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12 Shocking True Stories of America’s Worst Serial Killers
True Murder Cases included in this volume;
William Heirens: the infamous 'Lipstick Killer' of 1940's Chicago. But was Heirens really the brutal slayer of three, or was he the politically expedient fall guy for an ambitious States Attorney?
Richard Cottingham: mild office worker by day, torturer and serial killer by night, the Torso Killer left a trail of mutilated bodies across New York and New Jersey.
Gary Ridgeway: As far as body count goes, few murderers match the Green River Killer. Confessed to 48 victims, but investigators suspect there may have been more.
Craig Price: America's youngest serial killer, Price murdered his first victim at 13, and had added three more before he'd even turned 16.
Richard Speck: cold-blooded killer who raped and murdered 8 young nursing students in a single night.
Robert Garrow: a career criminal with a taste for bestiality and necrophilia, Garrow slaughtered four young victims during a murderous spree.
Henry Lee Lucas: proficient serial killer or proficient liar? Lucas confessed to over 300 murders, definitely committed three and is suspected in as many as 50.
John Edward Robinson: lured his victims via Internet chat sites, then raped, tortured and murdered them, before storing their bodies in his own, unique coffins.
Dorothea Puente: murder-for-profit killer who fed drug overdoses to her elderly tenants then went on cashing their social security checks for years after their deaths.
John Eric Armstrong: traveled the world with the US Navy, racking up kills in every port, from Hawaii to Hong Kong.
Harrison Graham: Graham had a unique way of dealing with corpses, he simply allowed them to rot in his apartment. The stench of 8 decomposing bodies eventually led to his downfall.
Zodiac: America's most enigmatic serial killer. Zodiac killed at least 5 and taunted the San Francisco police, daring them to try and stop him.
The Lipstick Killer
“For heavens sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.”
- Message scrawled by the alleged killer of Frances Brown
It is one of the most controversial murder cases in American history. In August 1946, William Heirens, a 17-year-old University of Chicago student and petty burglar confessed to three murders – the brutal stabbing of two women and the horrific murder and dismemberment of a six-year-old girl. The confession was given under a plea agreement that would save the teenager from the electric chair. But even before a judge sentenced Heirens to three life terms, there were questions regarding the veracity of the conviction. In later years, details emerged of police brutality, tainted evidence, false testimony, illegal searches. There have been questions as to the competence and conduct of defense council. It was suggested that Heirens was “fitted” for the crime, the facts bent to point the finger at him, while other, more viable, suspects were ignored. There was clearly massive media bias and obvious maneuverings by the States Attorney to garner political capital from the case. Several experts have spoken out to declare Heirens innocent.
Does any of this prove that William Heirens was framed, that the real ‘Lipstick Killer’ got away with murder? You be the judge.***
Josephine Ross, a 43-year-old, three-time divorcee lived with her grown daughters, Mary Jane Blanchard and Jacqueline Miller in a small apartment on Kenwood Avenue in the Chicago District of Edgewood. Josephine was unemployed, strapped for cash, still fighting the insurance company over a payout from her late husband’s life policy. She was not without prospects, though, with a fiancée and two other interested suitors.
On June 5, 1945, Josephine rose early, chatted with her daughters over breakfast and then, after they’d left for their respective jobs, returned to bed. Jacqueline worked close by and was in the habit of returning home for lunch, as she did on this day, arriving at about 1:30. She found the apartment in a state, drawers pulled out, furniture knocked over, newspapers scattered across the floor. Calling her mother’s name and getting no response, she rushed to the main bedroom where a horrendous sight greeted her. Josephine lay sprawled across the bed, her throat slashed, her head wrapped in a dress. Blood had sprayed everywhere, on the walls, the drapes, the furniture, the mattress. Running from the apartment, Jacqueline roused a neighbor who called the police.
The motive looked like burglary, although nothing of significance was taken from the apartment. No fingerprints were found at the scene and the initial suspects, including Mrs. Ross’ fiancé Oscar Nordmark, were soon cleared. A pair of witnesses reported seeing a dark, slender man hanging around. Other than that, the police had nothing, the prospects of catching the killer looked bleak.
Six months after the killing of Josephine Ross, a similar murder occurred. Francis Brown was a petite, brunette who lived at 611 Pinecrest Apartments, Pine Grove Avenue, not far from where Josephine had lived. On the evening of December 10, 1945, Francis arrived home at around 9:30, and was told by the desk clerk that a man had inquiring about her earlier in the evening. Frances thanked the clerk (she appeared to have been expecting the caller, he’d later testify) and headed up to her sixth floor apartment. There, she set out her clothing for the next day, made a call to her mother and had a shower before retiring to bed.
The following morning, housemaid Martha Engels was passing by apartment 611 when she noticed the door standing ajar, the radio playing from within at an exceedingly loud volume. The maid peaked into the room and saw a trail of blood on the floor, leading towards the bathroom. Thinking that Miss Brown may have hurt herself, the maid entered the apartment where she found the tenant bent over the bathtub, her head wrapped in her pajamas. A butcher’s knife protruded from her neck and a bullet hole perforated her skull.
The police arrived to find a ransacked apartment and an unusual clue. Scrawled across the living room wall, in lipstick, were the words: “For heavens sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.” There was other evidence too, a smudged, bloody fingerprint on the doorjamb, a report of a gunshot at around 4 am, and a possible sighting of a suspect. Night clerk John Dedrick described a man emerging from the elevator in the early hours. He was 35 to 40-years-old, weighed about 140 pounds, and appeared extremely nervous.
This clue, and the others, led nowhere. As in the Ross murder, the police were stumped. Post-war Chicago was reeling under a deluge of crime, and this was likely another that would go unsolved.
Then another murder occurred, one that would not be so easily forgotten.
Jim and Helen Degnan lived with their young daughters, Suzanne and Betty, at Thorndale and Kenmore in Edgewater. The house they rented was sublet, with the Degnans occupying the first floor and a family named Flynn, living upstairs. Mr. Degnan worked for the Office of Price Administration (OPA) and had recently transferred to Chicago from Baltimore.
On Sunday, January 6, Jim had treated his family to a day out, arriving home after dark, whereupon Helen made sandwiches for her daughters and then saw them to bed. The girls were due to resume school at the Sacred Heart Academy, the following day.
During the night, Helen woke and thought she heard Suzanne crying. She nudged her husband awake and the two of them listened for a while but heard nothing. Eventually, they went back to sleep. Upstairs, Cecelia Flynn was roused by her dogs barking. She heard men speaking outside, but the voices were soon stilled and the dogs settled down.
In the morning, Jim Degnan went to wake his daughters for school. Peering into Suzanne’s room, he saw that the window was fully raised, the curtains blowing in the icy breeze. The room, though, was empty and Jim felt the first prickling of panic as he searched the room and didn’t find Suzanne. Soon the whole family was engaged in the search and the Flynns had been roped in. But Suzanne was nowhere to be found. She seemed to have disappeared into thin air.
The police were called and because of the nature of the crime – the suspicious disappearance of a six-year-old child – they responded immediately. Soon the Degnan apartment was overflowing with officers. The first clue they found was a ransom note in the little girl’s bedroom. It 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 was written: “Burn this for her safty (sic).”
Another clue was found outside the apartment, a ladder that reached to the sill of Suzanne’s window. The ladder, police learned, had been stolen from a nursery several blocks away. As investigators canvassed the area, searching for clues, asking questions, looking for witnesses, an anonymous call came in. The caller suggested they check the sewers.
On the evening of January 7, detectives Lee O'Rourke and Harry Benoit noticed that a drain cover at nearby Winthrop Avenue appeared misplaced. Lifting the heavy metal disk, the officers shone flashlights into the dark and saw what looked like the head of a blonde doll. One closer inspection it turned out to be the decapitated head of the missing girl. Searches of adjacent sewers soon turned up Suzanne’s legs and torso (Her arms would be found weeks later). Later that same evening, the police found a basement washtub at an apartment off Winthrop Avenue, where the dismemberment had taken place. Blood, pieces of human flesh, and swatches of blonde hair still clung to its surface.
The murder and dismemberment of a six-year-old child was huge news in Chicago and the police were immediately under immense pressure to catch the killer. The Chicago PD had in recent years been heavily criticized for its inability to deal with the sharp escalation in the city’s crime rate. They therefore allocated top priority to this case, with even police commissioner, John C. Prendergast, becoming involved. More than 800 suspects were interviewed, 170 of those subjected to a polygraph. The crime laboratory compared 7,000 sets of handwriting with the ransom note. Over 5, 000 tip-offs were received and processed.
Many of those seemed promising. There were numerous sightings of suspicious characters near the crime scene on the night of the murder. The police believed that the killer must have had a car, as a man carrying a child at that time of night would not have gone unnoticed. There was, in fact, a report of a woman carrying a large bundle near the Degnan house and getting into a car driven by a bald-headed man, but this clue led nowhere.
Several arrests were made and each time States Attorney William J. Tuohy and Chief of Detectives Walter G. Storms would announce to the press that they had their man, only for them to release him a day or two later when they couldn’t make the charges stick. Each of this failed arrests proved a blow Tuohy, the mayor’s right hand man and someone with ambitions of high political office. Tuohy put pressure on his officers. They responded by bringing in more suspects, including Hector Verburgh, the 65-year-old janitor at the apartment building where Suzanne had been dismembered. Verburgh was badly beaten as the police tried to force a confession from him. So badly, in fact, that he had to be hospitalized for ten days. The Janitor’s Union appointed an attorney who sued the police department for $15,000. Verburgh was awarded $20,000.
And yet, the police appeared to ignore their most promising suspect, Richard Russell Thomas, a 42-year-old drifter who had been in Chicago at the time of the Degnan murder. Thomas was eventually arrested in Maricopa, Arizona and was in custody in the Maricopa County Jail when a police handwriting expert noticed similarities between his writing and the Degnan ransom note. He suggested that Chicago PD investigate Thomas.
There are a number of reasons why Thomas makes a compelling suspect. He had prior convictions for kidnapping and extortion, was known to be violent, and had previously been arrested for molesting his own daughter. Moreover, the Degnan ransom note not only matched his writing but contained phrases he’d used in other kidnappings. Thomas was also a qualified nurse who enjoyed posing as a surgeon. The police believed that the person who’d dismembered Suzanne had medical knowledge. Thomas even confessed to the Degnan murder.
Yet the police did not pursue Richard Thomas because by now they had another suspect. His name was William George Heirens.
William Heirens was born on November 15, 1928. His parents, Margaret and George, had an unhappy marriage, characterized by constant quarrelling. Still, George and his younger brother, Jere, appear to have had a reasonably happy childhood. Bill was a bright, curious boy who loved tinkering with mechanical things, and showed a talent for sketching.
As he got older, the constant bickering of his parents would cause him to leave the house and go for long walks. Anything was better than listening to his parent's squabbling. Soon these walks led him to another pastime - he took to breaking into homes and commercial properties.
Heirens would admit in later years that he found burglary exciting, a way to release the tensions he felt at home. It was not about money. Apart from the occasional cash he stole, he never gained from his crimes. Everything he stole ended up stashed away in an unused storage shed on the roof of a nearby apartment building. The exception was guns. Heirens had a fascination with them and loved to take them apart to see how they worked. And it was a gun that led to his first run-in with the law.
At age thirteen, Heirens was caught carrying a stolen .25 caliber automatic. He claimed that he’d found it lying in the street, but the police officer didn’t believe him. Taken into custody he quickly admitted to eleven burglaries. That earned him a spell at the Gibault School for Wayward Boys in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Heirens was released a year later, but the year in Indiana had done nothing to discourage him from stealing. He was soon in trouble again, arrested at the Rogers Park Hotel and found to be in possession of a front door key to another hotel. This time, he was sent him to St. Bede's Academy, a detention center run by Benedictine Monks in Peru, Illinois. Heirens did well at St. Bede’s and achieved such a high grade average that he was encouraged to apply for the special learning program offered by the University of Chicago. He was accepted, allowing him to skip his final year of high school and start his studies at the university at the age of just 16. It was the fall of 1945, and William Heirens appeared to have the world at his feet.
Unfortunately, Heirens had not been cured of his compulsion to steal. His parents were now living in the suburb of Lincolnwood and Bill soon took to burglarizing nearby houses. Then, when he decided to board at Gates Hall, near his classes, he took to robbing homes in and around the university. The pickings helped pay for his board and tuition, and even allowed him to buy two $500 U.S. Savings Bonds. He also managed to get his hands on some War Bonds, which, once the owners' names had been etched off with a surgical scalpel, were worth $7,000, a small fortune in those days. He kept the War Bonds in an old suitcase beneath his bed, along with some surgical equipment that would be used to do the job when the time was right.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, June 26, 1946, Heirens found himself short of funds and decided to cash in one of the bonds. Taking the “EL” (elevated train) he headed for the post office in Skokie, where he’d cashed checks before. The bonds were tucked into his wallet and because of the amount he was carrying, he’d also brought along a revolver, hidden in his jacket. He’d later claim that he wasn’t even sure if the gun worked.
Arriving at the post office at 3 pm, Heirens discovered that it had closed for the day. That left him with a problem. He had a date that night with a girlfriend, JoAnn Slama. Now he had no money to pay for the dinner and movie he’d promised her. He was also angry at having made the long trip to Skokie for nothing and it drove him to make a rash decision, one that would change his life forever. He decided to commit a burglary.
Heirens had burglarized apartments at Wayne Manor before. His method for entering the six-story building was to press random buttons on the buzzer panel until someone opened for him. Then he’d ride the elevator to a chosen floor and walk along the hallway until he found an unlocked door.
On the day in question, he found an open apartment on the third floor and entered. Unfortunately for Heirens, a neighbor spotted him and raised the alarm. Dashing for the staircase, he descended to the lobby and made his escape, cutting through a series of alleyways. He stood for a while bent over and wheezing from the narrow scrape, then decided it was time to leave. However, he wasn’t sure if he was being pursued, and so decided to climb a fire escape at 1320 Farwell Avenue to gain a better vantage point. While he was doing so, a tenant spotted him and called the police.
Officers Tiffin Constant and William Owens, already on route to Wayne Apartments, diverted to Farwell Avenue where they found Heirens on the fire escape. The officers approached, one from either end of the staircase, trapping him between them. With no way to escape, Heirens went for his gun and pointed it at Constant. The officer ducked, but as Heirens tried to pass him he tackled the boy to the ground. As the two of them struggled, an off-duty cop named Abner Cunningham joined the melee. Cunningham grabbed three clay flowerpots off a windowsill and dropped them, one at a time, onto Heirens' head, knocking him unconscious.
Heirens woke in Bridewell, a hospital attached to the Cook County Jail. He became aware that he was strapped to a bed and was surrounded by officers. As soon as they realized he was awake, they started on him, pushing and prodding, pinching his elbows, punching his hips, jabbing his rib cage, demanding answers to questions he didn’t quite understand.
It soon became clear though, that he was being accused of more than a break-in. As he listened to their accusations he slowly realized that they were accusing him of the Suzanne Degnan murder.
Hour upon hour, the grilling continued. When one shift of policemen was done, the next was ready to take their place. If he protested his innocence, they beat him, keeping up the questions, threats and physical abuse for days. When this didn’t produce the confession the police were hoping for, a couple of psychiatrists, Doctors Haines and Grinker, injected him with sodium pentothal (truth serum).
Heirens would later say that he remembered nothing of what happened while under the influence of the drug. However, according to the authorities, Heirens identified an alter ego, named “George” who he said had committed his crimes for him. When Heirens was asked George's last name, he supposedly told the examiners he wasn't quite sure, but that it was a “murmuring name.” The police interpreted this as “Murman,” and the press would later give it a more sinister interpretation, a shortening of “Murder Man.”
Yet, what really happened in the examination room that day is not known, as the transcript of the interview mysteriously disappeared soon after, never to be produced for public scrutiny. Nonetheless, Dr. Ginker would admit years later that Bill Heirens said nothing during the session that implicated him in any of the murders.
Soon after Heirens’ arrest, the police began to wonder if the boy who they believed had butchered Suzanne Degnan, might also be responsible for the murders of Josephine Ross and Frances Brown. To this extent investigators began looking at the fingerprint found on the doorjamb at Francis Brown’s apartment, as well as those on the Degnan ransom note. Chicago PD fingerprint expert Sergeant Thomas Laffey, had already spent thousands of hours comparing the prints to those on file (which included Heirens’ prints due to his burglary arrests) and had come up empty. Now pressure was put on Laffey to find a match to Heirens, which he did, pointing to nine points of comparison. However, this is short of the FBI’s 12-point requirement. The nine points could, in fact, have matched the prints to 65% of the population.
Nevertheless, the police believed that they had their man and despite the night clerk at the scene of the Brown murder stating categorically that Bill Heirens was not the man he saw fleeing the scene, Chicago Chief of Detectives, Walter Storms, revealed to the press that the print found on the doorjamb was a match to Heirens.
States Attorney Touhy, though, was still not satisfied. He felt that one more piece of evidence was needed to make a watertight case. He needed to match the handwriting on the ransom note, and the wall writing at the Brown crime scene, to Heirens.
George W. Schwartz, a handwriting expert, was summoned. He compared the two samples to term papers Heirens had written at the university, and found no comparison. Undeterred, Tuohy brought in Herbert J. Walter, who had worked on the Lindbergh kidnapping twenty years earlier. Months earlier, before Heirens was arrested, Walter had stated categorically that the wall message and the ransom note were not penned by the same person. Now though, he said they were, and that that person was Bill Heirens.
On his fifth day in custody, fluid was drawn from Heirens’ spinal column. This procedure, known as a spinal tap, is extremely painful and is usually done under anesthetic. The patient is also required to rest for several hours afterwards. In this case, no anesthetic was given, and within 15 minutes of the procedure, Heirens was being whisked across town to undergo a polygraph test. By the time he arrived he was in such pain that the test had to be postponed for four days. When it was eventually administered, the results were inconclusive. At least that was the police version of events. In 1953, John E. Reid and Fred E. Inbau, inventors of the polygraph, studied Heirens’ results and declared that they “clearly established him as an innocent person.”
With a week States Attorney Touhy had built what looked like an impenetrable case against Heirens, and Heirens had not even had access to a lawyer yet. Now, belatedly, he was given three: brothers John and Malachy Coghlan, and Rowland Towle. On July 1, they petitioned to have Heirens released from the custody of the Chicago Police Department and transferred to the sheriff's office. The following day they represented Heirens at his arraignment where he was charged with the murders of Josephine Ross, Frances Brown and Suzanne Degnan.
The police, meanwhile, had raided Heirens dorm room (without a warrant) and confiscated several items including a book on the Nazis and another on sexual deviation entitled Psychopathia Sexualis. Both of these were spoils from burglaries. The also found a small surgical kit that Heirens had planned to use to scratch off the serial numbers from the stolen War Bonds. The police quickly dismissed the miniature scalpel as a possible murder weapon, but the press got hold of the story. The following morning headlines such as “DISSECTING KIT FOUND!” blared from the front pages of Chicago’s five dailies.
Simultaneous to the raid on his dorm room, officers also converged on the Heirens home in Lincolnwood and rounded up closets-full of Bill Heirens' clothing. They were hoping to find trace evidence linking Heirens to the three crimes scenes. However, hours of painstaking lab work found nothing, not a hair, not a fiber, not a speck of blood.
Which left Tuohy in somewhat of a quandary. His case was strong, but purely circumstantial. What he needed was to tie Hierens to at least one of the crime scenes. An eyewitness would be ideal and suddenly one appeared, a 25-year-old soldier named George E. Subgrunski.
Subgrunski, who was on furlong on the day of the Degnan murder, had testified that he had seen a man walking towards the house, carrying a shopping bag. He described the figure as “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.” He couldn’t see the man’s face, he said, because the street was dark.
On July 11, Subgrunski had been shown a picture of Heirens and had told the Chicago Daily News that he was “unable to identify the man as Heirens.” However, just five days later at the criminal hearing, Subgrunski pointed at Heirens and said, “That's the man I saw!” He now claimed he’d seen Heirens’ features by the headlights of a passing car, contradicting his earlier testimony.
As the evidence against Heirens continued to pile up, as the papers daily vilified him and spoke as though he’d already been found guilty in a court of law, he must have been at his wits end. Worse still, his lawyers appeared to believe that he was guilty and saw their job purely as keeping him from being executed.
On Sunday, July 14, William Tuohy and his assistant, Wilbert Crowley, met with Heirens' lawyers to hammer out a plea bargain. The offer from Tuohy was one life-sentence in exchange for confessions to the murders of Josephine Ross, Frances Brown and Suzanne Degnan. He assured the defense team that, even if the state failed to convict Heirens of murder, his burglary convictions alone would mean life imprisonment. It was in his interests to take the deal.
But before the attorneys even had time to put the proposition to their client, the press had wind of the story. They began pestering both the defense team and the State Attorney’s office for details. When none were given, one reporter, George Wright of the Chicago Tribune, did something so unethical that it defies belief. He created a fictional confession, which the Tribune ran the following day, as though it were written by William Heirens. Out maneuvered by the Tribune, the other papers had no option but to reprint the story.
Despite the Tribune fiasco, Heirens decided to take his attorneys advice and confess to the crimes he still insisted he hadn’t committed. Absurdly, the fake Tribune article came in handy, providing him with a guideline.
On July 30, Heirens was brought before the State's Attorney to make his official confession. He had expected this to be a private affair with only officials and his lawyers present. However Tuohy, ever alert to the political mileage to be gleaned from the occasion, had invited the press. Heirens entered to a room full of reporters and flashing cameras.
However, Tuohy had miscalculated. Seated before the State’s Attorney, Heirens appeared to change his mind about confessing. He answered each question with “I don't know” or “I don't remember.” He’d later say that it was Tuohy’s attitude that made him renege on the agreement. Tuohy kept using the word “truth” and it made Heirens angry that he was being forced to lie in order to save himself.
Angered and embarrassed by the public humiliation, Tuohy changed his plea bargain offer. The deal was now three life terms, not one. Still Heirens’ attorneys urged him to take the deal. The alternative, they said, was a trial, which would almost certainly end with him in the electric chair. Left with no alternative Heirens accepted. On August 7, he related in detail how he had killed Suzanne Degnan, how he’d then dismembered the body and gone home to burn his bloodstained clothes. Similarly be provided details of the Brown and Ross murders.
On September 4, Heirens appeared before Chief Justice Harold G. Ward for sentencing. The day was taken up with witness statements, reading indictments and recording Heirens’ response to each charge. To the charges of burglary he replied “Guilty” without hesitation. Yet when it came to the murder charges, he seemed to waver before admitting to them. With sentencing held over until the following day, Heirens was returned to his cell. That night, in the change over between shifts, he tied a bed sheet to an overhead pipe and tried to hang himself. Only the quick reaction of one of the guards saved his life. Speaking about the suicide attempt years later, Heirens would say: “Everyone believed I was guilty. If I weren't alive, I felt I could avoid being adjudged guilty by the law and thereby gain some victory.” The following day, September 5, 1946, the court pronounced William Heirens guilty of all charges.
That evening, while awaiting transportation to Stateville Prison to begin his sentence, Heirens was visited by Sheriff Michael Mulcahy, one of the few lawmen who had treated him fairly during his ordeal. Mulcahy carried a message from Jim Degnan, Suzanne’s father, who wanted to know if his daughter had suffered during her last hours. “I can't tell you if she suffered, Sheriff Mulcahy,” was Heirens’ answer. “I didn't kill her. Tell Mr. Degnan to please look after his other daughter, because whoever killed Suzanne is still out there.”
Within days of beginning his prison term, Heirens issued a statement denying involvement in the murders. “I confessed to save my life,” he said, a stance he continued to maintain up until his death.
William Heirens knew that he had little chance of being paroled and he quickly settled into the routine of prison life and became a model prisoner. In 1972, he became the first Illinois inmate to receive a college degree, completing a Bachelor of Arts via correspondence courses. He subsequently assisted in the development of educational programs and helped other inmates obtain high school diplomas.
In 1975, he was transferred to the minimum security Vienna Correctional Center and in February 2012, he was moved to the Dixon Correctional Center, due to ill health. He died at the University of Illinois Medical Center on March 5, 2012, at the age of 83. He had spent 66 years behind bars.
Was Bill Heirens guilty? Only he can answer that question and he went to the grave insisting that he did not commit the murders he was accused of.
American Monsters Volume Ten includes 11 more riveting stories of America's worst serial killers