The sad case of the Lipstick Killer

North Kenmore Avenue is a much sought-after residential area in the city of Chicago, with a children’s park surrounding the apartments and transport links within walking distance. It lies around the corner from a prestigious Catholic school and the uptown setting is popular with young families and elderly residents alike, it’s safe atmosphere and cheap living costs appealing to people from all walks of life. North Kenmore wasn’t always as safe though. In 1945, in Apartment 4108, a woman was brutally murdered there.

It was June 5th when 44-year-old Josephine Ross was found slain on her apartment floor. Police were greeted by a messy scene– Pools of blood surrounded Josephine and the smashed up apartment indicated there had been a struggle. She had been stabbed multiple times and a dress had been wrapped around her head. Usually, when a killer covers the face of a victim, it suggests that they feel a great deal of remorse about the crime they have committed and that death is almost always the end result of an impulsive sex crime. However, this seemed different. No evidence of sexual assault was present and death had definitely been the result of a frenzied attack. Police found a clump of dark hair in Josephine’s hand, as if she had been in a violent struggle with somebody. Naturally, police turned to her ex-boyfriends and ex-husbands, all of whom had an alibi. Although the neighbourhood was frightened at the prospect of a murderer living close by, the police assured people there was nothing to worry about and that Ms. Ross had been killed by a startled burglar. Her murder didn’t make the front page, and she was sadly written off by investigators.

Six months later, and we are in December. Our killer strikes again but, this time, police begin to take notice. On the 10th of the month, divorcee Frances Brown was found dead in her apartment. She had been stabbed and shot, the bread knife used in her murder still lodged in her throat when a cleaning lady discovered the body. The grim message show above, written in unusual handwriting, was scrawled on the apartment wall in red lipstick (earning the killer his moniker) but apart from that, little evidence was found. Compared to the first murder, police did have a bit more to go on: a bloody fingerprint and a possible eyewitness. John Derick, the concierge for the lobby, said he saw a nervous man and heard “possible gunshots” at around 4 a.m. Given the lack of surveillance technology during the 40s, it was impossible to confirm John’s account.

The last known murder of the deluded “Lipstick Killer” was a truly shocking crime against an innocent little girl. Six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was snatched from her bedroom in Edgewater, Chicago, on January of 1946. Her bedroom window had been left open and a wooden ladder was still propped up against it. At the time, police had no reason to believe her abduction was connected to the Lipstick killer, as kidnapping little girls didn’t fit his modus operandi. A ransom note left at the scene read “GeI $20,000 Reddy & wAITe foR WoRd. do NoT NoTify FBI oR Police. Bills IN 5’s & 10’s. BuRN This FoR heR SAfTY.” That night, a man persistently telephoned the Degnan residence demanding the ransom, only to hang up as details were being exchanged. Those phone calls would later turn out to be a cruel joke performed by two high-school students, Vince Costello and Theodore Campbell. Sick with anguish, her family could only hope that the police could find Suzanne before it was too late. Sadly, their worst fears were confirmed. Acting on an anonymous tip, detectives travelled to a sewer just a block away from the Degnan residence and found Suzanne’s decapitated head. Where was the rest of her body? Investigators were now faced with the grim prospect that somebody had dismembered a little girl, and they were unfortunately right. They found her torso in storm drain, and both her legs had been discarded in separate catch basins. Her tiny arms were found a month later in another sewer. Blood, presumed to be Suzanne’s, was found in the drains of laundry tubs in the basement laundry room of a nearby apartment building. This crime was truly grisly, and without advanced forensic technology, it was hard to bring the killer to justice.

Little Suzanne Degnan was just 6-years-old when she was killed. Source: Chicago Tribune

In a desperate bid to catch the murderer, police questioned hundreds of suspects and gave polygraph examinations to about 170 of them. In several press releases, they claimed to have captured the killer terrorising the city of Chicago, but they were always mistaken. All suspects were eventually released.

In June, 17-year-old criminal William Heirens was burgling an apartment when he was confronted by the janitor and fled. Police were called, and Heirens was subdued by an off-duty police officer who dropped several flowerpots onto his head to render him unconscious. From the day of his arrest on June 26, 1946, things travelled on a downward spiral for Heirens and this once lucky burglar had run all out of luck. For some reason, police believed that Heirens was the Lipstick Killer and decided to question him. For six consecutive days, he was interrogated by police officers. He was denied food, water, and the right to an attorney, and two psychiatrists even gave him Sodium Pentothal (a potent barbiturate) without his consent. Most shocking of all, the 17-year-old was given a spinal tap without any anaesthesia. For days later, he was in incredible pain and couldn’t perform a polygraph test because his adrenaline-fuelled heart was beating too fast. Eventually, he cracked. He confessed to police that he had committed these crimes under an alter-ego named “George.” He explained to psychologists that he always took the rap for the crimes of “George” including theft, murder, and everything in between. The Chicago police department were suspicious of this defence, and accused Heirens of lying in the hopes of getting an insanity defence in court. Apart from his confession, police had nothing to go on. No evidence linked Heirens to the murders, and this polite University of Chicago student seemed incapable of such heinous crimes. It seemed like a bizarre arrest, but for the general public, it was good enough.

William Heirens. While imprisoned, he tried to hang himself with his bed-sheets. Source: Getty

As suggested by his defence attorneys, Heirens confessed to all crimes. On his court date on August 7, 1946, Heirens took full responsibility for the three murders. The prosecution had him reenact the abduction and murder of Suzanne Degnan in court multiple times, all of which he did inconsistently. On the night of September 4th, Heirens attempted suicide in his cell and had timed it to coincide during a shift change of the prison guards. He was discovered hanging and was revived successfully by prison guards. He said later that sheer despair drove him to attempt suicide.

“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. But I wasn’t successful even at that. …Before I walked into the courtroom my counsel told me to just enter a plea of guilty and keep my mouth shut afterward. I didn’t even have a trial..”

The next morning, the prosecution and defence were making their closing statements. The judge, Chief Justice Harold G. Ward, formally sentenced Heirens to three life terms. Somehow, he had been lucky enough to avoid the electric chair. As Heirens waited to be transferred to Stateville Prison from the Cook County Jail, Sheriff Michael Mulcahy asked Heirens if Suzanne Degnan suffered when she was killed. Heirens simply replied:

“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.”

Likely innocent, William Heirens still spent the rest of his life imprisoned. In 2002, a petition for his release was filed but eventually denied. In his older years, he suffered from diabetes and was confined to a wheelchair with limited eyesight. He died of natural causes on March 5th, 2012, due to complications with his illness.

William Heirens in prison. He spent over 65 years incarcerated. Source:
Peter Thompson/Associated Press

In 1994, Dolores Kennedy formed a team of forensic experts to look into the murders and they found several inconsistencies, most notable was that Heirens’ confessions didn’t fully match the evidence. Heirens claimed that he was forced to confess by the police, and this is also supported by other evidence. They also concluded that the handwriting of the lipstick message and that of the ransom note were not the same and that neither matched that of Heirens. They also looked into the police force working on the case: Before Heirens was arrested, police had taken particular interest in a janitor called Hector Verburgh. 65-year-old Hector was from Belgium, and struggled to write fluently in English. With this in mind, isn’t it odd that police still arrested him and accused him of the murders? How could a man with no knowledge of English writing, scribble such an eloquently written note on his supposed victim’s wall? It didn’t stop there. Like Heirens, Verburgh was subjected to extreme torture. For two days, police interrogated him and beat him so badly that he sustained a dislocated shoulder. After his terrifying ordeal, he successfully sued the Chicago Police Department for $15,000.

“Oh, they hanged me up, they blindfolded me … I can’t put up my arms, they are sore. They had handcuffs on me for hours and hours. They threw me in the cell and blindfolded me. They handcuffed my hands behind my back and pulled me up on bars until my toes touched the floor. I no eat, I go to the hospital. Oh, I am so sick. Any more and I would have confessed to anything.”

With such atrocious behaviour from the police department, it’s safe to say that the man convicted of these crimes was not the real killer, merely a scapegoat for shoddy police work. The true identity of the Lipstick Killer is yet to be discovered, and, sadly, it seems that those who were murdered were not the only victims in this disturbing case.

One thought on “The sad case of the Lipstick Killer

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  1. “With such atrocious behaviour from the police department, it’s safe to say that the man convicted of these crimes was not the real killer, merely a scapegoat for shoddy police work.”

    Some of those police officers should have been charged with torture.

    Liked by 1 person

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