Suzanne Degnan. The Chicago Tribune declared the Degnan case solved.[14]

Costello lived only a few blocks from the Degnan apartment building and attended a nearby high school before being convicted of armed robbery at age 16 and sent to reform school. According to the story Campbell told the police, Costello told him that he kidnapped and killed the girl and disposed of her body. Costello allegedly told Campbell to make ransom calls to the Degnans. This corroborated the mystery ransom calls made to the Degnans the morning after Suzanne was reported missing. The police arrested Costello on that basis and interrogated him overnight.[14]

The story started to fall apart when both Campbell's and Costello's polygraph test indicated that they had no knowledge of the murder. They later admitted that they heard police officers discussing details of the case and came up with the idea of calling the Degnans about the ransom.[14]

Lack of progress

In February, Suzanne Degnan's arms were found by sewer workers about a half mile from her home after the rest of her was already interred. By April some 370 suspects were questioned and cleared.[15]

By this time the press was taking an increasingly critical tone as to how the police were handling the Degnan investigation.[15]

Another confession

"I want to go back to Chicago and take my medicine, even if it means the chair", Richard Russell Thomas said. Thomas was a nurse living in Phoenix, Arizona, having moved from Chicago. At the time, he was imprisoned in Phoenix for molesting one of his own daughters. Elements of his handwriting matched the ransom note and his medical training as a nurse matched the profile suggested by police. However, he apparently had some elements of the case wrong. Because of the errors, and the suspicion that Thomas confessed in order to avoid jail time in Arizona, the confession was disregarded.

In addition, the authorities were intrigued by a promising new suspect reported to the paper the same day the Thomas development broke. A college student was caught fleeing from the scene of a burglary, brandished a gun at police and possibly tried to kill one of the pursuing policemen to escape. By this time Thomas had recanted his confession, but the press didn't notice in light of this new lead.[16]

Arrest and questioning of Heirens

On June 26, 1946, Heirens was arrested on attempted burglary charges when someone saw him breaking into an apartment. He fled, the building's janitor pursued him and blocked his path out of the building. However, Heirens allegedly pointed the gun he was carrying at the caretaker saying "Let me get out or I'll let you have it in the guts!"[17] The janitor ceased his pursuit. Heirens made his way to a nearby building to lie low, but a resident spotted him and called the police. Two officers closed in from two different directions. When trapped, Heirens brandished a revolver, perhaps pointing the barrel at one officer. Some reports state that he actually pulled the trigger but the gun misfired.[17] In the police account, Heirens charged them after his gun misfired twice.[17] In Heirens' version, he turned and attempted to run after bluffing with the gun and the cops charged him.[5] A scuffle resulted that ended only when an off-duty policeman dropped a flowerpot on Heirens’s head, rendering him unconscious.

According to Heirens, he remembered drifting into consciousness under questioning. The police had taken him to Bridewell Hospital, which was adjacent to the Cook County Jail. The questioning became more intense, with officers demanding to know how he did it, to say that he did it, they "knew" that he did it. At one point, someone punched him in the testicles, causing him to nearly vomit.[5] They also burned them with ether.[11]

Heirens later said he was interrogated around the clock for six consecutive days, being beaten by police and not allowed to eat or drink.[11] He was not allowed to see his parents for four days.[11] He was also refused the opportunity to speak to a lawyer for six days.[11][18]

Two psychiatrists, Doctors Haines and Roy Grinker, gave Heirens sodium pentathol without a warrant and without Heirens' or his parents' consent, and interrogated for three hours[11]. Under the influence of the drug, authorities claimed, Heirens spoke of an alternate personality named "George Murman", who had actually committed the murders. Heirens claimed that he recalled little of the drug-induced interrogation. What Heirens actually said is in dispute, as the original transcript has disappeared.[19 ]

On his fifth day in custody, Heirens was given a lumbar puncture without anesthesia. Moments later, Heirens was driven to police headquarters for a polygraph test. They tried for a few minutes to administer the test, but it was rescheduled for several days later after they found him to be in too much pain to cooperate.[19 ]

When the polygraph was administered, authorities, including Touhy, announced that the results were “inconclusive.” On July 2, 1946, he was transferred to the Cook County Jail where he was placed in the infirmary to recover.[11][20][21]

Heirens’s first confession

After the sodium pentathol questioning but before the polygraph exam, Heirens spoke to Captain Michael Ahern. With State's Attorney William Tuohy and a stenographer at hand, Heirens offered an indirect confession, confirming his claim while under sodium pentathol that his alter-ego "George Murman" might have been responsible for the crimes.[19 ] That "George" (which happens to be his father's first name and Heirens' middle name) had given him the loot to hide in his dormitory room. Police hunted all over for this "George" questioning Heirens' known friends family and associations, but came away empty handed.[22]

Heirens was attributed as saying while under the influence that he met "George" when he was 13 years old; that it was "George" who sent him out prowling at night, that he robbed for pleasure, "killed like a Cobra" when cornered and relating his secrets to Heirens.[23] Heirens allegedly claimed that he was always taking the rap for George, first for petty theft, then assault and now murder.[23] Psychologists explained at the time that Heirens made up this personality in the same way children made up imaginary friends to keep his antisocial feelings and actions separate from the person who could be the "average son and student, date nice girls and go to church,..."[23]

Authorities were skeptical of Heirens’ claims and suspected that he was laying the groundwork for an insanity defense, but the confession earned widespread publicity with the press transforming "Murman" to "Murder Man".[19 ]

Hard evidence

While handwriting analysts did not definitely link Heirens’ handwriting to the "Lipstick Message", police claimed that his fingerprints matched a print discovered at the scene of the Frances Brown murder. It was first reported as a "bloody smudge" in the door jamb. Further, a fingerprint of the left little finger also allegedly connected Heirens to the ransom note with nine points of comparison. At the time Heirens' supporters pointed out the FBI handbook regarding fingerprint identification required 12 points of comparison matching to have a positive identification.[19 ]

Later, Chief of Detectives Walter Storms confirmed that the "bloody smudge" left on the door jamb was Heirens'.[19 ]

The loot

Police searches (without a warrant[11]) of Heirens’s residence and college dormitory found other items that earned publicity. Notably found was a scrapbook containing pictures of Nazi officials that belonged to a war veteran, Harry Gold, that was taken when Heirens burgled his place the night Suzanne Degnan was killed. Gold lived in the vicinity of the Degnans that put Heirens in the circle of suspicion.[24]

The police found in Heirens' possession a stolen copy of Psychopathia Sexualis. They also found a stolen medical kit among his possessions, but they announced that the medical instruments could not be linked to the murders. No trace of biological material such as blood, skin and hair were found on the tools. Moreover, no biological material of the victims were found on Heirens himself or any of his clothes. The medical kit tools were considered to be too fine and small to be used for dissection. Heirens had used the four inch long medical kit to alter the war bonds he stole.[18] A gun was found in his possession that was linked to a shooting. A Colt Police Positive revolver had been stolen in a burglary at the apartment of Guy Rodrick on December 3, 1945. Two nights later, a bullet crashed through the closed eighth floor apartment window of Marion Caldwell, wounding her. Heirens had that gun in his possession and, according to the Chicago Police Department, the bullet that injured Caldwell was linked through ballistics to that same gun.[24]

Press influence

As Time observed in its July 29, 1946, issue:

"The News and Hearst's Herald-American hit the street together with front-page layouts showing Heirens as a Dr. Jekyll (hair combed) and Mr. Hyde (hair mussed). He had not yet been charged with murder, but the Tribune airily convicted him: HOW HEIRENS SLEW 3.''[25]

On July 14, State's Attorney William Tuohy met in a close door meeting with Heirens' lawyers, the brothers Malachy and John Coghlan, to discuss a possible plea bargain.

On July 18, 1946, Chicago Tribune staff reporter George Wright wrote a piece on the case entitled:

The Heirens Story! How He Killed Suzanne Degnan and 2 Women.

Wright cited "unimpeachable sources" that Heirens had confessed and provided manufactured details.[10] The Tribune devoted 38 columns for the story.[26] It began:

"This is the story of how William George Heirens, 17, kidnapped, strangled and then dismembered Suzanne Degnan, 6, last Jan. 7, and distributed the parts of her body in sewer openings near her home. It is the story of how William George Heirens climbed into the apartment of Miss Frances Brown...and shot and stabbed her to death, and left a message on the wall with lipstick imploring the police to catch him...And it is the story of how William George Heirens entered the apartment of Mrs. Josephine Ross...and how he stabbed her to death when she awoke."[27]

The other four competing daily newspapers reprinted it in their publications.[10] As The Tribune wrote later:

"So great was public confidence in the Tribune, that other newspapers . . . reprinted the story solely because the Tribune said it was so. . . . For a while, Heirens maintained his innocence. But the whole world believed his guilt. The Tribune had said he was guilty."[26]

Heirens had a few supporters in the press. The London Sunday Pictorial ran an article called "Condemned Before His Trial, America Calls This Justice":

"While all America waits for a man to be charged in one of the most complex murder cases in history, a suspected youth has already been tried in the pages of Chicago newspapers. And he has been found guilty.”[11]

As late as 1975, the Chicago Daily News was still taking credit for its "scoop."[28]

An eyewitness

George E. Subgrunski, an active duty soldier, made a statement the day after the murder of Suzanne Degnan that he saw a figure walking in the direction of the Degnan residence with a shopping bag. He said he was "about five feet, nine inches tall, weighing about 170 pounds, about 35 years old, and dressed in a light-colored fedora and a dark overcoat". Due to the lack of light he couldn't make out this person's facial features. When the police showed him a photo of Heirens on July 11, he could not identify him as the man he saw. On July 16, during a hearing, he pointed to Heirens and says "That's the man I saw!"[18] when he was brought into a courtroom and made the identification in person. The Chicago press stated that this solidified the case against Heirens. Subgrunski's testimony helped to return an indictment.[29 ] Later, Subgrunski's in court testimony would be discredited.

The second confession

A radio newscast reported on the Chicago Tribune's scoop of the "confession" which Heirens heard in his cell. He was incredulous stating:

"I didn't confess to anybody, honestly! My God, what are they going to pin on me next?"[27]

Heirens' lawyers pressured him to take Touhy's plea bargain. That deal, which was the topic of that closed door meeting with Touhy, stated that Heirens would serve one life sentence if he confessed to the murders of Josephine Ross, Frances Brown, and Suzanne Degnan. With the help of his lawyers, he began drafting a confession using the Chicago Tribune article as a guide:

As it turned out, the Tribune article was very helpful, as it provided me with a lot of details I didn't know. My attorneys rarely changed anything outright, but I could tell by their faces if I had made a mistake. Or they would say, 'Now, Bill, is that really the way it happened?' Then I would change my story because, obviously, it went against what was known (in the Tribune).[27]

Both Heirens and his parents signed a confession.[30] The parties agreed to a date of July 30 for Heirens to make his official confession. On that date the defense went to Tuohy's office, where several reporters were assembled to ask Heirens questions and where Tuohy himself made a speech.[27][29 ] Heirens appeared bewildered and gave noncommital answers to reporters' questions, which he years later blamed on Tuohy:

It was Tuohy himself. After assembling all the officials, including attorneys and policemen, he began a preamble about how long everyone had waited to get a confession from me, but, at last, the truth was going to be told. He kept emphasizing the word 'truth' and I asked him if he really wanted the truth. He assured me that he did...Now Tuohy made a big deal about hearing the truth. Now, when I was being forced to lie to save myself. It made me I told them the truth, and everyone got very upset.[27]

Tuohy withdrew the previously agreed sentence of one life term with a few minor charges, changed it to three life terms to run consecutively, and threatened Heirens with the death penalty if he went to trial.[29 ][30] They threatened to charge him with the murder of Estelle Carey even though Heirens was attending the Gibault School for Wayward Boys, a boarding school in Terre Haute, Indiana, at the time.[11] Heirens’ own attorneys were angry at their client for reneging on the plea bargain.[27] The Chicago Tribune had a headline:


Tuohy announced that he would press ahead to try Heirens for the deaths of Suzanne Degnan and Frances Brown.

Heirens agreed with the new plea agreement. The public allocution was held again in Tuohy's office. This time, Heirens talked and answered questions, even reenacting parts of the murders he had confessed to. Ahern changed his opinion and believed he was culpable when he heard how familiar Heirens was with victim Frances Brown's apartment.[30]

Heirens said later: "I confessed to save my life."

The knife

In his confession, Heirens stated that he disposed of the hunting knife with which he said he cut up Suzanne Degnan on the Elevated Subway tracks near the scene of the murder. The police never searched the EL tracks, however. Learning of this, reporters inquired with the track crew if they had found a knife. They had found it on the tracks and they kept it in the Granville station storage room. There reporters determined that the knife belonged to Guy Rodrick, the same person who had his Colt Police Positive .22 caliber gun stolen and found in Heiren's possession. On July 31, he positively identified the knife as his. Heirens acknowledged that he threw the knife there from an EL train, claiming he didn't want his mother to see it.[31]

Guilty plea

Heirens took full responsibility for the three murders on August 7, 1946. The prosecution had him reenact the crime in the Degnan home in public and in front of the press.[27][32] On September 4, with Heirens' parents and the victims' families attending and Chief Justice Harold G. Ward presiding, Heirens admitted his guilt on the burglary and murder charges.[27] That night, Heirens tried to hang himself in his cell, timed to coincide during a shift change of the prison guards. He was discovered before he died. He said later that despair drove him to attempt suicide:

Everyone believed I was guilty...If I weren't alive, I felt I could avoid being adjudged guilty by the law and thereby gain some victory. But I wasn't successful even at that. ...Before I walked into the courtroom my counsel told me to just enter a plea of guilty and keep my mouth shut afterward. I didn't even have a trial...[27]

On September 5, after further evidence was written in the record and the prosecution and defense made their closing statements, Ward formally sentenced Heirens to three life terms.[27] As Heirens waited to be transferred to Stateville Prison from the Cook County Jail, Sheriff Michael Mulcahy asked Heirens if Suzanne Degnan suffered when she was killed. Heirens answered:

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.[27]


Soon after Heirens was arrested, his parents and younger brother changed their surname to "Hill". His parents divorced after his conviction.[29 ]

Heirens was first housed at Stateville Prison in Joliet, Illinois. He has since learned several trades, including television and radio repair; at one point had his own repair shop. He became the first prisoner in Illinois history to earn a four year college degree on February 6, 1972, receiving a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree. He has aided other prisoners' educational progress by helping them earn their General Educational Development (GED) diplomas and becoming a "jailhouse lawyer" of sorts, helping them with their appeals.[33]

In 1975 he was transferred to the minimal security Vienna Correctional Center in Vienna, Illinois, and then in 1998 upon his request[34] to the Dixon Correctional Center minimum security prison in Dixon, Illinois. He resides in the Hospital Ward. He suffers from diabetes, which has swollen his legs and limited his eyesight, and now uses a wheelchair.[35] He continues with his efforts to win clemency.[36]

Claims of innocence

Within days of his confession in open court, Heirens denied any responsibility for the murders. Mary Jane Blanchard, daughter of murder victim Josephine Ross, was one of the first dissenters, being quoted in 1946 as saying:

"I cannot believe that young Heirens murdered my mother. He just does not fit into the picture of my mother's death … I have looked at all the things Heirens stole and there was nothing of my mother's things among them."[27]

The sodium pentathol interrogation

Heirens was subjected to an interrogation under the influence of sodium pentathol, popularly known as "truth serum" This drug was administered by psychiatrists Doctors Haines and Roy Grinker. Under its effects he allegedly stated that a second person named George Murman actually committed the killings.

This form of interrogation, which was done without a warrant and administered with neither Heirens's or his parent's consent, is believed by most scientists today to be of dubious value in eliciting the truth, due to high suggestibility of subjects under the influence of such substances.

" the 1950s, most scientists had declared the very notion of truth serums invalid, and most courts had ruled testimony gained through their use inadmissible."[37]

However, when Heirens was arrested in 1946, growing scientific opinion against "truth serum" had not yet filtered down to the courts and police departments.

During Heirens' post-conviction petition in 1952, Tuohy admitted under oath that he not only knew about the sodium pentathol procedure, he had authorized it and paid Grinkel USD$1,000.[11][19 ] The same year, Grinkel revealed that Heirens never implicated himself in any of the killings.[19 ]

The polygraph test

In 1946, after Heirens underwent two polygraph examinations, Tuohy declared the results inconclusive. However, John E. Reid and Fred E. Inbau published the test findings in their 1953 textbook, "Lie Detection and Criminal Interrogation" seem to contradict that assertion. According to the book, the test was not inconclusive, writing, "Murderer William Heirens was questioned about the killing and dismemberment of six-year old Suzanne Degnan ... On the basis of the conventional testing theory his response on the card test clearly establishes (him) as an innocent person."[19 ]

The handwriting evidence

During the Degnan murder investigation, the Chicago Police Department contacted Chicago Daily News artist Frank San Hamel to examine a photograph of the ransom note. Three days after the murder, Hamel told the police and the public that he had found "hidden Indentation writing" i.e. writing impressions from a note written on an overlying piece of paper, leaving a ghostly impression. At this news, Storms broke the chain of custody and provided Hamel with the original note for him to examine directly. Since the chain of custody was broken by this action, the note was rendered useless in court no matter the result. After Heirens was arrested for the Degnan killing, Hamel reported that it implicated him. The FBI had previously issued a report on March 22, 1946 that it examined the note and declared that there was no indentation writing at all and Hamel's assertions...

"...indicated either a lack of knowledge on his part or a deliberate attempt to deceive.".[11]

Even the actual handwriting on the note has been apparently discredited. Most handwriting experts, both attached to the Chicago police and independent at the time of the original investigation, believed that Heirens had no connections to either the note or the wall scribble. Charles Wilson, who was head of the Chicago Crime Detection Laboratory, declared Heirens's known handwriting exemplars obtained from Heirens' hand written notes from college agreed with the Police Department experts who could not find any connection between Heirens the note and the wall message. Independent handwriting expert George W. Schwartz was brought in to give his opinion. He stated flatly that

"The individual characteristics in the two writings do not compare in any respect."[19 ]

A third handwriting expert, Herbert J. Walter, whose credentials included working on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932, was brought in. After examining documents written by Heirens, Walter declared that Heirens wrote the ransom note and the lipstick scrawl on the wall and attempted to disguise his handwriting. However, this was in direct contradiction from what he said several months before, at which time he said he doubted that the two writings were authored by the same person. He was quoted as saying there were "a few superficial similarities and a great many dissimilarities."[19 ]

In 1996, FBI handwriting analyst David Grimes declared that Heirens’ known handwriting did not match either the Degnan ransom note or the infamous "Lipstick Message."[38] supporting the two earlier results of the original 1946 investigation and Herbert J. Walter's original January 1946 opinion. In addition, the handwriting of the notes don't match each other.[10]

Fingerprint evidence

Among evidence demonstrated toward Heirens' guilt is the fingerprint evidence on the Degnan ransom note and on the door jamb of Frances Brown's bathroom door. However, suspicions on the veracity of door jamb fingerprints found at the Brown crime scene has come into question, including charges that the police planted the fingerprint since it allegedly looks like a rolled fingerprint, the type that you would find on a police fingerprint index card.[10] Both sets of prints have come under serious question as to their validity, good faith collection and possible contamination; even the possibility of them being planted.

Ransom note fingerprints

On or about June 26, 1946, State’s Attorney Tuohy announced that "there can be no doubt now" as to Heirens's guilt after the authorities linked Heirens' prints to the two prints on the ransom note. It was this assertion, unchallenged by Heirens' defense council at sentencing that help prompt him to confess to the murders he was charged with. In a 2002 clemency petition, however, his lawyers question the validity of those prints on the ransom note due to the timing of discoveries of fingerprints on the card, the broken chain of evidence, its handling by both inexperienced law enforcement and civilians.[11]

The Degnan ransom note was first examined by the Chicago Crime Detection Laboratory, but they couldn't find any usable prints on the note. Captain Timothy O'Connor took the note to the FBI crime laboratory in Washington, D.C. on January 18, 1946 with the idea of enlisting the FBI's more sophisticated technology in finding any latent prints. The FBI subjected the note to the then advanced method of Iodine Fuming to raise latent prints.[11] The process was similar in execution to today's polycyanoacrylate "super glue" fuming in which Cyanoacrylate is heated to a vapor. This vapor sticks to the skin oils on the friction ridges of a latent fingerprint. The older Nynhidrin method which is a liquid that is sprayed on paper to detect latent prints on paper is similar. The FBI were able to raise two prints which they photographed promptly because unlike modern polycyanoacrylate fuming prints revealed by the Iodine process fade quickly. Captain O'Connor later testified at Heirens's sentencing hearing that he only saw two prints on the front of the note and did not mention the existence of any on the back.[11]

Upon his return to Chicago he turned over the photographs of the revealed prints on the note to Sergeant Thomas Laffey, the Chicago Police Department's fingerprint expert. After his examination he stated to the press that they were " incomplete that it is impossible to classify them."[11] Despite checking these "incomplete" prints with everyone arrested between January 1946 and June 29, 1946 he was unable to find a match even though William Heirens was previously arrested and fingerprinted on May 1, 1946 on a weapons charge.[11] Heirens was arrested for burglary on June 26, 1946; three days later Sergeant Laffey announced a nine point comparison match to Heirens left little finger with one of the prints. Then a match was announced between Heirens and the second print. In a news conference State's Attorney Tuohy declared that "...there could be no doubt now" about the suspect's guilt but then incongruously also stated that they didn't actually have enough evidence to indict Heirens.[11]

Months after the FBI had returned the note and the photograph of the note to the Chicago police, the police announced that Laffey had discovered a palm print on the reverse side of the note also matching Heirens to 10 points of comparison. No other prints were found on the note prompting Police Chief Walter Storm to say:

"This shows that Heirens was the only person to handle the note."[11]

This declaration is suspicious to some because:

  • The Chicago Police couldn't find any prints originally, hence the necessity to send the ransom note to the FBI for further processing, indicating that they were incapable of finding it in the first place.
  • Captain O'Connor only mentioned the two prints on the obverse side of the note and none on the reverse. Further, since both sides of the note are photographed immediately after fuming by the FBI a third print on the reverse side would had been obvious on the note itself and at the time of the development of the photograph of the note. Yet despite the testing occurring in mid January this third print wasn't discovered until early July, six months later and approximately two weeks after Heirens was arrested despite Laffey working on the Degnan case almost exclusively for six months.[11]
  • The original note was previously given to Chicago Daily News reporter Frank San Hamel the previous January (after the FBI had processed it) to examine to find any "hidden indentation writing" that Heirens supposedly left. This broke the chain of custody making the note inadmissible as evidence in court. Additionally, any number of people including Hamel had compromised the integrity of any prints on the note by depositing additional prints and obscuring and corrupting the prints of the culprit.[11]

Indeed, even before the police crime lab got a chance to examine the note Charles Wilson, the chief of the Chicago Crime Detection Laboratory stated:

"When we got the Degnan note it came late after other people had photographed it and handled it."[11]

In the same vein, a March 22, 1946 FBI report noted:

" is evident that the note has been handled considerably."[11]

These statements are in direct contradiction of Chief Walter Storm's assertion that no one else but Heirens handled the note.

Further, Laffey testified during the September 5, 1946 sentencing hearing that one more fingerprint on the reverse sided of the note was linked to Heirens to 10 points of comparison. He also increased the points of comparison of the palm print to Heirens from 10 to the FBI standard of 12.[11]

As to the fingerprints on the front of the note that were discovered by the FBI in January 1946, Laffey only identified one and did not say it belonged to Heirens when he testified at the sentencing hearing. Only the prints not found by the FBI and allegedly discovered after Heirens's arrest were mentioned at the sentencing hearing and not the two front prints that was supposedly "indisputable" proof of Heirens's culpability.[11] They were hardly mentioned nor linked to Heirens in a court hearing in which the witnesses had to testify under oath.

As a further indication of what could be called ineffective defense by Heirens's lawyers, none of these issues were raised at the sentencing hearings and no objections were made nor did they bring up chain of custody issues.[11]

The door jamb print

Fig.1 A rolled print from a fingerprint card.
Fig.2 A latent print found on an object, in this case paper.

A "bloody, smudged" print of an end and middle joint of a finger was found on the door jamb of a door between the bathroom and dressing room in Francis Brown's apartment. A photograph of the print was taken, but no match was made with anything on file.[11] After Heirens was arrested on June 26, his prints were compared with the Degnan note. When Laffey claimed a match with Heirens and the prints on the Degnan note an attempt was made to match him with the door jamb print. It was unsuccessful, and the police declared him cleared of the Brown murder because the print at the crime scene was not his.[11] Twelve days later, however, it was declared to match Heirens' prints to 22 points of comparison, well above the FBI standard.[11]

At Heirens' sentencing, Laffey testified that the end joint of the bloody print had only an eight point comparison to Heirens' and the middle joint a mere six point comparison. The middle joint didn't live up to even Laffey's personal standard of seven or eight points to make a positive identification match.[11]

Another source of contention is that the Brown crime scene fingerprint has the appearance of having been rolled, which is the practice of taken a person's inked finger and rolling them on an index card, and not the smudged, bloody and unreadable print as originally reported.[10] Traditionally, after the fingertip is covered in ink from either the suspect's hand being pressed on top of an ink pad or an ink roller being run across them, the finger is placed on the card on one edge. It is rolled once from one edge to the finger's other edge to produce a large, clear print.

Heirens' attorneys did not question the veracity of the prints, however.[11]

The confession

Twenty nine inconsistencies have been found between his confession and the known facts of the crime.[39] It has since become the understanding that the nature of these inconsistencies is a clear indicator of false confessions.[10] Some details did seem to match, like the police theory that Suzanne Degnan was dismembered by a hunting knife and Heirens confessed to throwing a hunting knife on to a section of the Chicago Subway "EL" trestle near the Degnan residence. However, it was never determined scientifically that it was at least the dismemberment tool and Heirens had an alternate explanation for it. Further, it was not initially recovered by the police, but members of the press, who recovered it from the transit track gang who found it.

An alternative suspect

After the Degnan murder, but before Heirens became a suspect, Chicago police interrogated 42-year-old Richard Russell Thomas, a drifter passing through the city of Chicago at the time of Degnan's murder found in the Maricopa County Jail in Maricopa, Arizona. Police handwriting expert Charles B. Arnold, head of the forgery detail of the Phoenix police in Thomas’s hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, noted similarities between the handwritten Degnan ransom note and Thomas’ handwriting when Thomas wrote with his left hand,[29 ] and suggested that Chicago police investigate Thomas.[38]

Upon being questioned, Thomas confessed to the crime, but he was released from custody after Heirens became the prime suspect.[40] Others contend that Thomas was a strong suspect, to wit:

  • Thomas previously had been convicted of an attempted extortion — with a ransom note that threatened the kidnapping of a little girl.
  • As previously noted, handwriting experts at the time stated that the Thomas' ransom note from his previous conviction of extortion bears similarity in both style in regarding the wording and in form of the actual structure of the letters formed to the Degnan ransom note.[38]
  • Thomas was in Chicago at the time of the Degnan murder.
  • At the time he confessed to the Degnan crime, he was awaiting sentencing for molesting his daughter.[41]
  • Thomas had a history of violence, including spousal abuse.[38]
  • Thomas was a nurse who was known to masquerade as a surgeon. He often boasted to his friends that he was a doctor and he was known to steal surgical supplies.[38] Chicago Police had previously developed a profile of the Degnan killer as having surgical skills or being a butcher.
  • He frequented a car agency near the Degnan residence. Parts of Suzanne Degnan's body were found in a sewer across from that car agency he often visited.[38]
  • Like Heirens, he was a known burglar.
  • He had confessed freely to the Degnan murder, although he would later recant it.

The Chicago detectives dismissed Thomas' claims after Heirens became a suspect. Thomas died in 1974 in an Arizona prison. His prison record and most of the evidence of his interrogation regarding the Chicago murders have been lost or destroyed.[40]

Petition for clemency

In 2002, Lawrence C. Marshall, et al., filed a petition on Heirens' behalf seeking clemency.[42] They cited not only doubts about Heirens' guilt, but also his behavior in prison.[43] The appeal was eventually denied.

Heirens' most recent parole hearing was held on July 26, 2007. The Illinois Prisoner Review Board decision in a 14-0 vote against parole, was reflected by Board member Thomas Johnson, who stated that "God will forgive you, but the state won't".[35][44] However, the parole board also decided to revisit the issue once per year from then on.[32]

There remain many who have questioned whether Heirens is guilty.[45]


  1. ^ Gabriel Falcon (October 24, 2009). "'Lipstick Killer' behind bars since 1946". CNN. Retrieved 2009-10-24.  
  2. ^ "Gray area: Aging prison population has state looking at alternatives." May 30, 2009. Accessed June 5, 2009.
  3. ^ Kennedy, Dolores "Bill Heirens Asks For Help So He Won't Die In Prison For Another's Crime." URL accessed January 29, 2007
  4. ^ a b c "The Monster That Terrorized Chicago" page 2.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Geringer, Joseph, "William Heirens: Lipstick Killer or Legal Scapegoat? Chapter 2: The Atrocities" URL accessed Jan 29, 2007
  6. ^ Colin Wilson and Patricia Pitman. Encyclopedia of Murder, Pan Books, London and Sydney, 1984, page 317
  7. ^ a b "The Monster That Terrorized Chicago" page 4.
  8. ^ a b c "The Monster That Terrorized Chicago" page 5.
  9. ^ Real Chicago: Chicago-Sun Times Photo Essay
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Blog reproduction of Northwestern University law students 2002 article from defunct site
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae html version of the Heirens Northwestern Clemency petition
  12. ^ Cost of living Calculator
  13. ^ a b c "The Monster That Terrorized Chicago" page 6.
  14. ^ a b c "The Monster That Terrorized Chicago" page 7.
  15. ^ a b "The Monster That Terrorized Chicago" page 8.
  16. ^ "The Monster That Terrorized Chicago" page 9.
  17. ^ a b c "The Monster That Terrorized Chicago" page 16.
  18. ^ a b c Geringer, Joseph, "William Heirens: Lipstick Killer or Legal Scapegoat? Chapter 5: More Clues, More Inquiries" URL accessed July 31, 2007
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Killers/Sexual Predators/William Heirens: Lipstick Killer or Legal Scapegoat
  20. ^ Real Chicago: Chicago-Sun Times Photo Essay
  21. ^ [1]
  22. ^ "The Monster That Terrorized Chicago" page 19.
  23. ^ a b c website reproduction of "Bill & George" article that appeared in Time Magazine, July 29, 1946
  24. ^ a b "The Monster That Terrorized Chicago" page 17.
  25. ^ reproduction of "Wuxtry! Read All About It!" article that appeared in its July 29, 1946 issue.
  26. ^ a b If The Trib says so... reproduction of its July August 19, 1946 article.
  27. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Geringer, Joseph, "William Heirens: Lipstick Killer or Legal Scapegoat? Chapter 6: Confession"
  28. ^ “Artist’s Keen Eye Downfall of Heirens,” Chicago Daily News, October 21, 1975 by Norman Mark
  29. ^ a b c d e Northwestern University Law April 2002 Clemency Petition.
  30. ^ a b c d "The Monster That Terrorized Chicago" page 20.
  31. ^ "The Monster That Terrorized Chicago" page 21.
  32. ^ a b August 2, 2007 Northwestern law school article.
  33. ^ July 29, 2007 Sun-Times article.
  34. ^ 1999 article
  35. ^ a b Suburban Chicago News/ Courier News article.
  36. ^ Tucson Weekly article
  37. ^ "Some Believe 'Truth Serums' Will Come Back" November 19, 2006 Washington Post article page 1
  38. ^ a b c d e f Geringer, Joseph, "William Heirens: Lipstick Killer or Legal Scapegoat? Chapter 7: Model Prisoner" URL accessed January 29, 2007
  39. ^ Child in the Sewer
  40. ^ a b December 23, 2004 Tucson Weekly article
  41. ^ Northwestern 2002 Clemency partition page 3.
  42. ^ Marshall, Lawrence C., et al., Amended Petition for Executive Clemency URL accessed January 30, 2007
  43. ^ [2]
  44. ^ Social Science Research Network
  45. ^ "The Long, Long Life of the Lipstick Killer" G.Q.. May, 2008. Accessed October 26, 2009.

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