Film

"Cropsey" Was the Terrifying Boogeyman Who Turned Out to Be Real

Every child has a boogeyman. Maybe it's the monster in your closet. Maybe it's a creature on the roof. Maybe it's a mysterious figure lurking in the woods, waiting to drag naughty children away. That last kind of night terror might be especially tempting to parents who want to keep their kids in line. But be careful ... sometimes, the monsters turn out to be real. Meet Cropsey, AKA Andre Rand.

A Haunted Place

Staten Island in the mid-to-late 20th century could be a frightening place for little children. One of the urban legends specific to the island was the story of Cropsey, a killer who (at least, according to the makers of the Cropsey documentary) was often touted as a threat to young children. As often happens with urban legends, versions of the story can vary wildly. Sometimes, Cropsey wielded a sharp ax; sometimes, he killed with a hook for a hand; in one 1981 slasher movie, he was a former camp caretaker covered in gruesome scars. But one feature of the Cropsey story that surfaces in almost every version is his origin: the notorious institution known as Willowbrook State School.

Opened in 1947 as an institution for children with intellectual or developmental disabilities, Willowbrook quickly descended into something unconscionable (graphic images in that link). It had room for 4,000 patients, but by 1965, it was home to more than 6,000. Those patients lived in squalor, and many of them developed hepatitis — horrifically, some were even intentionally exposed to the virus in the name of science. Robert Kennedy visited Willowbrook and called it "a snake pit," where patients had less personal space than inmates in prison. He drafted a five-year plan for improvement, but virtually nothing changed. In the early '70s, Geraldo Rivera released a stunning exposé revealing how much further the facility had degenerated, which did lead to some — some — positive changes. Still, Willowbrook remained open for more than a decade after that, eventually shutting its doors in 1987.

As early as the 1960s, Willowbrook had a terrifying reputation to the residents of Staten Island, and the rumors of Cropsey tended to say that he was an escaped inmate. But the man that would eventually be tied to the playground horror stories wasn't one of the victims of the school. Andre Rand was one of its employees.

Man Is the Monster

Andre Rand was once a janitor at Willowbrook, and it might not surprise you to learn that the facility didn't do a great job of screening out dangerous employees. He didn't stay at Willowbrook all the way until its closing, but he never went far. For years, Rand stayed on Staten Island, even camping semi-permanently in the woods surrounding his former place of employment. In 1969, he was arrested for attempted assault of a young girl, and in 1983, he was arrested again for unlawful imprisonment — he picked up 11 children in a school bus, took them out to lunch, and drove them to Newark airport (for unknown, and luckily unrealized reasons).

While he served time for those crimes, his sentences didn't keep him from escalating. It wasn't until 1987 that officials grasped the scope of Rand's deeds. Twelve-year-old Jennifer Schweiger was reported missing on July 9, and a witness reported seeing Rand leading Schweiger away from her home by the hand. Confronted with these testimonies at trial, he confessed to that in court. 35 days after she was reported missing, Schweiger's body was discovered in a shallow grave on the grounds of Willowbrook.

Rand was never convicted of Schweiger's murder due to lack of concrete evidence, but he was put behind bars for 25 years to life for her kidnapping. But officials suspect he may have been responsible for even more atrocities. 5-year-old Alice Pereia disappeared in 1972 from the lobby of her family's apartment building — where Rand happened to be working as a painter at the time. Holly Ann Hughes was abducted in a similar way, although in her case, several eyewitnesses reported seeing Rand with the child in his car. Similarly, 11-year-old Tiahease Jackson and 21-year-old Henry Gafforio disappeared shortly after being spotted either with Rand or with a man matching Rand's description.

Of all five of these victims, only Schweiger's body was ever discovered. However, in 2004, Rand was brought to court and convicted again for the kidnapping of Holly Ann Hughes. With another 25 years tacked onto his sentence, Rand won't be eligible for parole until 2037. We might not ever know if he was guilty of all the crimes of which he was suspected, but at least for now, we can at least be sure that one boogeyman is off the streets.

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Not feeling creeped out enough yet? Pick up Jack Rosewood's "Big Book of Serial Killers" (free with your trial membership to Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 29, 2018

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