'Cropsey': A Town's Worst Nightmares, In The Flesh

Andre Rand

Here Comes The Boogeyman? The documentary Cropsey looks into the mysterious case of five missing Staten Island children — and asks whether Andre Rand, the man convicted of one girl's murder, was really behind them. Tony Carranante/Staten Island Advance hide caption

itoggle caption Tony Carranante/Staten Island Advance

Cropsey

  • Director: Joshua Zeman, Barbara Brancaccio
  • Genre: Documentary Thriller
  • Running Time: 84 minutes
Not Rated

When I was 5, the boarded-up shack in the woods behind my house wasn't someplace I'd ever have considered going after dark. No one told me there was a boogeyman there. I just knew.

The boarded-up shack near Joshua Zeman's house on Staten Island was a little grander — a long-abandoned, notoriously abusive mental institution called Willowbrook — and when several local children went missing in the 1980s, as Zeman and collaborator Barbara Brancaccio recount in the investigative documentary Cropsey, a lot of people living nearby decided their boogeyman was real.

Cropsey, the filmmakers establish early on, is a common name for the demented madman in urban legends. He's the monster under the bed, the ominous figure just beyond the campfire's glow, the boogeyman in my boarded-up shack. And on Staten Island, a fellow named Andre Rand became the local Cropsey.

Rand, a former custodial worker at Willowbrook, was accused of kidnapping and murdering Jennifer Schweiger, a 13-year-old girl with Down syndrome; once arrested, he became a suspect in the cold-case disappearances of several other children. News footage of Rand's arrest shows him handcuffed, hollow-eyed and drooling, as he's led from a police station.

"I've never seen a perp-walk like that," remembers a TV newsman who covered the arrest at the time.

From the footage, it's easy to see why Rand fit the public image of a monster. He was the police's prime suspect — and then after a while, their only suspect. A jury convicted him of Schweiger's murder, and the police have long considered that case closed. But there was no physical evidence linking him to the crimes.

Joshua Zeman, Barbara Brancaccio i i

Urban Mythologists: Co-directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio return to Willowbrook, a long-abandoned mental institution near which they grew up. Chad Davidson/Ghost Robot hide caption

itoggle caption Chad Davidson/Ghost Robot
Joshua Zeman, Barbara Brancaccio

Urban Mythologists: Co-directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio return to Willowbrook, a long-abandoned mental institution near which they grew up.

Chad Davidson/Ghost Robot

As Zeman and Brancaccio interview police officers, relatives, neighbors, reporters, shop owners, activists and people who searched for the missing children more than a decade ago, they keep coming back to the notion that this particular crime feels like an urban myth come to life, and that there's a human need for closure even in cases that seem essentially inexplicable. Might that, they ask, have driven the legal process?

Rand so looked the part that he might as well have been a monster out of central casting, the filmmakers suggest. But, they wonder, does that make him guilty? His behavior was (and apparently still is) odd, his statements suspicious, but through many years in prison he's always claimed innocence. The filmmakers tried to get him to tell his side of the story, but he's unwilling to appear on camera.

Which leaves them in documentary limbo, since they've gone to great lengths to raise questions in the audience's mind about the case. The answers they've found are questions, their conclusion, inconclusive.

So they go back and back to the dark, Blair Witch-y woods around Willowbrook, sometimes with an activist who's still looking for bodies after all these years, other times on their own — into the long-abandoned institutional buildings, through a maze of tunnels with mattresses and clothing strewn everywhere. They do this sometimes at night, with flashlights and hand-held cameras.

They're lots braver than me. I've never been back to that boarded-up shack, even in the daylight.

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