Most of us probably grew up with local urban legends, those stories that we loved to tell around a campfire or underneath a blanket that scared us all. Probably everyone has a local rendition of “The Hook.” My local urban legend was “The Paint Lick Tunnel” and the mysterious killer who would decapitate unfortunate drivers who became stranded in the tunnel when their cars broke down. In Staten Island, New York, the local urban legend is known as Cropsey, a mysterious killer who, according to the person telling the story, variously used an axe to chop up his victims, a machete-type knife, or some other sharp implement with which to dispatch his prey. But what if the urban legend you grew up listening about ended up being real? This is the story of just such an occurrence.
Filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman grew up in Staten Island and were quite familiar with the legends surrounding Cropsey. They were used to stories of a mysterious killer, possibly part of a Satanic cult, that inhabited the woods around Staten Island and prowled the grounds of the infamous children’s psychiatric hospital that had been closed in the 1980’s. But in 1987, a young girl with Down Syndrome went missing. Following a frantic search and the eventual recovery of her decomposing body, a local character, Andre Rand, was subsequently accused, tried and convicted of her murder.
Now, Rand had long been a resident of Staten Island and had even worked at the children’s psychiatric hospital made notorious by a young Geraldo Rivera and his televised exposure of the nightmare world within the walls of the hospital. Even after the hospital was shut down, Rand continued to live in and around the grounds, both inside the decaying buildings as well as in the thickets of woods that surrounded the hospital. The victim, Jennifer Schweiger, was mentally handicapped and easy prey for a killer on the prowl. Not surprisingly, her body was found near a site known to be frequented by Rand. But while this case was tragic in and of itself, the tragedy was magnified by the revelation that several other children over a span of 15 years had all gone missing, never to be seen again. In most cases, they were all mentally handicapped. While Rand never confessed and the case was mostly circumstantial, it was fairly easy for a jury to connect the dots and put him away for the murder of Jennifer Schweiger, if not for the others.
This documentary explores the urban legend of Cropsey and the many fascinating parallels the tale has with Andre Rand. Was the legend of Cropsey indeed based on actual fact? If so, was Andre Rand the basis for this legend? Had he, in fact, been stalking the grounds of the old hospital and surrounding woods for nearly two decades, preying on the most helpless of children? Was Andre Rand the legendary Cropsey so many Staten Islanders had grown up hearing about, or just an unfortunate, if off-kilter, local character used as a scapegoat?
The film spends a good deal of time investigating the Jennifer Schweiger case in particular and the possibility that Rand actually committed the murder. Along the way, the other murders are connected to that case and the possibility is explored that Rand committed them all…or maybe none of them. The killings began in the early 1970’s, and Satanic cults were all the rage. Many books were written and dozens of articles appeared in newspapers and magazines across the U.S. exploring the possibility of these cults and their purported practices, including human sacrifice. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s many rumors abounded about these cults, and many people believed that these children were actually victims used in sacrificial rituals by a coven of Satanists. Some still believe that Rand was merely a scapegoat to cover up this unholy activity, while others believe he was connected to the cult, either supplying them with victims, or leading the rituals himself. Since Rand has been imprisoned, he has been infuriatingly silent on the entire matter.
A large section of the film deals with the 2004 trial of Rand—who was soon slated to be paroled for Jennifer’s killing—for the murder of another child during that same time period. Even in the 21st century, Staten Islanders are both passionate and divided on the subject, with some believing Rand acted alone while others believe he was part of a larger cult conspiracy. Still others believe he is innocent of all charges. The second part of the film tracks the building of the second case against Rand and his subsequent trial. Along the way, plenty of locals are interviewed, including families of the missing children, people who helped search for these children–and in some cases continue that search–retired police detectives who worked on the original cases, and lawyers for both sides. The film also documents the oft-times frustrating communication the filmmakers have with Rand through letters as well as through a failed visit to Rikers.
The documentary itself is both well-made and genuinely interesting. The pain the parents still feel even after three or four decades and the pain the public still feels is palpable. The film is well-balanced and while never giving the viewer a definitive answer as to the culpability of Andre Rand, it allows both sides of the story to be told and the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions. Featuring a simple but very creepy and highly effective score, Cropsey is a fascinating journey through the myths and legends—or realities, as the case may be–of one American town and its urban legend.