William Heirens, the University of Chicago student who pled guilty to two 1945 murders and the 1946 slaying of six-year-old Suzanne Degnan that he later claimed innocence of, died today at 83, ending the longest incarceration in America, and perhaps the world.
Heirens became known as the “Lipstick Killer,” though the term was actually waiting for him—after 33-year-old Francis Brown, an “attractive ex-WAVE” and “a woman beyond reproach” was killed at the Pine Crest Hotel, just northwest of Wrigley Field, the murderer left the now-famous message “For heaven’s sake, catch me before I kill more, I cannot control myself” behind on the wall of her room. (Rumors persist that the message was the handiwork of a crime reporter looking to add even more sensation to the murder.) Before Heirens’s arrest, the cops had also connected the three cases that he would later confess to—immediately after Degnan’s murder, Captain John L. Sullivan tied the slayer to the murders of Brown and Josephine Ross, as well as the wounding of a 19-year-old woman two blocks from the Degnan home.
The persistence of Heirens’s case in the popular imagination has a lot to do with the “lipstick killer” murder and the shocking dismemberment of Degnan, two front-page stories that came together with the arrest of Heirens. The Degnan case was the catalyst for one of the 20th century’s most famous law-enforcement careers: Robert Ressler, the FBI agent who allegedly coined the term “serial killer” and one of the pioneers of criminal profiling, was a Chicago youth when the Lipstick Killer case played out in the headlines:
“Even as a kid, I had been interested in law enforcement,” Ressler recounts. “I’d play cops and robbers, and since my father worked for the Chicago Tribune, he would bring home the newspaper. I learned that there was a killer loose in Chicago who was killing woman and leaving writings on the wall, so I started following it. Before he was identified, I conjured up a game with other kids to form a detective agency. We had cap guns and cameras, and we’d follow neighbors around and conduct crime scene examinations to find ‘the Lipstick killer.’ We got old tubes of lipstick from our mothers and wrote things on walls. We did this every day and at the end of the day we’d meet together to compare notes. Then when the thing concluded with Heirens’ arrest, we all congratulated ourselves on our part in the investigation that caught the killer.”
When Ressler was scheduled to give instruction in southern Illinois, he recalled that Heirens was in Vienna Men’s Correctional Facility not far from there, so he got permission to interview him. “It was weird,” he recalls, “because many kids have sports heroes and that sort of thing, and I wanted to meet this serial killer. I told him that I’d followed his case. He was about nine years older than me and he was kind of taken aback that, in a sense, he had a fan.”
But the notoriety of the murders that Heirens confessed to is only one element of his continued significance. For decades, Heirens has had a small but devout group of supporters who believe he was innocent of the crimes, and that his confession was, at best, coerced. The best summary of this is Robert McClory’s 1989 Reader story “Kill-Crazed Animal?”:
First, Heirens was held for six days without access to the defense attorneys hired by his parents. No charges were filed as he was quizzed continually–five times in one night, according to a news report–about the Degnan killing and other murders. When he refused to cooperate, he was accused of “malingering.” John Coghlan, his chief defense attorney, complained: “Detention for six days implies coercion under the law. For six days this lad of 17 has had to pit his intelligence against the state. He is either innocent or extremely intelligent.” Only on July 2 were his attorneys allowed to confer with him.
During his six-day detention, Heirens was given a sodium pentothal “truth serum” injection without his permission or the knowledge and permission of his lawyers. He was then quizzed while under its influence. Edgar Jonas, chairman of the Chicago Bar Association, later declared, “Use of any serum or artificial stimulant is just as much unlawful for obtaining information as beating information out of a prisoner.” He was also given a lie-detector test, which police labeled “inconclusive,” although it was revealed years later that he had passed.
Meanwhile, his apartment in Hyde Park was searched by police without benefit of a warrant. Evidence, including loot from some of Heirens’s burglary sprees, was illegally confiscated.
And that’s just the beginning of it. McClory goes on to detail the close working relationship the prosecution and the police had with the press and, in some instances, the defense:
As [State’s Attorney] Tuohy explained after Heirens’s confession, “The small likelihood of a successful murder prosecution of William Heirens early prompted the state’s attorney’s office to seek out and obtain the cooperative help of defense counsel, and through them, that of their client. All the prosecution had in the Degnan case was a partial fingerprint on the ransom note. . . . And it was at this stage of the investigation that defense counsel moved forward in cooperation with my office.”
Coghlan did not view this symbiotic relationship as unethical or in any way prejudicial to his client’s interests. On the contrary, when he later explained to the sentencing judge, Harold Ward, how he had shared every scrap of information and all his plans with Tuohy, he suggested his actions might be “a precedent to defense attorneys in the future to follow a like course.”
Heirens’s lawyers told him that there were enough provable burglary indictments against him that “his time was all used up as far as punishment was concerned,” that he would have little chance to beat the death penalty with all the clamor, and that if he could get an agreement to save his life, it would be advisable to do so.
The loose cogs in the case against Heirens helped generate a small but ongoing effort to get Heirens freed, including assistance from Northwestern’s Center for Wrongful Convictions. On the other side was Degnan’s sister Betty, who remained just as devout, as Adam Higginbotham wrote for GQ in 2008:
Although the number of people who remember the Lipstick Killer continues to dwindle, Betty Degnan, who was only 10 years old when her younger sister was murdered, has vigorously opposed every parole application Heirens has made since 1983. Now 72, she claims to remain terrified that the half-blind man in the wheelchair at Dixon might one day be set free. “There can be no sense of security if he gets out,” Betty’s younger brother James said last year.
Betty Finn (neé Degnan) spoke briefly to the Tribune after Heirens’s death was reported, discussing her desire to outlive her sister’s killer:
Suzanne Degnan’s older sister, Betty Finn, said Heirens’ death will prevent her children from having to relive the horror of her sister’s murder every year, as she and her brother have done for the last 29 years while attending Heirens’ parole hearings in an effort to ensure that he remained in custody.
“I was always worried I would die before he did, and I didn’t want my children to have to go through this and go to parole hearings,” said Finn, who was 10 when her sister was killed.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune