Arthur John Shawcross killed 14 women between March 1988 and December 1989 after he was allowed an early release from prison in March 1987, having been found “fit to re-enter society”. He was serving time for manslaughter to which he had pleaded guilty under a plea bargain deal. Barely a year later, he began killing again. HEMRAJ SINGH tells the story of the infamous Genesee River Killer.
The Genesee River, a tributary of Lake Ontario, flows northwards through the Pennsylvania and New York in the United States and was the original source of power to the mills in the Rochester area during the 19th century, and still powers downtown Rochester.
In the late 1980s, Rochester, New York, now the third most populous city in the State of New York after New York City and Buffalo, was a town full of working-class people. In Rochester, by the banks of the Genesee River, were Lake Avenue and Lyell Avenue, which formed the heart of the red light district of the city with prostitutes practicing their trade amid the strip clubs and bars of the area. Dorothy “Dotsie” Blackburn, a 27-year old, was one such prostitute, whose body was found dumped in an isolated creek on March 24, 1988.
The police looked for the forensic clues to figure out the cause of death, but none was found. No broken bones, skull intact. The body displayed no sign of physical or sexual assault. The investigation commenced, but moved at a slow pace because all that the investigators could surmise was that Blackburn had got into the car of a client and things did not turn out well for her. That was not much to go on with.
On September 11, 1988, a local resident was looking for discarded bottles on the banks of the Genesee River, and ran into decomposed human remains with a tank top and a pair of shorts on it suggesting that it was the skeleton of a human female. The case landed with Captain Lynde Johnston of the Rochester Police Department, who tried to ascertain the possible cause of death from the condition of the body, to no avail. There were no broken bones including the skull, and there were no knife marks on the body, which meant that she had not suffered any blunt force trauma and had not been knifed or shot to death, which only left the possibility of strangulation open. The next logical step was to identify the victim so that the investigation could proceed, but the clothes on the skeleton carried no clue to the identity of the victim. The help of a forensic anthropologist, Dr. William C. Rodriguez, was sought for the purpose.
Close medical scrutiny of the skeletal remains revealed that the hyoid bone of the victim showed signs of trauma indicating the victim had been strangled to death. Based on the facial bone structure, Dr. Rodriguez reconstructed a facial model of the victim and the pictures of the model were published and telecast in the hope that a member of public would identify the victim. The police did not have to wait for long, and it was only in a day or two that the father of the victim called to identify his daughter, Anna Marie Steffen, a 28-year old mother of two, who had got into prostitution and had become a drug user after the death of her sister and had not contacted her father for over a year. The father did not even know that his daughter had gone missing until he came across the pictures of his daughter’s facial model. The dental records confirmed that the victim was indeed Steffen. However, the father thought that his daughter had been killed by a drug dealer or a pimp. The method of killing and the disposal of bodies were similar in cases of Steffen and Blackburn, but the bodies had been found considerably far apart. So, nobody connected the two killings as the work of the same killer and the talk of a serial killer had not started.
On October 21, 1989, three sportsmen came across the decomposing remains of a human body. The body was headless and little more than bare bones had escaped decomposition. The neck was broken, but the cause of death was still pretty hard to guess. While her remains were being collected, the killer was standing close by like an ordinary fisherman. Jack Olsen, a true crime writer, has made a mention of the chilling fact in his book, The Misbegotten Son (1993), which is among the most elaborate accounts of the gruesome deeds of the Genesee River Killer, as the killer came to be known later. Olsen writes that due to the advanced decomposition it was hard to identify the victim. However, when a county jail employee read the news report, he reported to the authorities that a homeless woman called Dorothy Keeler (60) had not been seen in some time, which, he suspected, was the dead woman. Once again, the forensic anthropologist made the facial model from the bones and the investigators confirmed the suspicion of the county jail employee. Dorothy Keeler, it was.
However, the police kept the investigation silent taking as much care as they could to prevent the press from getting a whiff of a developing story of what could very well appear to be the work of a serial killer. However, the prostitutes of the area did realize that the girls working the streets around the Lake and Lyell avenues were disappearing and being found killed.
Six days later, on October 27, 1989, a boy went looking for his ball and found a foot sticking out from under a heap discarded debris and it appeared that a cardboard had been placed on it to conceal the body. The boy informed the police. Under the cardboard they found a body in advanced decomposition with maggots feasting on it under the sweater and black pants that the dead person was apparently wearing at the time of death. The body was found not far from the place where Keeler’s body had been found a few days back. This was Patricia “Patty” Ives, a 25-year old Lyell Avenue prostitute, whose pimp reportedly cried on hearing of her death.
The tally of the dead prostitutes who had been apparently killed by strangulation rose to four, and the press could no longer be kept off; neither could the talk of a serial killer be prevented. The reports describing the killer as “the Rochester Strangler” and “the Genesee River Killer” started appearing. There was a pattern of behaviour that had emerged. The killer had tried to conceal the bodies underneath something, and the investigators started suspecting that the killer was trying to prevent the aerial patrol from discovering the bodies, which suggested long-term criminal experience or exposure to law enforcement machinery or military experience. Also, the victims had been killed easily and effortlessly, which meant that the killer was physically strong and killed swiftly without giving much opportunity to the victims to fight back. However, the police were still nowhere close to identifying the culprit, and with the press writing about the killings, the pressure on the investigators was mounting.
Less than a month after Patty’s body had been discovered, another body turned up on November 11, 1989. This was a petite blonde called Frances Brown. The body was naked except for the boots. The autopsy revealed she had been strangulated and the bruises on her body signified that she had received severe beating as well.
The next victim to be discovered was Kimberly Logan, a 30-year-old black prostitute from the Lyell Avenue area. Her body was found on November 15, 1989 under a pile of leaves in someone’s yard. There were signs that she had been hit in the abdomen repeatedly. The medical examiner also found leaves down her throat, which did not fit well with the pattern. Also, she had not been found around the general area where the bodies were being found. Therefore, it was not immediately clear whether or not she was the victim of the same killer, but the possibility was not ruled out.
On November 23, 1989, one Mark Stetzel was walking his dog, when in a marshy area near the industrial piers, the dog went sniffing around and Stetzel followed only to discover a piece of stiff carpeting with ice all over it. He looked closer and spotted a bare foot under. He called the police.
The body was clearly a woman’s, and had been preserved to a large extent by the cold weather and the covering that had been apparently placed upon the body by the killer although it was clear from the state of the body that the decomposition had set in indicating that she had been killed two or three weeks ago. The body was lying face-down. However, there was a considerable amount of blood on her back, which meant that she had laid on her back after her death for quite some time before she was rolled over.
Her position also indicated that she had been sodomized post-mortem. She had been strangled to death. The investigators were in for a shocking discovery when they turned the body over to its back. What they saw modified their understanding of the killer a great deal. The woman had been cut open all the way from the top of her chest to the vaginal area through between her breasts. It also seemed like her vaginal lips had been removed. After killing the woman, the killer had returned to the dump site subsequently – maybe a day or more later – to derive some perverted pleasure and to mutilate the body. Surprisingly, the medical examination of the body did not find any trace of semen on or inside the body. In the marshes, a knife and a bloody towel were found, but no fingerprints could be obtained. The physical evidence at the site was too slim to be helpful.
The woman killed and mutilated was June Stott, a 30-year-old woman, who was mildly retarded and had been reported missing by her boyfriend after he had waited for her for eighteen days. Because of her mental problems, she would sometimes wander away, but her boyfriend had taught her to stay away from the strangers, which made it unlikely that she had been abducted. Besides, she was not a prostitute, which made her an unlikely target for the killer the police were looking for. So, the police had made a report and spread the word to the patrol officers to look out for Stott. The killer, however, sprung a surprise.
June Stott’s murder was a departure on many counts. Stott’s was neither a prostitute, nor a drug user and her body was found away from the usual dumping ground of the killer. Furthermore, the post-mortem perversity and viciousness was entirely new. All of it showed that the killer was rapidly evolving unless there were two different killers operating in the area, one of whom was only beginning or whose victims were being discovered only now, starting with Stott. However, the former possibility of the killer’s evolving and escalating seemed a lot more probable than the alternative.
Captain Lynde Johnston decided to seek FBI’s help and got in touch with Special Agent Gregg McCrary of the Behavioral Science Unit. McCrary agreed to join the investigation and profile the killer for the Rochester. McCrary invited New York State Trooper Lieutenant Ed Grant to join and assist him in Rochester. Grant had received training under the FBI’s training program in criminal investigative analysis.
Before the help from the FBI could arrive, the body of Elizabeth “Liz” Gibson (29) was found on November 27, 1989 in a neighbouring county. She, too, had been strangled to death. This time there was a witness who had seen the killer. It was an older prostitute called Jo Ann Van Nostrand. She told one of the investigators, Leonard Boriello, that a day before Gibson disappeared, she had seen Gibson get into the car of a man she had had sex with on an earlier occasion. When she saw on television a newsflash regarding the murder of Gibson, she had approached the police.
Nostrand told that the man had a hatchback car and his name was Mitch, but she could not give a precise enough description of the make and model of the car or of the physical features of the man. Also, the investigators did not know if the man had given the prostitute his real name. Even if it were the killer, which Boriello was sure of, the investigators had no way of identifying him with the information they had. Although they did not have sufficient information to identify the killer, Boriello believed that they now knew the way the killer operated and the kind of car he drove. The information was going to prove utterly unhelpful.
A couple of weeks after the body of June Stott was found, McCrary and Grant arrived on December 13, 1989, and decided to start by visiting the sites where the bodies had been found after which they went to the Lyell Avenue, which was where most of the victims had been presumably picked up from, and then visited the places where the bodies had been discovered.
Finally, they returned to the room the investigators had set up as a hub for the investigation with all the files relating to the killings neatly stacked up on a conference table. McCrary and Grant went through the crime scene photos, the statements of the witnesses and autopsy reports together with all other material gathered by the investigators. They were looking for a dependable pattern to make an opinion about the motive and character of the killer so as to effectively provide a profile of the killer to the investigators and also to predict, as far as possible, his next move.
Somewhere in that large heap of information, there was a clue that could potentially lead them to the killer and a key to his murderous psyche.
The lifestyle of the victims, the manner of killing, the place where the bodies were dumped and the order in which they had been killed were the most relevant factors in the preliminary classification that McCrary and Grant worked forward from. There were other killings that did not fit the pattern and did not seem to be the work of the same killer. Those were kept aside as unrelated. A definite pattern emerged for seven cases.
…to be continued