Publish date:
Updated on
Year
1946

A case of split personality in puzzling Chicago murders

Six-year-old Suzanne Degnan is kidnapped from her home in an affluent Chicago neighborhood. Her father found a note on the floor asking for a $20,000 ransom. Although James Degnan went on the radio to plead for his daughter’s safety, the kidnapper never made any contact or further demands. Later, a police search of the neighborhood turned up the girl’s body. She had been strangled to death the night of the kidnapping, then dismembered with a hunting knife. Her remains were left in five different sewers and catch basins.

At the scene of the attack, the killer had written a message in lipstick on the victim’s wall, “For heaven’s sake, catch me before I kill more, I cannot control myself.” The ransom note at the Degnan house was the best clue that investigators had to tracking down the serial killer.

The note had indentations from an adjoining page on the pad that led them to a University of Chicago restaurant. But detectives ran into a dead end and didn’t receive much help from the college administration. Just as it looked like the lead was dead, a 17-year-old student named William Heirens was arrested after being caught red-handed during a burglary. When police searched his dorm room they found suitcases full of stolen goods, pictures of Hitler and other Nazis, and a letter to Heirens signed “George M.”

Authorities soon learned that some of the stolen items had come from the victims’ homes. However, they couldn’t track down Heirens’ apparent partner, George. Heirens was given sodium pentathol and interrogated. During questioning under the truth serum, Heirens claimed that George Murman had killed Suzanne Degnan. However, it quickly became evident that George wasn’t a real person at all, but an alter ego of Heirens himself.

Slowly, investigators pieced together the pathology that drove Heirens. Apparently, he could only find sexual gratification through burglaries. He later found that killing during the burglaries added to the thrill. While doubtful that he was a true schizophrenic, prosecutors decided not to risk losing to an insanity defense and agreed not to seek the death penalty against Heirens. He pleaded guilty to three counts of murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Heirens continues to assert his innocence, and there are some who believe he is not guilty of the crimes.

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