Every town has its urban legends. In some places, locals will swear that there are cryptid creatures roaming the woods. In others, it’s murderous hitchhikers, haunted schools, sewer alligators, satanic cults — the list goes on and on. What unites the vast majority of these stories, is that they’re most often a load of superstitious nonsense.
But in some rare instances, these campfire stories have a sinister vein of truth in them. Such was the case around 30 years ago in New York, where the myth of a hook-handed child-killer was brought to life through the vicious crime spree of one all-too-real murderer.
As you’ll see today, the borough of Staten Island was home to some truly horrific stories throughout the 20th century, both fact and fiction. Today we’ll be looking at the most infamous of all — a nightmare at the intersection of local legend and true crime.
This is the story of Cropsey, the Boogeyman of Staten Island…
The legend of Cropsey is much like any other campfire horror story, told in every other part of the USA. The legend went that a hook-handed mental patient escaped from captivity, and took up residence in the tunnel system under the dilapidated ruins of the old Seaview Hospital: an abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium in Willowbrook, Staten Island.
Aside from giving children an unwarranted phobia of amputees, this bedtime story was useful for preventing kids from exploring dangerous abandoned buildings (of which the island had many), or staying out too late. Because come nightfall, old Cropsey emerged to prowl the streets, dragging away children to his subterranean lair.
The tale was shared at camping trips and sleepovers in the decades following the hospital’s closure in 1961. Like all urban legends, it had as many iterations as storytellers, changing as it was passed down the generations. The killer even made it onto the big screen in 1981, in the slasher film The Burning.
Sometimes Cropsey wields an axe, sometimes garden shears, and sometimes he hangs his hat in some other run-down parts of town. But the core of the story is always the same: deranged vagrant hunts for children, and drags them back to his decaying lair to murder them.
So far, nothing too troubling, right? I mean, we’ve covered some of the most awful stories out there in previous episodes. I hardly expect you to flinch at some B-movie slasher nonsense. However, what comes next gets pretty dark indeed.
For the parents of Staten Island, fact and fiction were about to converge in the most terrifying way imaginable…
After a string of real-life disappearances in the 70s and 80s this boogeyman, invented to terrifying kids, started haunting the minds of their parents too. Children went missing from their neighborhoods in broad daylight, and were never seen again.
First came the disappearance of 5-year-old Alice Pereira. She was snatched while playing in the lobby of her apartment building on Tysens Lane in 1972. Then in 1981, 7-year-old Holly Hughes was sent out to a deli, two blocks from her home, to fetch her mother a bar of soap. The shopkeeper was the last person to ever see her.
Three years later, a similar fate befell 10-year-old Tiahease Jackson. She and her family were staying at the Mariner’s Harbor Motel after their own apartment caught fire. Tiahease was asked by a fellow resident to pick up some things from the supermarket, and was never seen again.
The oldest victim was 21-year-old Henry Gafforio, a developmentally challenged young man with the mental age of a young teenager. He was last seen drinking at a bar called the Spa Lounge. He left the bar at 4am, and was reported missing by his family later that day.
All of that is enough to give any parent a lump in their throat. With an ever-expanding string of disappearances, and no conclusive culprit, the residents of Staten Island were in a panic. Nobody needed to make up stories to scare the kids any longer — the legend of Cropsey was becoming far too real.
The next disappearance bore a striking resemblance to his macabre myth. When 12-year-old Jennifer Schweiger — who had down’s syndrome — went missing in the summer of 1987, a massive search effort was launched. Hundreds of volunteers combed the parks and waste grounds of the borough. After 35 days, one of them made a horrific discovery.
Bob Devine was one of the volunteers tasked with searching the recently abandoned Willowbrook State School, just a few miles from Seaview Hospital. Hidden away in an area of woodland on the expansive grounds, was a patch of loose earth. Devine told the New York Times: “When we dug it up and found a little foot there… It’s something that’s going to stick with you the rest of your life.”
Jennifer had been murdered, and buried in a shallow grave.
A clue to who could have committed such a horrific crime was buried in the history of the abandoned school itself. This was only the most recent horrific episode to unfold on the grounds of Willowbrook.
Opened in 1938, the school was a publicly-funded home for mentally disabled children, which was long plagued with accusations of abuse. After World War Two, it became increasingly inundated with students, and by the 1960s it was so chronically overcrowded that filth and disease were rife. It now no longer had any semblance of an educational institute.
With the depleted staff heavily outnumbered by the ‘students’, oversight became extremely lax, leading to neglect and outright abuse. Things were so bad that even President Kennedy was directly aware of the problem, labelling Willowbrook a “snake pit” in the mid-60s.
It wasn’t until 1972 that the public understood exactly what he meant. That year a doctor, appalled by the conditions at the school, invited journalist Geraldo Rivera to expose the place to the world. His footage showed the extent of the deprivation therein, and exposed the rampant physical and sexual abuse of certain members of staff.
Worst of all the horror stories from Willowbrook were the reports of unethical medical experimentation. Medical staff at the school intentionally injected young people with hepatitis in an effort to study the disease. This went on for a full 14 years without anyone stepping in to stop them.
Once the story broke, the doctors defended themselves by saying that the same strains of hepatitis were rife in the hospital anyway (around 90%), so those mentally challenged kids would probably get it anyway. No biggie, right? Why bother trying to care for the kids when your institution is failing so miserably already? Amazingly those bastards aren’t the worst villains of today’s episode. That title goes to our real-life Cropsey, who also happened to be employed by the school during that period.
Despite the outcry that followed Rivera’s exposé, it took a further 15 years before Willowbrook closed its doors for good, just months before the little girl Jennifer was found buried there…
The discovery of Jennifer’s body led to an extensive search of Willowbrook. It was well known that a loose community of vagrants had made camp around the sprawling 385-acre grounds, including in the tunnels underneath. Some were ex-residents with nowhere else to go. Others were drifters from out of town. But one man in particular stood out to investigators.
Like an extremely morbid episode of Scooby Doo, the boogeyman of Staten Island was finally unmasked, and it was the janitor all along. This was Andre Rand: the former custodian of Willowbrook (some reports say he had a brief stint as an orderly).
Born in 1944 under the name Frank Rushan, Rand was a Manhattan native who himself is thought to have suffered from mild developmental problems. Early in his teenage years, his father passed away, and his mother was committed to an asylum. Whatever trauma that might have caused him, he went on to inflict on others tenfold.
Rand had a long list of offenses against children to his name. Ever since losing his job in the 60s, he had made a home for himself in the area surrounding his old workplace. It would appear that this was his base throughout a decades-long crime spree across the Island and surrounding boroughs.
In 1969, about three years after losing his job at Willowbrook, he spent 16 months in prison for the attempted sexual assault of a 9-year-old girl. Then in ’83, he hopped into a bus full of kids from the local YMCA, and drove off with them to an airport across state lines.
Cropsey’s Magical Mystery Tour landed him another sentence for unlawful imprisonment — pretty lucky considering it was basically a mass kidnapping. He only spent 10 months behind bars this time. On both of those occasions, Rand thankfully never got to go through with his sick intentions in full, but it’s likely he got away with far more crimes.
Remember the disappearance of 5-year-old Alice Pereira? Rand was a prime suspect in that case, mainly on account of his past record. He was also seen in the company of Holly Hughes when she walked to the deli in 1981 — the last day anyone saw her.
Tiahease Jackson disappeared just 12 days after the real-life Cropsey was released from prison following the bus escapade, making him a strong suspect there too. And then there’s the case of Henry Gafforio; some witnesses reported seeing him with Andre Rand in a diner, the morning after he left the bar. If he was complicit in the abuse at Willowbrook during his time there, he would have no problem preying on the disabled like that.
Rand’s crimes weren’t just restricted to young people either. It’s thought he may have had a hand in the disappearance of Ethel Louise Atwell in 1978. She was a physical therapy aide at Willowbrook. She arrived at the school before sunrise on October 24th, and several coworkers heard her screaming in the car park. When the police arrived to investigate, the only trace of Ethel were some clothes and belongings dropped by the side of her car.
If he is really into blame for all these crimes, then it seems like Rand was a violent opportunist — fond of preying on vulnerability. In July the year prior, 18-year-old Audrey Lyn Nerenberg went missing while going out for a pack of cigarettes in Brooklyn. The night before, she and her family went to a cinema which was in close proximity to one of Rand’s campsites. Some have speculated he might’ve singled her out that evening.
It’s an extremely frustrating trend we’re seeing. Andre Rand was adjacent to so many disappearances and deaths, but there was never enough evidence to take it beyond the initial interrogations. The same was actually true at first in the latest disappearance.
Rand was identified as a suspect early on after witnesses claimed to see him walking alongside Jennifer Schweiger the day she disappeared. He was even caught lying to the press, and changing his story, but there wasn’t enough evidence to definitively link him to Audrey.
Now however, the connection seemed pretty conclusive: his ramshackle Willowbrook campsite was just a short walk from where the body was found…
Once the public had a face to pin onto their fears, Rand became probably the most detested villain that Staten Island has ever known. Images of him being dragged down the courthouse steps by police, wild-eyed, with saliva hanging from his mouth, made the front page of all the papers.
It was then that people really started to draw attention to the eerie similarities between his story and the urban legends of old. Just like his fictional counterpart, Andre Rand inhabited an abandoned place; not quite the Seaview Hospital, but Willowbrook is actually in the same neighborhood as the old tuberculosis unit. He was also an accomplished and perverted predator, who targeted those most vulnerable.
Could it be possible that some of the stories of Cropsey were directly inspired by Rand’s other attempts at snatching children? At any rate, the terrifying way that he brought the nightmare to life left a deep scar in the psyche of the community. In true eye-for-an-eye fashion, many were calling for his head on a plate.
In 1988, Rand stood trial for the kidnapping and murder of Jennifer Schweiger. It did not go how most of the onlookers hoped. Witness testimony was enough to push through the kidnapping charge, however there wasn’t quite enough physical evidence to prove he was responsible for the murder.
There remained the reasonable doubt that he could have taken or led the girl to the grounds of Willowbrook, where somebody else ended her life. I can practically feel your frustration radiating out of my monitor right now, but that’s unfortunately the way these things go sometimes. Still, the kidnapping charge was enough for a 25-year sentence, with the possibility of parole after 20 years.
No need to do the maths — I’ve got your back. That sentence meant that Andre Rand was set for parole in 2008, and would have been released for sure in 2013! Does that mean that Cropsey now haunts the dark corners of Staten Island once again (albeit a little more elderly and decrepit than before)?
Thankfully no — there’s one last twist in the tale, which is as close to a happy ending as I can manage today. In 2004, new evidence emerged in the disappearance of Holly Hughes, the 7-year-old who went missing in ’81. Rand actually implicated himself in the crime, after blabbing to a fellow inmate.
This good samaritan kept comprehensive notes of the conversations, in which Rand reportedly revealed every detail of the abduction. Apparently he saw himself as a Ted Bundy kind of character, and said he would never reveal where the girl was buried. (I did say it wasn’t a proper happy ending)
This and the witness testimony of a woman named Dori Tucker — the one who spotted Rand with the missing girl all those years ago — was enough to form the basis for a fresh trial. Rand was once again convicted of first-degree kidnapping, and slapped with another 25 years. That 2013 deadline has been pushed back to at least 2037, when he’ll finally be eligible for parole.
After over two decades of wondering what happened to their little girl, Holly’s family finally had something like justice. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for most of the other victims…
Wrap Up: Boogeyman or Scapegoat?
What started off as a creepy myth come true has now given rise to a plethora of spin-off stories, many of them now urban legends in their own right. Nothing like a little conspiracy theory roundup to take the edge off, so here we go:
There’s the theory that Rand was deeply involved with the sadistic treatment of disabled children at Willowbrook, and his crime spree was a continuation of a sick mission that he started in those days. Perhaps in collaboration with other staff members, he set out to ‘alleviate the suffering’ of his victims.
Then there’s the crossover with the ‘Satanic Panic’ that gripped the USA in the 80s. The theory goes that a cabal of devil worshippers set up shop in the borough back then, and our man Cropsey was delivering sacrificial victims to them.
And then there’s the theory that Rand was actually a deeply-embedded communist operative, sent by the Soviets to erode the fabric of US society. Actually, I just made that last one up off the top of my head, but I had you for a second, don’t lie. This conspiracy lark is a piece of piss — I reckon I could be the next Alex Jones.
Perhaps a bit more compelling than any of the above is the story told by the Willowbrook’s own Freddy Krueger himself. Not that I’m going to leap to the defense of a convicted sex offender, but it is true that Rand was only tangentially linked to several of the cases we’ve mentioned today.
He himself claims to be innocent. He says that his connection to Willowbrook and villain status in the media meant the community were tripping over themselves to blame him for all their suffering. In a bizarre bit of mail sent to a newspaper from prison, he wrote a Mother’s Day love letter to “all the ladies on Staten Island who supported ‘prosecutorial vindictiveness’ against an innocent person!”
While I seriously doubt he’s innocent of the crimes he was convicted for, I would contest that it’s very possible that one or more different culprits might be to blame for some of the other cases linked to him. Or even if Rand was to blame for all of them, who’s to say he was working alone? Could that mean that there are many more Cropseys out there, lurking in the dark corners of town?
Sadly, I think that kind of goes without saying. Because the real story here is that, while the monsters dreamed up in fiction are good for a scare, true terror lies in the fact that people like Andre Rand are in every country, and every city, and they very rarely have hooked hands to mark them out…
Last thing before we wrap up today: it’s important to note that the majority of the cases mentioned above have not been conclusively linked to Rand, and are still considered cold. That means there are still active efforts to find the victims, and discover their stories.
In fact, an organization called Friends of Jennifer for Missing Children conducts twice-yearly searches of Willowbrook School, looking for any traces of the missing kids (there’s a lot of ground to cover, after all). You’ll also find profiles of all the victims and further details on the Charley Project website — a database of cold missing-person cases in the US.
There you can find contact details for these and any other cases they have on record, in the event you believe you can help.
1. The story of Andre Rand was explored in the 2009 documentary Cropsey by Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio. It dives deep into the legend of the Staten Island Boogeyman, and to what extent Rand might have directly inspired some of the versions of the story circulating around back in the 70s and 80s. Well worth a watch if you don’t feel like sleeping tonight.
2. Ever since his incarceration began, Rand has made a habit of writing to the press — with extremely precise penmanship — to vent about anything and everything. I even found one of the letters previously listed for sale online for $50! The description says it contains: a rambling plea of innocence; an anecdote about meeting Steve McQueen; claims that he hijacked that bus full of kids for humanitarian reasons; and claims that Volkswagen changed their steering wheels at his suggestion. Best 50 bucks I ever spent.