creepy 12 Facts About Willowbrook, the Nightmare Institution Behind the Cropsey Legend

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The Willowbrook State School of Staten Island was like the setting of a horror movie, except the agonizing screams, filthy rooms, and the stench of death in the air was very real. The school staff was entrusted to teach and care for mentally disabled children, but instead they exposed them to diseases and subjected them to horrifying abuse.

It’s no surprise that an institution like this would become the center of creepy lore. Every town has its local urban legends, and in the case of Staten Island, New York, their biggest legend is that of Cropsey, the child-killing lunatic who dwells in the tunnels beneath the ruins of the infamous Willowbrook School and its surrounding forests. Unlike most small-town lore however, this horror story happened to come true.

The Willowbrook State School Was a House of Horrors

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The Willowbrook State School on Staten Island housed children with various developmental disabilities. Its inhumane conditions landed it in the national spotlight multiple times before its eventual closing. Its population reached 6,200 residents at its peak, in buildings designed to house no more than 4,000.

Budget cuts led to a loss of 600 staff members, leaving a ratio of one caregiver to 50 residents. With numbers like that it was impossible to keep everyone clean, fed, supervised, or even clothed. Patients would rip their cloths off, run around nude, masturbate in public, or just roll around in filth and feces on the floor. The severe overcrowding fostered the dehumanization and neglect of residents and eventually led to a public health crisis as literally every resident admitted quickly contracted hepatitis.

Children Suffered Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Abuse

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Former resident Bernard Carabello described getting beaten with sticks and belt buckles. He recalled being kicked into a wall by staff members and he went on to say sexual abuse was rampant at the hands of staff and other residents.

Residents were rarely taught much of anything despite Willowbrook’s claims of being a school. No behavioral modification exercises, social skills, or hygiene and grooming skills of any kind were taught to anyone. 

On the rare occasion that showers were given, they’d be given in groups and residents would only be given five minutes to clean themselves with no soap, no toothpaste, and no individual towels. Many residents needed help eating, but the lack of staff led to a cut in mealtimes. What should have been 30 minutes of relaxing while enjoying a meal turned into a three-minute ingestion of gruel. There was no comfort, no structure, no hope for any of the residents at Willowbrook.

Geraldo Rivera Made a Documentary Exposing the Facility's Terrible Conditions

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Back in 1965, Senator Robert Kennedy sprung a surprise visit on the Willowbrook staff. What he found was a disgrace. Thousands of mentally and physically disabled residents forced to live in filth and dressed in rags (if dressed at all). He likened the cramped rooms to cages in a zoo and called the facility a “snake pit.” Kennedy demanded reform and allegedly an improvement plan was in effect. However, conditions quickly reverted back to snake pit status.

Willowbrook received another surprise visitor in 1972. Investigative reporter Geraldo Rivera and his camera crew were invited in (unbeknownst to administrators) by Dr. Michael Wilkins. The exposé documentary revealed the horrific living conditions and the neglect of the mentally disabled children left in the care of this facility. Rivera ended up winning a Peabody Award for this documentary and he repeatedly followed up with the facility and documented their continual backslides into abusive behavior and the uninhabitable living conditions until their eventual closure in 1987.

Willowbrook Inspired an Urban Legend About a Deranged Child-Killer

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Ask those living on Staten Island where the legend of Cropsey began and they’ll tell you it’s always been around. Cropsey is the escaped mental patient that lurks in the tunnels beneath the old Willowbrook State School and comes out to hunt children at night. He’s the axe-wielding lunatic, the killer with a hook for a hand, he’s the boogeyman. He’s been a campfire tale meant to keep kids out of the abandoned buildings and surrounding woods. Parents would warn their kids to behave and to not wander off or old Cropsey will snatch them up with his hook and slice them to bits. But the creepiest thing about the legend of Cropsey is that it turned out to not be a legend at all...

The Legendary Boogeyman Cropsey Was a Real Killer Who Lived at the Abandoned Asylum

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To the horror of locals, Cropsey was a very real threat to the children of Staten Island. While he wasn’t an escaped mental patient and his name wasn’t Cropsey, there really was a drifter that was once employed by the Willowbrook State School, who set up camp in the woods and roamed the tunnels beneath it after its closure in the 1970s. And worst of all, children really did begin to disappear.

A String of Kidnappings Haunted Staten Island

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Children with mental disabilities began to vanish in Staten Island literally without a trace. The long-running series of disappearances began with five-year-old Alice Pereira in 1972. Then the faceless predator known only as Cropsey struck again, snatching seven-year-old Holly Ann Hughes in 1981. Next was 11-year-old Tiahease Jackson in 1983. Then 22-year old Hank Gafforio in 1984. The details of what became of these children and young adults remains unknown and none of their bodies were ever found.

Jennifer Schweiger's Murder Led Police to "Cropsey"

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In the summer of 1987, Jennifer Schweiger, a 12-year-old girl with Down Syndrome, went for a walk and never came home. The community launched a massive search party. Friends and neighbors combed the parks and wooded areas of Staten Island and their search ended in the woods behind the Willowbrook State School.

It was as if the legend of Cropsey had come to life as a firefighter uncovered first Jennifer’s small foot, and then the rest of her body that had been buried in a shallow grave. Right by the camp set up by a man who had already been arrested before for kidnapping 11 children and for the attempted rape of a young girl: Andre Rand. Authorities arrested him and charged him with Jennifer’s murder.

Andre Rand, Staten Island’s Real Boogeyman, Had a History of Endangering Children

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Like a real-life Freddy Krueger, Andre Rand was a custodian at the Willowbrook State School back in the 1960s. He also aided the physical therapists at the school (who knows what kind of atrocities he committed there). His employment ended before the facility's closure. but he came back and made the ruins his home while kidnapping and murdering local children who had disabilities.

Prior to Jennifer’s murder, Rand had been arrested back in 1969, for attempted rape. He’d lured a nine-year old into his car, drove her to an empty parking lot, and removed both their clothes before a passing police car saw them and arrested him. He was sentenced to four years and only served 16 months.

Then in 1983, he thought it would be a good idea to pick up 11 random kids off the street without parental consent. He was working for a school bus company at the time and loaded the children up and took them out joyriding for five hours for no sane reason. He took them out to eat and brought them to Newark International Airport for motives that couldn’t have been pure. Whatever he had planned, he backed out but was charged with unlawful imprisonment and served 10 months.