1/7/1946 - The city of Chicago is horrified when six-year-old Suzanne Degnan is found missing from her first-floor bedroom at 5943 North Kenmore Avenue.
Vowing to find the responsible party once on the scene, local police find a ladder outside the child's window and a poorly written ransom note requesting $20,000 in $5s and $10s (Mayor Edward Kelly also receives a bizarre note from the culprit referencing President Roosevelt and the Office of Price Administration). Sadly though, no ransom is really needed for an anonymous phone call is soon received by authorities stating that the sewers near the Degnan home should be searched ... and when they are, the police discover the young girl's head a block away, her right leg in a catch basin in the same alley, her torso in another storm drain, her left leg in another alley, and three weeks later, her arms in a sewer near the Howard elevated train line, three blocks from the Degnan home. And in their search, they also discover an apartment basement laundry room containing evidence of Degnan's dismemberment. Alive when abducted, the little girl has been murdered at a second location, and then processed for hiding at what reporters will christian, "The Murder Room" in the basement.
Sewer Hiding Place
The Murder Room
The #1 priority case for the Chicago police department to solve, thousands of man hours are spent questioning witnesses, administering polygraph lie detector tests, weeding out phony confessions, and arresting suspects with no actual involvement in the case. The most unfortunate suspect is the 65-year-old janitor of the Degnan building, Hector Verburgh, an innocent who is brought in for questioning as police tell the press that they've got their man, and beaten to a pulp in the cops' pursuit of a confession (his wife is also pressured to give up her husband) ... a 48-hour in custody nightmare that includes a separated shoulder that will take Verburgh 10 days at a local hospital to recover from (the Chicago police sued, Verburgh and his wife later will receive $20,000 for their wronging).
Then the police stumble on a new suspect! On 6/26/1946, 17-year-old William Heirens is arrested for attempted burglary when he is spotted trying to break into a Chicago apartment building (brandishing a pistol which misfires when he tries to shoot at the police, he is placed in custody after he is cracked over the head by three clay flowerpots and knocked unconscious). And with another roughing up behind bars, the Chicago police get the confession they were hoping for (later, Heirens will claim that he is questioned around the clock for six days, beaten, denied food and water, shot up with sodium pentothal without a warrant, not allowed to see his parents for four days, does not receive legal representation for six days, and on the fifth day, given a lumbar puncture without any anesthesia before a scheduled polygraph test). According to the authorities, while "under" one of his chemical cocktails, Heirens becomes a talkative alter-ego killer that calls himself George (also Heirens' father's name) Murman, the murderer of not only Degen, but also the instigator of the unsolved deaths 43-year-old Josephine Ross (stabbed to death in her apartment in June of 1945) and divorcee Frances Brown in December of 1945 (another gruesome stabbing in which the perpetrator leaves the message "For Heavens Sake catch me Before I kill more I cannot control myself" in lipstick on a wall of his victim's apartment ... a message that earns the culprit the nickname of "The Lipstick Killer" from the press covering the case). And to trial everyone goes!
At Heirens' trial, questions are raised about the legitimacy of the confessions (there will be 29 inconsistencies in the tale Heirens tells and the "known" facts of the case ... and afterwards, he recants both documents) made to the police, and the fingerprint and hand writing evidence presented, but they are buried beneath the story and objects of the prosecution's case ... a tale in which Heirens is raised by a constantly arguing set of parents (to escape, as a child he sneaks out of the house and begins wandering the night streets of Chicago), gets sexual gratification from burglarizing homes (which he begins doing at the age of 13) and develops a fantasy alter-ego named George Murman that commits all of Heirens' crimes, a gun linked to other crimes is found in his possession, as are stolen medical equipment and a scrapbook from a robbed home near Degnan's, an active duty soldier, George E. Subgrunski, testifies that Heirens is the man he saw walking towards the Degnan home on the night of Suzanne's abduction (which doesn't match previous statements), and the hunting knife used to cut up Degnan being found in the approximate spot where Heirens said he threw it from the EL train he was riding on.
The Infamous Lipstick Message
In open court, with his own parents present along with relatives of the victims, on September 4, 1946, Heirens confesses to the murders of Ross, Brown, and Degnan, and then follows up his admission with seemingly another, trying to hang himself in his cell that night while his guards are changing shifts (he is discovered just in time and revived). The next day, after closing arguments by both sides, Chief Justice Harold G. Ward sentences to Heirens to three prison life sentences for the murders.
Ready For Life Behind Bars
In the aftermath of the killings and trial, Heirens' parents will divorce, and they, and a younger brother all change their last names to Hill. Heirens can't change his name, but he does seem a different man behind bars ... he learns several trades, including television and radio repair, he becomes the first prisoner in Illinois history to earn a four-year college degree, becoming a Bachelor of Arts in 1972, he manages the prison's garment factory for five years (overseeing the work of 350 convicts), and setting up an educational program for prisoners housed at the Vienna Correctional Center in 1975. Despite it all, and ongoing debates over his guilt, each time he is up for parole his requests to be freed are all denied. Eventually, diabetes ravages his legs and sight, and Heirens, on March 5, 2012, dies in a hospital bed at University of Illinois Medical Center at the age of 83 ... and additionally, George Murman is never heard from again either!
Heirens - 2004
1/7/1946 ... and the hunt for the maniac burglar that will be called "The Lipstick Killer" becomes front page news.