This is the story of a children’s nightmare come to life. Once, "Cropsey" was just an urban legend, the boogeyman of Staten Island, the most rural of New York City’s five boroughs. 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 abandoned ruins of the old , a former tuberculosis sanitorium.
Parents would use Cropsey to warn their children to be good. Older siblings would tell Cropsey stories at night to terrify their younger brothers and sisters. But then, in the 1970s, Cropsey came to life in the form of an actual homicidal madman who really did hunt children. His name was Andre Rand.
Rand worked as a janitor at the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, a place whose name alone can, and should, frighten both children and adults. It was an institution for mentally disabled children. In 1972, it was revealed to be a living hell. A young Geraldo Rivera made his name that year in an exposé that revealed the inside and ignited a national scandal.
Willowbrook State School was closed in 1987. In that same year, Rand was arrested in connection with the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl with Down syndrome, Jennifer Schweiger. Thanks to the loss of his job, Rand was homeless and living in a makeshift campsite on the grounds of the abandoned school, not far from the abandoned Seaview Hospital so closely tied to the Cropsey legend.
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Searchers found Jennifer’s body in a shallow grave on the desolate school grounds. Rand was charged with murder. Rand had a record of crimes against children — in 1969, Rand was arrested after attempting to rape a child, and in 1983, he kidnapped a bus full of children, even if only for an afternoon. And, by this time, police already suspected him in the disappearances of at least four other Staten Islanders going back more than a decade: Alice Pereira, 5, who disappeared in 1972; Holly Ann Hughes, 7, who disappeared in 1981; 11-year-old Tiahease Jackson who disappeared in 1983; and Hank Gafforio, 22 and mentally disabled, last seen with Rand at a diner in 1984. None of the bodies was ever discovered.
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Rand was eventually convicted of kidnapping Jennifer Schweiger, but there was not enough physical evidence to make a murder charge stick. Though he was the prime suspect in four other disappearances, there were no bodies and so no concrete evidence there, either.
Rand was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the Schweiger kidnapping. He would have been eligible for parole in 2008, but in 2004 police found new evidence in the Holly Ann Hughes case. Rand was convicted on a second kidnapping charge and given a second 25-year sentence. He will not be eligible for parole until 2037 when he will be 93 years old.
Filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio grew up on Staten Island and listened to the terrifying Cropsey stories when they were children. They followed the cases of the island’s real missing children and later the arrest of Andre Rand. They put the whole case together in a chilling documentary they called Cropsey, released in 2009. It's available to stream on Amazon.