I first heard that a movie was being made about suspected Staten Island serial killer Andre Rand about 6 months ago. I had all but forgotten until I visited the Ghost Theory blog about 2 weeks ago, and they had the trailer posted. The movie is called “Cropsey,” and I was able to catch it this weekend at the IFC Center in Manhattan.
So why am I blogging, on a paranormal blog, about a documentary based on a serial killer? Well for one thing, the mystery is still unsolved, at least in my mind. But we’ll get to that in a bit. But the movie also examines these child murders from the point of view of urban legend, the myth of the boogeyman who lives in the woods, and how these myths and legends can sometimes be based on fact, or sometimes even come true. In this case, a series of child disappearances and murders was taking place on Staten Island, New York, starting in the late ’70s and into the ’80s. “Cropsey” is the name of an urban legend on the east coast, usually told at summer camp, of a deranged man in the woods who kills children. Sometimes he has a hook for a hand, sometimes a bloody axe. The story is a little different depending on who tells it. The filmmakers tie this urban legend to what actually happened with these child murders. Lastly, the movie deals with the old Willowbrook School and Seaview Hospital, and I want to talk about the stories of hauntings that we heard as paranormal investigators about these killings and these locations.
First the movie itself. If you have a chance to see it, I strongly suggest you do. It’s an interesting story, and I think one that will cause a lot of controversy. The movie tells the story of some missing children, who started disappearing on Staten Island beginning in the early 1970s and continuing until the 1980s. In all, police suspected 7 children were the victims of the same serial killer. Only one body, that of Jennifer Schweiger, was ever found. Her nude body was found in a shallow grave in the general vicinity of the camp of a homeless man named Andre Rand, on the grounds where the Willowbrook State School used to stand. It is now home to the College of Staten Island, of which I am a graduate.
The Willowbrook State School, for those who may not have heard of it, was a “school” for mentally retarded children back in the ’60s through the early ’80s. In 1972, Geraldo Rivera got his big break by doing an exposé on the school, showing its deplorable conditions (you can view the report here). Overcrowding, neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and illegal experiments were just some of the things that went on at Willowbrook. It was finally closed in 1987.
Back to Andre Rand. He actually worked at Willowbrook, and once the institution closed, he lived on the grounds in makeshift campsites and shelters, possibly even living in the tunnels underneath the facility. He was arrested in 1969 of kidnapping and attempted rape of a 9-year-old girl. He was working in a complex where Alice Pereira vanished in 1972. Witnesses saw him with Holly Ann Hughes when she disappeared in 1981. And of course, the body of Jennifer Schweiger was found in the vicinity of his camp in Willowbrook in 1987. After that, he was arrested, charged and convicted of Jennifer’s murder. Just recently, he was convicted in a second murder, that of Holly Ann Hughes.
The film uses lots of archival footage as well as recent interviews with detectives, witnesses and community leaders who were involved in the initial investigation of the crimes. The filmmakers, Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, present an interesting film, part urban legend, part crime drama, and it works well. It is thought provoking, it is sad, and it is creepy.
And it is frightening just how easily Andre Rand was convicted. Granted, this is a man who probably should not be allowed to roam the streets. But all of the evidence against him was circumstantial. Yes, he had prior charges against him, and while that doesn’t mean he should be around children, it doesn’t prove he committed these specific murders. Some witnesses did place him at the scenes of some crimes, but it is revealed in the film that most of these eyewitnesses were alcoholics or drug addicts who couldn’t give specific details at the time, but now 20 years later and after drug and alcohol rehabilitation, can miraculously “remember” seeing Andre Rand, in great detail, with these girls. The film even shows a witness in the Holly Hughes trial, a woman who claims that she saw Rand, in a mask, kidnapping Holly. Not sure how she knew it was him if he was in a mask. She also claims to have known most of the other victims of this series of crimes. Her eyes are bloodshot and sunken in. She looked like she was smoking crack moments before being interviewed. And yes, the body was discovered near Rand’s campsite, but it should be noted that there were many other homeless men living in the same area, and no forensic or DNA evidence has ever been found to link Rand to the one body they did find.
Do I think he’s innocent? Not necessarily. But is he guilty of all these murders? Nobody really knows. There is a lot of reasonable doubt. Yet he is serving jail time, 25 years to life. Not only that, but he has been convicted twice. Because a body was found near where he lived and some drug addicts said it was him. And because he looks crazy. That’s like any of us being convicted of the murder of the tenant in the apartment below ours, just because they live close to us and people have seen us talking in the past. There is no evidence, and save one, no bodies. Are we better off without him on our streets? Undoubtedly. But did he commit these murders? Nobody knows except for Andre Rand and/or the real murderer(s).
There was some mention in the movie as well that Rand may have been involved with a Satanic cult, which supposedly held its meetings in the abandoned Seaview Hospital, which at one time held tuberculosis patients. There are many rumors on Staten Island about the old Seaview facility and what goes on there, and perhaps the biggest rumor is that it’s the home of Satanic cults and their grisly rituals. I’ve been there, and while it’s definitely creepy, there’s no sign of anything going on there besides some kids playing paintball and scaring each other at night, as well as some homeless people spending some nights there. The filmmakers even venture there one night in the flm, with some humorous results.
But an interesting note. While we were ghost hunters, we were told by many of the staff at the College of Staten Island that the grounds were haunted. Not too hard to believe, as the facility had a very tragic and turbulent past (even before Willowbrook, the facility was used as a World War II hospital and there are rumors that POWs were also held there, and probably not treated well). Most of the stories were of children crying, appearing as apparitions, things like that. But one security guard told us of a girl who had been found dead on the grounds, the victim of a serial killer. We were shown the location, and it was said that the first floor women’s bathroom in the building adjacent to where the body was found was haunted by her. We never found any solid evidence when we went to check it out, but we did encounter very strange and very high EMF spikes. We also heard footsteps, voices and chairs being moved on the second floor, in classrooms that were locked, when we were the only ones on campus late at night (with the security guards). Was it a ghost? The boogeyman? We’ll never know for sure. Just like we may never know who took these children from us.