The following is a chapter from the book “Murderous Minds: Stories of Real Life Murderers That Escaped the Headlines (Vol 5)”
“Late at night, when the moon shines full over Willowbrook School, Cropsey, a former patient of the abandoned asylum, emerges from his lair in the tunnels beneath Willowbrook to hunt for trespassing children and drag them into the dark.”
Anyone raised near an old mental asylum likely caught wind of terrifying urban legends about the abandoned properties. In Staten Island, New York, the Willowbrook School was the focal point of local myths. The abandoned facility was said to be home to a number of boogeymen and former patients who considered the institution their only shelter. The barren buildings and drafty, unkempt halls were familiar to the “looney’s” of Willowbrook.
For some, it was the only real home they had ever known. Stories were told about a character the Staten Island youth referred to as “Cropsey.” Cropsey was one of the specter patients, accredited with kidnapping young children and bringing them to his lair below the school to be abused, tortured, and sacrificed.
For decades, Cropsey was nothing more than a chilling story, or so Staten Island residents thought. Little did they know, Willowbrook’s demons had boiled over and the island was cloaked under a cloud of unresolved trauma and pain. Normally, urban legends are nothing to worry about, but on Staten Island, there was plenty for kids to be afraid of.
When a former employee of Willowbrook School decided to make his home in the gutted remains of the asylum, an urban legend became a living nightmare, one that claimed the lives of children and a community to question how much they knew about the island they called home.
Our home towns are not always as safe as we believe. Sometimes, a whole community can live and work beside a monster without ever realizing they are in danger. For the neighborhood outside of Willowbrook, the things lurking in the dark of teenager’s ghost stories proved to be much closer and far more real than anyone in the tight-knit New York Community imagined. Cropsey was a living, breathing monster who went by the name Andre Rand.
Andre Rand was born Frank Rushan to working-class parents on March 11, 1944. His estranged younger sister would later disclose that, to her knowledge, she and her brother were never physically or sexually abused.
When Rand was fourteen, his father passed away unexpectedly. His mother, shortly thereafter, was sent to the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood, New York.
What lead to his mother’s psychiatric need is unclear, but it is known that Rand visited her at Pilgrim Psychiatric through his teenage years. Many have suggested that it was the horror of witnessing his mother’s living conditions that gave Rand an interest in mental disabilities.
While it was operational, Willowbrook School kept patients in dismal conditions. There were often fifty extremely disturbed patients to a single orderly. The conditions were traumatic for the staff. Staff members spent day after day among the rancid stench and pitiful wails of the mistreated patients and often powerless to help. With insufficient manpower and supplies, Willowbrook patients were often left to fend for themselves, even if it meant sitting for days in their own waste and being fed very little. The kindest of staff members would have been unable to care for the patients properly, and likely spent much of their time trying to keep the crumbling facility afloat.
Andre Rand was one of these staff members and was, without a doubt, severely disturbed by the daily horrors he witnessed. Carrying the weight of his mother’s tragic life, Rand’s employment at Willowbrook pushed him further down a hole of instability. Though he wore the uniform of a person entrusted with caring for the mentally ill, by the time he was an adult, Andre Rand had a mental state comparable to that of a Willowbrook patient. Herein lies the biggest controversy in Rand’s case. Was the tormented man capable of murder, and if he was, was he a cold-blooded pervert, or a delusional crusader fighting for what he believed to be mercy?
When Willowbrook closed, Rand was among a group of individuals that remained close to the facility, taking advantage of the now-empty buildings and deserted grounds. Rand was known to have a makeshift campsite near the school that served as his regular residence. He was far from the only homeless person to build a life on the skeleton of Willowbrook.
The skeletal building was not just a hotspot for local vagabonds and lost souls. Teenagers enjoyed exploring the area surrounding Willowbrook and indulging in the privacy of the dark, heavily wooded area. These explorations likely led to many of the Cropsey legends that circulated but also raised a serious issue for parents and law enforcement. While their kids told ghost stories and perhaps engaged in underage drinking, the undesirables of the area also frequented the same spots. Even abandoned, Willowbrook State School was still a recipe for disaster.
Andre Rand never had a particularly positive reputation with his neighbors. It was incredibly difficult to locate any real friends of Rand. His sister made a point of staying estranged, and in later years, would claim she had no contact with her brother or any idea how he’d been living or what he’d been up to. Rand was a loner with deeply rooted demons who often found himself in trouble with the law.
The disappearance of twelve-year-old Jennifer Lynn Schweiger was the last in a line of kidnappings that would eventually be accredited to Rand. Jennifer was described by friends and family as a loving, happy child with Downs syndrome. On July 9th, 1987, Jennifer went missing from her Staten Island neighborhood. A massive manhunt was launched by dozens of local volunteers, beginning to recognize a disturbing pattern in their community.
Between 1972 and 1987, five children, all noted to have varying degrees of mental disabilities, went missing from the area. In all four cases before Jennifer’s, the bodies were not found. To Staten Island teenagers, it was beginning to look like the infamous Cropsey might be more than a legend.
Jennifer’s disappearance snapped something in Staten Island residents. Concerned parents and neighbors pleaded with police for answers. As a result, Staten Island police looked back through the unsolved disappearances for any names or locations the kids might have in common. Sure enough, Andre Rand’s name appeared as a person of interest questioned in the disappearances of Alice Pereira, Holly Ann Hughes, Tiahease Jackson, and Hank Gafforio.
Alice Pereira was the first reported missing in 1972. She was last seen by her brother as the two played in the lobby of a Staten Island building. According to reports, her brother told police he looked away from the five-year-old for a moment, and when he turned back, she was gone.
Rand was familiar with the area and had a known criminal record, which prompted the police to question him. In 1969, only a few years before Alice went missing, Rand was charged with sexual misconduct with a nine-year-old girl. Rand pled not guilty in the case. Law enforcement wondered if he got away with one horrific crime only to commit another. Alice was never seen again, and no charges were ever brought against Rand in relation to her disappearance due to lack of evidence.
Rand was also mentioned in the case of Holly Ann Hughes. Hughes disappeared in 1981, after walking to a local convenience store to purchase a bar of soap. Store employees remembered the little girl and were able to offer a rough time frame of when she entered and departed from the establishment. Shortly after, Andre Rand was brought in for questioning on a tip given by an eyewitness that claimed to have seen Rand on Holly Ann’s street the day she went missing. He was released after the District Attorney was unable to collect sufficient proof of his connection to the area. For Holly Ann’s distraught family, it would be more than twenty years before they found any answers about what happened to the beloved child.
The evidence tying Rand to the Hughes and Pereira cases was completely circumstantial and based largely on the accounts of eyewitnesses. Even so, police couldn’t ignore the pattern of disappearances that orbited around Rand. He was quickly pushed to the top of the list of suspects in Jennifer Schweiger’s disappearance.
Before an arrest was made, angry residents were chomping at the bit to deliver justice to whoever was responsible for the missing children. Once Rand’s name began to circulate, there was no slipping back into the shadows for the reclusive drifter.
Both concerned parents and law enforcement began to look more closely at the other disappearances linked to Rand. In 1983, eleven-year-old Tiahease Jackson left her mother’s apartment to purchase groceries and never returned home. The girl’s residence was in an area Rand had been known to frequent. Rand had recently been released from prison at the time and was brought in by the police as a routine protocol for missing minor cases but was dismissed without charge.
A year later, in 1984, twenty-one-year-old Hank Gafforio was assumed missing when he failed to return home for several days. Rand’s name came up again when witnesses reported seeing him dining at a local restaurant with the young man the morning before he disappeared.
Both Jackson and Gafforio were considered to have some level of mental disability, following the pattern of Rand’s supposed victim profile. Circumstantial evidence was not enough. Police failed to locate the bodies or find solid physical proof linking Rand to the disappearances. Rand was never charged and neither case has been solved to date.
Police tried desperately to connect the dots between Rand and the missing children. There was a clear pattern of behavior that indicated Rand had a criminal interest in children and a long history of mental and social instability. Tied together with a shameful criminal past, Rand appeared to fit the profile of a man capable of committing such atrocities. Stories of Rand’s history around mental institutions only solidified the notion that this was a profoundly disturbed man, perhaps unable to control the dark urges that crept into his mind.
Without DNA proof or any evidence that the children had been in Rand’s vehicle or dwelling, law enforcement would have to rely on the word of vigilant neighbors to find justice for the lost.
Eyewitness testimony was critical to helping police solve Jennifer Schweiger’s case. Two witnesses placed Rand with Jennifer on the day she disappeared. They claimed to have seen Jennifer walking down the street with Rand shortly after the time she was seen in the convenience store. Police picked up and questioned Rand but did not have enough evidence to charge him.
In the weeks following, police set up surveillance around Rand’s local haunts in hopes of finding Jennifer alive. They had no such luck.
Police officers were deeply unsettled by Rand. One officer stated that around the time of Jennifer’s disappearance, he saw Rand leaving a grocery store with a bag of baby food. He then departed on a woman’s green bicycle with a basket on the front. The sight stuck with the officer.
Andre Rand had an image that did not sit well with an island in crisis, but image alone was not going to convict Rand and was certainly not going to bring Jennifer home. In the days that followed, several other neighbors came forward to claim they had seen Rand with Jennifer the day she disappeared.
Rand was arrested at the Church of the God Within shortly after being questioned by police. He was charged with the first-degree kidnapping and murder of Jennifer Schweiger. Law enforcement felt that eyewitness testimony, coupled with Rand’s criminal history, was enough to warrant a conviction.
Images of Rand’s arrest decided his fate in public opinion. Rand appeared woefully disturbed, bulging eyes, a despondent stare, and drool coming from his mouth, as police walked the handcuffed suspect into custody. Terrified locals and media outlets branded Rand a ‘siko,’ ‘monster,’ and ‘pervert.’
As far as the masses were concerned, Rand was close enough to each case to make him guilty. Those searching for Jennifer were quick to speculate what sickening crimes Rand may be involved with in conjunction with the other known Willowbrook squatters.
Urban legends continued to spin around Rand after his arrest. Some Staten Island residents believed that he was involved with a local satanic cult activity. They insisted that Rand was only one head of a monster lurking in the cracks of their community and supposedly, Rand was tasked with finding children for Satanists to sacrifice.
Rumors about the occult were not uncommon for Willowbrook. Years before Rand was the public face of the Cropsey legend, teenagers told stories of witches and devil worshipers conducting black masses in the hollowed-out rooms of Willowbrook School. There was never any proven legitimacy to these stories, but they attached themselves to Andre Rand after his arrest.
Sadly, shortly after his arrest, a team of volunteers led by a former firefighter saw what appeared to be a tiny human leg sticking out of a patch of dirt on the Willowbrook grounds. Police uncovered a shallow grave holding the body of Jennifer Schweiger only yards away from one of Rand’s known campsites. The public frenzy brought forward even more witnesses, claiming to see Rand either with Jennifer or in the vicinity of the store she was last seen leaving.
After a massive public trial, Andre Rand was convicted of kidnapping Jennifer Schweiger. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the murder charge, resulting in no one ever being charged for Jennifer’s murder.
In the aftermath of Rand’s conviction, more stories of his odd and dangerous behavior began to surface.
Witnesses recalled that in January of 1983, Rand approached a group of eleven children and lured them onto a school bus with promise of candy and a ride to the park. Rand drove the kids across state lines, eventually arriving at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, before driving them back to New York.
In retrospect, one of the now-adult witnesses stated that it appeared as though Rand realized he was in over his head and backed out of whatever he planned to do with the kidnapped children. None of the eleven victims were harmed but Rand was convicted of false imprisonment and sentenced to ten months in prison.
This story, in particular, bolstered speculation that Rand may have been collecting children to pass around to other homeless inhabitants of Willowbrook.
Rand’s arrest did little to calm the uneasy feeling left behind by so many unsolved cases. Law enforcement was determined to figure out if Rand was truly involved in any of the prior missing persons cases he was questioned about.
In 2004, seventeen years after being convicted for the kidnapping of Jennifer, Rand was brought to trial for the kidnapping of Holly Ann Hughes. Jennifer’s case gave prosecutors the push they needed to convince the courts that Rand was more than just a coincidental passer-by in the similar missing persons cases.
Witnesses from the Holly Ann Hughes case were interviewed again and put on the stand, alongside a score of new witnesses that came forward after being reminded of the cold case. The additional witnesses placed Rand’s green Volkswagen in the immediate vicinity of Holly Ann’s home on the day of her disappearance.
Neighbors came forward to say they recognized the vehicle and recalled it circling the block. Though Rand’s car was searched when he was questioned in 1981, the new report suggested to the jury that Rand’s behavior stood out, making him particularly notable and disturbing to residents.
Prosecutors succeeded in convincing the jury of Rand’s guilt by insisting that time offered witnesses and detectives the clarity necessary to piece together what was previously missing in Holly Ann’s case. Though a body was never found, Rand was convicted of kidnapping. Family and friends of the Hughes family were hurt that Rand was not convicted of murder, just as Jennifer Schweiger’s family seventeen years earlier. Many shared their frustration, believing it was unfair to deny families the closure of a conviction for the loss of their children. Without the bodies of the other victims or physical evidence linking Rand to Jennifer, kidnapping in the first degree was prosecution’s best chance at keeping Rand off the street long term.
Sadly, for the families of the victims, Andre Rand never confessed to any of the charges or revealed the locations of any bodies. Andre Rand has been in prison since his conviction in 2004.
He will not be eligible for parole until 2037, at which time he will be in his mid-nineties. It is unlikely that Andre Rand will ever breathe free air again in his lifetime.
Looking back at Willowbrook School and the myth turned real-life horror of Cropsey, it is hard to pinpoint what Staten Island parents could have done to prevent the events that took place between 1971 and 1987. The tragedy of American mental asylums is a stain that remains ever-present, reminding us all the community breeds products of the way we treat one another.
Whatever Andre Rand was, Willowbrook State School had a severe impact on his already broken psyche. The result was a living nightmare that changed the meaning of ‘safety’ and ‘home’ for everyone involved. It is a warning to all of us, no matter where we call home, that trying to create a supportive and aware environment is our best defense against the terrifying monsters that go bump in the night.