Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

William Heirens

The Confession

"There are truths which are not for all men, nor for all times."     - Voltaire

On Sunday, July 14, William Tuohy and his assistant, Wilbert Crowley, met with Heirens' lawyers, the Coghlan brothers, behind closed doors. The purpose was to discuss the elements of the plea bargain. In essence, it offered one life-sentence imprisonment for Bill Heirens if he confessed to slaying Josephine Ross, Frances Brown and Suzanne Degnan. If all parties agreed, it would eliminate the need for a messy trial and save the state having to condemn to death a boy not yet 18 years old. Crowley assured the defense team that, even if the state failed to nail him in court for the murders, his burglary convictions together would mean life imprisonment.

Four hours after the lawyers disappeared inside Tuohy's office, they emerged, all smiling, a stark indication that an agreement had been solidified.

Despite pleadings from the anxious press, no details were divulged. However, in the wake, an unbelievably unethical event occurred. Chicago Tribune reporter George Wright, a professional who should have known better, created a fictional confession of the suspect. The following day, the Tribune ran it as if it were fact. They had won the race for the biggest scoop of the year.

The other newspapers had no choice but to growl at their own ineptitude and reprint the story, every detail.

"This is the story of how William George Heirens, 17, kidnapped, strangled and then dismembered Suzanne Degnan, 6, last Jan. 7, and distributed the parts of her body in sewer openings near her home," began the charade. "It is the story of how William George Heirens climbed into the apartment of Miss Frances Brown...and shot and stabbed her to death, and left a message on the wall with lipstick imploring the police to catch him...And it is the story of how William George Heirens entered the apartment of Mrs. Josephine Ross...and how he stabbed her to death when she awoke."

Heirens heard a radio report from his cell that Monday evening and alarmed. "I didn't confess to anybody, honestly!" he told Warren Sain. "My God, what are they going to pin on me next?"

His attorneys did not know where the information came from; some of it was already printed conjecture and speculation, but certain portions of the Tribune's "confession" were novel, quite fabricated.

Nevertheless, Heirens decided to confess to a crime, as he kept insisting, he never committed. His lawyers, he felt, proved weak and encumbered by a weighty public pressure that would vilify them if they tried too hard to defend an unforgivable Mr. Hyde. They had conducted no independent investigation, but, rather, accepted the evidence at hand. The electric chair was a real ghost and the best thing right now, he figured, was to shrink its presence that loomed in the shadows of his jail cell. With the assistance of his counsel, then, Heirens prepared a confession; absurdly, the Tribune article, in all its fakery, had become over the last couple of days such a believed narrative that the confession, Heirens felt, needed to parallel it.

In short, if Heirens is to be believed, he fabricated upon fabrication a chronology of events, times, places, dates, intentions and even a modus operandi for each of the three murders. "As it turned out, the Tribune article was very helpful, as it provided me with a lot of details I didn't know," he says. "My attorneys rarely changed anything outright, but I could tell by their faces if I had made a mistake. Or they would say, 'Now, Bill, is that really the way it happened?' Then I would change my story because, obviously, it went against what was known (in the Tribune)."

Heirens awaiting the hearing  (CORBIS)
Heirens awaiting the hearing
(CORBIS)

A date was set, July 30, for his official confession before the state's attorney. All of official Chicago turned out, and reporters steadied their pencils over tablet, cameramen posed with their Kodaks. But, Heirens, seated before William Tuohy, suddenly changed his mind and answered "I don't know" or "I don't remember" to every question put forth. Tuohy, as the rest of the city, was shocked. 

Onlookers believed that Heirens' sudden change of heart was due the fact that he felt angered and intimidated by the media circus that confronted him inside Tuohy's office, that he had expected a private, not a social, event. But, according to Heirens, this was untrue.

"It was Tuohy himself," Heirens exclaims. "After assembling all the officials, including attorneys and policemen, he began a preamble about how long everyone had waited to get a confession from me, but, at last, the truth was going to be told. He kept emphasizing the word 'truth' and I asked him if he really wanted the truth. He assured me that he did...Now Tuohy made a big deal about hearing the truth now, when I was being forced to lie to save myself. It made me angry...so I told them the truth, and everyone got very upset."

William Heirens (in white shirt) surrounded by his attorneys, Tuohy, police officers, and the press  (CORBIS)
William Heirens (in white shirt)
surrounded by his attorneys, Tuohy,
police officers, and the press
(CORBIS)

Embarrassed by the aborted confession, Tuohy changed the premise of his plea bargain from one life term to three life terms. Heirens' attorneys, livid at their client's display of silence, an act on which they hadn't been pre-consulted, warned him to reconsider. They reminded him, frankly, of the electric chair and that the probability of his being strapped into it at road's end was coldly, calculatingly real. Tuohy would not wait and was not open to bartering, they stressed, and because of his behavior at the hearing there was no way now that he could hope for a fair trial. Heirens, cooled down, opted for the one way out of the death chamber.

On August 7, says Lucy Freeman in Before I Kill More..., Bill Heirens "fully admitted his guilt. He told in detail how he had committed the Degnan slaying. He described how, after he threw the ransom note into the Degnan window, he tossed the knife with which he dismembered the body onto the elevated tracks near the Degnan home, burned his bloodstained topcoat, ate doughnuts and coffee in a nearby restaurant, took the EL back to the university and studied before he went to class at 8 a.m. As to the Brown and Ross murders, he described how he entered each apartment, killed each woman."

Sentencing was slated for September 4. Chief Justice Harold G. Ward presided. In attendance were the main-players of the drama from the legal and law enforcement circles, as well as many of the people whose names had been front-page news throughout; these latter included Mr. & Mrs. Heirens ("dressed as though they were attending their son's funeral," wrote Dolores Kennedy); James Degnan, father of the murdered Suzanne; and Mary Jane Blanchard, Josephine Ross' daughter. Surprisingly, Blanchard remarked to the Herald-American that she thought Heirens was framed.

William Heirens (center) with all involved in the case  (CORBIS)
William Heirens (center) with all
involved in the case (CORBIS)

"I cannot believe that young Heirens murdered my mother. He just does not fit into the picture of my mother's death," she stated. "I have looked at all the things Heirens stole and there was nothing of my mother's things among them."

The session opened with a concentration on the burglary charges, and to each charge Heirens pleaded guilty. The courtroom rustled, but when the murder indictments were read a silence fell over it.

"The clerk read the Degnan indictment," pens Kennedy, "and Bill hesitated. His hands clenched, he moistened his lips with his tongue and glanced swiftly at John Coghlan, who nodded encouragement. Then, taking a deep breath, Bill plunged forward: 'Guilty.'...And then the Ross and Brown indictments and Bill's reply of 'guilty' to all charges.

"Judge Ward sighed deeply and observed: 'That, it seems, disposes of all the murder cases.'"

Because of the long afternoon hearing witnesses, reading indictments, methodically collecting Heirens' replies to each indictment sentencing was postponed until the following day, September 5. That night, Heirens tried to hang himself in his cell. He threw a bed sheet across an overhanging pipe, climbed atop a chair, slipped a noose around his neck, and jumped. The guards had been in the middle of shift change, but the quick reaction of some who spotted him dangling saved his life.

In 1955, Heirens recalled to journalist Lucy Freeman the frustration that drove him to attempting 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 following day, the court pronounced Bill Heirens guilty of all charges. Even though his lawyers had told him privately that he could expect parole consideration in time to come, Heirens soon discovered that his chances to ever see the light of day again would turn out to be like an impossible dream.

In Stateville prison, Joliet IL. with Warden Joseph Ragen
In Stateville prison, Joliet IL. with
Warden Joseph Ragen

That evening, while Heirens sat in his cell waiting to be escorted to Stateville Prison, Sheriff Michael Mulcahy who was in charge of the boy during his weeks at Cook County Jail, paid him a visit. His manner was almost beseeching. "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?"

Heirens' eyes caught those of the sheriff who had been one of the very few who had not treated him like a monster. "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."

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