Urban legends are the modern version of campfire tales, updated for city living. These spooky stories, told to frighten and thrill, are almost always macabre, gory, or otherwise threatening.
And we can see this in their form. They almost always involve some sort of danger which resonates with the listener because it taps into a real and present fear.
Home invasions, your car breaking down late at night, terrible things in the sewers beneath your feet. You can almost see the torch held underneath the face as they are told to wide-eyed audiences.
Happily, these stories are also near-universally untrue. But sometimes, at the bottom of a story there is a truth. Sometimes a terrifying urban legend is actually real.
This is the story of Cropsey, the child murderer of Staten Island.
The Legend of Cropsey
Cropsey was a killer rumored to haunt Staten Island during the 1970s. The legend talks about a man who kidnapped young children after he lost his own son. This man was mentally unstable, so the story went. Out of grief, he had resorted to stealing the children of others as replacements.
Staten Island is very different to the rest of New York. Large areas of undeveloped woodland abut against the streets and houses of its occupants, and in the woods there are ruins. It can be easy to get lost in them. This was Cropsey’s hunting ground.
New Yorkers often emphasize the physical when they describe the figure of Cropsey. For example, it is said that, like a Disney film villain, Cropsey has a hook for a hand.
Some people believe that Cropsey looked horrible with scars and burns on his body and face. Such deformities are common in these urban legends, adding to the ghoulish nature of the killer.
With these descriptions it is clear that the Cropsey tale is one that grew in the telling. When something is included in a story which evokes some fundamental fear in this way, such a detail will be an embellishment, to make the story scarier.
However, remove the hook hand, the scars and the burns, and you start to approach the truth. There was a real Cropsey, and his name was Andre Rand.
Andre Rand was born some time in the 1940s. By the year 1983, Andre worked as a custodian at the Willowbrook State School of Staten Island. That year, he took out a school bus with 11 kids in it without authorization from the school and drove the bus to New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport.
While his kidnapping attempt came to nothing, it was not clear why he did it. He was given a ten-month sentence, and the kids were rescued.
Rand was never a trustworthy person to the parents of the area. Parents would see Rand randomly hanging out with the kids, although he was much older than them. He would try to befriend them, go on walks with them and even take them to the local diner for a bite.
Now, all this might seem good-natured, but his intentions were never clear, and he creeped the parents and children out to a great extent. Apart from his random kidnapping of a bus load of school children, he would also often be the last person to be seen with missing children.
However, no one could ever prove that he played a part in the kidnapping or disappearance of the kids. Many people would accuse him of kidnapping and even killing children, but there would be no proof.
The Reality behind Cropsey
It was only in the year 1987 that things would change in Staten island. That year, twelve-year-old Jennifer Schweiger would disappear.
In 1988, Andre was taken into custody for kidnapping and first-degree murder of the child. It was the first disappearance with which Rand was legally tied.
However, it was not the last one. In the same year, he would be accused of the disappearance of kids like Alice Pereira, Holly Ann Hughes, Tiahease Jackson, and Hank Gafforio.
However, he would only be charged with the kidnapping of Holly Ann Hughes. The interesting and terrifying fact about these charges is that while the Jury was able to find out that it was Rand who kidnapped the children, it could never prove that he murdered them.
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So, absent a murder conviction he was convicted of kidnapping on both counts. His sentence however reflected the extreme nature of his crimes, which would put him behind bars till 2037. He would only come out of prison if he lives to his 90s.
In truth, Rand had been known to the police for many years and had a history of crimes against children. In 1969, he served a sentence of 16 months in jail for the attempted sexual assault of a nine-year-old. That he was employed as a custodian at a school in Staten Island is a shock and unbelievable outcome after that sentence.
However, the reputation of Willowbrook State School of Staten Island at that time was also not so great. The school was meant for children who faced difficulties in learning.
However, instead of being a safe place for such kids, it has been described as a hell where the children were subjected to crimes and horrors. The children would face sexual abuse, corporal punishment and unsanitary conditions at this infamous school.
Therefore, it is a possibility that Andre Rand was involved in many more crimes against children, and the authorities of the Willowbrook State School of Staten Island were aware of his nature and disposition towards children. The public was not aware of the conditions at the school or crimes of Rand until the 1970s.
Even then, it took more than a decade to shut down the school and punish Rand and other staff of the school for the atrocities they had committed. By the time Cropsey was arrested in 1988, he had been a danger to children for decades.
The End of Cropsey
It brings reassurance to Staten Islanders that the real Cropsey is behind bars. The backwoods of Staten Island may still be unsafe for the unwary, but they do not hold a child kidnapper.
In the years since Cropsey has proved an irresistible fascination for filmmakers. Many living in the area have dug deeper into the legend and have interacted with the families that were really affected by Rand’s crimes.
As more comes to light, it has become clear that Cropsey was not just a scary story told to frighten people. Sometimes an urban legend can be very real.
Top Image: Cropsey was said to haunt the ruins in the woods of Staten Island. Source: NikonLamp / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri