aka Genessee River Killer
Beginning of terror
It was the early spring of 1988 near Rochester, New York. A party of hunters were near Route 31 and Salmon Creek, an area which is part of the Genessee River Gorge and its environs. This gorge is sometimes called 'the Grand Canyon of the East' for its scenic splendor.
The hunters saw something in the water that March 24, 1988 day. The ice had just broken from the long cold winter and in the rushing icy flow the men saw what they took for a mannequin. A closer look revealed the face of a woman, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, the face smeared with silt.
Authorities were called and the woman was identified as Dorothy 'Dotsie' Blackburn, a 27 year old hooker who plied her trade on Lyell Avenue, a notorious area for prostitution in Rochester. She had been reported as missing a few days earlier on March 18, 1988 by her sister. Her body had been severely traumatized, suffering multiple bruises as well as bite marks in the genital area. The autopsy revealed no water in the lungs, showing drowning had not been the cause of death. She had been murdered and her body dumped into the river.
Dorothy Blackburn was a hooker with problems. She had 3 kids and a cocaine habit to support. Police knew that hookers live a very dangerous lifestyle and murder is an ever present danger. Her lifestyle opened up a long list of possible perpetrators. It could be an angry drug dealer wanting to be paid, a dissatisfied customer, someone who knew her trade and that she dealt in a cash business, making her a target for robbery. There were many unanswered questions and one glaring certainty. Dotsie Blackburn was dead. She became a file in a police investigation, a file which quickly became cold in the ensuing year.
The following summer of 1989 led to the discovery of a number of murdered prostitutes in the area. Examination of the circumstances showed few common elements, the method of killing and means of disposal being varied. On September 9, 1989 a man prospecting for bottles to redeem for the deposit money encountered bones protruding from an area. He called the police and they had another unidentified body of a woman on their hands. The evidence failed to yield an identification. There were 138 possible matches from missing persons reports but none proved fruitful. Local police called in a specialist in forensic anthropology to recreate the victim's appearance from her skull, a tedious and painstaking process. This tactic yielded results and the woman was identified by her father as Anna Steffen. Dental records confirmed the identification. She was also involved in the local underworld life of the sex trade and a drug user. Though she bore many similarities to Dotsie Blackburn, their bodies were found far apart. No link was made and no suspicion existed that a serial killer was operating in the area. Her body was badly decomposed and a determination of cause of death from probable asphyxiation was given, largely due to an absence of other gross injuries.
Six weeks later hunters encountered another badly decomposed corpse of a woman in the Genessee River Gorge. Her decapitated body was partly obscured by tall weeds. Her neck had been broken and cause of death was ascribed to blunt force trauma.
An employee of the county jail read of the grisly discovery and reported a missing homeless woman he was familiar with and whom he hadn't seen in some time. The woman was named Dorothy Keeler, aged 60. Police made a positive identification from the tipster information.
Six days later a boy discovered a foot sticking from a pile of debris near the local YMCA. The body of Patty Ives, another Lyell Avenue hooker had been found.
Four dead women, most of them prostitutes, three of which had been found over a short time span finally got police to see that they had a predator in their community. The women had been at least partly concealed, and all had died of suffocation. Signs of struggle were absent making police believe the killer was very fast, very strong, and very effective.
An uneasy truce
Police approached local women in the sex trade, asking them if they were aware of anyone acting dangerously. The women were suspicious of the cops, thinking it was a ploy they were using to make vice busts. The cops laid off making arrests and the girls felt safer, though still on edge and untrusting of this unusual accommodation by the police. For their part the cops used undercover cars, watching the trade to identify suspects.
A glimmer of hope
One hooker, a larger and more mature specimen named Jo Ann Van Nostrand gave a report of a John who frightened her. She said he mentioned the strangler and made a move toward her neck with his hands. She pulled a knife and threatened him, a move he seemed appreciative of rather than frightened by.
Hookers continued to disappear. The body of Frances Brown was found, clad only in boots, dumped down a slope in the Gorge. Another prostitute named Maria Welch had gone missing. The intense investigation led to the apprehension of some murderers, but many of the cases remained uncleared. There was still an unknown agent operating, reaping a harvest from the local hooker community.
A man came forward to report the disappearance of his 26 year old girl friend, a woman named June Stott. She had a history of mental problems but was not a hooker. Police thought she wasn't at risk though she had a history of simply going away for extended periods of time. Her boy friend wasn't consoled by their lack of concern.
November 15 saw the discovery of Kimberly Logan, a black Lyell Avenue hooker. Thanksgiving was the day another body was discovered, this time covered by a piece of carpet and discarded in a swampy area. Even though it was Thanksgiving the police scrambled to the scene, hoping to find evidence to finally bring the predator to justice. This victim had endured even more brutal attention from her killer than the previous victims. She had been opened from her sternum to her pubic region. She had been dead for some time before discovery, perhaps as much as a few weeks, the body partially preserved by the cold environment. Nearby a knife and bloody towel were discovered but no fingerprints were recovered. The victim was June Stott, the woman reported missing earlier by her boy friend. Cause of death was once again asphyxiation and the body was partly concealed, a pattern similar to previous murders. However this body was discovered 7 miles away from the other dumping grounds. Was the killer dumping women all over the area or were they dealing with more than one killer? No answers were available to police and their frustration deepened.
A plea for help
Rochester police made an appeal to the FBI for assistance. Special Agent Gregg McCrary of the Behavioral Science Unit took the call. He agreed that Rochester probably had a serial killer operating in the area and he enlisted the aid of New York State Police Lieutenant Ed Grant, a graduate of FBI training in the area of criminal investigative analysis.
Before the forces enlisted could assemble in Rochester another woman was found on November 27. The victim was Elizabeth Gibson, another prostitute. She was found by a hunter, dumped in a swampy area of a neighboring county. Cause of death was once again asphyxiation. The only thing different this time was there was a witness.
A witness comes forward
Jo Ann Van Nostrand, the prostitute who had been frightened earlier by a John, had seen Gibson in the company of the same John who had scared her, a man known to her by the name 'Mitch'. She heard of the discovery of Gibson's body and went to police with her information. Previously she had told police that 'Mitch' used a gray van to troll for girls. Police finally felt they had a solid lead, something concrete to help them find the killer.
A picture develops
McCrary and Grant arrived on December 13, 1988. They had 12 cases from the past year to analyze, looking for patterns which would aid them in their investigation. Upon studying the evidence of each killing they presented a profile of their quarry. They expected the killer to be white, a local man familiar with the area. He was probably in his late 20s to early 30s. He probably had a wife or girl friend, was employed, worked an ordinary job, drove a nondescript vehicle. He was colorless, blending in seamlessly with his environment, invisible while in plain sight to both the police and the prostitutes he preyed upon. The killer was cunning, using the surroundings to his advantage. Police believed he had a history of sexual crimes. He could be anyone, anyone at all.
Using this information police convinced a local bar owner to raffle off a TV, producing a sizable roster of names of men who frequented the area. From this roster police developed a suspect, a 38 year old man who drove a gray van, had a taste for kinky sex, and was known to frequent Lyell Avenue. Further investigation revealed this suspect had alibis from his employer for the time when most of the murders occurred. Police had arrived at a dead end and had to go back and start again.
The list of missing women continued to grow unabated. Four hookers went missing, including the long absent Maria Welch. She had been joined by June Cicero, Darlene Trippi, and Felicia Stephens. On December 31 a pair of black jeans was found frozen by the roadway near Salmon Creek. An ID card showed them to belong to Felicia Stephens. Her boots were discovered in a different area. It was assumed she had become a victim of the predator.
A long awaited break!
Police decided to make an aerial search for victims. The snow made it a difficult project but they persevered in their efforts. After 2 days they were dejected at the lack of any progress. Before shutting down the aerial search they made one final sweep of the area near Salmon Creek where the first victim had been found. They were suprised to find what looked like a woman lying face down, spread eagle on the ice of the stream near a bridge. She was dressed in a white top, no other clothing in evidence. Hovering to get a fuller view they noticed a Chevy Celebrity parked on the bridge, a large man outside of the car, apparently urinating. They radioed units to investigate but the man returned to his car and drove away. The woman on the ice proved to be the missing prostitute June Cicero. The killer had chalked up another score.
The car was under surveillance from the air. It left the scene and went to the nearby village of Spencerport. The car was registered to a woman named Clara Neal. The male driver upon request identified himself as Arthur John Shawcross, aged 44. Shawcross had no drivers license, and admitted to having spent time in jail for manslaughter. Police felt they had their man, the killer tumbling into their net by blind luck, returning to the scene of one of his victims. They were determined to go by the book, make the case carefully, methodically, and thoroughly, going through the investigation into Arthur Shawcross' activities. Too many cases had been botched by over-eager investigators in their rush to a conclusion. That was not going to happen with this investigation.
A dark past exposed
Shawcross for his part was cooperative with interrogators. He granted permission for police to examine both the Chevy Celebrity and his home. He agreed to accompany Investigator Dennis Blythe to the New York State Police barracks for further questioning. Charlie Militello, an experienced interrogator, assisted in the questioning. Shawcross revealed that he was familiar with the area, being an avid fisherman. He was acquainted with the areas where several of the bodies had been found. He also revealed that he had been arrested in Watertown, New York 16 years earlier in an incident where 2 kids died. This incident included Shawcross raping and murdering a young girl, strangling her to death. He had done a 15 year stretch for the murders.
Shawcross also told of how he'd had sex with his younger sister. He claimed to have been initiated into sex by an aunt at the age of 9. He spoke of his time in Vietnam in which he claimed to have killed many people. There was no concrete evidence implicating Shawcross in any of the murders so police had to release him. They requested a photo be made and Shawcross submitted voluntarily.
The photo was part of a photo spread of potential assailants shown to the working girls on Lyell Avenue. Jo Ann Van Nostrand immediately exclaimed "That's the guy!", the one she had seen with Elizabeth Gibson, the John she knew as 'Mitch'. She finally knew how close she had come to being one of the murder victims. Several other girls recognized Shawcross as a regular denizen of the area.
Police developed a history of Shawcross and his activities, the details of his early life emerging. He had been born in Kittery, Maine on June 6, 1945. He was the son of Arthur Roy and Bessie Shawcross, one of 3 children, having a sister named Jeannie and a brother named Jimmy. He had been found to possess a very low IQ, a tendency toward bullying, and an explosive temper. Shawcross had quit school in the 9th grade. He married his first wife in 1964 and they had a son the following year. That year also saw the end of the marriage following a probationary sentence he received for unlawful entry. He was drafted into the Army in 1967 and later entered his second marriage, as equally rocky and short a union as his first. He eventually was to marry 4 times. He had a criminal history including burglary and arson before he graduated to the major leagues, becoming a murderer. His first victim was 10 year old Jack Blake, a boy who lived near Shawcross in Watertown, New York. Shawcross had taken the boy and his older brother fishing just days before his disappearance. The boy's mother suspected Shawcross but no evidence pointed to his guilt. Police were unable to connect Shawcross to the disappearance.
Four months later 8 year old Karen Ann Hill was visiting Watertown with her mother. She disappeared, her body then being found under a bridge. She had been brutally raped and strangled. Shawcross was known to fish from the area under the same bridge. Police questioning elicited a confession to the murder of Karen Ann Hill and secured enough information to lead to the recovery of the remains of Jack Blake.
Released and invisible
Shawcross did time in prison for these crimes, being released 1 year early and being settled in Rochester. He initially had been released into the Binghamton, New York area but citizen protests had led to relocation. Other sites were tried, but further protests stymied attempts at relocation. His records were sealed from the public (as well as police departments), and he and his wife were settled in Rochester. Efforts to locate known sex offenders in the hooker killings had gone past those of Shawcross due to their being sealed and obscured from view. When pressed for reasons why this dangerous man had been released early into the unsuspecting Rochester community and his records hidden from investigators, the parole board offered the excuse "We had to put him somewhere."
Police politics reared its head. A decision had to be made as to which jurisdiction would conduct the interrogation of Shawcross, and thereby get the credit for making the bust. In a move which amazingly satisfied everyone, a joint team of New York State Police and Rochester Police Department personnel conducted the interrogation. Dennis Blythe and Leonard Boriello were chosen for the task, but before they could begin their work another factor entered the scene. The body of Felicia Stephens was discovered by yet another deer hunter.
The investigators asked Shawcross to accompany them to help clear up some details. He agreed but denied any knowledge when presented with several sites where bodies had been recovered. He brushed off the eyewitness account of being seen with Elizabeth Gibson as simply a coincidence. Shawcross expressed concern about Clara Neal and the investigators knew they had a lever to use against Shawcross. They suggested that she might be involved due to the link of her car to Shawcross. When asked if Clara was involved, Shawcross responded with a "No, Clara's not involved." The team was elated, knowing they had him where they wanted him. Just 28 minutes into the interview he'd come close to admitting what he'd done. A minute later he started talking about Elizabeth Gibson, justifying his murder of her.
Shawcross crumbled, providing a mountain of detail concerning the killings. He asked for a map of the dump sites and photos of the victims. He readily gave details of the murders he had done, including the locations of the missing Darlene Trippi and Maria Welch. The interrogators tried to get him to cop to the murder of black hooker Kimberly Logan, but Shawcross determinedly refused to accept guilt for that murder.
The players take center stage
When all was said and done his confession ran to an astounding 79 pages. His court appointed attorney was David Murante, who entered a plea of innocent at his arraignment. This plea set the groundwork for his later defense of insanity.
Assistant DA Chuck Saragusa had been working on this case for months. He knew the prosecution would be challenging despite all the physical evidence, witness testimony, and Shawcross' own confession. New York had no death penalty at the time but Saragusa was determined to at least put Shawcross where he could never kill again.
The details elicited from Shawcross about his life were quite creative, having little or no corroborative evidence, morphing to fit the circumstances. He recited a litany of childhood physical and sexual abuse. Investigators failed to find evidence of most of Shawcross' allegations. They did find evidence that he had suffered from fainting spells during childhood.
Shawcross claimed to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition caused by his service in Vietnam. The prosecution enlisted former FBI and military CID investigator Robert Ressler to ascertain the validity of Shawcross' claims. Ressler used his 35 years of experience to investigate and reveal Shawcross was running a game of shuck and jive to bolster his insanity defense. Under the weight of Ressler's analysis the defense abandoned their use of PTSD as part of their defense.
Because the murdered women had been recovered in nore than one county the defense was multi-pronged. For the murder of Elizabeth Gibson the defense hired Dr. Richard Kraus in Wayne County. Dr. Kraus was very thorough in his research into Shawcross. After spending considerable funds for an evaluation the defense was given an evaluation that Shawcross was 'deceptive, muddled, sociopathic, sane, not suffering from PTSD, prone to making up stories that change dramatically in detail, unlikely to have been a victim of child abuse, and not significantly brain damaged'. Dr. Kraus in short refused to certify Shawcross insane in the absence of any concrete evidence on which to make such an evaluation.
Defense attorney Murante hired Dr. Dorothy Lewis in Monroe County to perform a similar assessment. She concluded her study with results wildly different than those of Dr. Kraus. Based largely upon accounts from Shawcross himself she described a litany of disorders including multiple personalities triggered by childhood abuse and trauma, seizures, and a brain abnormality consisting of a small cyst on his right temporal lobe. Shawcross responded to her questioning style by providing lurid stories of abuse, confessions of cannibalizing his victims, and confusing the details of one murder with another. He had evidenced no such propinquity for confusion in his confession to police. Shawcross seemed to be playing Lewis like a Stradivarius for his own benefit.
Playing for keeps
In Monroe County the trial for 10 counts of murder began. Lewis was made to look unprepared and gullible. In the 5 week long trial the defense failed to present a cogent argument supporting the concept of insanity. While the evidence of the right temporal lobe cyst was admitted, the prosecution produced testimony that its effect was negligible. Lewis was blindsided by the defense attornies who had told her that they had hired a neurosurgeon to test and evaluate Shawcross. It developed that the defense had in fact not engaged a neurosurgeon but instead engaged Joel Norris, a writer/criminologist with a Ph.D. in psychiatry. Norris had interviewed Shawcross, then had his partner try to sell the interview to a local media outlet. Lewis was put in the untenable position of crying foul on the same defense of which she was a part. The defense was a shambled compared to the presentation given by the prosecution.
The jury was set to deliver a verdict. They decided they were not buying what the defense was peddling, coming in with guilty verdicts on all 10 counts. Deliberations occupied the jury for half of a single day. They returned with findings that Shawcross was sane, that he was guilty of second degree manslaughter, and sentenced him to 25 years on each of the 10 counts before the court. Shawcross would serve 250 years before he became eligible for parole.
The second trial scheduled in Wayne County for the murder of Elizabeth Gibson was determined to be unnecessary. In the absence of a defense witness testifying in favor of an insanity plea, defense counsel advised Shawcross to plead guilty, which he did. Shawcross would never see the outside of prison walls again in his natural life.
Arthur Shawcross was remanded into the custody of the Sullivan Correctional Facility located in Fallsburg, New York.
While not the most prolific serial killer on record, Shawcross has his devotees. He has been the subject of several works including an HBO documentary entitled Cannibal: The real Hannibal Lecters. Scant evidence exists that Shawcross actually ever consumed the flesh of any of his victims. Shawcross had terrorized the Rochester area for well over a year, earning his appellation as the Genessee River Killer.
In his appearances in documentaries Arthur Shawcross appears harmless, a great sheet of a man who could be the local farmer or school janitor. Nothing in his demeanor labels him as capable of strangling women until their death. His unremarkable appearance made it easy for him to approach his victims, not set off ther instincts for self preservation.
A November 11, 2008 report by the Associated Press recounts that convicted Genessee River Killer Arthur Shawcross had died of cardiac arrest on Monday, November 10, 2008. He had been transported to an Albany, NY hospital after complaining of leg pain earlier in the day. Cause of death has not been ascertained as of the report, pending further investigation. Shawcross was age 63 at the time of death.