This is the story of a nightmare come to life. Once, "Cropsey" was just an urban legend; the boogeyman of Staten Island in New York City. Cropsey was rumored to be a homicidal madman, an escaped mental patient with a hook for a hand who hunted children and dragged them back to the tunnel system that lay under the abandoned ruins of the old Seaview Hospital, a former tuberculosis sanitarium.
Parents used Cropsey to frighten their children into being good and staying near home. After all, Cropsey could be anywhere, waiting to strike. Older siblings would tell Cropsey stories at night to terrify their younger brothers and sisters. As if that wasn’t enough, one summer camp variation on the tale of Cropsey inspired a 1981 slasher movie, The Burning. The cult classic is surprisingly faithful to the tale that Staten Island scouts once swapped over toasted marshmallows. It features a once-respectable man named George Cropsey, who goes insane after a prank gone wrong leaves him disfigured and begins killing unsuspecting summer campers with an axe.
But then, in the 1980s, the children of Staten Island had even more reason to fear their local boogeyman. Cropsey had come to life in the form of an actual homicidal madman who really did hunt children. Soon, the urban legend would be unmasked as Andre Rand.
Rand worked as a janitor at the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, a place whose name alone has the power to frighten adults and children alike. The institution, built as a respite for children with intellectual disabilities, was revealed to be a living hell in the 1970s–although authorities wouldn't close the school until 1987.
The children there had been subjected to rampant sexual abuse and corporal punishment, and severe overcrowding led to unsanitary conditions. It was also home to what has been called one of the most unethical medical experiments on children in the United States: In the name of hepatitis research, medical staff intentionally injected healthy children with the virus, many of whom became severely ill as a result.
The public wasn’t aware of the conditions inside the school, given that many of the children inside had sadly been abandoned by their parents and the foster care system, leading to little accountability. In 1972, a young Geraldo Rivera published an exposé that revealed the horrific conditions inside the Willowbrook State School and ignited a national scandal. The school was officially closed 15 years later, and the negative publicity contributed to the successful passage of federal civil rights legislation that protects the mentally disabled and other people who have been institutionalized.
That same year, Andre Rand, former janitor of the school of horrors, was arrested in connection with the disappearance of Jennifer Schweiger, a 12-year-old girl with Down syndrome. At the time, Rand was homeless and living in a makeshift campsite on the grounds of the abandoned school, not far from the ruinous Seaview Hospital that was so closely tied to the Cropsey legend.
Over a month after her disappearance, searchers found Jennifer’s body in a shallow grave on the desolate school grounds where the drifter was living. Rand was charged with murder.
By that time, Rand already had a long rap sheet of crimes against children. In 1969, he was sentenced to 16 months in jail for the attempted sexual assault of a nine-year-old. In 1983, he went to jail again after kidnapping a bus full of children from the local YMCA and driving them to an airport. And though there wasn’t enough physical evidence to charge him, police already suspected him in the disappearances of at least four other Staten Islanders going back more than a decade: Alice Pereira, five, who disappeared in 1972; Holly Ann Hughes, seven, who disappeared in 1981 and was last spotted with Rand on the day of her disappearance; 11-year-old Tiahease Jackson who disappeared in 1983; and Hank Gafforio, a mentally disabled 22 year-old who was last seen with Rand at a diner in 1984. To this day, none of the bodies have been found.
The jury for Rand’s case could not reach a verdict on the murder charge, as there was not enough physical evidence of his direct involvement in Jennifer’s death. However, they found him guilty of kidnapping, for which Rand received a sentence of 25 years in prison.
Rand would have been eligible for parole in 2008, but in 2004, new evidence came to light linking him to the disappearance of Holly Ann Hughes. A fellow inmate took notes of conversations he had with Rand in which the latter described in detail his abduction of the girl. Rand was convicted on a second kidnapping charge and given another 25-year sentence. He will not be eligible for parole until 2037, when he will be 93 years old.
Rand's story–and that of Cropsey–continues to fascinate and horrify tri-state residents to this day. Filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio grew up on Staten Island and listened to the terrifying Cropsey stories when they were children. As adults, their curiosity led them to dig deeper into the urban legend of Cropsey and the real cases of the island’s missing children. Their chilling documentary, Cropsey, explores the bizarre case of the boogeyman who seemed to come to life.
The film includes interviews with people pivotal to the story, such as friends and family members of the victims and the detectives who tried to solve the mystery of what happened to the children who mysteriously vanished. It also explores the question of Rand’s guilt and the prejudices of society: In absence of hard evidence tying Rand to foul play, could it be that he was arrested simply because he was socially marginalized and had a prior record? His connection to the Willowbrook State School certainly didn’t portray him in a good light, as the name alone provoked fear and suspicion that he could have taken part in some of the horrific abuse that went on there.
While the person who took Jennifer Schweiger’s life probably wasn’t an axe-wielding maniac with a hook for a hand, her death and the disappearances of four other vulnerable young people were very real. Naive children may have believed in the gruesome tales their older siblings peddled, but Staten Islanders were truly shocked that something so horrific could happen in their communities. The tale of this Staten Island maniac is a reminder that there are all-too-real boogeymen lurking among us.