Urban legends are generally considered to be made-up stories used to scare children or the townspeople. But what if they’re not entirely made up? Or, even worse, what if they become true?
Cropsey, Staten Island’s version of the Boogeyman, is said to lurk behind street corners or in the shadows of the playground, waiting for children. As the Cropsey urban legend goes, it began when a local man would use his hook hand to drag little girls and boys into the ruins of the Seaview Hospital—after which they would never be heard from again.
Regardless of whether its origin story is true or not, using the Cropsey urban legend to scare children into behaving had become the norm in Staten Island. Little did the people know that Cropsey was to become a whole lot more than an eery tale.
During the 1970s, a man, who went by the name Andre Rand, became the real-life Cropsey. He was a janitor at Staten Island’s Willowbrook State School, which was built for mentally handicapped children. The school had a terrible reputation for mistreating its students and, in 1987, it was shut down for good.
Andre Rand had skipped town years before that, in the midst of numerous mysterious cases involving missing children. Many assumed that he was to blame because he had a history of child-related crimes. Specifically, he had been arrested for the attempted rape of a young girl in the South Bronx in 1969. He also mysteriously brought 11 children out to eat and took them, with unknown intentions, to Newark International Airport while he was employed by the Staten Island school bus company.
It seemed that he took advantage of his job to continue with his criminal ways. And the environment of the Willowbrook State School only seemed to make it easier for him.
The first child that went missing was Alice Pereira in 1972. Just five years old at the time, she mysteriously vanished while she and her brother were playing outside. In 1981, nearly ten years later, seven-year-old Holly Ann Hughes was seen with Rand shortly before her disappearance.
The disappearances continued to plague the town and strike fear into the hearts of local parents. Just two years later, Tiahease Jackson, eleven years old at the time, disappeared within months of Andre Rand getting out of prison and, in 1984, 22-year-old Hank Gafforio was last spotted with Andre Rand at a nearby diner.
By the time the fifth child, 12-year-old Jennifer Schweiger, went missing, investigators still hadn’t found a single trace of any of the missing children. Jennifer, a young girl who had Down Syndrome, never came home after telling her parents that she was going out for a stroll. A search party quickly dispatched and began to look for her.
Her foot was found sticking out of the ground, which led the search party to finding her body—shallowly buried in a recent grave. Not far away, they found Andre Rand’s makeshift campsite.
He was arrested and charged with murder—giving the people of Staten Island hope that justice would finally be served. Unfortunately, there was limited evidence actually linking him to the murder. He was found guilty of kidnapping in the first degree for the case of Jennifer Schweiger and punished with 25 years behind bars in 1988.
In 2004, right before he was eligible for parole, he faced additional kidnapping charges. This time it was for the kidnapping of Holly Ann Hughes. He was found guilty and sentenced to 25 additional years in prison.
In 2009, Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman released a documentary film titled “Cropsey”, which told the story of Staten Island’s urban legend and the case of Andre Rand. It dove into the stories and trials of the missing children, showing that the story of Cropsey became something larger and more complicated than ever imagined. At first, Rand agreed to be interviewed for the film, but changed his mind shortly after.
While the cases of Hank Gafforio, Alice Pereira, and Tiahease Jackson remain unsolved, at least the people of Staten Island know that the real-life Cropsey is no longer around to torment their children. Nothing can replace those who went missing during this tragic time, but their memory continues to live on in the community.