CHICAGO — Richard Speck, a brutally methodical killer with "Born to Raise Hell" tattooed on one arm and the blood of eight student nurses splattered across his soul, died of a heart attack Thursday. He was 49 and had spent the last quarter-century in Illinois prisons.
On a single horrific night in July, 1966, Speck broke into a townhouse in an otherwise safe, quiet middle-class neighborhood on Chicago's far South Side, hogtied the young women who lived there and then strangled or stabbed eight of them, one-by-one. At least one of those victims had been raped. The lone survivor, a Filipino student, had managed to hide under a bed.
Though mass murders since then have taken a far greater toll, the magnitude and senselessness of Speck's crime was shocking for its day and forever seared his name and gangly features into the public consciousness as a symbol of fiendishness.
"It was kind of an end to our innocence about how safe anybody was anywhere," said William J. Martin, a former prosecutor who obtained the conviction of Speck in a 1967 trial. "He wasn't a guy in a tower with a rapid-fire weapon. . . . He took them one at a time, spent at least a half-hour alone with each victim, ritualistically washed his hands, came back and got the next victim."
Speck was originally sentenced to the electric chair, but his life was eventually spared by the U.S. Supreme Court. He was ordered to serve 400 to 1,200 years in the maximum-security Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Ill.
Nic Howell, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Corrections, said Speck was transferred from the prison to a local hospital Wednesday after complaining of chest pains and then suffered a sudden heart attack Thursday morning. Speck was "overweight, a chain-smoker and had poor eating habits," Howell said. Word of Speck's death brought a "sense of relief" to John Schmale, a central Illinois physician whose sister, then 24-year-old Nina Jo, was one of those killed. Relatives of the victims had to endure the knowledge that Speck, having escaped the electric chair, was periodically considered for release by the state parole board, a procedure required under Illinois law.
"You get angry because when someone strangles and stabs to death eight student nurses, it seems like they ought to get their just rewards," Schmale said.
Speck was a drifter who had floated in and out of trouble most of his life. He had come to Chicago looking for work as a crewman on a Great Lakes freighter. The union hiring hall for merchant seamen was just down the street from the nurses' townhouse.
On the night of July 13, 1966, much of the city was in turmoil as a race riot raged across a wide swath of the poverty-stricken West Side. But the placid Jeffrey Manor neighborhood where the three Filipino and six American-born nurses lived was miles from the danger zone.
The case against Speck was pieced together largely from the testimony of Corazon Amurao, the tiny 23-year-old exchange student who managed to scoot under a bed before the killing spree began and who later described what she had seen and heard. "Ninety-five pounds of steel and lace," Martin called her.
The murders touched off a massive manhunt, aided by Amurao's description of the distinctive tattoos she had seen on the man: "Born to Raise Hell" on his left forearm; "Love" and "Hate" on his right knuckles.
Speck was arrested a few days after the murders at Cook County Hospital, where he was brought after what one doctor said looked like an attempt to slash his wrists.
Gerald Getty, the public defender who represented Speck at his trial, said Speck never denied committing the murders. Instead, Getty said, Speck's story was that he had blacked out after drinking and taking drugs with some fellow sailors and had no idea what, if anything, he had done. The unidentified sailors might even have been accomplices, Getty said Speck had once suggested.
Martin, the former prosecutor, said the claim of amnesia was not only a sham, but also a shame, because Speck went to his grave without ever revealing his motive. "I regret that his lips are now sealed forever without having told us why he did what he did, without any explanation that would hopefully help us try to unravel what causes mass murders and serial killings," Martin said.
Times researcher Tracy Shryer contributed to this story.