The First Victim
The Genesee River Gorge outside Rochester, New York, is a scenic vacation and recreation spot that features three picturesque waterfalls along the Genesee River. The area offers activities for hikers and picnickers, as well as people out fishing and hunting. Twenty-two miles long and fairly deep, the Gorge is touted as the “Grand Canyon of the East.” No one ever thought about murder there. At least, not until 1988.
It was a hunter and his companions at Salmon Creek along Route 31 who came across a sight that they would never forget. It was nearing the end of winter on March 24 and the ice had broken over the water. Rising to the surface and covered in silt was the body of a dead woman, clad in jeans and a sweatshirt. At first they thought she was a discarded mannequin, but one look at her frozen face told them otherwise.
The men called the authorities and they brought the corpse out of the water. It was clear right away from serious bruises that this woman had been beaten, but they allowed the medical examiner, Nick Forbes, to complete a full examination and autopsy before making a final judgment. He noted that she had been strangled. Vaginal trauma, surrounded by teeth marks, was clear as well, although this might as easily have occurred after death as before. She appeared to have been viciously kicked in the groin. Though she’d been in water, she had not drowned. There was no water in her lungs, so her killer had dumped her there after she died.
It wasn’t long before she was identified as Dorothy “Dotsie” Blackburn, 27, a regular on prostitute row along Rochester’s seedy Lyell Avenue, and the mother of three. Her sister had filed a missing person report on March 18, and it was she who identified the body.
Dr. Forbes determined that Blackburn’s wounds had been made by a blunt object, but could not identify just what had made the patterned indentation, about two inches wide, across her chest. It had left a mark but had not broken the skin. He took photographs and made a note of what he saw but did not otherwise comment.
Prostitute murders were not unusual, and this woman had been a cocaine addict with a debt. A disgruntled john, a cheated pusher, an angry pimp—almost anyone could have done this, and without physical evidence it would be difficult to link this victim with a killer, let alone prosecute that person. Prostitution was a high-risk occupation with a low risk of discovery for whoever decided to target such women for murder. The Rochester police examined the shooting and knifing murders of two other prostitutes in the area, but spotted nothing to link them. They made a file for Dotsie and put it away.
A year passed and the case faded. Then they started finding other dead women.
The Dumping Ground
Many people were involved in this case and have written about it or produced it in various forms. Not all of the accounts agree on the details, so those who had firsthand involvement are accorded more credibility than those who received documents. Gregg McCrary was called into it from the FBI as a behavioral profiler, while former FBI special agent Robert Ressler evaluated certain aspects of it. Dorothy Lewis and Joel Norris were both invited into the case, and both addressed their participation in separate books, while Mark Olshaker made an award-winning film production for NOVA. Jack Olsen, a true crime writer, added his own rendition with The Misbegotten Son, the longest account of the case ever produced and including detailed comments from many participants.
Nothing much happened during successive months after the discovery of Dorothy Blackburn and her murder remained unsolved. Several more prostitutes were killed during the summer of 1989, although none of the cases seemed clearly linked to one another and none seemed unusual. One woman had been dumped along the roadway on an exit ramp, another shot, and a third one killed by a car in a way that looked suspicious.
Then the police had reason to sit up and take notice. On September 9, a man looking for empty bottles to sell came across another set of remains. He spotted a bone sticking up and believed it was from a dead deer, but upon closer inspection saw a pile of clothing, so he knew what he’d found and he reported it.
This woman had apparently floated upriver, as Joel Norris describes it, until construction debris had snagged her in place. No one had seen her there, and she had decomposed quite a bit, making it difficult for Dr. Forbes to offer a cause of death, although he listed it as probable asphyxia. There were no knife or gunshot wounds evident in the bones. But who was she?
According to Jack Olsen in The Misbegotten Son, the police found 138 possible match-ups for identity purposes from reports of missing women, but all were eventually eliminated. Unable to identify her or to find someone like her as being reported missing from the area, the police hired William Rodriguez III, a forensic anthropologist; to use the victim’s skull to reconstruct what her face had looked like. It is a long, involved process to provide a distinct face from bone, but he produced a clay bust and added a wig and fake eyeballs, and they took a photograph of the final product and published it in local papers. The victim’s distraught father identified her as Anna Steffen, and dental records confirmed it. The man believed a drug dealer or pimp had killed her.
Her body had been discovered far away from where Blackburn’s had been found, so while their manner of death and disposal may have been similar, no one was talking about a multiple killer.
On Saturday, October 21, six weeks later, three sportsmen from Pennsylvania went into the Gorge and came across the remains of a decomposing headless corpse, mostly bones, hidden in tall grass along the riverbank. Her neck was broken and the cause of her death was difficult to determine, but it seemed to have been done by blunt impact with something.
As her remains were collected, Norris writes, nobody realized that the killer was standing nearby, watching. He appeared to be just an ordinary fisherman, someone who frequented the area, so no one gave him a thought.
Olsen says that an employee of a county jail read about the discovery and reported that a homeless woman named Dorothy Keeler, age 60, had not been seen in some time. Again the remains were given to the anthropologist and the identity was made.
Six days after that one, nearing Halloween, a boy retrieving a ball saw a foot sticking out from beneath a pile of debris and cardboard near a YMCA that was not far from the Gorge. He summoned the police, who uncovered a decomposing, maggot-infested corpse, dressed in black pants and a sweater. The dead woman turned out to be Patty Ives, a once-pretty Lyell Avenue prostitute whose loss made her pimp cry. He was not a viable suspect.
That made four apparently dead by asphyxia, with three in quick succession. The press began to write about “the Rochester Strangler” and “the Genesee River Killer.” Some of these women had been concealed beneath something, and a cop suspected the killer might be afraid of air patrols, which indicated either criminal or military experience. The pressure was on now to stop this person. It was suggested, from lack of struggle on the part of the victims, that this strangler killed quickly and that he was probably quite strong. He appeared to strangle these women without much effort.
Since he was targeting mainly prostitutes, the vice cops went around talking to some of the women whom they knew were in the same trade. “When these killings started,” Lt. James Bonnell is quoted as saying in The Misbegotten Son, “we figured we’re gonna need the cooperation of every prostitute.”
On average, around 35 women worked the area at any given time, though many came and went. The police sat in unmarked cars, watching them and allowing them to ply their trade. They wondered about the transvestite, a rather striking man dressed as a woman, who seemed to get the most action, but there was nothing overtly suspicious about him. The women were tentative about this unusual arrangement, not altogether trustful that the police watching them wouldn’t just bust them. Neither side was used to working with the other. Yet they also felt safer.
The cops knew that several of these women were streetwise and tough, and if the strangler got near one of them, he’d be the worse for it. They’d spot the guy, everyone was certain about that. June Cicero had her own moves, for example, and she’d be likely to maim anyone she suspected of even the slightest bad intent. In fact, she would not even walk up to a car she did not know. She probably had an instinct for bad eggs.
Another prostitute, a hefty older female who went by the name Jo Ann Van Nostrand, told them about a john named “Mitch,” that she’d been with one night that had seemed potentially violent. He was strange, too, she added. He had mentioned the strangler, had taken her pretty far afield, and had wanted her to pretend she was dead.
“He was real nervous,” she said later on The Mind of a Serial Killer, “and that made me nervous. Little things kept clicking and the hairs on the back of my neck started standing up.” She’d brought out her knife and told him she’d use it. He did not seem upset about that and even admired her for it, though she was sure that he’d tried reaching for her throat several times. He wanted to see her again, but she avoided him.
The word spread among the women to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior in men who approached them. They were nervous, but not so much that they didn’t still get into cars with johns. They told the cops repeatedly about a suspicious “gray van” that roved the area, but the driver of one that they stopped turned out to be an ordinary guy. Leads came in every day, but none provided a constructive direction.
Other prostitutes were soon missing, like blond Maria Welch, who resembled Patty Ives in build. Then a petite blonde was discovered dumped in the Gorge, down a steep slope, wearing only a pair of boots. Her cause of death was asphyxia, and bruises on the body indicated that she’d been beaten. Everyone assumed this victim was Maria, but they were wrong. Her name was Frances Brown. She’d been out with someone named “Mike.”
A few johns were questioned but none panned out. Some of the early victims were traced to their killers but most of the cases remained unsolved. The police thought they had a series of six to eight women who had been killed by the same man. Checking files of sexual predators who’d been paroled from upper New York prisons, they found nothing to indicate that they had one in the area.
Then an older man whose twenty-six-year-old girlfriend had been missing for eighteen days decided to report her. She had mental problems and sometimes just stayed away. Yet he had not heard from her in far too long. He had taught her to stay out of strangers’ cars, so he did not believe that she had fallen victim to anyone, but he was worried. Since she wasn’t a prostitute, the police did not believe she was vulnerable to this phantom killer. They took down the information about the missing June Stott and spread it around among the patrol officers. But their primary concern was the next potential victim of the strangler.
On November 15, Kimberly Logan, a black prostitute from the Lyell Avenue area, was discovered dead beneath a pile of leaves in someone’s yard. She’d been battered and kicked in the abdomen. Oddly, the medical examiner found leaves stuffed down her throat. While she had not been found near the Gorge or its general locales, her file was added to the growing pile of other unsolved murders of the area’s women of the night.
Eight days later, on Thanksgiving, Mark Stetzel was out walking his dog to burn off the heavy meal. He went into a marshy area near the industrial piers. The dog ran off down a trail, so he followed and came to a clearing where he spotted a piece of stiff carpeting, iced over. Walking closer, he saw a bare foot beneath it, so he left to call the police.
It was a raw day, hinting at snow, and most of the evidence technicians and investigation team members were home with their families, having turkey dinner. Yet they all responded to the call and went out to see this new discovery. So did first assistant district attorney Chuck Siragusa. If they had a genuine serial killer in the area, he wanted to stay on top of these cases. As Captain Lynde Johnston commented, they were falling like hail.
The woman, who had been preserved somewhat by the cold weather and the covering, lay facedown. Spots on her skin suggested decomposition, so she had been killed earlier, by as much as two or three weeks, but that would be for Nick Forbes to tell them. A considerable amount of blood had settled into her back, which meant that she had been lying on her back after death for a period of time, and now here she was on her face. Someone had come and turned her over. Her position suggested that she’d been anally penetrated after death. She’d also been strangled, but that wasn’t all. When they turned her over, they saw that some time after she had died, she’d been cut from the top of the chest between her breasts all the way into the vaginal area, like a gutted deer. Upon close inspection, it looked as if the vaginal lips had been removed. This killer had returned for some perverted pleasure. Yet the analysis at the morgue indicated that there was no semen in or on the body. In the weeds, the techs found a knife and a bloody towel, but there would be no fingerprints. As usual, there was very little physical evidence.
The victim was soon identified as the missing June Stott. As far as anyone knew, she was not a prostitute and had never taken drugs. That made investigators wonder whether this homicide was part of the series or something new. She had also been found seven miles down river from the other dumpsites. Did they have several killers on their hands, or was one killer just dumping bodies all over the place? This victim had been covered, like some of the others, and asphyxiated.
Beyond frustration, Capt. Johnston decided to call the FBI. He now had 11 unsolved cases of prostitute murders in and around Rochester in a year’s time. Since the average per year was three or four, he knew they had a real problem. As yet, no one had found a good lead.
The Unknown Darkness, by
Gregg McCrary with Katherine
Gregg McCrary with Katherine
He was put through to Special Agent Gregg McCrary of the Behavioral Science Unit, who listened to his descriptions of the rash of murders since the spring of the previous year and agreed they might have a serial killer operating in the area. McCrary, who documents the investigation from a behavioral perspective in The Unknown Darkness: Profiling the Predators Among Us, invited New York State Trooper Lieutenant Ed Grant, a graduate of the FBI’s training program in criminal investigative analysis, to join him in Rochester. Two heads were better than one.
Yet before they even arrived, a hunter found the body of Elizabeth Gibson, a prostitute, on November 27 in a swamp in a neighboring county. She had been strangled. What linked her to the others was a witness.
Jo Ann Van Nostrand had happened to see “Mitch” the day before with a prostitute whom she recognized—Elizabeth Gibson. A news flash that day on television told her the woman had been found murdered. She went directly to the police to tell them about Mitch. They took her to the station, but Jo Ann did not know “Mitch’s” real name or where he worked. Still, Officer Leonard Borriello believed that she had given them a solid lead. At the very least, they knew how the guy operated and what kind of car he drove. What they did not know is that he would change cars and remain in the shadows.
McCrary and Grant arrived on December 13, a couple of weeks after the discovery of June Stott, and asked to see the various crime scenes. Starting with Lyell Avenue, the presumed pick-up point for most of the victims, and then going out to the YMCA area and the canyon, they observed anything that might provide a means for better analysis. Then they went to the “war room” where the files of every murder of women in the area were piled on a conference table. To establish a series of linked crimes, they would have to go through the autopsy reports, crime scene photos, witness statements and everything else the police had gathered on each and every case.
“The goal of the first day,” McCrary writes, “was to get a preliminary determination of a pattern we didn’t yet know. For any case like this, it’s a filtering process. We look at it in phases of refinement. We’d read a case and then keep going back to cases we’d already been through to compare details and do more analysis based on what we were learning.”
They placed the files in the order in which the women had been killed and established three rings, based on their manner of death and their lifestyle when alive. One ring was for those cases clearly in the series—asphyxiated prostitutes dumped in or around the Gorge. Then there was a ring for those that appeared to have some similarities, and finally, those cases that seemed unrelated, which were put aside. They saw a definite pattern emerging for seven of the cases, with a few remaining unclear.
The victim who most bothered them was June Stott. She’d been asphyxiated, but she had also suffered from postmortem mutilation in a way that none of the other women had. “It could mean she did not belong to the series and had not been killed by the same man as the others,” McCrary explains, “or it could mean a change in the killer’s behavior. Perhaps he was getting used to bodies and coming back to abuse them.”
It was clear to the profilers that the killer had not taken the victims far, only a few miles from Lyell Avenue. They saw that as a clue to the areas with which he was most familiar and most comfortable. It also meant he had a vehicle of some kind to transport them, because the dumpsites had all been too far to walk to. If he was familiar with the place, he either jogged there, or he fished or hunted.
It was also clear that he was someone with whom the women were comfortable. They appeared to have gotten into the car with him, without being afraid, despite the fact that a killer was in the area picking up prostitutes. It was likely that he was a known customer, and since most of the victims had been white—perhaps all of them—he was probably white as well.
“They were looking right through him,” says McCrary, “because they believed the killer had to be someone else.”
The fact that no overt sexual assault had occurred with any of the women indicated that this man might have trouble completing the sexual act. It could be that those women who had ended up brutalized and killed had ridiculed his impotence.
When they decided to include June Stott in the series, they took a closer look. The fact that she had been cut open indicated to them that the killer was experienced, probably with killing and cutting up game. He was comfortable with bodies. They believed that he would continue to visit his victims, as long as he was sure he could do so without getting caught, and he would continue to mutilate them.
Grant and McCrary then presented the results of their analysis to the task force.
From the behavioral evidence available from the crime scene, they told the task force that the killer was most likely a white male in his late twenties or early thirties. They cautioned everyone not to eliminate a suspect from any detail in a profile, since this was an art and they could easily be wrong. The task force should use this merely as a guide. They did believe that guy had criminal experience, especially sexual offenses, and would have a record somewhere, even though every effort had been made to find one. In addition, he worked alone, he was probably a sportsman, and he was likely personable. There was nothing noticeable about him, and he probably worked right under everyone’s nose. He’d look normal, drive a basic car, and dress in functional clothing.
“The killer was extraordinarily ordinary, probably someone they knew,” McCrary writes.
It was likely that he worked, but at a menial job, and he was probably married or had a girlfriend. His economic level was similar to that of the victims, he lived and worked in the city, and he was streetwise, which again indicated experience. They thought he worked or lived near the Lyell Avenue area, and concealing the victims from helicopter searches overhead showed a certain degree of cunning.
Based on this set of details, they offered some strategies. They believed that the cops knew him in some capacity and that he might be hanging out in coffee shops or bars. They could look around and get some names. They might also put surveillance on any body found in the future, since the killer had started to return to his kills.
McCrary says that the cops persuaded the owner of Mark’s Texas Red Hot, an all-night bar, to raffle off a television set. From that “contest,” they were able to collect a good list of names of people who frequented the place.
At the same time, from a computer search with the criteria, a suspect was developed, according to Olsen—a 38-year-old sex offender who drove a gray van, was known for kinky practices, and was seen on Lyell Avenue several times. Everyone on the task force believed they had their man, but a check with his employer turned up alibis for the times of most of the murders, so they were back to square one.
Then in the weeks before New Year’s, several more women turned up missing, and one of them was someone everyone had felt certain would never fall victim to a killer.
The Heat Is On
June Cicero was one of the most streetwise hookers in Rochester, and Darlene Trippi had partnered with Jo Ann Van Nostrand for safety. Of late, both had not been seen by anyone. In fact, just before she had disappeared, June Cicero had bragged to the cops about how she wasn’t afraid of the man. It was he who ought to be afraid of her. They had believed her.
So now there were those two, a black prostitute named Felicia Stephens, and the long-missing Maria Welch. It was time to get some ‘copters up in the air to search for likely dumpsites for them.
On December 31, the morning of New Year’s Eve, a trooper on road patrol in a rural area outside Rochester spotted a pair of black jeans discarded and frozen along the roadside. He stopped to investigate and went through the pockets. He found an identification card with the name of Felicia Stephens. With this discovery, everyone assumed that she was dead. It was also clear, since the jeans had been found not far from Salmon Creek, that the killer was returning to former dumping grounds. Then Stephens’ boots were found in separate areas. She could not get along in the freezing temperatures without those.
Yet a thorough search was nearly impossible at that time of year, even with search dogs. Everything was under snow or frozen over, and trying to walk out on the water proved treacherous. Four missing women, and no one had found a body. It was frustrating. This guy was now getting away with something like one killing a week and even after hundreds of hours of surveillance and detective work, they could not stop him. Would he keep up the pace? Get worse? Make any mistakes?
Nothing happened on New Year’s Day, but the next day, January 2, 1990, the State Police resumed the search for a body by air and ground. When winds came up from Lake Ontario, making it impossible to see in the blowing snow, they had to abort it. But the following morning, they were at it again.
Yet after hours spent covering the same ditches, canals, and creeks, the search was beginning to seem futile. They had looked everywhere. Wherever these women were, they were likely under snow. No one was going to find them until after a thaw.
Then one team took off from Northampton Park for a final flight along Highway 31, where the clothing had been found, and back toward the city. Almost two years earlier, the first of eight victims had been discovered there, so they decided to have one last go.
They flew low over Salmon Creek, scanning back and forth, alert for anything unusual. Suddenly they saw something near a bridge. They flew closer and saw what appeared to be a human figure lying splayed out and facedown on the surface of the ice. She was wearing a white top, like Felicia Stephens was reported to have worn when last seen, but nothing else.
They hovered for a closer look and made out a female with darkish skin but not black. It could not be Felicia Stephens, but they had three other missing women, so this could be one of them. But then they noticed a Chevy Celebrity on the bridge, so they radioed to patrol units on the ground to check it out. A large overweight man was there and he appeared to be urinating. Then he got into his car and drove away.
On the documentary, The Mind of a Serial Killer, the footage of the body from overhead is striking. From all appearances, it could have only been one of the missing women—the tough, streetwise prostitute, June Cicero, who was rumored to avoid all cars she did not know well. Indeed, it turned out to be her. She had accepted one final trick for the night on the last evening she’d spoken with the cops, and it had turned out to be a fatal mistake. She had been asphyxiated by strangulation and then mutilated postmortem. Her genital area had been sawed clean through, probably while she was frozen.
Now the investigators had to learn who this man was who had been on the bridge and find out what he had to say for himself. Perhaps he’d seen something that would help.
On a Tightrope
Patrol units were hot on the trail of the man in the Celebrity, and the helicopter team followed. They watched as the car pull into a municipal parking lot across the street from the Wedgewood Nursing Home in Spencerport. The driver went into the nursing home, and a check on the licenses plate number revealed that that car belonged to a woman named Clara Neal. The troopers took over while the helicopter team returned to protect the crime scene. They saw that there were fresh footprints in the snow. Those would be good evidence. They roped everything off and called for more support.
State Police Officer John Standing asked the man in the Celebrity for an ID, and he produced it. His name was Arthur John Shawcross, 44 (though with his graying hair he looked much older), and he said he thought that they’d followed him because he’d urinated out in the woods. That was his story, anyway, and he agreed to cooperate. When asked for his driver’s license, he admitted he did not have one and then revealed that he had been in jail for manslaughter.
That revelation struck everyone at once. This was no ordinary citizen who’d happened to get close to a crime scene. This was a one-time killer. The profilers had told them that this offender was returning to his victims, and that could very well be what they’d caught him doing. Just by a sheer stroke of luck, they had flown over the scene at the very time he’d decided to have another look at his brutal handiwork—have lunch over it, in fact.
Yet they weren’t sure yet that they had the right guy. They had to be careful. Interrogators often make mistakes by showing their eagerness and trying to rush someone into a confession. They had spent too many hours on this case to blow it right here and now.
Arthur Shawcross, mugshot (Corbis)
Investigator Dennis Blythe managed to persuade Shawcross to accompany him to the State Police Barracks for further questioning. Shawcross was happy to oblige and even signed forms that gave the troopers permission to search the car and his home. The police then took both him and Clara Neal (in a different car) to Brockport.
An experienced interrogator, Charlie Militello, assisted Blythe with the questioning and they soon got Shawcross to describe the places where he liked to fish—most of them where victims had been dumped.
He also admitted that he’d been arrested sixteen years earlier in Watertown because “two kids died.” He would not elaborate on these crimes.
He insisted it was just a coincidence that he was parked over the body on Salmon Creek, that he was just driving around and had stopped to take a piss when the helicopter flew over. He hadn’t seen anything.
Though excited by what they heard and by the feeling they finally had the killer right in front of them, the investigators continued to build rapport rather than press for details. They wanted him to feel comfortable talking with them because they intended to question him again and they wanted it to be voluntary. They had him in the interrogation room for about five hours, taking Clara home before they released him. He did finally tell them more details about how he had killed the children, raping the little girl anally before he’d strangled her. Everyone was disgusted but they tried not to show their feelings. Shawcross also told them how he’d had sexual relations with his younger sister, and he thought that had something to do with why he had assaulted a child, as well as why he had killed so many people in Vietnam. He liked to talk about his “accomplishments” there. He’d been quite the soldier.
While he was being questioned, a “profile expert” (characterized thus by Jack Olsen but never named) advised them that a pedophile would not change his victim type to adult women. However, that “profile expert” was neither Ed Grant nor Gregg McCrary, who knew that some killers just go for victims of opportunity who are vulnerable. Shawcross had been in prison for fifteen years. He could have developed fantasies along different lines, or he might have learned that communities that get outraged over child murders might not care as much about prostitutes. Not all serial killers choose the same victim type. That’s an erroneous notion passed around in the circles of academic psychology.
That Shawcross had self-serving explanations for everything he did was soon evident, and the officers fully expected that if he confessed to the recent spate of killings, he would have reasons for them as well that served his own purposes.
Before they released him, they asked to take his photograph, and Shawcross allowed it.
Investigators put it into a photo spread and brought it to several of the prostitutes working Lyell Avenue. One was Jo Ann Van Nostrand, who had told the police about “Mitch,” the john who’d wanted her to pretend she was dead. She immediately identified him. “That’s the guy!”
Now she knew for sure that she’d come close to being killed. He’d reached for her throat several times during their encounter, but she had blocked him. She also indicated that Shawcross was the john with whom Elizabeth Gibson, another victim, had last been seen. Several other prostitutes identified him as well. They all knew him as a regular customer who’d never been a problem.
The Tale Unfolds
The task force quickly developed Shawcross’s background. Before talking with him again, they wanted the facts. They also wanted to know how a sex offender who’d been imprisoned for manslaughter and pedophilia had been released into their area without anyone finding the records. This last part was on everyone’s minds, since they had done a thorough search several times. They were stunned when they discovered the truth.
Shawcross had admitted to several crimes in Watertown, New York, an old factory town located on the Black River off Lake Ontario. It was the place where he’d grown up. He’d dropped out of school at the beginning of the ninth grade—at age 19. He’d then enlisted in the Army and served a tour in Vietnam, where he claimed he’d been exposed to many traumatic events and had become something of a one-man army. He had married three times, and was now on his fourth wife. Through the years, Shawcross had accumulated criminal offenses for burglary, but his violence had eventually escalated as a young man into arson. Then he’d started to kill.
Jack Black, victim
His first victim, in May 1972, was 10-year-old Jack Blake. He had disappeared near the apartments where Shawcross lived. Jack’s mother had an instinct about Shawcross, then 27, who had taken Jack and his older brother fishing a few days before. When she confronted him, he offered several conflicting stories. That seemed suspicious, but with no body and no evidence, the cops could do nothing. Searches for the boy turned up nothing.
Shawcross said to his interrogators that the boy had pestered him, so he’d hit him and had accidentally killed him. This story would eventually change.
Karen Ann Hill, victim
Four months later, eight-year-old Karen Ann Hill was visiting Watertown with her mother, Helene, and she disappeared. Her body was found under a bridge that crossed the Black River. She’d been raped and murdered. Oddly, mud, leaves and other debris had been forced down her throat and inside her clothing. Shawcross, who often fished under the bridge, was a suspect. Detective Charles Kubinski of the Watertown Police Department knew him. With persistence and skill, he eventually got Shawcross to confess to the crime. He also gathered enough information about Jack Blake that the police were finally able to locate the boy’s body. Due to its advanced state of decomposition, it was unclear whether Jack had been sexually assaulted, but like Karen Ann, he’d been asphyxiated. Shawcross had admitted to having sex with the girl, and forcing himself on her while she screamed.
For these crimes, he had gone to prison. Then he was considered for early release. He’d been a model prisoner, so he was evaluated for risk of repeating his crimes. His evaluators wrote positive things about him, believing that he would be a safe and contributing member of society. Yet a senior parole officer in the Binghamton area wrote that Shawcross “was possibly the most dangerous individual to have been released to this community in many years.” They tried to settle him in Binghamton, but angry citizens discovered this and resisted. So they covered up his trail and made his file inaccessible (even to other police departments), settling him in Rochester with his wife.
During the flurry of publicity that targeted them in the weeks to come, they defended their decisions by saying that he’d have been released the following year anyway. A year was insignificant. Yet it was a year that had resulted in a lot of deaths.
Two months after coming to Rochester, Shawcross had a job packing salads for a catering company, and when that didn’t work, he got another one. He used his free time to develop a relationship on the side with Clara Neal, and often borrowed her car to go off on his own.
When officers asked Clara to show them where they often went for a lovers’ rendezvous, each place was significant: they were all areas where bodies had been dumped.
No one could quite believe that the parole board had released this killer and that they’d made it impossible to check his records. He could have been located and at least questioned and put under surveillance before so many women had been killed.
The only defense for this decision was that three communities that were informed had turned him away, and “we had to put him somewhere.”
Nailing the Killer
Now the investigators had the background details they needed to confirm their hunches, but officials from different agencies had argued over who should get jurisdiction for the interrogation and thus credit for solving this case. In a compromise that benefited everyone, Dennis Blythe of the New York State Police and Leonard Borriello, a key investigator for the Rochester PD, were selected to interview Shawcross together. He’d been under surveillance all night and they were ready to pick him up again. Yet before they even faced him, there was one more significant development.
Just before seven o’clock in the morning, at a spot not far from where June Cicero’s body had been found, a deer hunter stumbled across the frozen body of Felicia Stephens, whose ID and clothing had been picked up along the road. She was lying facedown, with her buttocks slightly elevated, the way many of the others victims had been found. The man had phoned the police.
Now Blythe and Boriello had the details of one more murder to think about.
They approached Shawcross and asked if he would mind going with them again to clear some things up. In the amiable manner he’d adopted with them, he agreed to go, and they drove him to the places where certain events happened.. For example, they talked with him about Jo Ann Van Nostrand, letting him know what they knew, and then stopped in several places where something significant had happened with a victim. Shawcross did not budge. Even when they said they knew what he’d done, he refused to go along. When they told him that he’d been spotted with one of the victims on the last day she was seen alive, he shrugged it off as coincidence.
They reminded him of his rights, but he said he didn’t have any problem talking to them. As they pressed a little more with evidence they had, Shawcross reacted in anger, but then settled down again. They feared the interview might reach an impasse, yet when Shawcross mentioned how concerned he was about Clara Neal, Blythe knew he now had a point of leverage. He suggested that since the car belonged to Clara, she might be involved, and they’d hate to think that this was true. Shawcross appeared to realize he was cornered. Blythe asked again, “Is Clara involved?”
“No,” he admitted, hanging his head, “Clara’s not involved.”
Arthur Shawcross arrested (AP/Wide World)
They knew they had him. Within twenty-eight minutes of starting the interview, he’d come close to admitting what he’d done. In another minute, he was talking about killing Elizabeth Gibson, and as they suspected, he offered reasons of provocation. She’d tried to steal his wallet, so he’d slapped her again and again. (Later he would say that the cops had provided this incentive so he had used it.) At one point, he said, she had looked just like his rejecting mother, so he’d continued to hit her. She’d kicked at him and broke the gearshift of his car, which further angered him. He’d put his wrist against her throat and held it there until she went still. When he let go and checked, she was dead, so he’d driven around with her for a while, looking for a place to dump her. When he found one, he’d removed her clothes and placed her facedown in the woods. Then as he drove home, he’d thrown her clothing out the car window.
When word came in that the investigators had found an earring in Clara’s car that had matched one they had found on June Cicero, Shawcross became testy. He did not believe they actually had evidence. They brought in his wife and his girlfriend, and then pressured him to spare these two the anguish of a long, drawn-out investigation. He considered this and then asked for a map and the photographs of the victims that they had shown him before. They laid out sixteen open cases and he eliminated those that were not associated with him. He said the murders he had done were “business as usual.”
For each murder, he had a reason. Some had ridiculed him, some had tried to steal, one would not shut up, several had threatened to turn him in as the killer, and one—the homeless woman–had said she’d tell his wife about their affair. The first victim, Dorothy Blackburn, supposedly had bitten into his penis during oral sex. “There was blood everywhere,” he said. “I thought I was gonna die.” So in retaliation, he had grabbed her by the throat and bitten into her genital area, and then later had strangled her to death. “I choked her for a good ten minutes.”
Some of them he smothered with something over their faces and with others he’d pressed his arm across their throats. As for the mutilation of June Stott, a woman he had known and had welcomed to his home for meals, it was to “aid in decomposition,” because he had “cared” about her. His explanations were hollow, but at least he was offering details and solving a few mysteries.
As he talked, it became clear what the strange marks were that had been found across Dorothy Blackburn’s chest. Apparently Shawcross liked to squire his victims around in the front seat of his car before dumping them, so he’d used a bungee cord to tie them in place.
The detectives showed him photographs of the two missing women, Maria Welch and Darlene Trippi. He admitted that he had killed them both and marked on a map where he had left them. Eventually, he led investigators late that evening into the cold to the exact places where he had dumped their bodies. One had been left sitting up in some bushes near the river and the other dumped in water near some houses. The pool had iced over, making the victim look like some ethereal underwater fairy out of Arthurian mythology. Both women had been asphyxiated, as usual.
As the investigators drove Shawcross back from these places, they took him by the area where they’d found Felicia Stephens and noticed that he seemed to recognize it, though he initially denied it, saying, “I don’t do black women.” Yet they used what they’d observed of his behavior as leverage to get him to finally confess to her murder. According to him, she had run up to his car to solicit his business and her head had gotten caught in his automatic car window, nearly killing her, so he’d pulled her into the car to finish strangling her. He was adamant that there had been nothing intimate. He did not like black prostitutes. (He later told someone he had killed a black prostitute to throw the police off his trail.)
Some investigators, such as Gregg McCrary, believed that Shawcross was good for one more murder than those to which he admitted: the black prostitute named Kimberly Logan, who was dumped in someone’s yard and covered with leaves. Leaves had also been stuffed down her throat—the same MO as the eight-year-old female victim in Watertown. Yet Shawcross would not accept this one as his, and he was never prosecuted for it.
Arthur Shawcross in court where charges were laid (Corbis)
When he finally gave his complete formal confession to a court stenographer, it was seventy-nine pages long. On the advice of his attorney, David Murante, who was appointed by the court, he pleaded innocent. That would soon be elaborated as a plea of insanity.
Trial Preparation: Corroboration
“Once a killer like this is captured,” writes McCrary, “we always compare him against our profile. Shawcross was much as we had envisioned him.”
He was a regular john, white, married, menially employed, living near the pick-up scenes, with a history of sexually violent crimes. He often fished in the Genesee River Gorge and he’d gone unsuspected by most of the prostitutes. The profilers had gotten his age wrong by ten years or so, but they viewed his time spent in prison as tantamount to putting his sexual crimes on hold. Once freed, he’d resumed as if he’d never been put away.
Assistant District Attorney Chuck Siragusa had been working on the case for months and was getting ready to prosecute this man to the full extent of the law. New York had no death penalty at the time, but he could certainly ensure that Shawcross had no further opportunities to kill.
One of the victims had been found in an adjoining county, but Siragusa still had ten murders to work with. They had some physical evidence, some witnesses, and Shawcross’s lengthy confession. Nevertheless, with his plea of insanity, the prosecution knew they would have a fight ahead of them. Some of the things Shawcross came up with after spending time with a psychiatrist had never been mentioned in his self-pitying discussions with the interrogators. He seemed to make things up as he went along.
Self-report in killers is always suspicious and must be corroborated. That meant asking a lot of questions of people who knew the man. Shawcross’s parents and sister completely denied his allegations about his childhood traumas and sexual encounters. He had slapped his sister, they admitted, but there had been no form of corporal punishment in the home. He did well in the early years of school, attended church, and was good to animals. He did not wet his bed (he said he did till he was thirteen), set fires or abuse animals or other children, as so many psychologists insisted to be true of serial killers. His introduction to oral sex by his mother’s sister (he also said it was his mother) turned out to be questionable when his mother claimed she had no sister by that name. His younger brother said that Artie had been basically happy, although he had a quick temper. Neighbors confirmed that they had never known the mother to be abusive.
As for his self-described superhuman feats in Vietnam and his military traumas, reporters discovered that he’d served in an area that had been relatively free of combat. No one in his unit even remembered him, and he won no medals of honor. They concluded that the Vietnam tales were largely fabricated. He spent a lot of time reading novels set in Vietnam, so he could have been inspired by fictionalized descriptions, and one of his tales most definitely came from a popular Vietnam movie. He had never been exposed, as he claimed, to Agent Orange, or been on a jungle patrol. He certainly hadn’t massacred whole villages.
To counter some of the supposed contributing factors to the claim of insanity, Sirgusa hired forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, and he recommended using Robert Ressler to check into Shawcross’s record in Vietnam.
Robert Ressler had retired from the FBI but he still consulted on criminal cases, and this one utilized more than one area of expertise. He’d been with the Army CID as well as being an FBI field agent and profiler. Since part of Shawcross’s insanity defense was based on his trauma in Vietnam, Ressler analyzed the roots of his alleged post traumatic stress disorder, the village he “helped to destroy,” and his “confirmed thirty-nine kills.” (Shawcross did admit in one psychiatric interview just before his trial that he’d actually killed no one.)
Whoever Fights Monsters, by Robert Ressler
“I had put in thirty-five years of active duty and reserve time in Army military police and CID matters,” Ressler writes in Whoever Fights Monsters, “and my experience helped me to quickly debunk Shawcross’s PTSD defense.”
He looked over the military records and compared them with interviews that Dietz had done. “The information that was brought out indicated the Shawcross was malingering quite a bit. It was clear that he was being deceptive and that opened up the door to breaking down his story of how his homicidal tendencies came about. Allegedly he was under hypnosis with the defense psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis and we saw these tapes she had and realized the interviews were bogus. He was just leading her by the nose.” He found Shawcross’s claim of having witnessed certain wartime atrocities to be “patently outrageous and untrue,” and he says that his pretrial work shattered the issue of possible wartime PTSD to the point where the defense dropped it altogether and concentrated on something else.
To be considered insane in New York State, Shawcross’s team had to show quite specifically that at the time of the various offenses—every single one—he suffered from a mental defect such that either he did not know what he was doing or could not appreciate that it was wrong. He had to suffer from some type of organic brain disease, extreme emotional disorder, or ongoing dysfunctional psychosis.
The defense attorney hired Dr. Richard Kraus, a psychiatrist, in Wayne County for the Elizabeth Gibson murder, and Murante from Monroe County brought in psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis from New York’s Belleville Hospital. Olsen contains chunks of the psychiatric interviews with Shawcross in The Misbegotten Son but does not attribute them to any specific person. They seem most likely to have come from Kraus’s report. The questions are often leading in the context of attempting to get information that would support an insanity conviction. Shawcross shows annoyance to many of them, especially those that imply he might be making things up, and he often refuses to answer.
In the end, after spending $19,000 on professional evaluation, Krause admitted that the man was deceptive, muddled, sociopathic, sane, not suffering from PTSD, prone to making up stories that change dramatically in detail, unlikely to have been a victim of child abuse, and not significantly brain damaged. He found it interesting that much of his life was characterized in the context of women he hated, including in Vietnam. Most of the enemy he described killing were women. Kraus probably spent the most time with Shawcross of any of the experts (and was paid the least), and his assessment might well be the most accurate. Olsen shows the painstaking detail Kraus took in tracking down every possible cause for Shawcross’s violence–even those theories that had been discredited. His efforts make for an intriguing map for understanding this killer and a credible interpretation.
Kraus was not willing to pronounce insanity where there clearly was none, and he was curious enough about the killer to keep going back. He describes how the stories change after other people interview him (Shawcross would add gruesome details never cited before, as well as psychological interpretations he’d never thought of before), which makes him suspicious about their validity. The stories of cannibalism, for example, formed only after others had interviewed him. He did find that Shawcross had a substance in his urine that was related to mood swings, aggression, an inability to tolerate stress, and short-term memory problems. He did not have brain damage or seizure disorders, but did have poor impulse control and hypersensitivity. He had a neurological impairment in his ability to exercise sound judgment. Yet Kraus never got to testify. Nevertheless, he handed in a 20,000-word report.
Guilty by Reason of Insanity, by Lewis
In Monroe County, Dr. Lewis had the spotlight for the defense. She writes about her experience in Guilty by Reason of Insanity, pointing out that she never had the chance to prove what she believed to be true about the killer. She viewed him as ill-proportioned and paunchy, aged beyond his actual years. She knew that his lawyers had determined (through a test requested by Kraus) that Shawcross had an extra Y chromosome and accepted the tenuous theory that such men were more violent than others. She also claimed that an MRI examination had indicated that at the tip of his right temporal lobe was a small fluid-filled cyst. She found that significant.
“The brain is a sensitive organ,” she writes. “The tiniest scar or tumor or cyst can, under certain circumstances, trigger abnormal electrical activity and hence seizures.”
She adds that abnormal electrical foci at the backside of the temporal lobe have been implicated in animalistic behaviors. She believed Shawcross’s admission that he had cut out the vagina of one victim and eaten it, though there was no evidence of this. He’d removed the genital lips of two victims but had not cut out a vagina. (Possibly he wanted to, but the corpse had been frozen.) He had never mentioned having eaten it to any of the investigators. Now that his sanity hung in the balance, he appeared to have a story that would shock people. At the least, Lewis should have checked with the pathologist, as Kraus did.
She thought he had all the symptoms of temporal lobe seizures, such as impaired memory, bright lights before a violent episode, and deep sleep afterward. She found in her sessions with him that he often confused one murder with another. He’d not had that kind of trouble with the police. With Blythe and Borriello, he knew the names of each of his victims and exactly how and why he had killed them. Lewis had read these statements, yet she accepted that he could not recall the details. He seemed to know what to say to convince her of his psychiatric impairment, though he had not told any of these things to the police. He was like a chameleon, delivering to each person who questioned him what he sensed they wanted him to say. (Lewis has recorded some of her sessions with clients and her style is to lead, encourage and reward.) Lewis did not offer an explanation as to just how he could return to a body he barely recalled and mutilate it.
She asked the attorneys to call her partner, neurologist Jonathan Pinkus, and hire him to conduct an extensive neurological examination. Instead, they said they had an MRI and had hired a neurosurgeon from Harvard with a good reputation to conduct tests, including an EEG. Although she never saw the results of any such exam, she succumbed to pressure to write her report so she could testify. She decided that while Shawcross probably suffered from a seizure disorder, he also experienced dissociative states brought on by trauma and abuse. In other words, multiple personalities.
In her sessions, Lewis placed him under hypnosis as a means to uncover earlier traumas that might have caused such violent anger against women. He described severe abuse, such as his mother sticking a broom handle into his anus (in other accounts it was a toilet brush, but he apparently changed that when it was pointed out that at the time his family used an outhouse), and Lewis accepted every detail. Under hypnosis, he “became” his berating mother and “Ariemes,” a 13th-century cannibal with a bloodlust.
Getting medical records, she found that he’d been hospitalized for partial paralysis at the age of nine and ten, from which he had quickly recovered. There was no mention of physical trauma, but Lewis decided that it must be hysterical paralysis brought on by trauma. Her subsequent analysis was filtered through this interpretation. Because school records described his mother as “punishing and rejecting,” Lewis took that to mean she was abusive.
Still, she wanted that neurological analysis, because she knew how the courts treated a defense based on dissociative disorders. Such material was not forthcoming, so she went ahead and wrote a report based only on her observations and beliefs about the case. In her book, she calls this her “first big mistake.”
Among Shawcross’s prison records, she found descriptions of what she believed were “seizurelike” episodes. He’d fallen to the floor, he’d fainted, and he’d blacked out. Relatives confirmed that he’d been like this as a child. Lewis felt confident of her diagnosis. Yet she was not as ready for trial as she believed.
Lewis went to Rochester two days early, only to discover that the money that had been reserved to pay for the neurological tests had been “squandered on the services of a writer-cum-criminologist, Joel Norris.” (He actually had a Ph.D. in psychology.) He had conducted videotaped interviews with Shawcross, which his partner (Lewis claims) tried to sell to a local media station. She was incensed and believed the judge should have halted the proceedings, but the trial went forward. (Kraus, too, had learned about this, as Olsen describes it, and was annoyed at the lack of ethics involved.)
Then, the neurosurgeon that the defense had tried to hire ended up on the prosecution’s side. Although Lewis had once respected him, now she felt that he’d done shoddy work. He had not even examined Shawcross. Against court protocol, she decided to call him and confront him. She discovered that the doctor had received the MRI scan from the defense attorney via Joel Norris and had recommended an EEG, but had never been retained by the defense. That had left him free to respond to the prosecution. He agreed with her, she writes, that further tests should be done, so she attempted to speak with the judge in private regarding this issue. When that did not happen, she used open court to claim, “I have been lied to.”
She meant by her own side, of course. The attorney she was working for had told her the tests had been ordered when they had not been. She believed that this outburst would get the judge’s attention, assuming that the legal system is a search for the truth. The judge ignored her.
“I should have turned around and gone home,” she writes, long before she ever got into court. But she’d gone ahead, which was her “second big mistake.”
Under cross-examination, she was asked whether the interviews that Joel Norris had conducted might have influenced what Shawcross had told her. She said no, based on her belief that she had conducted hers first. She discovered that she was wrong about that. The interviews had occurred simultaneously. In open court, she was humiliated and made to appear unprepared.
Her testimony ran for three weeks, and she admitted that compared to the prosecution’s confident and polished expert, Dr. Park Dietz, she appeared disorganized and clumsy. She was angry and she let that get the best of her, making her ideas less credible and alienating the jury. Dietz, who identified Shawcross as a malingerer, a faker, dismissed the idea of dissociation.
Too late to do any good at trial, Lewis sent the brain scans to Pinkus for interpretation, and she says that he identified scars on the frontal lobes that could have influenced the defendant’s ability to make proper decisions. While she was not allowed to bring this into evidence, her discussion about the cyst on the temporal lobe was admitted. Dr. Dietz dismissed it as insignificant in Shawcross’s criminality. There was no evidence, he said, that Shawcross had a mental disease or defect the prohibited him from understanding that his actions were wrong. That fact that he’d covered many of his victims indicated that he clearly understood he’d be arrested for this if discovered. He had held a job, was married, and had functioned competently in daily life. He might be abnormal, might even have consumed parts of his victims, but these acts and delusions did not impair his awareness that what he was doing was wrong.
The issue came down to this: whatever impairment he had, it had to affect his ability to appreciate the criminality of his actions. One expert said yes, it did, the other said no, it did not. Olsen reports that Lewis was paid $48,000 and Dietz $97,000 for their respective testimonies.
Throughout the trial, Shawcross sat like a zombie, as if to appear that he did indeed have some kind of brain damage. Yet it did not do him any good.
After five weeks of dramatic testimony and courtroom demonstrations, the jury was not sufficiently impressed with the defense interpretation of Shawcross’s behavior. They took half a day to find him both sane and guilty of murder in the second degree (not premeditated) on ten counts. Shawcross was sentenced to 25 years to life on each of the ten counts, meaning that he will have to serve 250 years in prison before he’s eligible for a parole hearing.
The second trial for Elizabeth Gibson’s murder in Wayne County had been scheduled, but there seemed little reason to go at it again, since Dr. Kraus could not provide a finding of mental impairment that would amount to insanity. Shawcross’s attorney advised him to plead guilty on that charge, and he did.
Arthur Shawcross in prison
Despite the fact that Shawcross was convicted and much of his story taken by the jury with a rather large grain of salt, his reputation for certain claims he made lives on. In Cannibal: The Real Hannibal Lecters, a 2003 HBO documentary, British reporter Katherine English chose Shawcross as one of her three subjects. He agreed to an interview, although he was rather scornful of her attempts to get him to describe morbid acts (her perception is that he took great delight in it).
She starts her interview at Sullivan Correctional Facility with him by saying he claimed to have eaten the genitalia of three of his victims. (She does not say how these tales evolved under the influence of many therapists.) While one vagina had been cut out (she says, repeating the inaccurate reporting), there was no evidence of that in any other, nor of his having actually consumed it. He apparently also had claimed at one point that he’d eaten the genitals of the little boy, Jack Blake, although this is not raised in the documentary. Nor did anyone find it credible.
English hoped he would explain himself. He clearly toys with her. Like Lewis, English accepts the stories of abuse that he told, but he says he does not wish to talk about certain things with a woman. He does admit that he tracked two Vietcong women through the jungle. He grabbed them, tied one up, and cut the other up to cook over a fire and eat. “I took the right leg of that woman’s body, from the knee to the hiptook the fat off” and ate it while he stared at the other girl. “When I bit into itshe just urinated right there.”
English asks him what it tasted like, and he said, “When was the last time you had nice roast pork?” (This had become his favorite description of human flesh, and he’d told this story endlessly to others, who eventually doubted it.)
“Why did you eat it?” English asked.
“I have no idea,” he tells her with a smirk.
“Were you hungry?”
She urges him to talk about cannibalizing his prostitute victims. He again says, “That’s hard to talk about, lady.” (It wasn’t so hard with therapists, both male and female, who were providing an insanity defense.) He says he cut parts off, finally mentioning “the vagina” and that he “consumed that.”
Were they symbolic? She wonders.
“I thought I was killing my mother. The things I was eating, I thought it was my mother.”
English ends her encounter with him by saying that she was uncomfortable when he took delight in telling her what her flesh would taste like, but she does not actually show him saying this. A common reporter’s trick is to fill in lines they had hoped their subject would say but did not. In other words, they have an agenda to fulfill, and if they must, will put the words in someone’s mouth. One leaves this piece with the impression that English was disappointed and decided to add something to make it more substantive than it actually was.
All Shawcross gave up in this interview were tales already dismissed as probably false and an admission that any psychiatrist could have fed to him about his mother. He does not come across like the cannibal she interviews after him, Issai Sagawa, who really did explore the taste of human flesh. Even Dorothy Lewis, the psychiatrist who was ready to believe most of what he told her, did not believe these descriptions. With no corroborating evidence to back up his recollections, it’s difficult to include him on the list of notorious “cannibal killers.”
Nevertheless, he is a serial killer of some renown, and clearly an interesting study for those who want to understand the roots of violence and who can patiently plow through the shifting variety of stories the man has told over the years.
In a handwritten report in 1990, Shawcross says, “I should be castrated or have an electrode placed in my head to stop my stupidness or whatever. I’m just a lost soul looking for release of my madness.”
Arthur Shawcross went into cardiac arrest on November 10th, 2008, at the Albany Medical Center and died there at 9:50 p.m.