The Lipstick Killer

When I work on my blog I tend to do it for a few weeks to a month and then I do not mess with it for several months other than to moderate comments or check the progress from time to time.  When I am not working on this my time is occupied with genealogy.  I really should find a more equal ground in doing both. So after working on this for a month or so I had decided that I was going to finish the research up on this one last case and put it in the pile with the others that are ready to be typed up and back away for a bit as my genealogy tends to stack up daily.  And then I started really getting into this case and decided I had to bring it to it's conclusion and see if I could not get some feedback on how others feels.  As a true crime "fanatic" I had obviously heard of "The Lipstick Killer" before but to be honest I had not really looked into the case until now. For it to be on my list indicates that I likely saw a television show that was either about the case or mentioned it and I thought I should look into it.  I am so glad that I did because not only is it a fairly old case (took place in the 1940's) but it also is not a cut and dry case.  There are so many cases out there, especially old ones, where there are questions about the guilt of the person convicted. Some times this is because over time we have learned that some of the processes used were not only not reliable but also not legal today.  

While today we still see cases where authorities believe they "have their man" but do not have a lot of solid proof and will dig and dig until they get what they need, often having tunnel vision in the process.  In decades past one of the methods often used came from beatings and what we now consider illegal interrogations with suspects by authorities.  Oftentimes a suspect would be beaten until they confessed and then that confession was used against them. As we know it has taken many years to understand the idea behind false confessions and even today it is sometimes difficult to know the difference. People today will often accuse authorities of planting evidence or feeding a suspect information to lead to their confession, and of course it does still happen from time to time, but not nearly as it has in the past.  No one ever questioned the police, or their methods, especially if it was an especially horrible crime. So, let me get off my soap box for the time being and move on to this case.

On June 5, 1945, forty-three year old Josephine Ross was found dead inside her Chicago apartment with multiple stab wounds.  It seems her home had been ransacked and burglarized in the process.  Police had few, to no leads on suspects.  Then on December 10, 1045 Frances Brown was also found in her Chicago apartment dead.  She had a bullet wound to the head and a knife remained lodged into her neck.  On a mirror (although some reports say a wall) written in Frances' own lipstick was "For Heaven's sake catch me before I kill more.  I cannot control myself." Hence the killer became known as "The Lipstick Killer." Like the Ross crime scene it appears there had been a burglary. Neither crime scene were said to have left fingerprints, or at least usable ones.  It was reported that there was a "smudged" bloody fingerprint left at the Brown scene. People reported seeing a man between the ages of 35-40 years old in the area that seemed suspicious but for reasons unknown four days after the murder Chicago Police Department (CPD) stated they believed the killer was a woman. Once again there were no real leads in the case and it was bound for the cold case fairly quickly.

Authorities had barely started the Brown case when on January 7, 1946 a man called CPD reporting that he went to get his six year old daughter, Suzanne Degnan up out of bed only to find her missing from her apartment bedroom.  Authorities soon found a ladder outside the girl's window and a ransom note asking for $20,000. Soon after the authorities received an anonymous call suggesting that they start looking in the sewers near Suzanne's home.  When they did officers were appalled.  A few blocks from her home, in the sewer below, was the dismembered head of little Suzanne Degnan.  Over the next several days more body parts were found in the sewers and it became the belief that while taken alive from her room she had been dismembered in another building that housed a laundry room as there was evidence there.  

Over the next several months many suspects were arrested and released.  Each time someone was arrested the CPD would announce they "had their man." People came out of the wood work reporting seeing men and women around the area at the time of the murder.  The entire town was scared and in an uproar!  One of the first theories came from the fact of the dismemberment.  It became widely believed that the killer likely had some sort of surgical or even butcher skills.  Suzanne's father was a CEO at a meat company that was seeing some hard times and it was theorized at some point that the murder may have been by one of the employees as at the time there was a strike going on.  

Several suspects were brought in.  One of the first was Hector Verburgh.  Hector was sixty-five years old and the janitor in Suzanne's building.  Regardless that he did not fit the idea of having any kind of surgical skills and did not speak English very well, let alone be able to write the ransom note, he was held for more than 48 hours by the police.  He was beaten and tortured to confess.  He then spent the next ten days in the hospital recovering.  Eventually he sued the CPD and he received $15,000 while his wife received $5,000 in damages. This amounts to over $200,000 in today's money.  

Although in 1946 technology was not what it is today authorities knew that after the disappearance that there had been some calls made to the Degnan home.  They were very short calls referring to the ransom.  The authorities were able to some how trace those calls and it led them to a teenage boy named Theodore Campbell.  At some point through his interviews Campbell claimed that his friend, Vincent Costello had killed Suzanne and had made him make the ransom calls to the Degnan home.  Although Costello had his own run ins with the law, it was later determined that while both boys were involved in the ransom calls they had nothing to do with the murder.  They both passed polygraph examinations.  

By April of 1946 over 370 suspects had been questioned and cleared and the media was now being critical of the police and their investigation.  This was still within an era where many times reporters would investigate cases along side, or independent of the police and then report their findings in their papers without ever informing the police.  One of the last suspects questioned was a man by the name of Richard Russell Thomas.  A few months after the murder of Suzanne he was in a Phoenix jail charged with molesting one of his children but at the time of Suzanne's murder he had been in Chicago.  A copy of the ransom letter in Suzanne's case had been made nationwide and an investigator in Phoenix thought that Thomas' handwriting looked similar. Authorities went to Phoenix from Chicago and it did not take long before Thomas confessed.  He recanted but that was soon forgotten because Chicago had already arrested their latest suspect and were soon to announce they not only had the killer of Suzanne but also of Josephine Ross and Frances Brown.

William George Heirens was just seventeen years old when he was arrested on June 26, 1946 after being caught breaking into an apartment and supposedly threatening police with a gun.  He was not necessarily a stranger to authorities.  William had been having run ins with the law for theft and burglary since he was about thirteen years old.  He had spent some time in a few reform schools but at the time of his arrest he was a student at the University of Chicago.  He had started attending there when he was sixteen when he entered an excelled program for the gifted.  He was hoping to get a degree in electrical engineering but he soon fell into his ways of burglary again.  Keep in mind, up to this point there was never any violence associated with his crimes, he just appeared to be a dumb kid who just kept breaking into homes and stealing items.  Think of Tommy from Shawshank Redemption... he just was not a very good thief.  However, accounts differ on just what occurred at the time of his arrest.  Everyone does seem to agree that William was waiving a gun at the police.  They claimed that he tried to fire the gun twice but that it misfired while William claims he never attempted to fire the gun.  The altercation had taken place in an alley near the apartment in which he had entered and while he was concerned with the police on the ground there was apparently another officer on a fire escape of some sort who proceeded to drop a series of flower pots onto his head knocking him unconscious.  For the next several days he was interrogated without the benefit of a lawyer or even his parents. He claims he was beaten (and why should we not believe this after Hector Verburgh?) and denied food and drink. At some point two psychiatrists administered sodium pentothal, better known as truth serum, and claimed that an alternate personality named "George" was to blame for the murders.  He was also administered a polygraph but it was said the results were inconclusive.  Within a few days it was announced that not only did his fingerprints match the ransom note in the Degnan case (something that will be gone into later) but also matched the previously considered "smudge" at the Brown crime scene. Searches were done on Williams home and college dorm room (without warrants I may add) and nothing was found connecting him to the murders.  They found items from other burglaries that had happened, some near the other crime scenes but that was about it.  

At this point I want to apologize because if you are not confused as to what has gone one yet, I fear you may be soon but I will try my best not to let that happen.  First I want to start with what was considered to be William's confessions and why he stated he made them, then I want to address the evidence and facts, and finally as per usual I will give my take.

The first supposed confession by William came after the sodium penthothal had been given and apparently he knew or had been told of the results and he supposedly stated that an alter ego "might have" committed the crime, so it really was no confession at all.  His second confession came after his lawyers (who believed him to be guilty) pressured him to take a plea offered by the state in which he plead guilty to the murders of Josephine Ross, Frances Brown and Suzanne Degnan and receive three life sentences but to run concurrently (meaning all at the same time) to avoid the death penalty.  He agreed but later claimed that as he wrote the confession he was led by articles published by the Chicago Tribune and when his story and that did not match he was let known.  It seems police wanted his confession to match what the Tribune had said because that is what people believed had happened.  A huge deal was made when the confession, that was signed by William and his parents, was announced in front of the press.  The prosecutor brought William out in front of the cameras and according to William, the prosecutor kept using the word "truth" and it irritated him to the point that he all but said if he wanted the truth, the confession was not it.  So tail between his legs and embarrassed the prosecutor was ticked and withdrew the plea only to later offer it again only instead of concurrent life terms they would be consecutively, meaning one after another.  William took the deal, made the confession but almost immediately after sentencing and until the day he died stated the confession was not true and that he only took the deal to avoid the death penalty.  

Ok, so what did they have on William?  Let's start with the Josephine Ross case. The long and short of that case is they had nothing aside from a confession. There was no evidence of fingerprints given as far as the apartment, there was no evidence of any of her items in his possession.  Ok, so what about Frances Brown?  They said they had a bloody fingerprint, and it was said it was his handwriting that wrote the note in her lipstick.  Again there was no evidence of William having possession of any items from Frances Brown when searches were done.  Next, let's address the bloody fingerprint.  In the initial investigation it was reported as a "smudge" and stated that no prints could come from it.  And in fact four days after his arrest the police reported to the press that the fingerprint was not Williams and that he was officially cleared of her murder. However, twelve days later they announce it was in fact his fingerprint.  Many have claimed that this now said matching print looked as if it was "rolled," mean it looked like prints do when they are taken for police bookings, and claim that it was likely planted. Funny enough, however, William's defense attorney's were not ones to bring this up.  Then we move on to the phrase written in lipstick. Again, it was analyzed early on obviously, and then when the ransom note in the Degnan case appeared the two writings were compared to each other and it was determined that two different people wrote those things.  It was also said in the beginning that neither matched the handwriting of William.  But then suddenly not only did they match each other, they matched him as well.  It has been analyzed over the years since and it is almost universally agreed that they were not written by the same person, nor written by William. 

Then we have the Degnan case.  What did they have on this case?  They claimed to have fingerprints belonging to William on the ransom note and they also claimed to have a witness named George Subgrunski who saw William at the crime scene. Then of course there were the results from the polygraph (although said to be inconclusive) and the sodium pentothal. Let's start with the ransom note.  When it was found the CPD claimed to not be able to find any usable prints on it.  They then sent it off to the FBI lab who used "iodine fuming" on the note.  This is similar or the predecessor to what many of us have seen used with super glue where the fumes are able to pick up prints that are not seen by the naked eye or using normal processes.  When the FBI was done they stated there were two prints on the front only and none on the back. With iodine fuming pictures of the prints had to be taken quickly as the prints fade, and this was done so by the FBI. These prints (remember this is long before CODIS) were compared, according to the CPD, against every person arrested from January to June of 1946 and there was not a match found.  However, William had been arrested within that time period and by their own admissions his prints were checked but no match was found until sometime after his arrest on June 26th.  So supposedly the prints were suddenly a match and the prosecutor lets the press no there is "no doubt now" that they have their man but in the same breath seems to indicate they do not have enough to indict him, let alone get a conviction. He also announces that ONLY William's prints were found on the ransom note.  This seemed to be odd considering not only the lack of preservation of evidence that was common at the time but also that before and after the FBI had handled the note it was well known that the original had been given to a reporter at some point, so the chain of custody was broken.  There should have been a ton of fingerprints on that ransom note, including the investigators, likely the parents, reporters, etc. Two weeks after his arrest it is announced that there is also a palm print on the back of the note matching William.  This is after there was nothing mentioned from the FBI of anything on the back and so obviously no pictures taken of them.  Then we have George Subgrunski.  He had immediately told the police after Suzanne disappeared that he had seen a man near the area but that he could not see his face clearly.  He was shown a photo line up on July 11th and could not identify William.  Five days later there was a hearing in court in which Subgrunski testified and pointed to William officially identifying him as the person he saw the night of the disappearance to which this was said to have helped get the indictment against him.  It seems the papers and later appeal lawyers were able quickly able to discredit Subgrunski but at least the temporary damage was done. 

By 1950 it was pretty well known that results from "truth serum" or sodium pentothal were not reliable so while it seems that they may have reason to have believed in 1946 in results a short time later they should not have.  Adding to this by 1952 one of the psychiatrists who had helped administer the drug claimed that William never implicated himself, indicating that the "alter-ego" story was not true.  Following that in 1953 the person who administered the polygraph in which the prosecutor claimed the results were inconclusive stated in a textbook that the results had indicated William was not guilty, meaning he passed said polygraph.  As we all know polygraph's have really never been allowed in a court room due to the fact their results are so unreliable but investigators continue to administer them in order to give them a tool in their case.  In this case however it seems that the prosecutor lied about the results of the polygraph knowing that an inconclusive result would not rule William out, at least in the eyes of the press and the community.  

So off to jail William went at the age of 17, considered to be a serial killer and a child murderer.  In 1965 he was given what is called an "institutional parole" in the Degnan case.  Basically this meant was that he had served his life sentence in her murder and he would remain in jail and start his next "life sentence." Based on the law in 1946 he should have been discharged from all charges in 1983 and released.  However, in 1973 the country went from the idea of providing rehab to providing punishment to inmates.  I personally believe it is likely that Charles Manson and his "followers" had a lot to do with this train of thought considering they had received the death penalty and then soon after that was reversed as the death penalty became outlawed for  many years and yet people were scared that violent criminals would once again roam the streets.  That being said William's attorney took his case to court and in 1983 he was ordered to be released but, in the meantime Suzanne's siblings argued to keep him behind bars and the attorney general agreed and helped taking it back to court.  That court overruled the release and William remained in jail.  In 2002 his attorney's filed for clemency but it was denied.  In 2007 the parole board voted 14-0 against his release but supposedly said they would readdress it every year. On March 5, 2012, at the age of 83 years old William George Heirens died within the prison system.  He had spent 65 years behind bars, the longest sentence ever served by anyone, at least at the time.

Before I get into my position on this case I want to point out what William did accomplish while in prison.  For one he became the first person to obtain a four year college degree in prison and received a Bachlors of Arts degree.  He aided other inmates in education and all but became a jailhouse lawyer in helping others with their appeals process.  I know I referenced Shawshank Redemption already, but in many ways William was like Andy Dufresne.  There did not seem to be a lot, if any reports, of any bad behavior while he was in prison.  In fact, in an interview he stated that while he was angry at being in prison for crimes he claimed to be innocent, he expressed that he knew that anger would not solve anything and apparently seemed to be a model prisoner. 

So now... was he guilty? That has long been the question.  Personally I do not think so.  First let me start with the fact that prior to these crimes that he ended up being accused of and serving time for, there was no indication of violence in his crimes of theft.  He had been caught many times in his endeavors but only in the last arrest was there even a hint of violence indicated from him and even then there seemed to be questions.  My first question lies with a 17 year old thieving kid going from simple theft to first murdering two women (six months apart from each other) in their apartments violently and then to dismembering a 6 year old child and yet continue to go uncaught and noticed for at least another six months.  To add to this, and granted technology and forensics are absolutely amazing and unthinkable compared to what they were in 1946, there was little to no evidence left behind.  This kid who repeatedly got caught for burglary left nothing to go on at the crime scenes and even later when his home was searched (and there was no indication he ever sold items he stole) there was nothing from the victims in his possession anywhere?  And lets look at the Degnan case... there were never reports of anything but Suzanne "stolen" in that case.  Of all the cases they charged him with Josephine Ross' case was the first that had happened and yet it had the least amount of evidence left, or even if we want to say concocted or claimed later.  So we're supposed to believe this seventeen year old not only committed his first murder and left absolutely no clues or evidence at all?  Basically in my mind he does not meet the profile of someone who would progress in crimes in this matter.  Why start with grown women and end with a child?  Wouldn't a child be easier to control?  And why leave the women in their homes but remove the child and dismember her body placing parts in different areas?  Not to mention there was question how in fact the body parts were put into the sewer system that was covered by huge and heavy manholes without someone seeing them.  Again, none of this seems to fit a young teenager but even someone who did not have a real history of violence. Also keep in mind that throughout the initial investigation of Suzanne's murder the coroner had all but insisted that the person would have had some sort of surgical or butcher skills.  This was never anything that was associated with William and seems to have all but been forgotten when authorities decided they had "found their man" once more and they could get it to stick.  

However, remember the name Richard Russell Thomas?  He was the man arrested in Phoenix for molesting his daughter and he had confessed (and later recanted) to Suzanne's murder? He at least fit some of the profile.  First off just his charge of molesting a child is closer to this profile than William.  Secondly, not only did he have a history of violence he had also been a nurse, but often posed and portrayed himself as a surgeon.  He also had a previous conviction for extortion where a note was given threatening to kidnap a child.  It was said that as far as wording goes the Degnan note was similar. But, to be fair I am unsure who determined that and when.  Just as there is the possibility of William being set up and the evidence slanted to make him look guilty there is also the possibility of things being stated that were not true against Thomas. Thomas died in an Arizona prison in 1974.  

We often look back at crimes from the past and ask and wonder if that same crime was committed today based on the evidence known at the time if the suspect would have still been convicted.  Many times that answer is no based on not only what we know today but also in the standards that have changed since that time.  Sometimes that assessment seems to be an unfair comparison since we cannot know what the future will hold, especially when it comes to forensics. However, this was a case that even in 1946 and there soon after the evidence was severely in question.  One of the first people to believe in William's innocence was the daughter of Josephine Ross.  She never seemed to believe that the evidence was present to say that William was guilty of killing her mother.  But, we lived in a time, where authorities and their conclusions were rarely questioned, even when their evidence was inconsistent.  Today we know that false confessions are possible, especially through interrogation tactics. We also know much more about criminal behavior and about preserving crime scenes.  While it is not impossible today for innocent people to be convicted of crimes they did not commit, it is more difficult.  In William's case it also seems that his attorney's believed in his guilt and did little questioning to the evidence themselves.  William was already convicted by public opinion due to the newspaper coverage.  It is my belief that the Degnan crime was so horrendous that it was imperative for investigators to solve and as time went on and no leads were being found public opinion was turning against the police.  Since the Brown murder had occurred so soon before the Degnan crime and also had a sample of handwriting that was coined to be from the "Lipstick Killer" it was easy to put the two together, and so why not add the other unsolved crime of Josephine Ross in there?  Her crime was at least somewhat similar to the Brown case.  In the end however, there was really nothing that linked any of these crimes together, especially if you believe the later research, let alone the initial investigations. 

Even if you believe that William George Heirens was guilty of these crimes it is hard to get around the fact that at the very least his rights were violated, even by 1946 standards.  He was a minor and his parents were banned from seeing him for at least four days while he was being interrogated, some of which he was even in a hospital recovering from injuries from the time of his arrest.  He was not given access to a lawyer for almost a week.  Granted, one can argue that "Miranda Rights" were not a law until 1966 in which authorities were required to inform prisoners of their right to an attorney or speaking with or without one.  CPD had already proven (or at least it would be proven in a court later) that they were in a habit at this time of beating or "torturing" suspects to get the answers that they wanted so it is not a stretch to believe William when he says the same was done to him.  Police brutality was not only extremely common, but it was not often questioned, and in the end it was questioned even more when they "proved" they were right and got the right suspect.  By the time he spoke publicly and expressed his innocence he was already seen as a confessed murderer who "probably deserved everything he got."  As the mother of two, now grown boys, my heart aches for this young boy, who definitely had his issues but likely got railroaded and lived a life in prison for something he did not do.  And, sadly after his conviction both his parents (who later divorced) and his younger brother changed their last name to Hill so that they would not be associated with him any longer.  In my opinion a  young man's life was taken and destroyed for crimes he was not in fact guilty.


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