How to Catch A Criminal: False Confession

June 28, 2023
The disturbing and complicated case of Chicago's "Lipstick Killer" involved murders, confessions and convictions—hopefully of the right person.

Every officer with a decent amount of time on the job knows the unexpected turns an investigation can take. Seeing a major case through to completion often involves giving up on a theory and taking your investigation in a different direction as new information becomes available. In How to Catch A Criminal, we look at the many ways not-so-perfect crimes are solved. This month: murders, confessions and convictions; hopefully of the right person.

This article appeared in the March/April issue of OFFICER Magazine. Click Here to subscribe to OFFICER Magazine.

On June 5, 1945, in Chicago, Illinois, 43-year-old Josephine Ross was found dead in her apartment when her daughter returned home. Josephine had been stabbed repeatedly and her head was wrapped in a dress. Blood covered her bedroom and the apartment was in shambles. Despite the apparent ransacking, only a small amount of change had been stolen. Josephine’s ex-husbands and fiancée were questioned, but their whereabouts during the time of the murder were verified and they were eliminated as suspects. Josephine’s murder remained an open investigation but was old news before too long. The only lead the Chicago Police Department had was conflicting descriptions of a dark haired man who was hanging around the apartment building on the day of the murder.

Six months, five days and a few blocks separated Josephine Ross from Frances Brown, the second victim attributed to Ross’ slayer. Frances was found dead inside her apartment when the maid entered the slightly open door to check on her after hearing France’s radio playing very loud for the morning hours. The maid found a similar scene to the Ross murder. The room was covered in blood, and Frances Brown was dead, a butcher knife in her neck, her pajamas wrapped around her head, and a gunshot to the head. Unlike Josephine Ross’s murder, the killer had left a note. Poorly Written on a wall in Frances’ lipstick, the killer pleaded “For heAvens SAke catch me BeFore I kill more I cannot control myselF”. Police also located a partial fingerprint on a door jamb, but otherwise did not have any leads until butcher by the name of George Carraboni confessedto murdering Frances Brown. Carraboni was suspected of thirteen other murders in Cleveland, but his stories were inconsistent and his confession was not taken seriously.    

One month later, on Jan. 7, 1946, the parents of 6-year-old Suzanne Degnan found she was missing from her bedroom and was not inside their Edgewater, Illinois, home. Police arrived and located a ladder leading up to the window of Suzanne’s bedroom as well as a ransom note demanding $20,000 and ordering the Degnan’s not to contact law enforcement and await further instructions. Soon, an anonymous call was placed to Police and they were told to check the sewers. Sure enough, Suzanne’s dismembered body parts were located in the sewers near the Degnan home. During a search of a nearby apartment building, Police found a bloody laundry tub which appeared to be the dismemberment site. The only other evidence found at the apartment building was a handkerchief embroidered “ S. Sherman” in an alley behind the building. During the investigation many suspects were arrested and Police claimed to have solved the case repeatedly, but further investigation eventually eliminated each accused person.

Embarrassed and desperate to solve the murders before a fourth victim is killed, investigators turned their attention to Hector Verburgh, the janitor of the apartment building in which Suzanne Degnan was dismembered. Verburgh, was arrested and for 48 hours he was interrogated, and eventually beaten when he continued to deny involvement in the murders. He was finally released without charge and spent 10 days in the hospital recovering from the injuries he suffered at the hands of police. Hector Verburgh eventually received a large payout after a lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department.

As leads were running out and pressure continued to rise, the investigation landed on Richard Thomas. Thomas was a nurse in Chicago and often presented himself as a surgeon. The dismemberment of Suzanne Degnan was surgical and precise, making Thomas a viable suspect. He was also imprisoned for molestation of one of his children, and had previously attempted to extort money from a family by threatening kidnapping via a note similar to the ransom note the Degnan’s received. Richard Thomas even admitted to the murder of Suzanne Degnan when he was questioned. Rather than close the case, this confession only paused the investigation for a short time. The arrest of a 17-year-old burglar shifted the attention off Thomas, just in time for him to recant his confession.

William Heirens was arrested on June 26, 1946 after attempting to steal a wallet from an apartment. A resident of the complex caught him red handed and phoned police who were soon in hot pursuit. Heirens fled on foot and even pulled a gun on an officer, but the officers rushed towards him and a struggle ensued. An off-duty officer saw the struggle and intervened, smashing a total of three clay flower pots over Heirens head. After the succession of terracotta haymakers, Heirens didn’t have any fight left. Perhaps pointing a gun at an officer when tensions were running high throughout the city was a severe mistake on Heirens part.

Given his burglary habits and lengthy history of thefts, perhaps this would be cop-killer is the man who has been entering people’s homes and committing heinous acts. In order to prove it however, a confession would be needed. Likely concussed from the bashing he received in the fight over his gun, Heirens had a difficult time answering questions during interrogation. The interrogation lasted six days, during which time he was starved, and beaten. Eventually Heirens was injected with sodium pentothal, also known as “truth serum.” Once drugged, Heirens was questioned by two psychiatrists and admitted to the murders, insisting they were committed by an alter ego of his named George. Heirens was next given a spinal tap, sans anesthetic, and a polygraph test, although the pain was to great for him to sit through the test. Days later the polygraph was attempted again, but the results were inconclusive. Police also found that Heirens fingerprints matched the bloody door jamb fingerprint found in Frances Brown’s apartment and another found on the Degnan ransom note. However these prints only had 9 points of comparison, below the FBI standard of 12 points for a match.

Heirens defense attorneys urged him to take a plea deal and formally confess to all three murders in exchange for life in prison without facing the death penalty. Heirens eventually took this deal. Finally, after three different people took credit for at least one of the three murders, the true culprit was apparently in custody. Heirens received three life sentences and soon began to proclaim his innocence, insisting his confessions were under duress and he only took credit for the killings so he would not be sentenced to death. Problematically, in 1952, one of the psychiatrists who questioned Heirens, admitted he never implicated himself for the murders when under the effect of sodium pentothal.

William Heirens continued to profess his innocence until his death in 2012 at the age of 83. He spent years petitioning for a new trial and parole, however all of his requests were denied, because his release would be counter to the best interests of the people of Illinois. For all intents and purposes, William Heirens will forever be known as the “Lipstick Killer,” the killer who begged police to stop him and admitted to the murders, George Carraboni and Richard Thomas not withstanding.

About the Author

Brendan Rodela is a Deputy for the Lincoln County (NM) Sheriff’s Office. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice and is a certified instructor with specialized training in Domestic Violence and Interactions with Persons with Mental Impairments.

This article appeared in the March/April issue of OFFICER Magazine.

About the Author

Officer Brendan Rodela, Contributing Editor | Officer

Brendan Rodela is a Deputy for the Lincoln County (NM) Sheriff's Office. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice and is a certified instructor with specialized training in Domestic Violence and Interactions with Persons with Mental Impairments.

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