Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

William Heirens

The Sneak Thief

"Thieves respect property. They merely wish their property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it."-- G.K. Chesterton

Early Life

Billy Heirens (left) and brother Jere, 1932
Billy Heirens (left)
and brother Jere,
1932

Bill Heirens was born November 15, 1928, to parents Margaret and George, a couple whose marriage wasn't necessarily in trouble, but was far from happy. Always teetering on the edges of poverty, the coming Depression made matters worse. Mr. Heirens' meagre pay checks, earned as an odd-job laborer, often went to treat himself and his pals at the local bowling alleys. Money, or the lack thereof, continued to be the source of all family problems to come.

Heirens' childhood, for all practical purposes, and despite the domestic problems, was normal enough. He was a restless boy, mischievous. Because his mother was forced to help provide income, he and his younger brother Jere, born three years after him, were often left at home with babysitters who found them a handful. One afternoon their mother returned from her job at the bakery to find the parlor draperies charred and a section of the carpet burned. A science experiment gone wrong.

One time, Mrs. Heirens found her son aloft the garage roof, cardboard wings strapped to his arms, and him in the pose of a pterodactyl about to leap from a cliff. She shrieked and the would-be Wright Brother was discouraged from attempting his solo flight.

Friends remember Bill Heirens as a curious boy who liked toying with chemistry sets, taking things apart and putting them back together. Basically a loner, he would potter for hours. His mother recalled that he liked to work on model airplanes, fix old clocks, tinker with mechanical things, and draw. "Some of our friends commented on Bill's ability to do such work with care and precision," she said. "They thought his drawings of airplanes and ships were especially good, and they predicted interesting things for him in the future."

But, the little spats between mother and father, ever about money, turned into violent arguments. Heirens couldn't stand it. ("Jere seemed to be able to cope with it," he explained years later, "I couldn't.") He would fly from his home at 714 Grace Street and take to the streets, would go on long walks, stay away, anywhere, to avoid listening to his parent's squabbles. That is when he took to burgling.

Breaking and Entry

Robbing houses, apartments and stores. He found it exciting, an outlet for the tensions that had dammed up daily at home. The dangers he felt thrilled him and proved to be an antidote to overcome forget his personal travails. Except for the occasional cash he stole, he never robbed for money, never tried to pawn off the objects he took cameras, radios, jewellery he didn't know any fences on which to unload the merchandise, never cared to pursue that channel. It was simply the feelings he was able to conjure up from the act, a buzz of excitement as well as a hug of security, if you may.

His first theft occurred when he was in seventh grade, during his first job as delivery boy for a local grocer. Finding that a customer had short-changed him by a dollar, he panicked, knowing that the grocer depended upon him to collect the correct amount from each customer. Afraid he would lose his job, he determined to make up that dollar's loss. At the next stop he made, to a customer in a nearby apartment building, he spotted some singles lying unchecked on a table and took one. The surge of satisfaction came easy.

In an interview with author Dolores Kennedy, Heirens explained his modus operandi, which differed from season to season. "In the winter, I chose early evening between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. because it grew dark early and I could tell whether or not anyone was home. Often, especially in the winter, I burglarized the lakefront area. I would walk around the building, check the windows, ring the front bell and if no one answered, go to the back door. I would enter through the window off the porch and then chain or double-lock the front door so I couldn't be surprised."

In the summer months, Heirens robbed mostly apartment hotels, he told Kennedy, gaining access through the buzzer then following a random hallway to possible luck. "Tenants often left their doors open to catch the cross draft. (It was the age before air conditioning.) I could look into the room to see if there was anything of value. Fire escapes were a last resource because there was too much exposure."

Author Lucy Freeman, in researching Heirens' modus operandi for her book, Before I Kill More... determines that, at times. Heirens proved somewhat of a Houdini. She quotes Earl R. Downes, who was in charge of the robbery investigations at the time: "That kid was like a monkey...Back in '42, he used a narrow board to span a five-foot areaway from a third-floor porch to reach a third-floor bathroom window at 837 Belle Plain. He crawled across the narrow board while 30 feet below him was a cement sidewalk death if he fell...The same holds true for the time he lowered himself over a roof to a third-floor apartment at 3933 Pine Grove, something like a human fly. Or the time he climbed up a wire mesh-covered English basement window to grasp the window ledge and then pull himself up into the fist-floor apartment at 3744 Pine Grove. How he got a foothold in the wire meshing is beyond imagination..."

Most of what he stole he stashed in an unused storage shed on the roof of a nearby apartment building. In no time, the shed bulged with women's furs, men's suits, radios, utensils and guns. Heirens admitted he liked guns, they fascinated him; his father had been a security guard at one time and he loved to study the unloaded object, to investigate the mechanical gadgetry of it. In those days, many residents owned a gun for protection against home invaders. While pilfering private abodes he would occasionally find one in the dining room bureau or in the bedroom dresser and steal it. At age thirteen, right before grade school commencement exercises, he encountered his first run-in with the law, involving a heisted .25 caliber automatic.

Teenager Heirens (school photo)
Teenager Heirens
(school photo)

A policeman stopped a suspicious-looking teenage Heirens in a park and, in frisking him, uncovered the weapon on his person. The lad stammered, explaining that he had just found it on the ground, but the officer didn't believe his story. He escorted the boy to the Delinquent's Home where he was locked up until his hearing, some three weeks hence. In that period, Bill Heirens admitted to eleven burglaries and to being the procurer of the booty that the police found in his rooftop hideaway. The juvenile courts sentenced him to the Catholic-run Gibault School for wayward boys in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Upon his release the following June, Heirens returned to his slippery-fingered habits. Stealing had become an obsession and even though he knew it was wrong, he required the thrills it brought. He was arrested again, now for prowling in the Rogers Park Hotel. In his possession was the front door key of another hotel down the block. At the nearest station house, a policeman beat him during his interrogation but the boy admitted to his mother, "It was the punishment I deserved."

This time, a judge ordered him sent him to St. Bede's Academy, a detention center run by the Benedictine Monks on the banks of the Illinois River in Peru, Illinois. In its fold, he proved to be an excellent student and a team player, earning top grades and partaking of the school's sports offerings.

Heirens' scholastic average was so high that he was urged to take a test for admittance into a special learning program offered by the University of Chicago. Right before he left the center, he was notified that he was accepted into the program and was urged to start classes the following fall term, 1945, skipping his senior year in high school.  He would be only 16 years old. This achievement pleased his professors and, more than them, his mother who figured her son had finally outgrown his insurgent ways.

However, Heirens was a tough learner when it came to the commandment, Thou shalt not steal. While he was in St. Bede's, his parents had leased a rambling old frame house on a large lot in suburban Lincolnwood, with plenty of room for a restless boy to roam. His mother thought that new scenery would encourage new ideals. But, even though he loved to roam, his rovings led him straight back to the dark side world of break-ins. Despite new surroundings, closer to country air, his parents still argued incessantly. Once again, Heirens sought peace of mind the only way he had come to know, by psychologically blanketing his problems with pulsating color. The robberies represented to him a fantasy, a daydream of freedom, as a highwayman of old would experience on the open country road.

"It later became obvious that Bill only stole when he was spending substantial time at home," Dolores Kennedy writes in her book, Bill Heirens: His Day in Court. She quotes him as saying when he was away at boarding schools, "I wasn't even tempted. Then I would go home, and the tensions would build, and I would find myself burglarizing to ease them."

In the meantime, Heirens had begun classes at the university, majoring in electrical engineering. He commuted at first, his father dropping him off  and picking him up from Hyde Park on his way to and from  the steel mills. But, after realizing too much time was being spent on the road, Heirens decided to board at Gates Hall, near his classes. His parents could not afford the tuition nor the dorm costs, so the student grabbed whatever jobs he could find. He worked several evenings a week at Orchestra Hall downtown as an usher and at university functions as a docent. For a while, all went well.

By the second year, Heirens' grades had begun to slip. He had discovered girls and they had discovered his smiling face and dark, wavy hair and he began a series of romantic flings. His favorite date was attractive blonde fellow-student JoAnn Slama, who lived in the campus area. When not on a date, he and his roommate Joe Costello spent leisure hours discussing philosophy and playing games instead of attending to homework.

And then, of course, there were the burglaries. They continued without interruption as, what Heirens ascertained, a means to supplement his college costs. Hitting unwatched wallets and purses in homes and hotels in the campus area, Heirens was able to "save" enough to buy two $500 U.S. Savings Bonds. Through underground channels, acquainted through university chums, he also garnered stolen War Bonds that, once the owners' names could be etched off with a surgical scalpel, were worth $7,000. These he kept in a worn suitcase beneath his dorm cot, beside the surgical equipment that had come his way via most things he owned, thievery.

Heirens was described in 1955 in Lucy Freeman's psychological thesis, Before I Kill More.... "The expressions on his face, barometers of his moods, change swiftly. Most of the time it is a sensitive face but every so often a look of hardness possesses it...When a remark angers Bill, he loses the amiable expression, his hazel eyes glow grazed, and an invisible and impenetrable curtain rises. He has the hands of an artist, long, tapering, well-formed fingers that look as though they would be skilled in whatever they attempted. Once in a while, he puts his hands on his head to concentrate."

His Final Arrest

On the muggy afternoon of Wednesday, June 26, 1946, Heirens left his dormitory and walked in the direction of the Howard Street "EL" (or elevated) station. His ultimate destination was the post office in suburban Skokie, immediately north of the city. He knew the area well and had used the post office many times to cash checks. Today, he found himself low on available funds and spontaneously had decided to cash at least one of the bonds. College debts were due and, besides, he had promised to take JoAnn to the movies tomorrow night. As he boarded the EL, the bonds were tucked into the fold of his wallet. In the inside of his coat, he secreted an old pocket revolver, all seven chambers loaded. He later claimed that he wasn't even certain the gun worked; it was there for show; a comfort factor while carrying large sums of money.

Bill Heirens' life was about to change forever.

Arriving at the post office at 3 p.m., he discovered it locked and dark. A sign he had never before noticed in the window announced that the place closed after noontime during summer months. Angered at having taken the long, hot trip for nothing, and realizing that he would have no cash for the upcoming eagerly anticipated date with his girl, he turned to what had worked so well before in a pinch: burglary.

"The Wayne Manor apartments on Wayne Avenue were familiar to Bill," Dolores Kennedy tells us. "He had memorized the layout of the six-story building, which had been his target several times before, and his operations remained the same. He opened the front door and approached the buzzer panel (and) a woman answered. 'I would talk gibberish,' Heirens recalls. 'In those days communication in such buildings was through brass tubes and by the time the sound got to the receiving end it was hard to tell what was being said. Since they couldn't understand me and I kept ringing the bell, they would simply buzz me in.'" As was his custom once inside, he rode the passenger elevator to a chosen floor, then paced the hallway until he spotted an open doorway.

On the third floor, he found one. From his angle, he could see a wallet resting on a cabinet. Scanning the empty living room, he entered. But, as he reached for the wallet, the adjacent neighbor, witnessing the deed, yelped. Heirens startled at the outcry, tore for the stairwell. Behind him, he could hear the others footsteps closing in hot pursuit. Not until he rounded the nearest intersection and darted down a private gangway did Heirens realize he probably lost his annoying tail. Wheezing, but afraid the nosey interceder might be circling the block roundabout, he climbed the wooden fire escape behind 1320 Farwell Avenue to gain a better vantage point of the alley beyond. A tenant, Mrs. Willett, saw the breathless, scared teenager and phoned the police.

Arresting officers (from top clockwise) Constant, Owens and Cunningham
Arresting officers (from top
clockwise) Constant, Owens
and Cunningham

Officers Tiffin Constant and William Owens responded. When Heirens saw their approach through the yard, he attempted to run. Seeing that the officers had blocked both ends of the staircase, however, the boy knew he was trapped. There was no safe way down. Both policemen neared him from opposite ends. Above them, on the landing and frustrated, Heirens saw no alternative but to wheel with gun in hand toward the closest officer, Constant. The officer ducked, but when the fugitive started away, the cop charged. A tangle ensued.

In the meantime, an off-duty patrolman named Abner Cunningham had witnessed the melee and joined it. He had seen Heirens point the gun. The suspect later expressed that he had had no intention to fire it only to scare Constant out of the way that he might break through. If this were the case, he had done the worst thing anyone could have done to a policeman on a sweltering June day when tempers needed little to push them over the edge. The first to reach the struggling duo, Cunningham grabbed three adobe clay flower pots off a railing and dropped them one at a time, in angry, erratic but rhythmical succession, onto Heirens' head. He would never aim a barrel at a cop again.

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