Law & Disorder by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker is a true crime book featuring stories of justice denied or delayed (available February 26, 2012).
Over the course of his nearly forty-year career, John Douglas has pursued, studied, and interviewed criminals including Charles Manson, James Earl Ray, Dennis Rader, and David Berkowitz—a veritable Who’s Who of violent predators. But he has also devoted extensive energies to helping the wrongfully accused and convicted, including several inmates on death row. Now, with longtime coauthor and collaborator Mark Olshaker, Douglas addresses every law enforcement professional’s worst nightmare: cases in which justice was delayed, or even denied. Eloquently and passionately, he speaks up not only for victims of crime—but for victims of the system itself.
In fascinating and meticulous detail he recreates his groundbreaking findings in the investigation of the West Memphis Three and the bungled trial of Amanda Knox; how he reached his controversial conclusions in the JonBenet Ramsey murder; and his involvement in other historic, headline-making cases. Douglas reveals what happens when preconceived ideas, bias, superstition, and even media coverage obstruct a dispassionate pursuit of the evidence—and shows what we must do to avoid modern-day re-enactments of the Salem Witch Trials.
Chapter 1: Catch Me Before I Kill More
It was one of the most hideous and brutal murders in the history of Chicago, a city already notorious for the brutality of its crimes.
In the early-morning hours of Monday, January 7, 1946, an adorable, ﬂaxen-haired six-year-old named Suzanne Degnan was snatched from her ﬁrst-ﬂoor bedroom in the family’s house at 5943 North Kenmore Avenue, in the Edgewater neighborhood on Chicago’s north side. A poorly written ransom note demanded $20,000, warned her parents not to NoTify FBI oR Police, and instructed them to wAITe foR WoRd. A ladder was found outside Suzanne’s bedroom window.
An anonymous caller instructed police to check sewers near Suzanne’s home. Before nightfall, police had found her dismembered remains in several sewers near her home, as well as in a bloody basement laundry room, where her body was cut apart in an apartment house on nearby Winthrop Street. The cause of death was apparent strangulation in an unknown location between her home and the laundry room.
This all happened the year after I was born. By the time I got involved with the case, the confessed and convicted defendant had already been in prison thirty-three years.
After tours as a street agent in Detroit and Milwaukee, I’d been assigned in 1977 to the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, teaching applied criminal psychology to new agents, seasoned detectives and police brass through the National Academy program. The trouble was, many of these guys (there were very few women students back then) knew more about the cases being taught than I did, and every so often we’d get a chief or senior investigator who’d actually worked the case under review.
In an attempt to keep myself from looking uninformed, stupid or both before the veteran cops in my classroom, I decided to try to meet these violent predators face-to-face, to interview them and ?nd out what was actually going on in their heads when they committed their crimes and what they thought of them afterward. My fellow instructor Robert Ressler and I did regular “road schools” for local police departments and sheriff ’s of?ces around the country, which I ?gured provided us the perfect opportunity to visit these offenders at their various institutions of long-term residence.
Out of those informal and unof?cial origins, we began our original serial killer study, which ultimately led to a rigorous study funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). I coauthored two landmark books with Ressler and Dr. Ann Burgess, of the University of Pennsylvania, entitled Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives and Crime Classi?cation Manual, and solidi?ed my career as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s ?rst operational behavioral pro?ler.
Surprisingly—at least we thought so at the time—virtually every killer on our “wish list” agreed to talk to us. One of the earliest interviews Bob Ressler and I did happened to be with William George Heirens at Statesville Prison in Joliet, Illinois. As a seventeen-year-old, Heirens had confessed and pled guilty to murdering little Suzanne Degnan, as well as two adult women in the preceding months: forty-three-year-old housewife Josephine Ross and thirty-one-year-old Frances Brown, a former Navy WAVE who had served during World War II.
Brown’s naked, bloodstained body was discovered in her apartment not far from Ross’s home on the morning of December 11, 1945, when housemaid Martha Engels came to clean. She found Brown in the bathtub with a bullet wound to her skull and a butcher knife stabbed into her neck. On the living-room wall, scrawled in Brown’s own red lipstick, was the apparent plea or, perhaps, mocking taunt:
For heAVens Sake cAtch Me
BeFore I Kill More I cannot control myself
By the next day’s editions, Chicago’s enterprising newspapers had a name for the unknown subject (“UNSUB” in our terminology) of this disgusting and horrific crime: the “Lipstick Killer.”
Before the interview in Joliet, Ressler and I prepared by reviewing the case ?le and William Heirens’s prison record. He had been a model prisoner throughout his incarceration and had become the ?rst inmate in Illinois to complete a college degree. He’d since done graduate work.
Unlike many of the offenders we had or would study, there was nothing arrogant about Heirens, nothing “sinister,” egotistical or overbearing. There was nothing intimidating about him; and unlike some we interviewed, he didn’t give the impression of wanting to rip off our heads. He was polite and spoke well, but throughout the several-hour interview he insisted he was innocent. He maintained that he’d been intimidated by Chicago police into confessing and was railroaded by his attorneys into taking a plea deal that they had come up with in a bold attempt to keep him out of the Illinois electric chair.
No matter how we approached the case or what we asked him, Heirens had a ready answer. Though he freely admitted to his extended career as a breaking-and-entering man, he swore he had an alibi for the nights of each of the three killings and wasn’t even close to any of the scenes. He was so passionate about his innocence, so compelling in his insistence, I was convinced he could have passed a polygraph on the spot. As we left the prison, I was thinking to myself, Man, maybe this guy really got the shaft!
One of the ultimate mysteries of the human condition is what really happens between two people in any situation. When that situation is a murder, that mystery can intensify to the extreme. Is it possible that this given individual is capable of the worst act one person can perpetrate against another? And if not, then who is?
At its essential level, criminal justice is about assembling evidence, clues and other indicators to come up with, and then telling a logical, consistent and believable story. The investigator has to have one, and so do the defense and the prosecution. The version that the jury buys ultimately determines the outcome of the case. That’s what I did and the current pro?lers still do at Quantico: apply our knowledge, experience and instinct to intuit a story about a known victim and an unknown predator. Like everything else in criminal justice, there are several ways of telling the rest of the William Heirens story.
I was so affected by Heirens’s rational-seeming claims of his innocence after so many years in prison that as soon as I got back to Quantico, I dug out my copies of the case materials and reviewed all the critical points.
I took the ?le over to the second ?oor of the academy library, where I often went when I needed to concentrate. At my desk, the phone rang constantly and colleagues were always stopping by to ask questions or kibitz. Also, working in a ?eld in which darkness and night are such prevailing metaphors, I liked having sunlight. At the time, Behavioral Science was housed in of?ces sixty feet underground, in space that had originally been designed as an emergency-command bunker, leading to our frequent quip that we were buried ten times deeper than dead people.
Sure enough, all of the incriminating facts were plain to see in Heirens’s case ?le. He had the bad background I had come to expect from repeat predators: a risk-taking loner who had almost burned down the house with a chemistry experiment, and later jumped off a garage roof to try out his homemade cardboard wings; parents who had violent arguments and periodic money troubles; a string of burglaries going back at least to the age of thirteen; gun charges; and a record of being in and out of correctional schools. Based on stolen books found in his possession, including Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, as well as a scrapbook he’d put together on the Nazis, he seemed to have an abiding interest in sexual perversion. He was even found to have his own portable surgical kit. The instruments were too small and delicate to have been used to take apart a body, but the interest it demonstrated in such things didn’t exactly look good for someone who’d confessed to the postmortem dismembering of a child.
The confession itself was straightforward enough, except for the parts about a collaborator named “George Murman,” who authorities decided was his face-saving alter ego who “drove him to it.” George was Heirens’s middle name, and Murman, they concluded, was short for “murder man.” It appeared to be what our research would soon show us to be a classic case of escalation to murder through two opportunistic situations in which the owners of the premises happened to be home at the time of the break-ins, followed by a further escalation with the savage killing of the little girl. Heirens of?cially signed off on the confession not once, but twice, both times with attorneys present.
Other elements ?t as well. The neighborhoods in which the murders took place were within the areas Heirens had burglarized in the past, what we would call his “comfort zone.” He was apprehended in the midst of a burglary and attempted to shoot pursuing police of?cers before an off-duty cop happened to see what was happening and conked him on the head with a ceramic ?owerpot, sending him to Bridewell, the medical lockup associated with Cook County Jail. Despite his checkered academic background, he was sufficiently intelligent to be accepted to the vaunted University of Chicago at age sixteen. In that, he equaled the feat of those other notorious Chicago killers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, convicted of the thrill murder of Loeb’s fourteen-year-old neighbor and distant cousin, Bobby Franks, and only saved from the death chamber by the impassioned defense of Clarence Darrow. The local press saw to it that none of these details was lost on the terrorized and news-hungry public. The Chicago Tribune labeled the Suzanne Degnan homicide: one of the most atrocious American murders since the Loeb-Leopold case.
Once enrolled in the prestigious university, Heirens majored in electrical engineering and continued to burglarize private homes, stores and apartment hotels. The meager cash, jewelry and odd objects he stole speak to someone who was more interested in the kick than in pro?table criminal enterprise. If this kid was able to compartmentalize his life to that extent, then maybe the plaintive plea to catch him before he killed more made some sense. You could even explain the immature scrawl as a psychological attempt to separate the highly intelligent “Bill Heirens” from the sinister “George Murman.”
Most compelling was the physical evidence: Heirens’s ?ngerprint showed up both on the ransom note and in blood on a doorjamb in Frances Brown’s apartment. The ransom note print was eventually questioned as not having the necessary number of points of comparison (this one had nine; the FBI required a minimum of twelve). But the one from the Brown murder scene was unimpeachable.
In this context, the reality of the case became clear. Sitting in prison all those years with endless time to think about it, the intelligent and introspective Heirens had let himself psychologically off the hook and convinced himself that while he was an inveterate serial burglar, he was innocent of the three murders to which he had confessed.
We taught the William Heirens case for years after we included it in our Criminal Personality Research Project, the ?rst organized study that actually correlated each step of a violent crime with what the offender was thinking and doing at the time. That study formed the basis of a discipline that has proven accurate and useful in ?nding and trying serial murderers, rapists and other violent, predatory criminals over more than forty years, through many thousands of investigations and prosecutions.
In 1987, nearly ten years after my interview with Bill Heirens, a detective from nearby Arlington County, Virginia, named Joe Horgas, came calling at Quantico. Through years of persistent investigative work, which I can only characterize as brilliant and inspired, Horgas thought he had linked bold break-ins, violent rapes and horribly vicious rape-murders that had taken place in Arlington, neighboring Alexandria and down in the Richmond area over a period of years. Others in the various police departments didn’t buy the connection. However, Horgas was positive. In his mind, the series of crimes went back to the murder of Carolyn Hamm, a thirty-two-year-old attorney, in Arlington in 1984.
After hearing the detective’s presentation and considering everything—from timing and method of entry to physical and behavioral evidence, choice of victims and lab reports—we agreed the cases were almost certainly related. There are very few absolutes in our business, and none in profiling, but this was a pretty damn good matchup.
Then Horgas sprang a major curveball on us. “Hamm is actually a closed case,” he explained, “because an individual has been arrested, tried and convicted.”
He told us about David Vasquez, a Hispanic male who was thirty-seven years of age when the Arlington Police Department arrested him two weeks after the murder. He’d been living with a friend in Hamm’s neighborhood and had been witnessed around her house by two individuals. When detectives searched his room, they found pornography involving bound and gagged women, as well as peeper photos he’d taken surreptitiously of women in various stages of undress. He couldn’t be linked to semen samples found on Hamm’s body or clothing, though some hair samples were suggestive. But the slam dunk was that he had confessed!
“Do you think there’s more than one person involved?” Horgas asked.
This wasn’t an idle question. Because Vasquez was demonstrably of very marginal intelligence and the crime was criminally sophisticated, there was some compelling thought that the Hamm murder might have been the work of two offenders, the UNSUB being the dominant one and Vasquez more of a compliant partner. We’d seen a number of examples of this over the years; so while rare, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility. Normally, there are some pretty strong indicators at the crime scene, with elements representing both organized and disorganized aspects.
But at no point had Vasquez mentioned anyone else, nor was there any reference in his confession, nor was there anything from the Hamm case or any of the others that looked to us like a two-person crime. In fact, from what he told us about Vasquez, it didn’t seem that he had the intellectual capability or the experience to have pulled off something this criminally sophisticated.
The fact that the crimes had stopped in Northern Virginia at a certain point, and then similar ones started occurring around Richmond three years later, established a pattern that was highly suggestive: Since this type of offender rarely stops on his own, we speculated that he had been picked up for some crime, like a burglary, which carried a three-year sentence, then was put on some sort of work release in Richmond.
Horgas pursued this idea, following up on every record of someone who might ?t the pattern. He went back to the Arlington neighborhoods where the early crimes took place. Before long, he recalled a troubled African-American teenager named Timothy Wilson Spencer, whom he’d once investigated for a burglary. Several computer checks con?rmed a bull’s-eye. Spencer was twenty-two when he had been arrested in 1984 for burglary in Alexandria and was released to a halfway house in Richmond in 1987. Once Spencer was targeted as a suspect, everything started falling into place. Most important, his DNA matched three of the murder scenes and several of the rapes.
Though he never confessed, Spencer was convicted of murder in the ?rst degree in three separate trials, and sentenced to death in all three. His convictions represent the ?rst successful use of DNA evidence in the United States. After the failure of all of his appeals, on April 27, 1994, Timothy Wilson Spencer was executed in the electric chair of the Virginia State Penitentiary in Jarratt.
For people like me who have spent our professional lives helping police hunt down the worst of the worst and seeking justice for those who can no longer seek it for themselves, this was a highly gratifying outcome. But one giant loose end persisted. David Vasquez remained in prison for a crime we were convinced was part of a string committed by someone else. The two witnesses against Vasquez would not alter their testimony, and the crime scene samples had degraded to the point of being useless. The best shot at getting him sprung—of demonstrating that the Hamm murder was committed by the same offender as the others—was probably a behavioral science approach. So that was when we took the lead.
The FBI’s profiling group is now called the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU). When I became the ?rst full-time operational pro?ler, I was part of the Behavioral Science Unit, which was essentially academic. In an effort to be taken seriously by our police clients, and to “get rid of the BS,” I called the new profiling group the Investigative Support Unit (ISU). There were twelve profilers whom I affectionately nicknamed “the Dirty Dozen.” Soon we were analyzing more than a thousand cases a year, so we set up a system in which each special agent profiler was assigned a geographic area of the country.
At the time of the Vasquez-Spencer case, the agent overseeing Virginia was Steve Mardigian, who set to work gathering material and analyzing every aspect of each related crime. After months of work, he presented his ?ndings to all of us in a case conference. We all agreed that these were all the work of a resourceful, experienced, angry and manipulative sexual sadist. David Vasquez did not and could not have committed the murder of Carolyn Hamm.
Once we had completed our analysis, we joined with Joe Horgas and the Arlington PD in asking Commonwealth Attorney Helen Fahey, of Arlington County, to ask Governor Gerald Baliles to grant Vasquez a full pardon. A report signed by both Mardigian and me accompanied her petition. Less than three months later, David Vasquez was a free man, having spent four years in prison for a crime he confessed to, but didn’t commit.
Had a defense attorney brought this case to us and asked for our assistance, we would have had to decline. There was no federal jurisdiction here, so the only way we could get involved was when local law enforcement asked us in. Also, stretched as thin as we were, we had only offered our services to police, sheriff and other investigating agencies, not those charged with crimes. Even if we had had the resources, I can’t imagine the FBI brass letting us work both sides of the street.
In working this case, though, the reality of the confession became equally clear. Scared and isolated during his police interrogation, Vasquez perceived that his only “salvation” was to please and cooperate with his interrogators and give them what they wanted. Either intentionally or not, he had been given way too much information, which he then formed into a “dream” in which he had murdered Carolyn Hamm. Naively, he thought that once he had cooperated with the authorities, they would let him go.
Was the conviction of David Vasquez a horrible miscarriage of justice? Of course, it was. But let me point out one critical factor. Yes, it was law enforcement of?cials who put Vasquez behind bars. But it was also law enforcement officials who got him out when the mistake was realized, not reporters or lawyers or even crusading civilians. And it is the open-mindedness, impartiality and integrity—or lack of same—of those connected with the criminal justice process that is at the heart of this book.
Stated in its most basic terms, our criminal justice system is an attempt to do the impossible: to make the world as right as possible after someone has done something to upset that rightness. We define this as committing an act that’s against the law. And that system knows and understands its own limitations, both in terms of restoring the aggrieved to their previous state and determining the ultimate truth of what happened. Just remember: No one is ever found innocent. Not ever. The only distinction the system is capable of making is between “guilty” and “not guilty.” Has the evidence reached a level of reasonable human certainty? That’s what the system strives to determine in each instance. We know that’s the best we can do, so we must try to do it as well as we possibly can.
Long after we’d ?nished with the Vasquez case, it continued to haunt me, as it should haunt anyone in law enforcement who takes his or her mission seriously. I had always regarded confessions as the gold standard: If you can get a confession, you’ve made your case! But David Vasquez called everything uncomfortably into question.
Which brings us back to William Heirens.
Chapter 2: Upon Further Review
When you start out as a special agent for the FBI and get your ?rst field of?ce assignment, you’re pretty naive about certain things, especially if, like me, you had no previous law enforcement experience. The first thing you realize is that not everyone is glad to see you, and I’m not just talking about the bad guys. Some police departments welcome the assistance the Bureau can provide, while others perceive us as the four-hundred-pound gorilla muscling onto their turf.
When you’re new, you tend to assume that all PDs and sheriff ’s of?ces conduct complete and thorough investigations, just as you’ve been taught to do at the FBI Academy, and that all the evidence they give you is good and reliable. Well, that one isn’t always true, either.
During my years in the Bureau, I was always handling so many active cases and, for much of that time, also heading up the Investigative Support Unit, that I seldom had the luxury to revisit past cases. Only after I retired did I have a chance to consider crimes I’d studied early in my career, cases like the Lipstick Killer of Chicago.
Let’s review the case and see if we want to tell the story a different way this time. We’ll take a look at some facts and events of which I was unaware at the time of the prison interview, and we’ll bring to bear some of the experience, research and knowledge we acquired as my unit’s criminal investigative analysis program developed. And we’ll begin as if we were pro?ling an UNSUB for a police consultation.
First, let’s make sure we understand the role of profiling in a criminal investigation.
Point Number One: We don’t catch criminals. That’s what the police do. What we do is assist local law enforcement in focusing their investigation on a particular type of UNSUB. Depending on the type of evidence or clues available, we may be able to give pretty speci?c details of sex, race, age, area of residence, motive, profession, background, personal relationships and various other aspects of an individual’s personality. We will also suggest proactive techniques to draw a criminal into making a move to go in a particular direction. Once the suspect is apprehended, we can aid in interrogation and then prosecution strategy. In the trial, we can provide expert testimony of signature, modus operandi (MO), motive, linkage, crime classification and staging.
This is all based on our research and specialized experience with what is now tens of thousands of cases, many more than any local investigator could ever possibly see. Essentially, we use the same techniques as our fictional forebear, Sherlock Holmes. It is all based on logical, deductive and inductive reasoning and our basic equation is this:
WHY? + HOW? = WHO
It sounds simple, but there are countless variables that go into the analysis; and to be truly useful, we have to be as speci?c as possible. We all recognize the cliché of the white male loner in his twenties. But even in instances where that description might be accurate, it doesn’t help much unless we can say something about where he lives, what’s been happening in his life, what types of changes family, friends and colleagues should be noticing in him, when and where he might strike again, whether and/or how he’ll react to the investigation, etc.
One thing I always told new agents in my unit was that it is not enough to pro?le the UNSUB; you have to profile the victim, too. You have to know whether she or he had a high-risk lifestyle, whether she or he was likely to be passive or aggressive in the face of threats, whether she or he had any enemies or bad relationships in the past, and so on. But I’ve found that even that is not enough. You also have to profile the situation. And by that, I mean taking a look at what is going on in and around the investigation. What is the social environment like? How do people feel about the particular crime? What role do the media play? What is the police culture like? There are any number of important questions you can ask to try to get the lay of the land.
Most people know of Chicago’s reputation in the Roaring Twenties, when Prohibition made large-scale criminal enterprise profitable. But in the years since then, it went through a number of rough patches. After a relatively tranquil period during World War II, city officials were concerned that the influx of returning servicemen and a decrease in jobs would boost violent crime rates again. The police were already under intense stress. So when Josephine Ross was murdered in June 1945, just as the war was winding down, and then Frances Brown in December, just four months after VJ Day, the pressure was on.
In my business, you always take into account the role of the media, and Chicago had the most audacious and freewheeling press in the country. Once they had their Lipstick Killer to write about, they began whipping the public into a frenzy. And we can’t overlook the fact that throughout the first half of the twentieth century and even later, Chicago had an ongoing problem with public corruption. This, in turn, led to two other results: The public was both cynical and skeptical about the authorities’ abilities to solve problems; and the authorities felt a need to produce solutions, whether they had the wherewithal or not.
If I were advising the Chicago PD after studying the Ross and Brown cases, I would tell them to look for a white male in his late twenties to late thirties who already had a history of break-ins and violence against women. This man would be very control-oriented and have a lot of rage as evidenced by the “overkill” of repeated stabbings. Neither woman was aggressive, nor did either victim have a high-risk lifestyle. Their murders were crimes of opportunity in which the victim was unfortunately home when the offender broke in. He would be able to objectify his victims and feel no remorse for the crimes. The murders of victims Ross and Brown—like those by Timothy Spencer in Virginia—show a strong degree of criminal sophistication and a buildup in both learned technique and escalation of acting out rage against women. This is why I would pro?le an older UNSUB.
I would ?nd the lipstick-scrawled message at the Brown scene interesting, but I’d also be skeptical. It could be a taunt from a narcissist playing off the press coverage he would be sure to get from such a gruesome crime. But it could also be a complete red herring—something forged by an overly industrious member of the press corps who wanted to up the ante on sensationalism. When Mark Olshaker and I were examining the “Jack the Ripper” Whitechapel murders for our book The Cases That Haunt Us, we became convinced that the notorious “Dear Boss” letter, from which the Ripper nickname derives, was a fake, probably written by an enterprising Victorian newsman hoping to gin up interest in the case. Simply put, when subjected to psycholinguistic analysis, it did not conform to the profile we had constructed for the killer based on the totality of evidence, while the subsequent “From Hell” letter—a much more raw and disorganized message—did. I think there may have been a similar instance here with the “Catch Me” message.
Going back to our situational pro?le for a moment, when Suzanne Degnan was murdered less than three weeks after Frances Brown, everything changed. There is nothing more horrible in the collective consciousness than the murder of a child, and the details of this particular murder were so monstrous that the public and media demanded a swift solution and certain justice. That another little girl might meet Suzanne’s fate was unthinkable. The police were now under intense pressure to come up with a suspect. In response, they launched the greatest manhunt in the city’s history, involving thousands of leads, nearly a thousand interviews, hundreds of polygraphs and countless handwriting sample comparisons.
It took them only two days to come up with their ?rst good suspect. Hector Verburgh was the sixty-?ve-year-old janitor of the building where Suzanne’s body was butchered in the laundry room. The ransom note had the kinds of dirt smudges consistent with an author whose hands were always grimy. A PD spokesman announced, “This is the man.”
This was like their trophy to hold up.
They held Verburgh for forty-eight hours, during which time they beat and abused him so severely that he required ten days of hospitalization. Only the intervention of the janitors’ union attorney demanding a writ of habeas corpus ?nally got him released. Habeas corpus—literally “that you have the body,” in Latin—goes back to the era of English common law and gives imprisoned petitioners the right to be brought to court to have their grievances or objections to detention or sentencing reviewed.
Enumerating the horrifying interrogation techniques, Verburgh testi?ed, “Any more and I would have confessed to anything.” It also turned out the janitor’s writing skills were not even suf?cient to have penned the crude ransom note.
The treatment of Mr. Verburgh speaks for itself. So deplorable were the police actions that he sued the Chicago Police Department for $15,000, a considerable sum in those days. The court apparently agreed and awarded him the money and another $5,000 for his wife, whom the police had tried to coerce into testifying against him.
When called into a case by a local law enforcement agency, a profiler’s role is to help refocus or redirect an investigation. The apprehension of Hector Verburgh definitely would have called for a redirection, had I been called in on the case. First of all, he was too far along on the age continuum, particularly with no prior history. People don’t suddenly “blossom” into violent sexual killers. From our extensive experience, it just doesn’t happen that way. For someone of Verburgh’s age to commit this act, there would have had to be other acts of violence, especially against children or other defenseless people, in his past. Other than the happenstance of the location, there was nothing that tied him to the crime.
A number of weak suspects followed. One was a marine combat veteran who lived in the neighborhood who happened to have the same ?rst initial and last name as the laundry mark found on a handkerchief near the crime scene. He had a solid alibi and easily passed a polygraph. Then there was a local kid who’d been in reform school for armed robbery and told another kid he’d killed Suzanne. Again the local papers declared the case solved. After failing to convince a polygraph examiner (in other words, passing), he admitted he’d made up the story to get the other kid to try to get the ransom money.
Meanwhile, more than a thousand miles away, police came up with a suspect who de?nitely would have interested me.
Richard Russell Thomas, a sometimes drifter, forty-four years of age, was in the Maricopa County, Arizona, jail on charges of molesting his thirteen-year-old daughter. Charles B. Arnold, head of the forgery unit of the police department in nearby Phoenix, Thomas’s hometown, thought he saw distinct similarities between the ransom note and Thomas’s handwriting when he wrote with his nondominant left hand. At the time of the Degnan murder, he had been living in Chicago, working as a nurse at Woodlawn Hospital and was known to hang around an automobile dealership a few blocks from the Degnan home.
When Thomas was questioned, he confessed to the crime. However, police were suspicious, since he didn’t seem to know all of the details and appeared to be angling to be extradited out of state so he could beat the molestation rap. Apparently, he felt the devil he didn’t know was preferable to the one he knew. Once he had a chance to think about it, though, Thomas recanted his confession pretty quickly.
But aside from the questionable confession, the facts concerning Thomas were compelling:
He was a burglar with a bold and risky MO.
He had a previous conviction for extortion, having sent a ransom note threatening the kidnapping of a little girl.
He had a history of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
He worked as a nurse and several times had tried to pass himself off as a doctor, and he had stolen surgical implements and supplies.
If you also add the fact that he was known to be in and around the Degnans’ neighborhood at the time of the murder, and that his left-hand writing was a possible match for the ransom note, this was the kind of guy I would have advised the Chicago PD to put on the front burner. To get to the level of violence and depravity that the Suzanne Degnan murder represented, an offender had to go through a series of evolutionary steps. It often starts with voyeurism and/or petty burglary, but then it keeps escalating. Clearly, Thomas had gone through them.
Then there was the issue of the ransom note, which I would have taken seriously as a piece of evidence, but not as a demand for money. Anyone primarily interested in kidnapping would have “researched” a likely victim—and in the late 1940s, this was still a somewhat active criminal enterprise, much more than it is today—and chosen one whose family clearly had the means to pay. Twenty grand was a large amount of money back then, far more than an average year’s salary for a government worker like James Degnan.
If kidnapping was the primary motive for a crime, the criminal would target a victim whose family had the obvious means to lay their hands quickly on the amount of cash demanded. You see, the longer a kidnapping goes on, the more dangerous it becomes for both the victim and the offender. If you put this together with the fact that Suzanne’s body parts were discovered before twenty-four hours had passed, or any instructions on delivering the money had been sent, you realize that kidnapping was not the prime motivation for the crime. This was a psychopathic offender for whom the ransom note was a sideline or afterthought.
I can’t say for sure from this remove that Richard Thomas was Suzanne’s killer. He died in prison in 1974, before I started the FBI prison interviews, so we might never know. But I can say with a fair degree of con?dence that Suzanne’s killer was like Thomas, or shared similar characteristics.
But it was at this point—June 26, 1946—that seventeen-year-old William Heirens was arrested for burglary of an apartment house and, when trapped by police from two sides, panicked and pulled out his gun and fired. This act, in retrospect, altered the course of his life because it indicated to police that he was capable of violence. And it was at this point that the police apparently lost interest in Richard Thomas. They were con?dent they had the Lipstick Killer in custody.
Despite the fact that they may have asked federal agents to come into a case, police are often not very happy when you suggest they refocus an investigation away from a particular suspect they feel is good for the crime. Sometimes they’re downright pissed off. That’s probably what would have happened if I had been working the Degnan case.
Looking at Heirens, I would have considered him too young to pull off a crime of this detail and sophistication, to make the leap from petty burglaries to violent rapes and murders, and much too meek and passive. This would be particularly true after we looked into his personal life and saw that there was no precipitating factor to make him change or escalate his pattern of lawless and antisocial behavior. In other words, nothing had changed in his life at this point to induce the emotional trauma or stimulus that might have propelled him to more aggressive and violent behavior.
He wouldn’t go suddenly from causal, if repeated, burglaries to the murder and mutilation of a six-year-old child, brazenly taken from her own bedroom.
It just doesn’t happen like that!
Please keep this phrase in mind as we delve further into the minds and methods we’ll be exploring as we go along.
I might have pegged this suspect for a voyeur or a fetish burglar, who steals underwear or personal objects; in spite of the way he was caught, and his carrying a gun, he would be essentially nonconfrontational. I wouldn’t see this type trying to pull off a kidnapping, or even going through the motions of one, because it would involve too much interaction with a victim and police.
Just as important, whether the ultimate intent in the Degnan case was kidnapping or murder, a guy as young and meek as Heirens would not be able to exert the kind of control over the victim that the evidence clearly indicated. A six-year-old is not going to go willingly or quietly with a stranger who breaks into her room and tries to take her away. This would require more experience and finesse than a seventeen-year-old like Heirens could muster. Even the idea of someone with this personality transporting a live or dead child to another location is almost unthinkable. Also, I would have been surprised by the use of a ladder in the crime, as it had not been previously part of Heirens’s breaking-and-entering MO.
And here’s the most critical factor of all from a profiling perspective, and this is pretty much an ultimate truth. After the Suzanne Degnan murder and mutilation, you would have seen a profound change in the offender’s actions and personality. This would be true no matter who the UNSUB was, but it would be even more pronounced the younger the killer. He would become acutely nervous. Those around him would notice negative changes in his appearance. He might lose weight. He might drink heavily. He would seem distant and preoccupied. He would de?nitely follow the investigation and probably talk about it. He would not have gone unnoticed around his own circle in his home area or in school.
According to multiple accounts he later gave, this is what happened to William Heirens following his arrest:
As we’ve noted, he was brought to Bridewell Hospital, adjacent to Cook County Jail, to be treated for the injuries sustained when the off-duty police of?cer knocked him out with the ?owerpot. He was questioned for long periods around the clock for six days, during which he was given little to eat or drink and was struck repeatedly. He said he was punched in the testicles and burned with ether. He was refused attorneys and, until near the end of this phase of the con?nement, was not able to see his parents.
Two psychiatrists, Dr. Roy Grinker and Dr. William H. Haines, administered Sodium Pentothal—then thought to be a “truth serum”—and questioned him for three hours, during which the “George Murman” alternate personality emerged. Since there are no written or recorded transcripts extant of that session, it is unclear whether Heirens came up with George or whether he was suggested by the doctors or someone else who might have been in the room. What is clear is that several years later, one of the psychiatrists con?rmed that Heirens never implicated himself in any of the three murders.
Afterward, in the presence of police captain Michael Ahern, state’s attorney for Cook County William Tuohy and a stenographer, Heirens is said to have given additional details about George Murman, who sent him out to rob, and that he was always taking the rap for George. Again, since the transcript no longer exists, I don’t know how much is accurate, but had I heard it, I would have been very skeptical. Once this information leaked out, though, the newspapers went crazy with it. Who wouldn’t love a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde angle to grisly murders? Add to that the stolen dissecting kit found in his dorm room and the book about deviant sexual practices and you had the perfect portrait of a bright young college student as perverted rapist and killer.
It is not at all unusual for suspects to attribute blame to another imaginary ?gure. David Berkowitz, known as the “Son of Sam” and the “.44-Caliber Killer,” who terrorized New York City in 1976 and 1977, claimed a three-thousand-year-old black dog had ordered him to kill. The shrinks had gone to town with this and labeled him a paranoid schizophrenic. It all sounded too familiar to me, so when I interviewed him years later in Attica State Prison and he started up on this dog, I faced him and said, “Hey, David, knock off the bullshit. The dog had nothing to do with it.” He grinned and admitted I was right. The fact was that this was just one angry son of a bitch who came up with the dog to enhance his own image and maybe get himself off the hook mentally.
Convicted killer Sedley Alley at one point claimed that an alternate personality forced him into the absolutely horri?c murder of U.S. Marine lance corporal Suzanne Collins. In fact, though I’ve seen several clearly legitimate cases of multiple personality disorder (MPD) in young children—all of them physically and/or sexually abused—I have yet to see an authentic MPD diagnosis that emerged postarrest for murder.
If I had been presented with this George Murman business, I would have concluded one of two things: Either the suspect was using it to set up an insanity or diminished-capacity plea, or the investigators had suggested it to him as a way to make their case.
Shortly after this, Heirens was subjected to a spinal tap, apparently to rule out any brain damage resulting from being conked on the head by the ?owerpot. For reasons unknown, this painful lumbar puncture was performed without anesthesia, and then he was carted over to the detective bureau for a polygraph exam. He was in so much pain that the test was rescheduled for four days later, at which time the results were of?cially “inconclusive.”
I have never been a big fan of the polygraph. Innocent people are often totally spooked by the process and the emotional assault on their honesty, and sociopaths often have no more trouble lying to a box than they do to other humans. It is mainly a tool that investigators will use to segue into an interrogation. In this case, I would consider the test absolutely worthless, regardless of whether it implicated or exculpated the subject.
Various handwriting experts were called in to compare past exemplars of Heirens’s handwriting with the lipstick scrawl and ransom note. The best they could come up with was inconclusive. Several found no similarity, nor did they believe the “catch me” slogan and ransom note were written by the same individual. Many years later, in 1996, FBI handwriting expert David Grimes stated that the exemplars of Heirens’s handwriting taken from his college notes did not match either the lipstick scrawl or the ransom note, which did not even match each other.
Having discounted the Murman details, the polygraph and the handwriting, I would have fallen back on one of the key principles of profiling: Past actions suggest future actions. There was nothing in Bill Heirens’s past to suggest that he would even feel comfortable confronting a woman during a break-in, much less killing her so brutally. Even if he had been surprised and panicked at a burglary scene, someone like this might possibly have shot the victim to keep her from pursuing him or testifying against him. He would not have stabbed her multiple times. That is the work of an individual with a long-standing rage against women. When you get to the third crime in the supposed string, as we have shown, it would be incomprehensible for him to deal with a child in the way the Degnan scene and dump site indicated.
As you may have gathered by now, I don’t think the Degnan killing was carried out by the same individual who perpetrated the Ross and Brown murders. Those two are more opportunistic, more the work of a thrill-seeking burglar who is sexually motivated and prone to rape if the situation presents itself. This belief is certainly bolstered by the fact that no valuables were taken from either scene. And neither one fits the pattern that Heirens had already established in his own burglaries, nor had anything in his behavior or evidence at any of his scenes given an indication that he had progressed or evolved in his criminal intents.
By the same token, we can’t ignore the established past actions of the Chicago police in the Hector Verburgh incident. If they were so hot to get a confession from this poor elderly custodian that they put him in the hospital for ten days and left him with lasting physical problems, how can we suppose that they wouldn’t do it again? Whatever confession they got out of Heirens is tainted from the get-go. Even ignoring all other allegations of brutality against the Chicago police of that era, what they did to Verburgh makes Heirens’s claims highly plausible and believable.
This was a phenomenon I would see over and over again. Frankly, it has shocked me each time I have come across it: that a suspect who had been grilled for hours and hours in a high-stress environment would not only give interrogators whatever he thought would get them off his back, he would actually start to lose hold of reality and think that maybe he could have done what he was being accused of. And it didn’t just happen to individuals of demonstrably low IQ, such as David Vasquez. It has happened to numerous highly intelligent and sophisticated people, too.
As far as the most damning piece of physical evidence—the bloody fingerprint smudge on the doorjamb of the Frances Brown murder scene—we’ve got to be suspicious of that now, too. It was said to match a print from the ransom note, but that could have been obtained by letting Heirens examine the document. Even more alarming, a number of experts later asserted that the Brown scene print appeared “rolled,” as if it had come from the technique used to put prints on a fingerprint card. In other words, it may have been planted. No other physical evidence tied Heirens to any of the three scenes.
There’s another factor. Like just about everyone else in Chicago, Heirens’s attorneys, brothers Malachy and John Coghlan, along with Alvin Hansen and Roland Towle, were concerned that he was guilty and felt their first responsibility was to keep him out of the electric chair. As it later turned out, while state’s attorney Tuohy also felt he was guilty, he wasn’t confident about a conviction based on the rather skimpy physical evidence of the one partial print and the possible print on the strange ransom note. So the prosecution and defense lawyers got together to talk about a plea bargain. The general agreement among them was that in exchange for a guilty plea, Heirens would receive a single life sentence for all three murders, saving him from execution and conceivably making him eligible for parole at some time in the distant future.
Four days later, the Tribune led with the inside story of Heirens’s “second confession,” despite the fact that all concerned denied there had been one. So great was the Tribune’s prestige with this made-up account that the other Chicago papers quickly followed suit.
As it turned out, though, the Tribune version of the murders was helpful to Heirens’s lawyers in fashioning the confession they would present for him in court, filling in many of the “details” their client claimed not to know. Heirens agreed to sign, then balked, prompting Tuohy to threaten him with adding yet another unsolved murder. Actually, Heirens was in a reform school in Indiana at the time, though Tuohy might not have been aware of or focused on this fact. Heirens’s attorneys pressured him and his parents to confess and take the plea, and as far as I can tell, genuinely thought they were serving their client’s best interests.
On July 30, William Tuohy assembled various officials and the press in his office to hear Heirens’s of?cial confession. At the last second, though, William Heirens balked. The defense attorneys were shocked and the state’s attorney was morti?ed. As soon as the public spectacle was over, Tuohy changed his offer to three life terms, instead of one, and Heirens’s lawyers warned him that the electric chair loomed if he didn’t start playing ball.
A week later, on August 7, 1946, Heirens did, reenacting his crimes before an eager mob of media. Then, on September 5, before Chief Justice Harold G. Ward, of the Criminal Court of Cook County, William Heirens presented his confession and pled guilty to the three murders. He later said, “I confessed to save my life.” It was an eerie reprise of Hector Verburgh’s comment that had he been held and abused any longer, he “would have confessed to anything.”
Of all those present, it seemed that the only one who doubted Heirens’s guilt was Josephine Ross’s daughter, Mary Jane Blanchard. “I cannot believe that young Heirens murdered my mother,” she told a reporter from the Chicago Herald-American. “He just does not fit into the picture of my mother’s death. I have looked at all the things Heirens stole and there was nothing of my mother’s things among them.”
That evening, he tried to hang himself in his cell in the Cook County Jail, but he was discovered before he suffocated. He said he was in despair over being perceived as guilty and that if he were dead, maybe that perception would be different. To me, what he was saying was that he couldn’t tolerate the impossible emotional box in which he’d been placed.
On September 5, after statements from both prosecution and defense, Judge Ward sentenced Heirens to three life terms, effectively eliminating the possibility of future parole. As Heirens was being transferred from Cook County Jail to Statesville Prison, where I would meet him more than thirty years later, Sheriff Michael Mulcahy, one of the few officials who had treated him with kindness and consideration, con?ded, “You probably didn’t realize this, Bill, but I’m a personal friend of Jim Degnan. He wants to know, did his daughter Suzanne suffer?”
“I can’t tell you if she suffered, Sheriff Mulcahy,” Heirens replied. “I didn’t kill her. Tell Mr. Degnan to please look after his other daughter, because whoever killed Suzanne is still out there.”
When William Heirens—frail, sickly and wheelchair-bound—passed away on March 5, 2012, at the Dixon Correctional Center, at the age of eighty-three, he was the longest-serving prisoner in the United States. In addition to his previously mentioned educational achievements, his record over the years was essentially spotless, and he had earned the respect of numerous prison officials.
Several efforts to have him pardoned, or at least paroled and released, were mounted, the most formidable by Dolores Kennedy, a legal assistant with the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions, and author of the book William Heirens: His Day in Court/Did an Innocent Teen-ager Confess to Three Grisly Murders? He was denied parole at least thirty times.
By now, it is probably too late to determine with absolute certainty whether or not William George Heirens actually committed any or all of the three vicious murders to which he confessed. But, after examining all of the available facts and evidence, from my years of experience in profiling and criminal investigative analysis, I no longer believe him to have been a killer, and he spent the vast majority of his life behind bars for nothing. Though he is now beyond our justice, I would be happy to testify to those beliefs under oath in a court of law.
I wish I had known enough when I first encountered Bill Heirens to have come to this conclusion and put forth these views. I have spent considerable energy both in and after my FBI service to make up for my initial naiveté.
I have spent my career helping to put away the bad guys: kidnappers and killers, bombers and sexual predators, the worst of the worst. And I’ve derived an enormous amount of satisfaction from that pursuit. But for that effort to have any meaning, our first allegiance must always be to justice. And to approach justice, we must ?rst seek truth—whatever it means and wherever it takes us.
The American criminal justice process is an admirable and often copied system. But as we have noted, it is not a perfect one. Innocent people are convicted, and guilty ones evade the law or are let go, and I weep for all the victims. It is therefore incumbent upon all of us to have the humility to realize that we can, and must, improve.
Justice is often uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean we should turn our heads away. And perfect justice is an ultimately unattainable goal for us mere mortals. But that in no way suggests we shouldn’t continually strive toward achieving it. The examinations of the cases that follow represent some of my personal steps along the way.
Copyright ©2013 John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
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John Edward Douglas served as a special agent of the FBI for over twenty-five years. He is widely admired as the leading expert on criminal personality profiling and modern criminal investigative analysis. A veteran of the Air Force, he has written numerous books including the No. 1 international bestseller Mindhunter.
Mark Olshaker is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, New York Times bestselling nonfiction author, and critically acclaimed novelist who has worked with Douglas for many years.