For many of us the name Cropsey immediately triggers the image of the maniac in the movie The Burning but it turns out Cropsey has been an urban legend for a lot longer than that.
This documentary from Zeman and Brancaccio is about the Cropsey stories that they grew up with on Staten Island, the bogeyman that was used to scare kids around campfires, to frighten children when the wind was howling, stories to get that girl to cuddle up to you in the car but the former residents soon enough found themselves wondering if perhaps there was a real bogeyman behind those childhood stories.
Besides the Cropsey stories, Staten Island was also home to Willowbrook Mental Institution, a rambling 300 acre property with tunnels, forests and a sordid history of its own.In the 1970s a young Geraldo Rivera had reported on the mistreatment of patients there, on the squalor they were forced to live in and in the mid 80s Willowbrook was finally closed down. But stories of ex patients returning to live in the tunnels and nearby woods soon spread and when a string of children started disappearing it seemed that maybe Cropsey was real after all.
When former Willowbrook janitor Andre Rand was arrested in 1987 for the kidnapping of Jennifer Schweiger, a 12 year old with Downs Syndrome, it seemed the town had their bogeyman but their were many questions left unanswered. When Rand, still incarcerated for the Schweiger crime, was charged two decades later with the disappearance of another Staten Island child, Holly Ann Hughes, Zeman and Brancaccio found that their story about the legend of Cropsey was taking a new direction and this documentary became not just the story of the legends but of the rumours and the history of Willowbrook and Staten Island and the story of Rand himself.
While Rand has always maintained his innocence, the evidence having always been circumstantial and based on witnesses, some of whom were ex alcoholics and drug addicts, most of the residents of Staten Island believe he is responsible for the disappearance of five or maybe more kids since the early 70s. Not all believe that though and both sides of the story are given time here. With the history of Willowbrook casting a huge shadow over the proceedings, we get tales of homeless gangs sleeping in the tunnels, Rand leading a group of pedophiles, there’s a dose of satanic cults courtesy of New York seer Veronica Lueken and even some Son Of Sam links thrown into the soup to stir up some flavour!
Though they tried they never got to interview Rand himself though they did communicate via the mail so while we don’t get all of his side of the story we do get some insight into the jailhouse lawyer that he has become. Still maintaining his innocence, Rand was pushing for Zeman and Brancaccio to make a public declaration of his innocence in the movie but admirably, the directors refrain from giving a final opinion, preferring to leave it up to the viewer to make up their minds on whether Rand was the fall guy for everyone’s fears, a way to sweep the Island’s sordid history under the mat, whether he acted alone or was the patsy or whether he was/is just a bitter old man choosing to kill handicapped kids in a false belief that they were better off dead.
Though at times this doco comes across like a Discovery Channel crime of the week show it still has a very gritty edge and like all good documentaries, raises as many questions as it answers.