According to the Cook County medical examiner's office, 83-year-old
William Heirens died Monday at a Chicago hospital after officials at
Dixon Correctional Center found him unresponsive in his cell. The
office said an autopsy was scheduled for Tuesday or Wednesday.
Heirens was a 17-year-old University of Chicago student and petty
burglar when he confessed to killing two women in 1945 -- one was
shot and stabbed, the other stabbed -- and the abduction, slaying
and dismemberment of a 6-year-old girl the next year.
The crimes sent chills through city residents. At one of the
women's homes, investigators found a message scrawled on a mirror
with lipstick that read: "For heaven's sake, catch me before I kill
more. I cannot control myself." That note earned Heirens the moniker
But it was the slaying of 6-year-old Suzanne Degnan that
terrified the city most of all.
Suzanne was abducted from her home on the first day of school
after Christmas vacation by an intruder who used a ladder to climb
into her bedroom. The girl was strangled, then taken to the basement
of a nearby building and dismembered. Pieces of her body were found
in sewers and catch basins near her home on the city's North Side.
Heirens was arrested in June 1946 at the scene of a burglary in
the same neighborhood. Police charged him with murder after
determining that his fingerprints were on a $20,000 ransom note that
had been left behind at the girl's home.
After confessing to the slayings, Heirens was sentenced to three
consecutive terms of natural life with the possibility of parole.
In the ensuing decades, Heirens sought release from prison some
30 times, claiming that he was innocent and that he gave a 19-page
confession only after police sedated him. His attorney subsequently
struck a deal in which Heirens confessed to avoid the death penalty.
At the same time, he became the first Illinois inmate to receive
a four-year college degree while in prison.
[to top of second column]
In 2002, The Associated Press reported that students and law
professors at Northwestern University who had worked to free other
inmates had taken up his case. A clemency petition submitted to
then-Gov. George Ryan claimed Heirens was given a spinal tap without
anesthetic in one instance. One of the attorneys who prepared the
clemency petition, Steven Drizin, said it also argued that police
acknowledged they gave Heirens sodium pentathol, a so-called truth
serum, and after that injection he made some admissions.
Attorneys also argued that the case was tainted by questionable
evidence, incompetent defense counsel and prejudicial pre-trial
The petition was denied, Drizin said.
In the years after his petition for clemency was denied, Heirens
continued to seek his release. As an elderly man who used a
wheelchair to get around the hospital wing of the prison, he argued
that because of his age and failing health he no longer posed a
threat to society.
That argument did not work.
"God will forgive you," said Thomas Johnson, a member of the
Prisoner Review Board, at his 2007 parole hearing. "But the state
By DON BABWIN]
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This
material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or