Longest Serving Prisoner Dies

April 11, 2012

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Mugshot taken of William Heirens, taken in prison.

"Lipstick Killer" William Heirens

On June 26, 1946, Ted Williams went 4 for 7 with 2 home runs in a double header against the Detroit Tigers. He’d win his first American League MVP that year and would finish his Hall of Fame career lauded by many as The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived.

This day, so many decades ago, was also the last day that William Heirens took a breath as a free man. On March 5, 2012, Heirens died in prison. He had been in prison for 65 years and was thought to be the world’s longest serving prisoner.

Early life

Heirens got off a a bad start in life.  By the age of thirteen, he was already an accomplished burglar.  After being arrested on a weapons charge, a search of his parents’ property yielded a significant cache of stolen property.  Heirens was eventually sentenced to spend time at a school run by monks.  He excelled as a student, and was accepted to college at age 16.

The Killing

Heirens was eventually arrested for three killings.

The first killing was Josephine Ross on June 5, 1945.  Her killing was not a particularly unusual one, as far as murders go.  The thought was that she had interrupted a burglar, who had then killed her.

On December 20, 1945, Frances Brown was killed – and the killer left behind a message for the police.  This message was written on the wall in lipstick:

For heavens
sake catch me
before I kill more
I cannot control myself.

Clearly, this was a very disturbing message.  Police now knew they were dealing with a serial killer – and very likely a mentally disturbed and unpredictable one.

On January 6, 1946, a six year old girl, Suzanne Degnan was kidnapped.  Her body was eventually found in several pieces, strewn over a large area.  The murderer had left behind a ransom note

On the front:
GeI $20,000 Reddy & wAITe foR WoRd. do NoT NoTify FBI oR Police. Bills IN 5’s & 10’s
on the back:
BuRN This FoR heR SAfTY

Heirens arrested

On June 26, 1946, Heirens was arrested after committing a burglary. A policeman dropped three flowerpots on his head, which was eventually enough to subdue him.

While in custody, Heirens claims that he was treated very roughly by the police.  He was interrogated for six straight days, given sodium pentothal (truth serum), and at one point punched in the testicles.  Miranda rights?  They didn’t exist – Miranda vs. Arizona was still twenty years away.  Heirens was just seventeen at the time.

Authorities alleged that under the influence of sodium pentothal, Heiren admitted that an alternate personality of his admitted to the murders.


Heirens’s lawyers felt that it was likely he would be convicted, and worked out a plea bargain with the prosecution.  Heirens claimed that a Chicago Tribune article about the killings was used as a guide.  When he would give information that conflicted from the story in the Tribune, his lawyers would nudge him back to the Tribune’s story line.

At the last moment, the state’s attorney yanked an agreement for one life term and changed it to three life terms … or he’d go to trail and seek the death penalty.

The prison years

During his sixty five years in prison, William Heirens earned 250 college credits, paying the tuition with his own money.  He became the first prisoner in Illinois to earn a four year degree.  He set up the education system at one prison, helped inmates earn GEDs, and served as a jailhouse lawyer.

According to the regulations of 1946, Heirens should have been set free in 1983.  However, these regulations changed in 1973.  Although a 1983 appeals court rule that Heirens should be released immediately.  This ruling was later reversed, and Heirens remained behind bars.

Questions about his guilt

We never got a chance to see how the evidence would play to a jury, since Heirens agreed to a plea deal instead.  There’s certainly much to ponder.

Had the confession gained under the admission of sodium pentothal been used in court, Heirens would have likely been given a new trial, as evidence gained by using “truth serums” was deemed inadmissible by the 1950s.

Handwriting samples from Heirens matched nine points of comparison with the lipstick writing.  But that’s hardly a surprised, since 65% of the population would have had handwriting that would have matched these same points of comparison.

Eyewitness testimony – which is notoriously unreliable in the best of situations – shifted over time.  Witnesses who weren’t sure that Heirens was the man they saw eventually became completely convinced that he was.

Perhaps the most damning evidence was a bloody fingerprint at the home of Frances Brown.  However, this evidence has been called into question.  Among other concerns is that fact that it appears to be a rolled print (the sort you would get when someone has their prints taken be the police) as opposed to a “flat” print that would occur naturally.

The confession Heirens signed?  There was dozens of discrepancies between his account of the killings at the actual facts of the murders.  However, it’s conceivable that Heirens could have planted false information in his confession so that he could use these discrepancies to later claim that the testimony was coached.  Remember, this is a very intelligent person.

Did he do it?

I honestly don’t know.  The existence of the death penalty was the game changer.  If not for the existence of the electric chair, Heirens may have decided to roll the dice at trial.

Was William Heirens a saint?  Certainly not.  At the very least, he was a burglar.  But was he a murderer?  We’ll never known for sure.


The William Heirens case is one of many included in The Casebook of Forensic Detection.

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Serial killer profile: Bundy and Nightstalker

June 11, 2009

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There are a couple of non-fiction subjects that I study in great detail.  One of them, not surprisingly, is baseball.  The other is true crime and forensics.  This might seem like an odd combination, but the great baseball historian and analyst Bill James also has a fascination with crime.  Today, I’ll begin a multi-part series where I introduce you to some serial killers from the past.

Ted Bundy

Ted Bundy had a confusing childhood.  He was raised by his maternal grandparents, not realizing until later that his “sister” was actually his mother.  Bundy studied psychology at the University of Washington.  At one point, he worked on a suicide hotline.  Bundy was eventually accepted into law school, although he eventually dropped out.

From the late 1960s through the mid 1970s, Ted Bundy murdered dozens of young, attractive females.  In 1975, Bundy was arrested for an attack that he had committed in 1974 (the victim fought back and survived).  In 1977, Bundy managed to escape from custody twice in a span of six months.  After the second escape, he traveled from Colorado to Florida.  On January 15, 1978, Bundy killed two women and injured two others in a sorority house at Florida State University, using a wooden club as a weapon.  Unfortunately for Bundy, he left behind a bite mark on the buttock of one of the women, Lisa Levy.  A month, Bundy was arrested for driving a stolen car.  A search warrant was obtained allowing authorities to obtain an impression of Bundy’s teeth.  Experts were able to match the impression to the bite mark left of Levy’s body.  Bundy was found guilty of murder in 1978 and died in Florida’s electric chair in 1989.

The Nightstalker

In 1984, the Nightstalker began to terrorize Los Angeles.  The Nightstalker would cut phone lines, break into he house, and immeditately kill any adult males.  He would then rape any women and children (boy and girls).  At one murder scene in 1985, he used lipstick to draw a pentagram on the thigh on one victim, as well as on the wall.  This led police to believe that the killer may believe that Satan was telling him to kill.

The police caught a break when one of the Nightstalker’s victims was able get the license plate number from his getaway car.  The car was stolen, of course, but police were able to lift a partial fingerprint.  Unfortunately, Los Angeles had only begun to  computerize their fingerprint records.  The fingerprint records for most criminals were still on paper.  Only criminals born in 1960 or later were in the computerized system.  The computer found a hit – Richard Ramirez, born in February 1960 – just making the cutoff to have his prints in the computerized system.

The photo of Ramirez was soon all over the television.  Unfortunately for him, he was out of town.  When he came back into town and stopped at a convenience store, the other  customers immediately recognized him.  They were in a predominantly hispanic area, and the hispanic population was very upset at the negative publicity that Ramirez was bring upon their community.  Several citizens attempted to stop Ramirez as he tried to flee, eventually inflicting a pretty decent beating upon Ramirez.

Ramirez ended up going to trial three times.  During the first trial, a juror fell asleep.  During the second trial, a juror was murder – in a completely unrelated crime.  Finally, Ramirez was convicted during his third trial, which was interrupted by frequent bursts of satanic comments from the accused.

It wasn’t all bad news for Ramirez, though.  Ramirez exchanged leters with many people after his capture.  One of them ended up marrying him.

Wikipedia and The Casebook of Forensic Detection (Colin Evans) were sources for this article.

GM bankruptcy / Southland killer

April 30, 2009

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A couple of news stories grabbed my attention today.

GM was unable to negotiate concessions with some of its bondholders and will have to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy.  This is reorganization bankruptcy, not liquidation bankruptcy.  The prevailing thought is that GM will emerge from bankruptcy in the hands of Fiat and the UAW.  Chryler will halt vehicle production for (at least) 60 days.  Their leasing arm will be folded into GMAC finance.  They will receive and additional $8 billion in bailout funds, which hopefully the taxpapayers will see returned to them at some point.  I have not seen any word on how this may affect the money that Chryslers spends on manufacturer support of Dodge teams in NASCAR (Dodge is a Chrysler brand).

On the bright side for buyers, this might be a good time to buy a Chrysler vehicle.  Demand will likely sag on the news, but the warranties will now be guaranteed by the government.  With the recent news of GM “temporarily” closing 16 of its 21 plants and planning to buy ou 40% of its dealers, Ford looks to be in prime position to pick up some market share from the segment of the population that will only buy American vehicles.

The other story came out of Los Angeles.  A 72 year old sex offender gave his DNA sample, as required by state law.  The DNA got a match with a rape kit from murder victim Ethel Sokoloff, a 68 year old woman who was killed in 1972.  As a result,  John Thomas Jr. has been charged in two murders (Sokoloff’s and another crime in 1976).  Police believe that Thomas may be the “Southland Strangler” who may have killed more than 30 women (and raped many more) since 1955.

This has to be the mother of all cold cases.  Even if you were able to crack the case of a serial killer who began his reign of terror 54 years ago, the odds of the perpetrator still being alive are not very good.  I have an interest in crime, and I intend to write a bigger article on the story next week, after getting a chance to sesearch it a bit more.

Review: The Serial Killers Club, by Jeff Povey

January 15, 2009

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The book begins with our hero being attacked. He fights back and kills his attacker in self defense. While looking through the attacker’s possessions, he stumbles upon what he eventually comes to realize is an invitation to a serial killers club. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like – serial killers gathering to break bread and share stories. Doug joins the club and eventually goes over to the dark side and becomes a killer himself..

If you’re looking for the next great mystery novel – with strong characters and a dynamic plot – this isn’t it. Nor does Povey attempt to go down that route. This is entertainment, not art. Povey crafts a book that takes an amusing look at serial killers. The plot weaves off onto tangents – a byproduct of the main character’s lack of orientation. The characters are strangely weak – reminiscent of a whiny high school clique. This is a side of serial killers that you don’t often see on TV. Some Amazon reviewers have suggested that the flimsy characters are a flaw with the book. I don’t think this is true – I think they were written this way for effect.

Doug’s decision making process is one of the more interesting aspects to this book. To say that it is flawed in a huge understatement. He has a tendency to make life changing decision with very little thought or preparation. He also has a very broad definition of “normal behavior”, as he glosses over some pretty weird stuff during the narration of the book. In the prologue, he talks about his success in finding the job he was born to do – cleaning up the muck of zoo animals.

This book probably plays a bit more to those of you who are a bit “odd” (or, if you prefer, “eccentric”). If you have a more rigid sense of humor, you might find the humor very sophomoric. If you’re the sort of person who cracks up uncontrollably at Monty Python, you’ll probably enjoy this. All in all, this book was $6 well spent (bargain bin at Barnes & Noble).

Update: I’ve shared this book with several friends since I wrote the initial review. Half of them love it, half of them think it’s pretty dumb – which basically mirrors the split reviews of the book you see on Amazon. Why roll roll the dice and give it a chance?