Serial Killer William George Heirens, the Lipstick Killer

Profile of a Chicago Serial Killer

Mug Shot

William George Heirens (November 15, 1928 - March 5, 2012) is a serial killer who confessed to three murders in 1946. Heirens is also known as The Lipstick Killer due to a notorious message scrawled in lipstick at a crime scene.

Childhood Years

Heirens grew up in a suburb of Chicago called Lincolnwood. According to Heirens, when he was 11-years-old he saw a couple making love. When he told his mother about it she told him that all sex was dirty and that it would lead to diseases.

Afterwards, he became ill and began crying when he kissed his girlfriend.

When Heirens was 13-years-old, he was arrested for carrying a loaded gun. The police then searched his home and found stolen weapons and expensive items such as furs, jewelry and electronics hidden throughout the inside and outside of his home.

Heirens confessed to a string of burglaries in the area and was sent away for several months to the Gibault School for wayward boys.

Once home, Heirens again began burglarizing homes, and again he was caught. This time he was sent away for three years to a school operated by Benedictine Monks called St. Bede's Academy.

Remarkably, Heirens excelled at the academy. His test scores were so high, that at the age of 16 when he was released, he enrolled in a special program at the University of Chicago where he majored in electrical engineering.

Heirens returned to parents home and commuted to the university, but it was a long commute.

He eventually moved on campus into the Gate's Hall and worked as a movie theater usher and tutor to pay the tuition. However, this wasn't enough to distract Heirens away from what he liked to do the most - burglarizing homes and soon he was back at it.

Josephine Ross

On June 5, 1945, 43-year-old Josephine Ross was found dead in her apartment.

An autopsy revealed that she had been repeatedly stabbed. She was also found with a dress wrapped around head.

The detectives theorized that she walked in on a burglary and was then killed.

Dark hairs were found clutched in her hands indicating that she put up a good fight before being murdered. 

Oddly, no valuables were taken from the apartment.

Police had little to go on. Her fiancé, old boyfriends and her ex-husbands all had solid alibis.

Neighbors reported seeing man with a dark complexion hanging around the apartments, but the detectives were unable to locate anyone matching the description.

Francis Brown

On December 11, 1945, Francis Brown was found dead in her apartment after a cleaning woman heard the radio playing loudly and Brown's door partially opened.

Brown had been stabbed to death in what police described as a savage murder.

Just like in the case of Josephine Ross, it appeared that Francis Brown interrupted a burglary, yet nothing was missing from her apartment. However, this time there was a message written with lipstick on the wall of Brown's apartment that read:

    For heavens [sic] 

    sake catch me 

    before I kill more 

    I cannot control myself.

A bloody fingerprint smudge was also found by the front door and a witness who said he heard gunshots at around 4 a.m.

Another possible witness, John Derick who worked as the night clerk at the apartment building and was stationed in the lobby, saw a man about 35-40 years old, weighing around 140 pounds, nervously get off the elevator and leave the building.

Then, four days later, the police made a surprising announcement. They said that they had reason to believe that the killer was not a man, but a woman.

Suzanne Degnan

On January 7, 1946, six-year-old Suzanne Degnan went missing from her bedroom. Her parents called the police after they were unable to find her inside the home.

The Chicago police searched the home and found a ladder positioned outside the girl's bedroom window and a ransom note that the parents had not discovered.

The note read:

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

On the reverse of the note was written,

Burn this for her safty [sic].

A man called the Degnans repeatedly, demanding that they pay the ransom, but hung up before any meaningful dialog could be exchanged.

Investigators questioned the family and neighbors, but no one reported seeing or hearing anything unusual.

An Anonymous Call to Police

Then an anonymous call was made to the police. The person suggested that they look in the sewers around the Degnan home.

A search was performed and police found Suzanne's severed head in a catch basin in an alley. Her right leg was found in another catch basin in the same alley. Her torso was found in a storm drain and her left leg was found in another alley. A month later her arms were found in a sewer.

A laundry tub in the basement of nearby apartment building was found and police determined that it was where the killer had dismembered the child.

The police launched an aggressive investigation, questioning hundreds of people and administering over 170 polygraph examinations.

Arrest and Questioning of Heirens

After months of false confessions, bad arrests, and interviews that lead nowhere, the police were at a standstill.

Then on June 26, 1946, Heirens was again arrested on attempted burglary charges after he was spotted attempting to break into an apartment.

Heirens knew he had been spotted and ran to nearby building, but was spotted again and the police were called. Two police officers cornered Heirens who pulled a revolver when he became trapped, aimed and shot, but the gun misfired.

Heirens and the two officers got into a scuffle that ended when an off-duty police officer dropped a flowerpot on Heiren's head.

Heirens was taken to the hospital and placed on around-the-clock police patrol.

Heirens later said he was interrogated around the clock for six consecutive days, being beaten and abused by police and not allowed to eat or drink. He was not allowed to see his parents for four days. He was also denied his right to speak to a lawyer for six days.

Two psychiatrists, Doctors Haines and Roy Grinker, gave Heirens sodium pentothal without a warrant and without Heirens' or his parents' consent, and interrogated for three hours.

Under the influence of the drug, authorities claimed, Heirens spoke of an alternate personality named "George Murman", who had actually committed the murders.

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 he was in such obvious pain that the test was rescheduled for several days later.

When the polygraph was administered, authorities announced that the results were "inconclusive."

On July 2, 1946, Heirens was transferred to the Cook County Jail where he was placed in the infirmary to recover.

Heirens' First Confession

After the sodium pentothal questioning but before the polygraph exam, Heirens spoke to Captain Michael Ahern, one of the few Chicago police officers who had shown him any kindness.

With State's Attorney William Tuohy and a stenographer at hand, Heirens offered an indirect confession, confirming his claim while under sodium pentothal that his alter-ego of "George Murman" might have been responsible for the crimes.

That "George" (which happens to be his father's first name and Heirens's middle name) had given him the loot to hide in his dormitory room.

Taking the Rap for 'George'

Police searched for this "George" questioning Heirens's known friends, family and associations, but to no avail.

Based on the interrogation notes, Heirens said 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.

Heirens allegedly claimed that he was always taking the rap for George, first for petty theft, then assault and now murder.

'Murder Man'

Psychologist explained at the time that Heirens made up this duo-personality like how normal children made up imaginary friends to keep his diabolical deeds separate from the person who could be the "average son and student, date nice girls and go to church,..."

Authorities were skeptical of Heirens's 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".

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 small left 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.

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

Stolen Property Uncovered

Police searches (without a warrant) 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.

The police also found in Heirens' possession a stolen copy of Psychopathia Sexualis. The press focused on it and started to depict the young burglar as a real life Mr. Hyde.

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.

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 described the man as being "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".

On July 16, during a hearing, Subgrunski pointed to Heirens and said, "That's the man I saw!" when he was brought into a courtroom and made the identification in person.

Subgrunski's testimony helped to return an indictment, however later his court testimony would be discredited, but quietly.

The Second Confession

Heirens' lawyers pressured him to accept plea bargain. That deal stated that Heirens would serve one life sentence if he confessed to the murders of Josephine Ross, Frances Brown, and Suzanne Degnan.

That plea agreement eventually failed and Heirens agreed to a new plea agreement.

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

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. 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.

On September 5, Ward formally sentenced Heirens to three life terms.

As Heirens waited to be transferred to Statesville Prison from the Cook County Jail, Sheriff Michael Mulcahy asked Heirens if Suzanne Degan 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."