Crime File


Written by HemRaj Singh

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.

In the absence of anything concretely incriminating, they could not hold him against his will making it imperative that Shawcross revealed the details of his crimes voluntarily. They questioned him for five hours and had Clara sent home before they let Shawcross leave. Before that, however, they had made Shawcross comfortable enough to admit his past crimes for which he had already stood trial and served time. He told that he had anally raped the little girl before strangling her. He said that he had had sexual relations with his younger sister, and that had something to do with his assaulting a child and also with his killing so many people in Vietnam, a claim that would later turn out to be completely false. Shawcross had the tendency to blame his crimes on his past experiences in an attempt to make it sound like he was a victim of his circumstances.

When Shawcross was being questioned, his being the culprit in the serial murders was being questioned on the grounds that paedophiles did not change their victim type from children to adults. However, neither Grant nor McCrary had placed any such qualification in their profile of the killer. Being experts, they knew better than subscribing to that view. They knew very well that not all killers are genuine paedophiles who go only for children. Some of them go for kids simply because they are easy victims, just like the prostitutes. Furthermore, Shawcross had spent some fifteen years in prison, during which time he could have fantasized on different lines and may have also learned that people do not respond to the rape and murders of prostitutes with the same outrage as they do when the same crimes are committed against children. That serial killers do not change their victim type was a misconstrued notion with no concrete evidence to support it.

Shawcross had not yet confessed to the rape and murders of the prostitutes in Rochester, but the investigators were sure he would come up with some self-serving explanation for them as well when he did eventually confess. The investigators had asked Shawcross to have himself photographed before releasing him. He had agreed. They put the picture into circulation with the police officers for identification. 

Jo Ann Van Nostrand readily identified the man as the same “Mitch” that she had known as a client and had seen Elizabeth Gibson go with a day before she had disappeared. Many other prostitutes also identified Shawcross as a regular customer who had never presented any problem for them, which made him a safe bet.

The investigators were now sure that Shawcross was their man, but they wanted to look into his background to know how a paedophile, who had been convicted of manslaughter, had found his way into Rochester without the local police getting to know of it. How was it that he had not turned up as a suspect when they had run a search for the known sex offenders living in the area? The story that came to light left the investigators startled.

Shawcross had not shied from admitting to several crimes he had committed in Watertown, New York, which was where he had grown up. At the age of 19, he had dropped out of school at the start of the ninth grade and had joined the Army. He went to Vietnam and served there and claimed that during his tour he had undergone several traumatic experiences in Vietnam and had fought valiantly as what appeared to be a one-man army from his description. He had been married and divorced thrice, and was married to his fourth wife at the time of the questioning. He seemed to have started with burglary graduating to arson and then to killing.

Arthur Shawcross

Arthur John Shawcross was born a premature baby by two months on the morning of June 6, 1945 at the U.S. Naval hospital in Kittery, Maine to an 18-year-old Bessie and a 21-year-old Corporal Arthur Roy Shawcross. Two weeks later, Bessie moved to Watertown, New York with baby Arthur to live with her sister-in-law until Arthur’s father, Corporal Shawcross, had completed his military service.

By 1958, Arthur’s family was living in a small house in a rural area near Brownville some six miles northwest of Watertown. Soon enough, three other related families came over to settle down, and the area came to be called “Shawcross Corners”. The family so extended had thirteen children in all. However, after Arthur’s younger brother, Jimmy, was born, Arthur’s behaviour started changing. He would wet his bed regularly and talked like a baby until he was six, and a year later, when he was around seven, he began running away from home. The family felt that he was just acting up to gain attention. But the ongoing change in his behaviour did not stop there and soon other problems surfaced.

He hated kids younger than him and would frequently tease them to tears. He also got obsessed with his sister Jeannie and started ignoring his brother and the other sister completely. He had imaginary friend with whom he spoke in strange voices, which led to his classmates’ calling him “oddie” to tease him, which enraged him. He did not want to socialize with other children and was frequently characterized as “weird” during his school years. He would be found sitting alone in a classroom while his classmates played outside.

Despite isolation, Arthur’s performance at school was above average. A school nurse remembered Arthur not only as “a troubled boy”, but also as a boy who carried an iron bar on the bus to scare other children.

When Arthur entered third grade, both his behaviour as well as his grades had taken a dive, and he had to be subjected to several psychological tests to ascertain the reason for it. The tests showed that Arthur had developed feelings of inadequacy, which fueled his growing hostility towards other children as well as his parents. He had grown particularly hostile towards his mother. Despite the adverse results of the psychological evaluations, Arthur was promoted to the fourth grade. He stayed in fourth grade for two years, during which time he ran away from home once again and was found at the Canadian border.

The situation at home worsened by the time Arthur was nine when his mother discovered that Arthur’s father had another family in Australia. The discovery led to a drastic change in the general behaviour of Arthur’s mother. She would frequently get angry with Arthur’s father resulting in his turning quiet and withdrawn. Arthur stayed away from his mother as much as he could by staying at his grandmother’s house whenever possible.  

Arthur grew increasingly violent as time passed and started getting into fights with the children in the neighbourhood very frequently. He also started breaking into and stealing from the houses and business places in the vicinity. And then began lighting fires. Not only was Arthur becoming increasingly anti-social and withdrawn but was also taking less and less interest in studies, which led to his falling behind in school. He was three years older than his classmates in eighth grade, but he cared little. His classmates returned the favour and did not pay attention to Arthur either. Arthur’s isolation was complete.

Arthur was regularly wetting his bed by the time he was thirteen and was completely withdrawn from the world into his own private world. He would go walking into the woods for long hours and would often be seen talking to and yelling at inanimate things and would also start beating the bushes and little plants frenetically with a stick like he was tormented by something.  

After the arrest, Arthur claimed that by the time he turned fourteen he was having regular oral sex with his sister Jeannie and cousin Linda. He also claimed that he had sexual relationship with another girl who lived in the neighbourhood and was once caught performing oral sex on her by her brother, who threatened to disclose it to the parents if Arthur did not perform oral sex on him too. Arthur further claimed that during this time his craving for sex grew insatiable. However, it was an encounter with a stranger that made him associate sex with pain, he said.

On his way back from school, Arthur was once picked up by a stranger in a car, who forced him to perform oral sex on him and held Arthur by the throat during the act. Arthur claimed that since the incident it became impossible for him to reach orgasm without putting himself in pain. Notably, Arthur only mentions oral sex and does not mention penetration describing any of the sexual acts during his teenage years, which might indicate that he had problems achieving or maintaining erection since he was a teenager, which could have led to his increasing anger and frustration.

However, the stories of sexual abuse and sexual encounters during his teenage that Arthur told are not wholly reliable because he was given to changing them at will to explain his subsequent behaviour. The stories, therefore, may be a mix of truth and lies because most of those stories remain unconfirmed and Arthur’s family has maintained that they are products of Arthur’s imagination.    

When Arthur was around fifteen, he was arrested and prosecuted for breaking into a departmental store, but since he had not removed anything from the store, he was awarded probation. He spent the next few years doing nothing mentionable, and then at the age of nineteen he got married for the first time. The marriage lasted three years and got Arthur a son. In 1968, Arthur joined the army and went to Vietnam on a tour of duty, where, he says, he learnt how to kill and was exposed to harrowing experiences. Before proceeding on the tour, Arthur married Linda Neary.

He was assigned to a unit in Pleiku as a supply clerk, and as part of his duties arranged the distribution of ammunition, which required him to fly to the forward troops on a helicopter. Initially, he later told the psychiatrists who examined him, he was shocked by the violence he witnessed when he accompanied the forward troops on “fire missions” but he started craving for the danger and violence and became a “predator”. He blamed his violent tendencies in part on his experiences in Vietnam. Arthur’s account of his experiences in Vietnam are just as untrustworthy as his account of his sexual experiences in his teens. The Army has strongly refuted Arthur’s claims and has maintained that Arthur did not see combat in Vietnam and worked only as a supply clerk.

Arthur claimed that on one of the “missions” he found two Vietnamese women hiding guns in a hollow tree. He shot one of them on the spot and while she was still alive, he cut off her head and put it on a post for the enemy to find. He also told that he sliced out a part of her thigh, roasted it and ate some of it. He tied the other woman to the tree, had oral sex with her and raped her before shooting her dead. He also claimed that during his tour in Vietnam he became an expert sniper and also managed to fashion a silencer out of a rubber nipple from a bottle meant for babies, which facilitated his shooting at the enemy without disclosing his own location. He did not disclose why he had to create his own silencer. Also, a silencer – actually called a “suppressor” – used on a sniper rifle to suppress the sound of a bullet leaving the barrel is a long and heavy metal tube, and for that reason it is doubtful that a “silencer” made from a rubber nipple of a baby’s milk bottle could substitute an equipment as sturdy as a suppressor.

Furthermore, Arthur claimed that the silencer thus made was good for only one shot, but did not disclose where he found rubber nipples in such high supply in a jungle in Vietnam. It is, therefore, more likely, as the army claimed, that Arthur was massively exaggerating his experiences and achievements in Vietnam to simultaneously glorify and blame his stint in the Vietnam war to deflect the blame for his gruesome deeds onto something other than himself. However, the possibility of his Vietnam experiences’ being contributory or escalatory to his turning into a diabolic serial killer cannot be completely ruled out.

Arthur returned to Watertown in 1969 a continually restless man, and the facts that his wife had spent all the money he had sent home and had started seeing another man in his absence did not help. Soon, he was transferred to Fort Sill Oklahoma to serve the remaining term in the Army. This time he took Linda along, but that did not help either. During this period, Arthur started experiencing violent nightmares and flashbacks, and turned violent towards Linda resulting in his having to consult an Army psychiatrist, who prescribed therapy and some time in a mental hospital. But Linda did not have much faith in the prescribed treatment and refused to sign the papers required for Arthur’s commitment to the hospital.

After his discharge from the Army, it seems Arthur’s mental health went into a freefall. He was frequently irritated with Linda and her family for their religiosity. In his anger and frustration, Arthur put a local paper mill on fire, and sometime later the cheese factory where he worked back then. He was found guilty of arson on two counts for those crimes and was sentenced to five years. While he was in prison, Linda divorced him.

During a racial riot in prison, Arthur saved the life of a prison guard who had sustained injuries, for which Arthur was released early in 1971. He returned to Watertown to start afresh. However, the time he had spent in prison had not done much to improve his mental state, which meant the fresh start could as well be the continuation of his old self. At the time of release, Arthur was in just as anxious a frame of mind as he was when he had committed the crimes for which he was serving time.

The First Two

After his return to Watertown, Arthur landed a job as a handyman at the Watertown Public Works Department, and quickly married a third time. His third wife, Penny Nichol, who had two children from a previous relationship, was a school friend of Arthur’s sister Jeannie. Arthur would later claim that during this time he had a continuing sexual relationship with Jeannie and she had introduced him to Penny because Jeannie had got pregnant by her boyfriend and could not carry on having sexual relationship with Arthur. The claim remains unverified and unsupported.

Arthur also claimed that for the first five months his relationship with Penny went well and at one point of time she was pregnant with his child but had an unfortunate miscarriage. However, Arthur also claimed in a different interview that he could not maintain an erection and could not ejaculate, which makes his claim of auto-aborted fatherhood a bit hard to believe. Either that or he was lying about his inability to have a full-fledged intercourse, which is more unlikely because no semen was found on any of the bodies he had dumped. Arthur also claimed that his marriage came under serious peril when Penny’s father accused him of having sexually assaulted Penny’s younger sister, which allegation Arthur denied.      

Arthur spent a lot of time fishing in the creeks and rivers around Watertown, which brought him in touch with many children, one of whom was Jack Blake, a ten-year-old boy. Arthur once went to Jack’s house seeking his mother’s permission to take Jack fishing. The mother declined. Arthur politely accepted her decision. However, four months later, on June 4, 1972, Jack disappeared.

Three months later, eight-year-old Karen Ann Hill was found dead under a bridge near Black River. She had been raped, strangled to death and mutilated.

…to be continued

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HemRaj Singh

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