Directed by: Joshua Zeman & Barbara Brancaccio
“Cropsey” is an urban legend, popular with kids in
. He lived in the woods, sometimes he had an axe, sometimes a hook. He kidnapped children and brought them down to the tunnels under the town and killed them. This documentary looks at the disturbing reality behind this particular myth. The filmmakers, Josh and Barbara, two locals, were astonished to realise, as they grew up, that in their town “Cropsey” was real and his name was Andre Rand. America since the 19th Century
saw a bout of child kidnappings. Several of these children were mentally disabled and were abducted in broad daylight from their relatively safe suburban neighbourhoods. When seven year-old Jennifer Schweizer, a girl with Down’s Syndrome disappears, the town has had enough and they work tirelessly to find the little girl, hoping to find her alive, but prepared for the worst. A local homeless man Andre Rand was suspected, arrested and charged with the kidnapping. Andre Rand was known to locals as being a vagrant who lived out in the woods near Willowbrook, an old institute for people with learning disabilities. He had a history of sex offences and other crimes which made him a likely suspect. The images of Staten Island, New York Rand that appeared in the local press were terrifying, wild eyes, gaunt figure and a string of drool from his mouth to his chest easily convinced the world that this man was indeed an evil lunatic.
Shortly after his arrest, Jennifer Schweizer's body was found in a shallow grave in the woods.
Rand was convicted of her murder on minimal evidence and sentenced to life in prison, with a chance of parole in 2008. On his release he faced a new trial, for the kidnap and murder of Holly Hughes. The documentary follows this trial and begs the question, was Rand treated fairly or was he merely a convenient scapegoat for the locals?
This is a documentary that works on many levels. On one level, it is a highly entertaining, frightening and fascinating look at a community, like so many others that harbours dark secrets and evil places that seem impossible alongside the wholesome community that occupy the town. On another level it is an intelligent unbiased look at the legal system and the collective need for communities to find a villain and put him away so that they may try to move on from the tragedy, whether justice is being served or not.
A small, but resonant aspect of the documentary is the history of Willowbrook Institution which was the subject of a shocking expose in 1973 by Geraldo Rivera. The conditions in which mentally disabled children were living was beyond comprehension. Naked, filthy, sleeping in their own waste and with only one supervisor for the entire institution, the images in the documentary were shocking and tragic and let to the institution being shut down. Now abandoned, the building was rumoured to have become a refuge for some of its previous inhabitants who weren’t placed in other hospitals.
This place became a legendary “haunted house” where teenagers go to scare each other. Legends and stories became associated with the building and as the documentary investigates the buildings and the tunnels underneath there is chilling evidence found that would suggest that the atrocities of Willowbrook are still going strong.
As Cropsey continues, it faces the audience with challenging questions about our own prejudices against outsiders and "weirdos". It was clear that
Rand did not get a very fair trial the first time, and the second trial is even worse. Guilty or innocent, the documentary is not out to exonorate him nor condemn him. However, he has always maintained his innocence and the prosecutors had very little real evidence against him. There are many theories around the town, all of which are considered fairly by the very non-judgmental, intelligent filmmakers.
A thematic companion piece to Stephen Kings novel “It”, this is a story about grief and fear and how people create monsters to wrap up the events as evil and not something any normal person would be capable of.
Rand was never seen or treated as a normal person. He was perceived as a monster. Knowing that he was behind bars could detract from the fear and trauma that this community was feeling.
This is a very personal, very mature documentary that will scare you, upset you and hopefully make you think about society’s treatment of people. It is a well-balanced story which weaves many strands together to create a single picture of a town in crisis and the lasting effect it has had on the community. Highly recommended!
- Charlene Lydon