If you don’t make your bed, Cropsey’s going to get you.
You’d better behave, or Cropsey’s going to get you.
That was the general idea behind the Staten Island urban legend of Cropsey, originally a colloquial slang word for “maniac.” And Staten Islanders knew about maniacs. Sort of. This was the home of Willowbrook State School, the detestable facility made infamous by Geraldo Rivera’s landmark exposé. Willowbrook was supposed to take care of up to 4,000 children with “intellectual disabilities.” But from 1947 to 1987, upwards of 6,000 men, women, and children with varying mental challenges (and overlooked or misunderstood conditions such as cerebral palsy) overfilled the facility. Conditions were ungodly. Robert Kennedy visited and declared that the people in Willowbrook were “living in filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo.”
Willowbrook closed in 1987.
So where did all those poor people go? Most were relocated to various facilities in and around New York City, but it has long been speculated that some—those not as cognitively disabled as once thought—were simply released. True or not, that was a story believed by many on Staten Island. And what better place for these “maniacs” to wander than the island’s 2,800-acre parkland known as the Greenbelt?
All of this begins the 2009 documentary, Cropsey. We learn that through the years Staten Island became a sort of dumping ground: not just for the mentally challenged and mis-labeled, misunderstood people housed at Willowbrook, but for the bodies from mob hits, for sufferers of tuberculosis, and also for literal garbage dumps. History, legends, fact, and fiction created a perfect storm for the real Cropsey to emerge.
In 1987, twelve-year-old Jennifer Schweiger disappeared, her body discovered thirty-five days later. She wasn’t the first. Abductions and murders of children with developmental disabilities had begun in 1972. But it was after the Schweiger case that the police finally nailed their long-time suspect. Their Cropsey.
A former Willowbrook orderly, Andre Rand, had been living in the woods for years. He is presented as not quite sane himself. And a sort of cult leader for a clan of homeless men and women living in the tunnel system underneath Willowbrook. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced for the kidnapping of Jennifer Schweiger; the jury could not reach a verdict on the first-degree murder charge. Sixteen years later, he was brought back to court and convicted of kidnapping the first girl, Holly Ann Hughes.
The question is, Did he really do it? An even better question, Did he do all of it? Because Rand was tried and convicted of every case in the lens of the media and the minds of the locals, who had conditioned themselves to believe in Cropsey. Guilty or not, Rand was an easy target: homeless, uncommunicative, bizarre and bizarre-looking. Just as the idea of Cropsey had long been the symbol of everything bad that could happen, Rand became the face of that very same evil. Rand and Cropsey, one and the same—a living, breathing villain to blame for all the missing and murdered children.
This documentary doesn’t have the answers. Therein lies its hook. It poses questions that are largely unanswerable, but it presents riveting discussion points. This film casts a spell, in turns creepy, sad, and thought-provoking. David Kwok of the Tribeca Film Festival said, “The eeriness of the mystery pulsates through the film as they journey into the underbelly… As more information and clues unravel, filmmakers Zeman and Brancaccio become more immersed in shocking surprises and revelations. The reality they uncover in this uniquely hair-raising documentary is more terrifying than any urban legend.” I cannot say it any better.
Once again, reality proves more brutal, more strange, than any fiction. So stay dark, my friends, but stay safe. The monsters are real. They live next door.