Growing up on Staten Island in the 70s and 80s, filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio often heard stories about a local boogeyman known as “Cropsey.” The legend of Cropsey was typically evoked by parents trying to scare their kids out of doing things they weren’t supposed to, like playing in the woods, talking to strangers, etc.
Zeman and Brancaccio never really believed the stories. That is, until the day a little Staten Island girl named Jennifer disappeared.
As police investigated the case, a man named Andre Rand, spotted in the area Jennifer had last been seen in, became their chief suspect. He was a former resident of Willowbrook, a “state school” (more like mental institution) in the woods of Staten Island that had been shut down a decade earlier after horrific abuses of patients were exposed in a Giraldo Rivera special. Patients of Willowbrook were then farmed out to local halfway houses and hospitals, but many ended up sort of instinctively migrating back to the area. Andre Rand was one such patient and when, a few months later, Jennifer’s body was found buried near his campsite in the Willowbrook woods, it seemed obvious he was the killer.
Cropsey was real.
Or was he? As the story spread and witnesses of an increasingly dubious nature came forward, some began to suspect Rand had either been framed or was being used as a scapegoat by the Staten Island police, desperate to appease the community by locking up a child killer. For example, Jennifer’s body had not been found during previous searches of the area — instead, it was found just after a photo of a drooling, crazed-looking Rand was published in the local paper. Forensic experts determined that she had been killed elsewhere and then moved to the discovery site later. Possibly even moved there recently.
Nevertheless, despite the lack of physical evidence tying Rand to the case, he was convicted in the mid-1980s and sentenced to 25-to-life (for kidnapping; jurors were deadlocked on the murder charge). Stories of “Cropsey” faded after that, until a decade and a half passed and Rand’s name hit the papers again. He was being charged with another murder, one from 20 years prior — one of four additional Staten Island children whose disappearances police suspected Rand was involved in. They had no evidence — not even a body this time — but again, Rand was put on trial, and again, convicted.
This fascinating documentary tells the stories of Willowbrook hospital, Andre Rand, the missing children, and the way media frenzy, public pressure, and fear can influence our criminal justice system. While the film’s outcome isn’t terribly satisfying (did he do it or not? we’ll probably never know), the story itself is riveting and the filmmakers do a solid job in its telling.
Definitely recommended, and I also enjoyed (well, not enjoyed, exactly) an hour long documentary specifically about Willowbrook that I stumbled across online while looking for more information about Andre Rand. That one, Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook (narrated by Danny Aiello), describes in greater detail the horrors patients institutionalized there experienced (within six months of admission, most patients suffered from parasites and pneumonia, and the incidence of hepatitis infection was 100% — broken bones, malnutrition, mental and physical abuse, and worse. Unbelievable.). You can rent it for $2.99 at Amazon.com, and it’s well worth your time, especially if you have seen or are interested in seeing Cropsey.
[Netflix it (available for streaming)]
Directed by: Joshua Zeman, Barbara Brancaccio