Illinois’ longest-serving inmate and the man convicted of being the notorious “Lipstick Killer” after confessing to the shocking killings of a 6-year-old and two Chicago women in the 1940s has died.
William Heirens, 83, was found dead of apparent natural causes Monday at the Dixon Correctional Center in Downstate Dixon.
Heirens was serving multiple life terms for the 1945 murders of Frances Brown and Josephine Ross as well as the 1946 abduction, dismemberment and murder of 6-year-old Suzanne Degnan.
Betty Finn, a Wilmette resident who was 10 when her sister Suzanne was killed, said she still remembers when her parents and a priest — a family friend — told her what had happened.
“I can see it vividly. You never forget it,” Finn said, recalling her parents’ looks of anguish and the “total zoo” of media and law enforcement officials staked outside the family home. “It was just downright scary. A total mob scene.”
Jim Degnan, Suzanne’s brother who was born almost a year after her death, said each parole hearing felt like chapter after chapter in the family’s 65-year “odyssey” since his sister’s death.
“But now the book is over,” the Northbrook resident said.
Degnan and Finn had been attending Heirens’ parole hearings for almost three decades.
Finn said she’s grateful they don’t have to dwell or worry about them anymore.
“I hope he made his peace with God,” she said.
Degnan said there was never any apology or direct contact between his family and Heirens.
“There was one year early on that I gave thought to staring him in the face, but I’m glad I didn’t,” Degnan said. “Nothing good would’ve come from that.”
In 2007, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board voted 14-0 against setting Heirens free after he had served 61 years in prison. “God will forgive you,” Thomas Johnson, then a member of the Prisoner Review Board and now a state senator, said at the time. “But the state won’t.”
The panel ruled the weight of Heirens’ crimes was too heavy to justify his release, despite his deteriorating health and good behavior.
Suzanne Degnan was abducted from her home in January 1946, on the first day of school after Christmas vacation, by an intruder who used a ladder to climb in to her bedroom at her home in Rogers Park. She was later strangled and taken to the basement of a nearby building and dismembered.
Parts of her body were found in sewers and catch basins near her home on the city’s North Side. Her head – her hair tied in a blue ribbon – was discovered in a sewer near her home, her right leg in a catch basin, her torso in another sewer.
Nearly six months later, in June 1946, Heirens – a 17-year-old University of Chicago student – was charged with Suzanne’s murder as well as the killings of Brown and Ross.
Heirens was arrested at the scene of a burglary in the same neighborhood as the girl’s killing. Police charged him with murder after they said they determined that his fingerprints were on a $20,000 ransom note that had been left behind at the girl’s home.
After being injected with sodium pentothal and questioned for six days without a lawyer – he also claimed police beat him and had a spinal tap performed on him without anesthesia – Heirens signed a confession and pleaded guilty to the murders. The police said Heirens’ fingerprints matched a print from the Degnan ransom note.
Heirens would later say his confession was given at the advice of his family and attorneys who thought it was the only way to avoid the death penalty.
Dolores Kennedy, a supervisor at Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and an advocate for Heirens, said both the fingerprints and handwriting evidence was questionable.
“All I can tell you is that in years of research and questioning and dealing with experts, any reasonable person could not convict Bill Heirens of these crimes,” Kennedy said.
She said that in studying the case, she had “in the neighborhood of a dozen” handwriting experts analyze the ransom note and wall writing; they concluded the messages were not written by the same person and not written by Heirens.
However, Degnan said he’s convinced of Heirens’ guilt.
“I’m sure over the years he began to believe that he was innocent,” Degnan said. “[But] there was never anybody else.
“There was absolutely nothing empirical to point to his innocence. And whether or not it was beaten out of him…still doesn’t change the fact that he did it,” he said.
Kennedy said Heirens continued writing letters and reaching out from prison.
“He never lost hope he would be released,” said Kennedy, adding that he was in a regular state of dementia throughout the final months of his life.