Review by Sharon Foss
Every town, U.S.A. has an urban legend that thrills, scares, and excites children of all ages. Whispered voices at sleepovers and nervous twitters shared across desks at school happen with every generation. The one that comes to mind immediately from my younger days was the Bloody Mary urban legend. We all knew (I think) that it was nonsense (sort of), yet not one of us dared to try it (to this day).
Suburbia, Illinois is not the only place where you can find such tales. Staten Island also had an urban legend called Cropsey. This story was about an escaped mental patient from the former Willowbrook Mental Institution and School named Cropsey who lived in the tunnels of the abandoned building and came out late at night to snatch kids off the streets.
Documentarians Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman grew up in the neighborhood where this folktale had a stronghold. They didn’t know each other as kids, but both were told the tale as a way to prevent them from emerging outdoors after dark. As each child grew up, they matured into thinking the story of Cropsey was just a fable to keep children in line. Unfortunately, it took the kidnapping of 12-year-old Jennifer Schweiger in 1987 to make Barbara, Joshua, and countless other people aware of the fact that the Cropsey myth was, and always had been, a reality.
Although my lore of Bloody Mary never took on a face, Staten Island’s boogeyman called Cropsey turned out to not only have a face, it also had a life. Brancaccio and Zeman created CROPSEY, a documentary about how the story of an escaped mental patient began and how it evolved into a true tale of horror with an actual name: Andre Rand.
Cropsey was actually a man named Andre Rand. Rand was not an escaped mental patient, but he did have connections to the former mental institution that Geraldo Rivera covered in an expose early on in his career. Rand was an orderly there and even lived in makeshift campsites in the woods surrounding Willowbrook.
When 12-year-old Schweiger went missing, Rand was suspected and eventually charged with her kidnapping. Once her body was found, a murder charge was added. He was sentenced to 25 years to life for the kidnapping. The murder charge was dropped, however, because jury members could not reach an agreement.
This wasn’t Rand’s first killing, as Staten Islanders soon realized. What this case did was reopen many unsolved missing children cases, one of which was brought into court, resulting in a conviction of Rand on a second charge.
It wasn’t just the horror of the missing children that shocked the community for years; it was the realization that Cropsey was real. All those tales that were whispered among children were true. Brancaccio and Zeman put together this documentary to piece together everything that Rand had done; not just his actual criminal acts of kidnapping and killing, but the folklore that he inspired. His existence, unbeknownst to anyone on Staten Island, spawned such spooky stories long before he was found out that it probably saved many children’s lives by making them think twice before exploring the Willowbrook woods or venturing out at night alone.
Along with countless interviews of news reporters, law officials, and those who knew Rand, the documentarians also tracked their own personal correspondences with the living “Cropsey,” who sent them everything from personal letters to his handwritten notes on court transcripts. The filmmakers even came close to interviewing Rand in prison, only to be turned away at the door. Rand had changed his mind, yet wrote them again, and even called them when he received no response. I loved how Brancaccio and Zeman included this in their film, showcasing the manipulator that Rand continues to be, not unlike one of the greatest manipulator’s responsible for heinous crimes—Charles Manson.
CROPSEY truly shows all sides of this story. Victim’s families speak out. Volunteers who have worked for decades to find the missing children have a voice. Law enforcement officials speak on the multiple rumors that still circulate—that Rand was a devil worshiper, he acted with an accomplice, he was framed, etc.
Naysayers, believers, and conspiracists. The filmmakers cover all these things in CROPSEY. They reveal all sides of this decades-long case.
Rand continues to declare his innocence. Like other serial killers who refuse to let their own notorieties die off, Rand can’t slip quietly into the good night. As recently as May of 2011, Rand made himself known with a letter to a local newspaper. This letter wished a happy Mother’s Day to all the Staten Island women who believed in his innocence. He continues to serve his two 25-years-to-life kidnapping convictions. He is not eligible for parole until 2037, when he will be 93 years old.