William Heirens—Full Circle

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  • (Chicago, March 6, 2012) William Heirens, the notorious “Lipstick Killer” who in 1946 confessed to three horrific murders in Chicago and then spent the rest of his life — more than 65 years — in prison despite questions about his guilt, died yesterday, at a Chicago hospital after officials at the Illinois Dixon Correctional Center found him unresponsive in his cell.

I was not quite 8 years old when I discovered the joy of reading. I checked books out of our grammar school library and I sharpened my reading skills with a hard cover Webster Dictionary at my side. Then I discovered newspapers. The Chicago Daily Times was delivered to our home each day. It was a tabloid in both format and content. I scanned it each day for items that might interest a young boy. Then on January 8th, 1946 the “crime of the century” hit the front page.

Six year old Suzanne Degnan was kidnapped from her north side home and a few days later, based on an anonymous tip, police found portions of her dismembered body in nearby sewers within blocks of her home. It was a gruesome, macabre crime and The Times played it to the hilt with two inch headlines and front page pictures. Each day when I returned home from school I raced in and grabbed the paper, devouring every word of it. What were my parents thinking? Most likely they assumed I was reading the comics or sports section… well I was, but I read the Degnan Homicide stories first.

Sixty-five year-old Hector Verburgh, a janitor in the building where Degnan lived, was arrested and the police claimed to have solved the case. His picture filled the entire front page of The Times. He was wild-eyed, unshaven and appeared unkempt, the personification of an evil killer. A few days later he was released without charging. I was astounded. Why, you could tell by just looking at him that he was a murderer! Alas, my eight year old judgment apparently needed some honing. Two years later he was awarded $20,000 for false arrest and police brutality.

The next break in the case came in summer of ‘46 when the police arrested William Heirens committing a burglary in the Degnan neighborhood. Suzanne’s murder once again took over the front pages, but to this eight year old, Heirens, a 17 year old University of Chicago student, didn’t look anywhere near as frightening as Hector the janitor.  Never-the-less, over the next several months I read all the accounts of Heirens’ interrogation, eventual confession, and subsequent trial. The police linked him to two additional murders from the previous year and he was convicted and sentenced to three consecutive life terms in the Illinois Penitentiary. Well, he confessed, so he must have been the right guy.

Almost 25 years later I walked into Maxwell Street Homicide as a full fledged big city detective. If asked, I would say that the Degnan Murder had no bearing on my desire to work homicide, but in retrospect I don’t think I could deny it. Steve Jobs said: “… you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” In the next eleven years I would experience firsthand the violence and depravity that human beings can wreak upon one another. And although it goes against any sense of reason, I also learned that it was not uncommon for innocent people to confess to murder without physical coercion of any kind. Without independent corroboration, any confession was suspect in my mind. Still, Heirens did not occupy any of my free brain cell minutes.

Under Illinois’ arcane sentencing laws, even a man serving three consecutive terms for murder was still eligible for parole and when he appeared before the parole board he again became news. Parole was denied of course and during one of my trips to Statesville Prison on an investigation I spoke with correctional officers who had routine contact with Heirens. “Nutty as a fruitcake,” was their opinion. Specifically, Heirens suffered from dissociative identity disorder, more commonly known as multiple personalities and the guards described having conversations with his different personas.

William Heirens and the Suzanne Degnan homicide became the farthest thing from my mind until the summer of 2010. A professional law enforcement association, of which I am a member and officer, booked a most interesting man as guest speaker for our fall State Conference. Steve Hodel is a former Los Angeles homicide investigator and spent a good part of his retirement years gathering proof that his father, George Hodel, was a serial killer. To that end he has published two books, The Black Dahlia Avenger and Most Evil, purporting to prove his case.

Some sixty-four years later, I found myself a more critical and discerning reader and after finishing reading The Black Dahlia Avenger I couldn’t say I was convinced that Steve had made his case. The publication of that book however, stirred the proverbial pot, and long sealed Los Angeles crime files were reopened and reviewed. These files confirmed many of Hodel’s earlier suppositions and led to the publication of his second book, Most Evil. I was gradually becoming a believer.  Even more surprising, several chapters in Most Evil build the case that Steve’s father, George, was the killer of not only Suzanne Degnan, but the other two murders of which Heirens had been convicted. Considerable doubt is cast upon Heirens guilt as Hodel builds a decent case, if not an airtight one against his father. He is even able to place his father in Chicago during the time period of one of the Heirens’ murders. Further, he purports that unique dissection details of the Degnan case and one of the Los Angeles Black Dahlia cases bear remarkable similarities.

I picked Steve up at the St. Louis airport when he flew in for his presentation. I listened to him in the classroom of course, but I also cracked a few beers with him later and we even attended a Cardinal’s game at Busch Stadium. Steve worked Hollywood Homicide about the same time period I worked Maxwell Street Homicide and it was my chance to talk to him “homicide mano a homicide mano.” I had hoped he would clear up a few things for that eight year old boy that still exists somewhere inside of me, but it was not to be. Steve was a good companion and conversationalist for those few days, but I learned little more than his books had already revealed. There was one tantalizing loose end concerning some possible DNA evidence at the Degnan homicide scene. But there is a question if it even exists these many years later. And even if it does gather dust in some 66 year old evidence file, the chances are slim that current law enforcement officials would expend resources on finding it and committing scarce laboratory resources for analysis at this late date.

As a very practical matter, the case is closed and with the passing of William Heirens on March 5th, any secrets his tortured mind held, died with him. Suzanne Degnan’s surviving siblings are convinced beyond all doubt that Heirens was guilty and that should be enough for me. No two persons have been closer to the case, having attended every Heirens parole hearing for the past 29 years.

The eight year old boy grew up and moved on devouring the details of the Chicago area Schuessler-Peterson murders in 1955, the Grimes sisters in 1956, and Judith Mae Anderson in 1957. In each of these cases, young people of my age genre were brutally murdered in the metropolitan area where I lived. In a sense, it brought me an unsettling sense of my own mortality, but—connecting the dots backwards now— perhaps it also brought me to the Maxwell Street Homicide office so many years later.

Showing 11 comments

  • Phil Nuccio
    Reply

    Jim:

    I also worked in Area 4 V/C (after you left) for 14 years after a 3 1/2 year tour in Burglary. I enjoy each one of your stories. Keep up the good work.

    That aside, I grew up with a friend who married the daughter of a Sgt. Cunningham, of the Traffic Division. As I was told: He was off duty returning from the beach when he discovered Heirens burglarizing a home and hit him in the head with a pliers (I think). As I recall, a fingerprint tech would compare prints found at the Degnan murder scene. He compared Heirens’ print to that at the murder scene. That print and the confession were the major parts of the prosecution.

    I have not read either book by Hodel nor do I know of any further facts or information of those murders. At the age of 65, I do remember all of those murders that made Chicago history.

  • Phil
    Reply

    Another one for those of us waiting with bated breath. And again, you took it away! Thanks Jim for revealing a part of your most interesting child hood. With age, comes the reality that the Grey matter declines, but with you, I’m amazed! What did I have for lunch yesterday? Keep up the great work of words. I’m waiting patiently for more!

  • Mary Rita Shull
    Reply

    Well done again, Jim.

  • RB
    Reply

    He didn’t do it and was sandbagged, his life ruined forever by shit Detective work.

  • Silvia
    Reply

    Thanks, I enjoy seeing ON BEING A COP… in my inbox. It means that once again I’ll enjoy some memorable reading!

  • DENNIS P. MURPHY
    Reply

    Jim,
    I enjoyed your comments ( as usual ). Take care,
    Dennis Murphy

  • Joanna Trotter
    Reply

    Very interesting Jim

  • Rich Rostrom
    Reply

    The trickle of doubt in a case such as the Degnan murder must be very disturbing to the detectives.

    I remember how this was dramatized on the TV show Homicide. Bayliss, a new detective, was assigned the murder of a little girl, Adena Davis. He and his partner arrested the most likely suspect, an elderly “Arabber” (fruit & vegetable peddler). Under intense interrogation, the Arabber made some seemingly incriminating admissions, then collapsed and died of a heart attack. The case was closed. But the Arabber had no previous history of anything like it, and his acquaintances insisted he would never do such a thing.

    For the rest of the series, Bayliss was haunted by the Adena Davis case. He kept her picture on his desk.

    I wonder if some Chicago detectives had similar feelings about the Degnan/Heirens case.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      I think the most difficult thing for me to wrap my head around regarding the Degnan Homicide is the fact that it was a completely different world back in 1946. First and foremost is the striking lack of forensic capabilities as compared to today’s standards. Secondly of course is the law which has morphed considerably in favor of the accused. Those two factors alone make it difficult, if not impossible, to make any objective judgements on how the case was handled.

      In my homicide career, I have had just two cases that “stuck with me” so to speak. One was the murder of a businessman, a case I felt we could have solved if not for the interference of my commander at the time. It was not anything overtly nefarious on his part, just an overwhelming timidity fed by the “don’t make waves” theory of police work.

      The second was a young black college student found in the Chicago River. It was “just a death investigation.” Was it murder, suicide, or accident? I was never able to get a handle on it. My partner and I spent some “quiet time” with his body at the morgue, seeking some divine revelation that never came. Next, with his mother’s permission, we spent some time in his room at home, looking through his papers, schoolwork and artwork. And again, just some quiet time… trying to establish some ethereal connection that never clicked in. So much for the supernatural method of homicide investigation. A young man living in the heart of the West Side ghetto, an individual with so much promise. The case never came together into any conclusive facts. Cause of death: Drowning. Manner of Death: Undetermined. Case closed—but not in my mind.

      Rich, thanks for reading the blog, giving it some thought, and taking time comment. I appreciate it!

  • Bill Kushner
    Reply

    Jim,
    I truly enjoy ( and relate) to your stories. We never had an opportunity to swap war stories when we worked at the Academy. Glad to see that you’re doing well. Keep it up!

    Kush

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