An Urban Legend
We’ve got story for you. But be warned, it’s a scary one, based on a documentary we saw last week.
But don’t be too frightened. It’s just an urban legend.
He was a deeply disturbed patient at the Willowbrook Mental Institution on Staten Island. One stormy winter night he broke out of his cell and fled the state’s custody.
His name was Cropsey, and he didn’t go far. The escaped mental patient took up residence in the labyrinth of tunnels under Willowbrook. He acquired an ax, and would carry it with him on the rare occasions when he emerged to go hunting.
Hunting for children.
Every kid on Staten Island knew the story growing up. Every kid was afraid of Cropsey.
But it was just an urban legend. One of those stories your parents told you to scare you away from talking to strangers or sneaking out of the house at night. The tactic worked, but somehow you always sort of knew that Cropsey wasn’t real…until one day he was.
In 1987, a 12-year-old mentally disabled girl named Jennifer Schweiger disappeared from the streets. After months of searching, her body was found buried on the grounds of the Willowbrook Mental Institution. The very same institution Cropsey had escaped from. A city-wide manhunt turned up one Andre Rand, who would become known as the “Hannibal Lecter of Staten Island.”
Others call him Cropsey. Rand had never been a patient at Willowbrook, but he had worked as an orderly there. Conditions were deplorable, as a young reporter named Geraldo Rivera discovered when he jumped the fence in 1972 and filed a TV report filled with horrifying images of naked children, rocking back and forth and crying in the dark.
In 1987, Rand was homeless and living on the grounds of the long-shuttered Willowbrook. He was also spending time in the tunnels below. Just like Cropsey.
Opening tonight, a terrifying documentary comes to the IFC Center. It follows Rand’s trial and conviction for the kidnapping of Jennifer, and the four other mentally disabled children he allegedly murdered. But the film also questions the motives behind his conviction, the officials who believe he is innocent, and finally the nature of truth itself.
The film’s name, naturally, is Cropsey.
—J. R. S.
- — Justin Rocket Silverman