Graveyard Shift
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12 Facts About Willowbrook, the Nightmare Institution Behind the Cropsey Legend

Updated November 5, 2019 65.8k views12 items

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

    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

    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"

    Jennifer Schweiger's Murder Led Police to "Cropsey"
    Photo: Cinema Purgatorio

    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

    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.