Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

William Heirens

Model Prisoner

"The bell strikes one. We take no note of time but from its loss." - Edward Young

After Suzanne Degnan was killed and before Heirens entered the scene, the Chicago Police began to concentrate and hone in on one man: Richard Russell Thomas, a 42-year-old drifter living in Phoenix, Arizona, but who had lived in Chicago at the time of the crime. He was, when the police located him, in jail in Phoenix awaiting trial for molestation of his 13-year-old daughter. He had confessed to the Degnan murder and, in fact, it was the handwriting expert for the Phoenix Police Department who had notified Chicago authorities after finding great similarities between the ransom note (which was photographed and ran in all the daily papers at the time) and Thomas' handwriting.

"Thomas was a brutal man," notes author Dolores Kennedy, who believes he may have been the girl's real killer. "He beat his wife and sexually molested two of his three children. He had been arrested many times and had served time for kidnap and extortion...Many of the phrases (used in that extortion document) are similar to those on the ransom note."

This suspect lived on the South Side of Chicago, where he worked as a male nurse, but frequently visited an automobile agency on the North Side, a few blocks from the Degnan home. To his friends he had often boasted that he sometimes posed as a doctor and had stolen surgical supplies from a hospital. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that Suzanne Degnan's arms were found in a sewer directly across the street from the car agency he frequented.

But, when Heirens was arrested and brought into Bridewell, investigating officers were called off the Thomas case, treating Thomas' confession as the ravings of a madman. Thomas served time for molestation, then faded into obscurity, eventually passing away in Tennessee in 1974.

ABC-TV's PrimeTime Live conducted its own investigation into the Heirens case in 1996. In a special broadcast entitled, "The Wrong Man?" host Sam Donaldson interviewed several people who are taking a new look at the evidence. Among these are David Grimes, FBI handwriting analyst. Grimes contends that he had studied the ransom note and the lipstick writing on the wall, letter by letter, and found no match. Based on what he has seen, Grimes reports, "(Heirens) did not write the writing on the wall and he did not write the ransom note."

At this time, as we enter a new century, Dolores Kennedy, author of Bill Heirens: His Day in Court, and Heirens' lawyer, Jed Stone, are petitioning Illinois Governor George Ryan for a clemency hearing in April. Their request is that the governor reviews updated findings on the handwriting, fingerprints and other elements of the case.  Bill Heirens has been denied parole many, many times over the years.  The incriminating evidence and testimony continue to haunt him, and state's representatives continue to speak strongly against releasing him to the outside world.  Incarcerated for more than 53 years, he is now 70 years old.  His disposition is not bitter - he has resigned himself to his fate - but continually hopes that someday he may be paroled or exonerated.

He continues to be a model prisoner. Since 1946, he has tried to improve himself, efforts that have not gone unrewarded by the penal system. He was made overseer of garment manufacturing at Stateville and, having taken numerous courses in television and radio repair, was given his own repair shop on the grounds of Stateville's honor farm.

Dr Lake, president of Lewis College (left) congratulating Heirens on his graduation
Dr Lake, president of Lewis College
(left) congratulating Heirens on his

On February 6, 1972, Heirens became the first inmate in Illinois to receive a college degree. Taking courses offered by visiting professors and through television courses via nearby Lewis College, he accumulated the required 197 credit hours to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. Since then, he has assisted in the development of educational programs and helps other inmates pass their GED. Heirens, inmate number C-06103, was transferred to the minimum security Vienna (Illinois) Correctional Center in 1975, thence to Dixon (Illinois) Center, which has upgraded facilities for older inmates. There, he works in the business office.

* * * * *

Is Bill Heirens guilty? To use a perhaps-overused cliché, but in this instance so very true, God knows.

Or, perhaps in considering the situation we may want to turn to the lines from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass:

"There's the King's messenger. He's in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn't even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all."

"Suppose he never commits the crime?" said Alice.

"That would be all the better, wouldn't it?"

Bill Heirens, now and then
Bill Heirens, now and then

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