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 victim that presented the greatest difficulty was June Stott because she fitted into the pattern a great deal but did not fit in significant ways, which raised two distinct and equally horrifying possibilities. One, that the killer had evolved very rapidly and was now confident enough to return to the dump sites to mutilate the bodies, and, two, that there was another killer in the region. Furthermore, if a second killer was as perverse and confident as the condition of Stott’s body suggested, he was unlikely to stop. The daring also indicated quite strongly that he had killed before, possibly more than once. Both the prospects were chilling, but it was hard to say which one of the two was more probable.
A few things, however, were clear. The killer did not take the victims too far away from the place he had picked them from, Lyell Avenue in most cases. It also seemed like he operated in the areas he was familiar with and comfortable in, which could mean that he lived or worked or both in the vicinity of Lyell Avenue. Since the victims were mostly prostitutes and had been killed away from the streets they worked, the killer most likely owned a car. Besides, despite the word of there being a killer of hookers on the loose, he had managed to kill the prostitutes, which suggested that prostitutes felt very comfortable with the killer. At the same time, the way he managed to kill his victims by strangulation without much resistance indicated that he was physically strong. Therefore, it was quite possible that he was a regular client and things went wrong only with a few prostitutes while the rest returned fine, which made the prostitutes feel safe with him. With most of the victims being white, it was likely that he, too, was white. It appeared to McCrary that the prostitutes were going with him believing that while the killer was around, it was not this person they were getting in a car with.
Since there had been no evidence of sexual assault on the bodies found, the profilers maintained the possibility of the perpetrator having trouble with completing sexual engagement. Perhaps the women killed might have made fun of his sexual inability driving him to kill.
The profilers, McCrary and Grant, decided to include June Stott because there were enough similarities to warrant the inclusion; besides they wanted to keep open the possibility of the killer’s evolving. But before they did that, they had a closer look at June Stott’s body and what it told about the killer. She had been cut open by someone who was experienced with cutting up animals and was comfortable around bodies. Also, he did not mind revisiting the bodies as long as it did not lead to discovery or capture. Since he had gotten away with killing and mutilating, he was likely to do it again. McCrary and Grant presented their analysis to the investigators.
The killer, they told the task force, was most likely a white male in his early thirties or late twenties with some criminal experience, probably in the area of sexual offences, meaning he had a record somewhere unless he had never been caught, which was very unlikely. The killings did not seem like a team work, so he moved and killed alone, and was unremarkable as a person. Given the physical requirements to kill the way the killer did, he was possibly a sportsperson. This was an ordinary person in an ordinary car dressed casually.
The killer was likely to hold a menial job and was either married or had a girlfriend, and came from the same economic strata as the victim. He was, like his victims, street smart and lived and worked in the vicinity of Lyell Avenue. The fact that he tried to take measures against aerial detection by helicopter patrol displayed ample cunning.
However, before parting, the profilers cautioned that no suspect should be eliminated based solely on the profile because forensic profiling was more of an art than an exact science. It was, therefore, possible, even if unlikely, that the killer did not fit the profile partially, significantly or completely. The profile did fit a good deal.
From the profile they had constructed, they told the investigators that it was quite possible that the cops might even know the killer from coffee shops or bars. So, they could watch out for any person who matched the profile. Also, since the killer had taken to returning to the dumpsites, they could put up surveillance on the site where the next body was found unless they managed to catch the killer before that. The strategy could obviously work only so long as the press did not know of the next kill because it was very likely that the killer kept a close watch on news reports about the investigation. This is what the killer did not do, which led to his capture ultimately.
In the light of the profile presented by McCrary and Grant, the investigators devised strategies to ascertain the identity of the culprit, or to at least have a list of suspects to investigate. They could put together a list of people frequenting a few bars and clubs, and a computer, searched with the parameters provided by the profilers, gave them a suspect – a 38-year-old sex offender. The suspect drove around in a gray van, was known to indulge in kinky sex and frequented Lyell Avenue. For a while he seemed like the killer but when the investigators checked with his employer, the man had strong alibis for the time most of the murders were committed, which brought the investigators back to square one. And then a few more women fitting the profile of the victims disappeared one after another.
June Cicero, a 33-year old prostitute, was one of the most street smart prostitutes in the area, and then there was one Darlene Trippi (32), who had partnered with Jo Ann Van Nostrand, another street-wise prostitute, for safety. All of a sudden both Cicero and Trippi disappeared. They were the most unlikely victims and yet they were nowhere to be found. Apart from those two, a black prostitute by the name Felicia Stephens also disappeared. Together with the Maria Welch, who had been missing for long now, there were now four prostitutes missing.
On December 31, a trooper on road patrol found a discarded pair of black jeans that had frozen by the roadside. The trooper checked the pockets of the jeans and came up with an identification card of Felicia Stephens. With the discovery of the jeans, the investigators had every reason to conclude that Stephens was dead. Also, since the piece of clothing had been found near Salmon Creek, it appeared that the killer was back to his familiar territory. Later, Felicia’s boots were found in different areas. The police did try to search the area for the body, but it was extremely difficult due to the weather at that particular time of the year. With snow, thick and thin, covering much of everything even the search dogs failed to sniff out anything helpful. Now, there were four women missing with the likelihood that all of them were dead, and despite surveillance and careful detective work, the investigators were no closer to finding the killer than they were on day one. They could do little except wait for the killer’s next move or until the next body was discovered, which, with four women missing, seemed inevitable.
On January 2, 1990, the police searched the area by air as well as on ground, but the aerial attempts were frustrated due to blinding winds blowing snow from Lake Ontario, which made the search impossible for the day and had to be abandoned. The next morning the search was renewed, but despite having searched all the canals, creeks and ditches, no body was found. It was quite likely that the bodies were under the snow and could lay there undetected until the snow thawed.
A team took a final flight from Northampton Park to check Highway 31, which was where the clothing worn by Felicia had been found and flew back to the city. They went as low as they could over Salmon Creek carefully scanning the place, and they caught a glimpse of something that could be a body. They flew closer for a better look. It was a human figure lying face-down, splayed on the ice. The body had a white top on. Felicia had been wearing such a top when she had disappeared. So, it could be her body. Except for the top, the body seemed to have no clothes on.
To be further certain before calling the patrol units to the scene, they hovered lower and could make out a woman with darkish skin, but she was not black, which ruled out Felicia Stephens, but it could still be one of the other three missing women. And then they spotted a parked car – a Chevy Celebrity – and also saw a large, heavyset man. After a short while he started driving away. The unit in the helicopter had already radioed the ground petrol to check the car and the man. He might have seen something helpful, they thought. The man was a significant lead even if he was not the killer. The team in the chopper followed the man by air. They saw the car drive into municipal parking lot near Wedgewood Nursing Home in Spencerport. The man stepped out of the car and went into the nursing home. The car belonged to one Clara Neal, a quick license plate search revealed. The land petrol reached the nursing home and took over from there while the chopper returned to the crime scene to keep a watch and protect the crime scene until the crime scene team arrived and took over.
When the investigators got close enough to the body to make an identification, they found it was not an unlikely victim. It was June Cicero, the street-smart prostitute who was always extra careful and did not get into strangers’ cars readily. She had been strangled to death and then mutilated. Her vagina had been sawed off perhaps after the body had already frozen. There were fresh footprints in the snow, which meant someone – most probably the killer – had visited the place.
Officer John Standing of the State Police questioned the man in the car from the bridge, and asked for an identification card, which the man readily produced. He was Arthur John Shawcross, aged 44, but with his graying hair he looked considerably older. He told that he knew he had been followed, but thought it was because he had relieved himself in the woods. Shawcross cooperated and answered the questions asked without creating a fuss. He did not have a driving license on him and said that he did not have one. He also told that he had been to prison for manslaughter.
The manslaughter revelation changed the picture. This was someone who had killed at least once and just happened to be around a place where a body had been dumped, in the immediate vicinity of which fresh footprints had been found. Together with the facts that the killer had started returning to the bodies to mutilate them and the same had happened in this particular case as well, Arthur John Shawcross looked like someone the police had to interrogate a lot more closely and rigorously than an ordinary passerby.
It could be a mere coincidence that a man convicted of manslaughter was spotted around a killer’s dumpsite, but such large swings of chance were not usual. Alternatively, chance could have played for the investigators this time, and they might have run into the killer when he was returning from his second visit to the body. Either way, Shawcross had to be examined closely and thoroughly.
However, so far there was nothing except his presence around the dumpsite to connect Shawcross to the killing, and the investigators wanted to proceed with caution instead of trying to force a confession out of the only viable suspect they had had in a long time.
Investigator Dennis Blythe persuaded Shawcross to come with him to the State Police Barracks for further questioning, which Shawcross readily agreed to and even signed forms, quite willingly, to allow the police to search his house and the car he was driving. The police took Clara Neal and Shawcross to Brockport in a different car because Neal’s car, which Shawcross had been found driving, had to be examined for incriminating material.
Blythe was assisted by Charlie Militello, an old hand at interrogations, in questioning the most promising suspect they had ever had in the case. They started slow and soon enough Shawcross came to describing the places he frequented for fishing. Most of these places were the sites where the killer had dropped bodies. He admitted to have been arrested and prosecuted sixteen years back in Watertown in connection with the death of two children, but he did not say he had anything to do with it. All he was willing to say was that the “two kids died” and he was arrested with respect to that. He also rigidly insisted that he just happened to be in the area where a body had been found. He had seen nothing, he insisted. The investigators were far from convinced, but they tread carefully with questioning.
So far Shawcross had said or disclosed nothing that could disabuse the notion that he was the serial killer the investigators were looking for, but the interrogators went on easy and nice with Shawcross building rapport rather than making allegations. This could be the killer, in which case they wanted his return to June Cicero’s body to be his last return to any of his dumpsites although it was likely that a few other bodies were waiting to be discovered.
…to be continued