History Of Willowbrook, And The Terrifying Legend Of Cropsey

Willowbrook

Photo: New York Public Library Digital Collection. See below article for full citation.

Before the advent of Creepypastas (the name derived from cut and paste online scary stories) urban legends were told in the old-fashioned oral tradition. City dwellers who went off to camp or moved to the suburbs no doubt heard the story of “dat guy with da’ hook!” He was going to come get you. He lives in the woods. The story usually starts with some ad lib prequel setup narrative about how a guy killed his family, in grisly fashion and then was put away. Then one night, he escaped! He’s out there– waiting to “get ya.’” As most of the facilities that housed the mentally ill and developmentally challenged were built on remote rural acres, you could just insert the name of any local collection of rambling buildings run by the New York Department of Mental Hygiene into the story. “The guy wit da’ hook!” or the ax, or knife, or whatever, had no proper name in my area.

When my family moved from the Bronx up to the “country” we lived right near Harlem Valley State Hospital, so for us, the escaped maniacs of our nightmares came from there. Driving down Route 22 through Wingdale at night, you would fear that you would check your rear view mirror and “he” would be there–hiding in your backseat. This maniac also apparently had a thing for killing gas station attendants and donning their uniforms. He could pump your gas with one arm and then reach in and grab you with his other appendage. Those lucky enough to escape would find a bloody hook latched on to their wing window. The plethora of stories seemed to gain traction as more and more city kids were transplanted into the suburbs, where instead of museums and other cultural attractions, they had the local “institution” looming large on the green landscape.

Despite being New York’s smallest borough, Staten Island had more than its share of such institutions. The New York Farm Colony, as a home where the indigent could earn their keep, and Sea View hospital, a place for tuberculosis patients, were located right near Willowbrook. Acres and acres of crumbling old buildings had lots of history. Once abandoned, all sort of folks from kids out for a good time and ghost hunters invaded the grounds. The eighties were in the grips of the “Satanic Panic” and it was said that Willowbrook was where devil worshipers had black masses on makeshift altars garnered from the ruins.

The kids from Staten Island, however, had a more personal story, their local maniac had a name, “Cropsey.” They also had the depressing legacy of Willowbrook State School in their borough. In the seventies and eighties, they had a string of mysterious child murders. Staten Island hit an eerie trifecta for ingredients of a horrifying legend to take a real-life terrifying twist.

How Staten Island got that particular name for their maniac is unknown. The 1981 film, The Burning, brought Cropsey to life in a slasher film. New York filmmaker Harvey Weinstein was one of the original story writers, no doubt getting some inspiration from the campfire tales he heard as a child. In this version of the urban legend, “Cropsey” is a disfigured camp counselor, out for revenge. There may be many version of the story, but “Cropsey” seemed to belong to New York.

“Cropsey” is also the title of a brilliant documentary filmed by two Staten Islanders, http://cropseylegend.com/, who grew up hearing the legend. This award winning film documents the legend of Cropsey in the context of the convicted kidnapper Andre Rand, who worked as an orderly at Willowbrook from 1965-1966. Everyone knew something about Willowbrook State School. Opened in 1938 it served as a home for disabled children until it was used as an army hospital during World War II, After the war, it was reopened again as Willowbrook School and the population of “students” swelled to unmanageable proportions. Willowbrook was called a school, but it was nothing more than a warehouse for the developmentally disabled. Robert F. Kennedy had called Willowbrook a “snake pit” back in 1965, yet it took quite a few years to shut Willowbrook’s doors. The place was renamed the Staten Island Developmental Center in 1974 and it took ten more years for all of the patients to be discharged.

In 1972, a doctor who worked at Willowbrook, who was upset about the treatment of the patients, slipped local reporter, Geraldo Rivera, a key to the horrid institution. Geraldo snuck in, filmed what he saw there, and broadcast it for the world to see. Patients, many of whom were children, lived in filth and disease. Cutbacks in funding had left the residents of Willowbrook at the mercy of a skeleton crew of staff, many untrained, some of whom dedicated their careers to helping the disabled, and others who delighted in abusing the residents. There were also claims that experiments with hepatitis were conducted on site, resulting in infecting the patients who somehow escaped contacting the disease naturally.

Where the legend of “Cropsey” and real life diverge is in the details. The prime suspect in the murders, Andre Rand was a former employee of Willowbrook, not a patient. Municipal employers did not conduct the stringent backgrounds checks and screenings that they do today. A famous escaped convict, Willie Sutton, changed his name and had worked for years at the New York Farm Colony. Due to budget cutbacks and abysmal working conditions, just about anyone could get hired at one of these institutions. Rand’s first conviction for sexually molesting a nine-year-old girl, happened after he left employment at Willowbrook; however, one look at the drooling, bug-eyed Andre Rand outside the courthouse at his trials lets you know something wasn’t right with him.

Andre Rand’s mother had struggled with mental illness and had lived, like poet Allen Ginsberg’s mom, at the Pilgrim State Asylum. With that in mind, his taking a job at Willowbrook would make sense. Many people who experience the suffering of loved ones go into the helping professions. He had no formal training on record, and despite claims that he was a physical therapist, Rand was just an orderly. Where Rand’s story takes a really weird turn is in 1966. Rand left his job at Willowbrook but not the grounds. He set up a campsite there, and he wasn’t alone. Many more people, some who were never patients lived on the Willowbrook site and that of the nearby Sea View Hospital, and the New York Colony Farm. Once these institutions closed, former patients along with other members of the homeless population moved into the underground tunnels that connected the buildings and made camp on the grounds outside. Later some of this land would be sold to developers, and since 1993, the College of Staten Island has taken over 300 acres. Still, some abandoned buildings still stand decrepit witness, a constant reminder of the former use of the facility. Many still believe that there are hidden human remains lying underneath the weeds, trash, and bramble on the Willowbrook grounds.

What all of the Staten Island victims had in common was their innocence. The only body found in a shallow grave on the Willowbrook grounds was little 12 year old Jennifer Schweiger, a child with Downs Syndrome, whose remains were found after an exhausting 35 day search after her disappearance in 1987. Andre Rand was convicted of kidnapping Jennifer, but due to lack of physical evidence at the time, he could not be pinned to the murder. Later Rand was tied to at least three other disappearances, In 1972, 5-year-old Alice Pereira, in 1981, a 7-year-old named Holly Ann Hughes (Rand was later convicted of her kidnapping, but not her murder) , an 11-year-diabetic young girl named Tiahease Jackson, and In 1984, 21- year-old Hank Gafforio, a well known, friendly neighborhood man who had mental challenges. The young Mr. Gafforio had helped search for Holly Ann Hughes and he was caught on film during a newscast about her disappearance. Three of the bodies were never found.

The victims also deviate from the Cropsey urban legend narrative and even the Willowbrook child abuse story, as these children were never patients, nor were they scouts on a camping trip. They were snatched from their homes where they lived with loved ones, who desperately searched for them. Staten Island pulled together as a community and many are still searching for the remains of these victims so that the families can have some semblance of closure. As for Rand, he’s not talking—at least not about anything that makes sense. He has had some bizarre correspondence with the makers of the “Cropsey” documentary, law enforcement and newspapers. He sets up interviews where he’s serving time at Ossining Correctional (Sing Sing). only to refuse to see the visitors when they arrive. Many swear Andre Rand did it, as he was seen in proximity to all of the victims. Others cry in his defense that it was a convenient “frame up”. Unnamed and unlocated Satanic cult members are also thought to be suspects. Some say it might have been a former patient or group of patients who lived in the tunnels. The stories get wilder the more people weigh in on the matter. Due to the “Cropsey” connection, these crimes will be forever tied to an urban legend, though these cases of disappearing young people remain all too real for those who lived through this terrifying time. Whoever did do these crimes left lasting scars on many of the residents of Staten Island.

The whispered stories of Cropsey and the documentary of the same name, raise as many questions as they answer. How many of the homeless lived in the tunnels and surrounding grounds? Are any still there, hiding in the remaining ruins? At least one of them, Andre Rand, is known as a notorious serial killer who has actually never been convicted of murder. Would today’s advances in forensics help solve the mystery, provided more bodies can be found? How long did Andre Rand live on the grounds? Why did he change his name? Rand was born Frank Rushan. Did he act alone? Will Rand ever confess? What was his motive? Some say his experience working at Willowbrook launched him on a bizarre, twisted, crusade to stop the “suffering” of little children, particularly those with handicaps. That Rand was employed to help children and then deliberately set out to hurt them is the scariest piece of the puzzle.

The mystery surrounding the missing residents of Staten Island didn’t invent the story of “Cropsey”, it just added fuel to the horrible legend. A new updated version of “Cropsey” called “Slenderman”, a mysterious child killing monster, who lives on in Creepypasta stories all over the web and in our nightmares. He’s updated for the times—as the “escaped guy” story no longer holds credibility. “Slenderman” like “Cropsey” isn’t real–it would be wonderful if the Willowbrook School legacy of abuse and child abductions and murders weren’t either, but unfortunately, they are all too true.

Photo: Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. “Willowbrook State School” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 24, 2017. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-ca69-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

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