As children, our dreams are haunted by ghoulish creatures like the boogeyman. But as we get older, we realize that those monsters aren’t actually real and the fear naturally dissipates.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the creature that haunted the dreams of the children of 1 New York City borough went by the name ‘Cropsey’. One day, however, those nightmares became real when children suddenly started to vanish…
The Urban Legend
For decades, kids around Staten Island, New York have been terrified by stories of a shady figure called Cropsey. According to the legends, Cropsey was an escaped mental patient at the Willowbrook Mental Institution on Staten Island and would snatch innocent children.
Like most urban legends, the story of Cropsey changes depending on who tells it. Some claim Cropsey has a hook for a hand that he uses to steal away kids. Some say Cropsey carries around a bloody ax, and others claim Cropsey isn’t actually a man but a demon that terrorizes the woods at night…
Just A Scary Story
The stories of Cropsey would terrify kids all around Staten Island after hearing them from older siblings or parents who would teasingly threaten that Cropsey would come for them if they didn’t go to bed. As they got older, however, they realized that Cropsey wasn’t real.
The Legend Becomes Reality
In the early 1970s, however, the parents who chose to raise their children on Staten Island became terrified when they discovered that the Cropsey stories weren’t entirely made up. To their horror, a monster was really in their midst preying on young, defenseless children…
The First Victim
In 1972, a 5-year-old little girl named Alice Pereira suddenly vanished without a trace. Police opened up an investigation and found that she had last been seen in the lobby of a building on the island and disappeared when her brother left her alone in the lobby for a second.
According to the police’s investigation, witnesses claimed to have seen the 5-year-old later at a park. No matter how long they searched, however, detectives were never able to track Alice down or find her body. They were also never able to find any concrete evidence tying their main suspect, a drifter named Andre Rand, to Alice’s disappearance…
The Main Suspect
Rand, who was born as Frank Rushan in 1944, worked on Staten Island in the mid-1960s as a custodian at Willowbrook State School, a controversial institution for disabled children. Willowbrook was open for 40 years, and before it eventually closed in 1987, people found out that patients were horribly neglected and mistreated.
Holly Ann Hughes
The case was an eye-opener for the tight-knit communities that called the island home, and to their dismay, it happened again in 1981. On July 15, 1981, 7-year-old Holly Ann Hughes was last seen buying a bar of soap from the store with a friend…
The Eye-Witness Report
When Holly never returned home, her parents called the police to report their little girl was missing. Witnesses told police they saw the drifter, Andre Rand, pull his car up beside Holly and drive off with her. However, like the case with Alice, there wasn’t enough evidence at the time to convict Rand.
Another Missing Child
In 1983, 11-year-old Tiahease Jackson’s mother sent her to the store to pick up some food. When she never returned, Tiahease’s mother called the police and reported her missing. This time, police found witnesses who claimed they saw the 11-year-old exiting the Mariner’s Harbor Motel on the island…
Gone Without A Trace
Like the other missing children, Tiahease was never seen again. Although no one witnessed Tiahease with Rand, he had just gotten out of prison for a separate offense 12 days before the 11-year-old went missing so police questioned him. Ultimately, there wasn’t enough proof to build a case and police were forced to let Rand go.
‘Cropsey’ Strikes Again
One year later in 1984, Hank Gafforio vanished and was reported missing by his parents after he failed to come home 1 night. Unlike the other missing children, Hank was 22 years old when he vanished, but his I.Q. was only in the 70s and those who knew him described him as being ‘slow’…
The Case Goes Cold
Witnesses told police that they saw Hank at a diner on Staten Island with Rand, but they were never able to find the 22-year-old. Like all the other cases, Hank’s body was never found and there was no evidence tying Rand to the crime besides a statement from a witness.
The Last Victim
Then in 1987, residents on Staten Island were rocked yet again when another little girl disappeared on July 9 of that year. This time, the victim was 12-year-old Jennifer Schweiger, who was born with Down Syndrome. According to her parents, she went out for a walk and never came back…
The Search Begins
By this time, the community was terrified of the person snatching away young, defenseless, and handicapped kids so police began a massive search party. All they knew was that Jennifer had gone out for a walk and was last seen walking with Rand, their prime suspect yet again.
Police officers and volunteers around Staten Island came together and searched the island for 35 days. On the 35th day, a retired New York City firefighter, George Kramer, was searching the woods surrounding the Willowbrook State School and stopped in his tracks when he saw what looked like a small foot peeking out from the ground…
The First Body
“When we dug it up and found a little foot there,” said Bob Devine, a volunteer who was at the scene. “It’s something that’s going to stick with you the rest of your life.” In the shallow grave, the crew uncovered the rest of a body, which belonged to Jennifer. Not far away, was Rand’s campsite where he lived in the woods.
Rand was immediately arrested and charged with Jennifer’s kidnapping and murder. Before even going to trial, the community was convinced Rand was guilty since he had been arrested in 1969 after trying to rape a young girl. He also kidnapped 11 children on a school bus in 1983 and drove them to the airport but did not harm them…
The community wanted the ‘Cropsey’ nightmare to be over, so when it came time for the trial, the jury found Rand guilty of kidnapping Jennifer. Even though the jury dismissed the murder charges since there wasn’t enough evidence, he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Still Looking For Closure
In 2008, Rand was up for parole, but 4 years before that happened, he was put on trial yet again in 2004 for the 23-year-old missing persons case of Holly Ann Hughes. This time, the prosecution had new evidence tying him to her kidnapping and was sentenced to another 25 years to life in prison. Today, Rand is still behind bars, but the bodies of the other missing kids were never found and the community hasn’t forgotten. “He terrified a whole community. He still haunts us,” said Donna Cutugno, president of a volunteer group that still searched Staten Island 2 times a year for the other missing children.