William Heirens, known as the 'Lipstick Killer,'  dead

William Heirens, third from left in foreground, is arraigned in July of 1946. (Chicago Tribune file photo)

For decades, Betty Finn and Jim Degnan had to relive the gruesome details of their sister’s murder.

Every year for 29 years, they attended parole hearings for William Heirens -- Chicago’s notorious “Lipstick Killer” who confessed to three killings in the mid-1940s – to argue that he should remain behind bars for life.

Heirens, 83, who spent 65 years in custody and was one of Illinois’ longest-serving prisoners, died Monday at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

He had been in declining health for years and was taken to the hospital from Dixon Correctional Center in Dixon on Feb. 26, officials said. An autopsy was scheduled for Wednesday.

Finn said she hopes Heirens’ death brought closure to both him and those who have been haunted by his crimes.

“Hopefully he’s at peace and we don’t have to worry about it anymore,” said Finn, who was 10 when her 6-year-old sister, Suzanne Degnan, was abducted from her first-floor bedroom and dismembered in January 1946. “I hope he made amends. I never wished him ill. I just wanted him in prison for everybody’s safety. It was never out of retribution. It was out of fear that he could hurt somebody else, and if we did not go to all these parole hearings and protest it and he got out and he hurt a child, you just couldn’t live with it.”

Heirens was a 17-year-old University of Chicago student when he confessed to three murders that, at the time, were considered among Chicago’s most heinous crimes and that changed the way residents, and especially parents, thought about their safety and the safety of their children. Cook County prosecutors said the crimes prompted many people to start locking their doors.

The slayings caused a media sensation in the Chicago of the 1940s, especially after a message from the killer scrawled in lipstick was made public. “For heaven's sake, catch me before I kill more,” read a note on the wall of one victim's apartment. “I cannot control myself.”

In June 1945, Josephine Ross, 43, was fatally stabbed in her home. Six months later, Frances Brown, 32, was shot and stabbed in her apartment. Degnan was abducted the next month, her dismembered body found in the city’s sewer system.

About five months later, police found Heirens during an attempted burglary in Rogers Park, where officials said he attempted to shoot an officer. He told police the gun misfired. Fingerprint evidence linked to Heirens was found at a murder scene, including Heirens’ fingerprints on a ransom note.

As might be expected, police tactics at the time were far different than from today. Heirens was forcibly injected with sodium pentothal, or “truth serum,” for instance, and prosecutors took Heirens to re-enact the crimes for the press at the murder scenes. But when he was brought to court to plead guilty on July 30, 1946, in exchange for a single life term, he instead defied authorities – and advice from lawyers and his parents – and insisted he was innocent.

After more pressure, and with the deal from angry prosecutors now up to three life terms, Heirens pleaded guilty, saying he feared he could not get a fair trial amid sensational media coverage and to avoid being given a death sentence – something very real in that different era.

He then recanted his admission of guilt and, ever since, insisted he was innocent. His account, friends and lawyers said, never wavered.

“There was no deathbed confession. He always said he was innocent,” said Delores Kennedy, intern coordinator at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, who wrote a book about Heirens, became a close friend, and was his power of attorney to make his medical decisions. “I’ve known Bill 27 years. There was never an instant where he indicated he had any guilt in those murders.”

Over the years, attorneys and supporters of Heirens have raised questions about his guilt, looking at the case anew with what has been learned over the decades about false confessions and wrongful convictions, especially those involving teenagers. The questions about Heirens’ case revolve around doubts about the handwriting on the ransom note linked to Heirens, fingerprint evidence some say was falsified, and inconsistencies in his confession. In addition, attorneys have said another man confessed to one of the murders to authorities in Arizona before Heirens’ arrest.

But the attorneys also conceded that Heirens’ innocence likely would never be proved. In a case more than a half-century old, and with many of the principals dead and much of the evidence lost, it was impossible to mount anything but a theoretical challenge to the convictions.

Heirens’ sentence allowed for the possibility of parole. But in spite of being a model prisoner and the first prisoner in Illinois to earn a college degree behind bars, he was denied a chance at freedom more than two dozen times. At a parole hearing in 1991, then Assistant State`s Atty. Thomas Epach scoffed at Heirens' claims of innocence. Epach detailed the evidence he said pointed to Heirens’ guilt – and that Heirens had also pleaded guilty to assault to kill a police officer, robbery and 25 burglaries, adding a term of one year to life in the penitentiary.

“This is a man who cut a helpless little girl into six pieces and decapitated her, who murdered two women in their homes and remained with their bodies, bathing them,” Epach said at the hearing. “Before Stephen King ever thought of any of these kinds of acts, William Heirens was doing them.”

Heirens asked former Gov. George Ryan for clemency, but it was never granted and his hopes began to diminish over his final years.

Suzanne Degnan’s younger brother, Jim, said his parents often spoke of Suzanne but never discussed her death or mentioned Heirens. He said he did not learn of the circumstances of her death until a classmate told him about the murder when he was in 5th or 6th grade, prompting him to ask his parents about it.

There were other signs that his parents never recovered from Suzanne’s death, Degnan said. His mother installed bars on his bedroom window when they moved into a 4th-floor apartment several years after the killing, and she did not allow him to buy black pants as a child because she associated them with Heirens, he said. He called Heirens’ death a “moment of relief” and said he believed his parents would be relieved as well.

“It never left her, (or) my father, either,” Degnan said. “Their odyssey is over, too.”

Degnan said he researched the case while he was in his 20s, after Heirens began claiming he was innocent. After examining some of the evidence and speaking with the authorities and a retired judge, he said he was satisfied that Heirens was guilty. He said Heirens’ supporters had decades to prove his innocence, but never could.

“I always waited for the other shoe to drop” he said,” and it never did.”

Contributing: William Lee

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