Between 1988 and 1989, Arthur Shawcross killed at least 10 women in Rochester, New York, and they were not his first victims. In a disturbing interview, Shawcross details some of his crimes while vehemently refusing to discuss others. First released under the title Interview with a Serial Killer in 2008–the same year that Shawcross died in prison–the documentary is currently on Netflix and offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a brutal serial killer, even if that glimpse has been filtered through fabrications and fantasies.
The first words that we hear Shawcross speak in the interview are, “People on the outside do not know what evil is.”
“Do you know what evil is?” the interviewer asks.
Shawcross’ reply is chilling: “Sure.”
By the time Arthur Shawcross claimed his earliest victims, he had already led a troubled life. The first of four children, Arthur Shawcross was born in Kittery, Maine to Arthur Roy Shawcross and Elizabeth Yerakes Shawcross. When he was young his family moved to Watertown, New York where—according to Shawcross—he had a difficult childhood. He alleged that his mother performed oral sex on him when he was nine and would even insert foreign objects in his rectum; during junior high school, he claimed to have had sexual relations with his sister. His testimony of being sexually abused as a child are claims that his family has vehemently denied.
He was soon considered a bully by classmates and family alike, and frequently acted out violently. By 1960, Shawcross dropped out of high school–he had failed to pass the ninth grade. Three years later, he received a probationary sentence after smashing a shop window. In 1964, he married a woman named Sarah. The couple had a son a year later, but a second arrest and probation for unlawful entry soon made their marriage untenable for Sarah. Arthur enlisted in the Army, divorced Sarah, and never saw his son again.
Three years after enlisting, Shawcross was sent into active duty in Vietnam. Before he left, he remarried, this time to a woman named Linda. In Vietnam, Shawcross took advantage of the guerilla warfare to commit heinous acts. According to his own telling, Shawcross went on secret, solo missions into the jungle where he engaged in savage acts. In the interview, he speaks frankly about beheading and cooking a Vietnamese woman and eating some of her flesh. When asked what it tasted like, he compares it to steak.
The problem is, like so much about Arthur Shawcross, we have no way of knowing if there is any truth in his gruesome–and, frankly, unlikely–war stories. In fact, according to police, he was not the “weapons specialist” that he claims, but rather a supply clerk who never actually saw combat.
Upon his return from Vietnam, Shawcross came back to Watertown and married three more times. His wives continually left him after a short period due to violent and erratic behavior; Linda divorced him because he was committing arson and burglary. We do know for certain that after his discharge from the Army, Shawcross was arrested for arson and served 22 months of a five-year sentence before being released in October of 1971.
Afterward, he returned to his hometown of Watertown. It was on May 7, 1972 that Shawcross lured his first known victim—Jack Owen Blake—into some woods in Watertown. There, he killed the 10-year-old, and four months later, eight-year-old Karen Ann Hill. Hill had been visiting Watertown with her mother for Labor Day weekend. Both children were reported to have been raped and mutilated. In the documentary, one of the officers describes finding Hill’s body, his voice choking up as he recounts that “he stuffed her mouth with dirt”.
Only a month after the murder of Hill, Shawcross was arrested. He agreed to give police the location of Blake's body and confess to the two murders in exchange for a significantly lighter sentence. Shawcross was sentenced to 25 years for the manslaughter of Karen Hill. He was released in 1987, after only 14 years, when staff assessed him as no longer dangerous. The fallacy of this assessment would soon become tragically clear.
Between 1988 and 1989, Arthur Shawcross murdered at least 11 women, many of them prostitutes that he picked up along one street in Rochester, New York, where he was living with his fourth wife. Most of them were strangled to death, and their often-mutilated bodies were dumped in the nearby Genesee River. Shawcross would also return to the bodies of his victims in order to mutilate them further.
In one case, he claims to have gone back to a decaying corpse, removed his victim’s head, and thrown it into the river. In January 1990, police discovered the body of his final victim but decided to leave it and keep surveillance on the area as they believed that this killer was one who would return to the scene. Two days later, their theory was proven correct, as a police surveillance team spotted Shawcross standing near his car, urinating on a bridge over Salmon Creek—the frozen waters of which held the body of his final victim.
On December 13, 1990, after a 13-week trial, it took a Monroe County jury just six hours of deliberation over a two-day period to convict Shawcross of 10 counts of murder. Three months later, Shawcross would plead guilty to the murder of another woman in the neighboring county of Wayne.
During his pretrial confession, Shawcross told investigators that for several years he patronized prostitutes he met in Rochester’s red-light district—even while he was married. He elaborated on his reasons for murdering the women: One bit him, one was too loud during intercourse, another tried to steal his wallet, and the fourth called him a wimp.
While in prison, Shawcross' criminal predilections continued, if in a less murderous way. Eight years after his conviction, he was sent into nine months of solitary confinement after it was discovered that Shawcross was selling his own paintings and autographs on eBay with the help of friends outside.
Over the course of Interview with a Serial Killer, we are asked to consider less why than how a man like Shawcross comes to be. How does someone kill so many people, with seemingly so little regard for their humanity? When Shawcross was ultimately arrested for his crimes, his defense attempted to mount an argument that he was not guilty by reason of insanity, but the plea was ultimately dismissed. Shawcross was found guilty on 11 counts of murder and sentenced to 250 years in prison. He died behind bars in 2008.
In Interview with a Serial Killer, Shawcross demonstrates a consistent and notable physical tic, constantly blinking and crinkling his eyes as he speaks. This, in addition to his casual tone when talking about his own atrocities, makes him difficult to read. He never denies what he did–and, indeed, at times you get the sense that he may be embellishing the details of the murders of the 12 women and his exploits in Vietnam–but he refuses absolutely any discussion of the murders of the two children in Watertown.
The documentary ends after Shawcross is reunited with a daughter that he didn’t even know he had, conceived while he was on leave from the Army, though it doesn’t mention the son that Shawcross did know about, the child that he left with his first wife when he was only 18 months old. Shawcross’ daughter and his grandchildren come to visit him in prison and send him letters. When the interviewer asks Shawcross how he would feel if something like what he did to his victims were to happen to his own daughter or her children, Shawcross says that he would be “devastated”, yet when pressed about his own crimes, he replies, “I don’t have any remorse, for some reason.”
When dealing with someone so prone to lies and exaggeration, it can be difficult to get to the truth of someone like Arthur Shawcross, even when we have the terrible evidence of his crimes in front of us. Still, maybe the truth is there in his interview, after all. In a follow-up to his question about what evil is, the interviewer asks Shawcross, “Are you evil?”
In his typically laconic way, Shawcross replies, “Somewhat.”
Featured photo: Netflix