The first documentary of the year is Cropsey, written by Joshua Zeman and produced and directed by Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio. They’re front of camera a good deal too, and with reason. Both of them grew up on Staten Island in New York ion the 1970s. ‘Cropsey’, at that time, was a local term for a boogeyman. All the familiar trappings of the ‘escaped lunatic’ urban myth are here; abandoned country roads and land for him to roam in, an occasional hook hand and a fondness for stealing children. The major difference is Staten Island’s Cropsey is real.
Zeman and Brancaccio open with a discussion not only of Cropsey but of what it was like growing up on Staten Island in the 1970s. The borough is revealed to be a profoundly strange and, as they dig deeper, increasingly disturbing place. The former home of New York’s largest garbage dump, it became, they argue, the place all kinds of waste from the city was dropped. A favored disposal site for Mafia hits, Staten Island also housed an infectious diseases hospital and the Willowbrook State School. Willowbrook was a home for intellectually disabled children, again, effectively swept to the edge of New York and forgotten. In 1972, then cub reporter Geraldo Rivera made his name on a stinging expose of the School and the horrific conditions the children were kept in. Some of the footage, showing naked, clearly deeply distressed children with a skeleton staff trying to manage them, is included in the film. It is, by far, the most disturbing thing you see and hear, abstract ‘70s videotape phantoms resolving into humanity at its most needy and most ignored. Rivera’s expose disgraced the school but it was only closed in 1987. The building still stands and, the local stories go, old residents and staff found their way back there and live in the woods around, and the tunnels under, the school.
Willowbrook, and the idea that it’s still an active community, is an open wound at the center of the movie and, it seems, the island. Everyone knows what happened there, everyone knows what may continue to happen there but almost no one does anything or even acknowledges its existence. Willowbrook, and its version of the Cropsey myth, were part of Zeman and Brancaccio’s childhoods and as they find out when a group of teenagers interrupts filming, are still part of growing up on the island. Everyone knows the building, everyone knows the story and everyone remembers what happened to 12 year-old Jennifer Schweiger.
Schweiger disappeared on July 9th 1987. The resulting search went on for weeks and culminated in the discovery of her body near one of Andre Rand’s campsites. Rand had worked at Willowbrook, had a previous history of child abuse and lived in the woods. His own intellectual disabilities were profound and the photo of Rand, drooling and clearly deeply unwell, being led from the court is an image as iconic as it is disturbing. He was sighted with Jennifer by numerous people, and would go on to be linked to the disappearances of five other children starting in 1972 with the disappearance of 2 year old Alice Perreira. In 2004 Rand, serving time for the kidnapping and first-degree murder of Jennifer Schweiger was also successfully tried for the kidnapping of Holly Ann Hughes in 1972. Jennifer’s body is the only one to have been found and, following the case, Rand became permanently linked to the local version of the Cropsey story.
The case, as put forward like this, is horrifying but in the end, closed. Rand was responsible for the murders, he was convicted of one and whilst the families of the other victims continue to exist in a Hell of uncertainty, Rand, the guilty man, is at least in prison.
Zeman and Brancaccio dig past the initial story, out into the deep woods. What they find isn’t conclusive but is, if anything, more disturbing for that. They visit Willowbrook and discover clear evidence that people are still living there and speak to the detectives who arrested Rand. Ralph Aquino and Bobby Jensen look so much like you’d expect them to that, just for a moment, the film seems to stutter as fiction and reality mix. The two men are refreshingly open about events, but remain curiously closed off when it comes to the possibility of anything other than Rand being guilty. They also let slip something they maybe shouldn’t have; they played Rand the videotape of Geraldo Rivera’s expose. According to the two men, the result was instant and chilling; his eyes rolled into his head, he seemed on the verge of confessing and them went catatonic for days. It’s presented so matter of factly you almost miss what seems to be a last ditch ploy by them to get their suspect to confess. It’s a raw insight into just how much the case impacted on the community, and the unique pressure these men felt. It’s also a hint of something larger and darker, moving at the edge of our vision.
That sensation dominates the second half of the film, occasionally to its detriment. The film makers constantly attempt to secure an interview with Rand whose precise, detailed letters become a recurrent motif even as they raise doubts about the case and his own condition. At the same time, the film makers begin to find structures beneath the events that mirror the structures beneath Willowbrook. A local Christian organization contacts them claiming the children were all killed as part of Satanic rituals that linked the Staten Island deaths with the Son of Sam killings. They’re also warned about the possibility of being targeted themselves, even as they venture out to Willowbrook in the dead of night. That’s the one moment where the film appears to show artifice, as there seems to be no reason whatsoever for them to visit at night other than added atmosphere. When you add in their meeting with a group of local teens out there, this is the one moment where the film feels realistic rather than real.
That moment aside, the head of steam built up in the second half is impressive. The film makers talk to Rand’s defence attorneys, find evidence that the witnesses who identified him had histories of substance abuse and encounter literal ‘ghosts’. The first is a photo of the last area one child was seen, where the Volkswagen described as the last vehicle she got into is clearly visible. Another is a future victim, visible in the background as a TV reporter recaps events. Finally, their cameraman catches a flash of motion in one of the Willowbrook buildings during a daytime visit. Something awful moves in the woods, at the edge of the movie’s vision. Perhaps something tragic too.
Whether or not the film makers believe Rand is guilty is something they’re far too clever to come out and say. Instead, they map the narrative territory of Cropsey, Rand, the Willowbrook and Staten Island with intelligence, authority and frequent compassion. As a result, they capture moments of emotional honesty that transcend each persons’ position in the case. Donna Cutugno, who organized the search for Jennifer, in particular emerges as a person of quiet, bottomless strength. She still searches for the other children, aided by retired police officers and other people who the case touched. Aquino and Jensen are clearly still haunted by their experience with Rand and the lack of closure for their case while the families of the missing are decades into a uniquely personal hell. Even external experts like Frank Saez, a retired NYPD Missing Persons and Long Term Cases detective clearly struggles with the events surrounding the case. Saez at one point, like Jensen and Aquino, overshares but seems to do so on purpose. He explains that Satanice abuse cases are far more common than people know, many departments don’t acknowledge them and that they are as likely to take place in institutions such as Willowbrook as they are in homes. But when Zeman asks if children were ever involved, Saez’s entire demeanour changes and he shuts down refusing to talk about it. The thing at the edge of vision gets a little too close before vanishing again.
The only certainty comes from Rev. Charles Muskett, a former pastor who let Rand live with him on the orders of the police in the closing stages of the Schweiger case. In yet another moment of surprising, and chilling, honesty, Muskett explains that he has no doubt of Rand’s guilt because Rand confessed to him. He goes further, explaining that Rand felt Schweiger, who suffered from Down Syndrome, needed to be killed due to her home life and illness. It’s a remarkable admission about a remarkable, and largely overlooked part of the case but even here there’s nothing conclusive. Two of Rand’s other four possible victims had learning disabilities, the other two did not while Rand is either a tragic victim, a patsy or a necrophiliac serial killer depending on who the film makers talk to. Yet again, the story becomes mercury, never quite settling in the form you’d expect it to. Just like an urban myth.
The lack of concrete evidence may frustrate some, but given the intimate connection between the disappearances, Rand, local history and the Cropsey story, it’s really the only thing Zeman and Brancaccio could have done. There is no certainty here, not for the families of the victims, the people of Staten Island or even Rand himself. There are only the stories, real and imagined, and Willowbrook, where the two meet and where Cropsey, every version of him, was born.