Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arthur Shawcross, the Genessee River Strangler

Nailing the Killer

Now the investigators had the background details they needed to confirm their hunches, but officials from different agencies had argued over who should get jurisdiction for the interrogation and thus credit for solving this case.  In a compromise that benefited everyone, Dennis Blythe of the New York State Police and Leonard Borriello, a key investigator for the Rochester PD, were selected to interview Shawcross together.  He'd been under surveillance all night and they were ready to pick him up again.  Yet before they even faced him, there was one more significant development.

Just before seven o'clock in the morning, at a spot not far from where June Cicero's body had been found, a deer hunter stumbled across the frozen body of Felicia Stephens, whose ID and clothing had been picked up along the road.  She was lying facedown, with her buttocks slightly elevated, the way many of the others victims had been found.  The man had phoned the police.

Now Blythe and Boriello had the details of one more murder to think about.

They approached Shawcross and asked if he would mind going with them again to clear some things up.  In the amiable manner he'd adopted with them, he agreed to go, and they drove him to the places where certain events happened..  For example, they talked with him about Jo Ann Van Nostrand, letting him know what they knew, and then stopped in several places where something significant had happened with a victim.  Shawcross did not budge.  Even when they said they knew what he'd done, he refused to go along.  When they told him that he'd been spotted with one of the victims on the last day she was seen alive, he shrugged it off as coincidence.

They reminded him of his rights, but he said he didn't have any problem talking to them.  As they pressed a little more with evidence they had, Shawcross reacted in anger, but then settled down again.  They feared the interview might reach an impasse, yet when Shawcross mentioned how concerned he was about Clara Neal, Blythe knew he now had a point of leverage.  He suggested that since the car belonged to Clara, she might be involved, and they'd hate to think that this was true.  Shawcross appeared to realize he was cornered.  Blythe asked again, "Is Clara involved?"

"No," he admitted, hanging his head, "Clara's not involved." 

Arthur Shawcross arrested
Arthur Shawcross arrested (AP/Wide World)
They knew they had him.  Within twenty-eight minutes of starting the interview, he'd come close to admitting what he'd done.  In another minute, he was talking about killing Elizabeth Gibson, and as they suspected, he offered reasons of provocation.  She'd tried to steal his wallet, so he'd slapped her again and again.  (Later he would say that the cops had provided this incentive so he had used it.)  At one point, he said, she had looked just like his rejecting mother, so he'd continued to hit her.  She'd kicked at him and broke the gearshift of his car, which further angered him.  He'd put his wrist against her throat and held it there until she went still.  When he let go and checked, she was dead, so he'd driven around with her for a while, looking for a place to dump her.  When he found one, he'd removed her clothes and placed her facedown in the woods.  Then as he drove home, he'd thrown her clothing out the car window.

When word came in that the investigators had found an earring in Clara's car that had matched one they had found on June Cicero, Shawcross became testy.  He did not believe they actually had evidence.  They brought in his wife and his girlfriend, and then pressured him to spare these two the anguish of a long, drawn-out investigation.  He considered this and then asked for a map and the photographs of the victims that they had shown him before.  They laid out sixteen open cases and he eliminated those that were not associated with him.  He said the murders he had done were "business as usual."

For each murder, he had a reason.  Some had ridiculed him, some had tried to steal, one would not shut up, several had threatened to turn him in as the killer, and one—the homeless woman--had said she'd tell his wife about their affair.  The first victim, Dorothy Blackburn, supposedly had bitten into his penis during oral sex.  "There was blood everywhere," he said.  "I thought I was gonna die."  So in retaliation, he had grabbed her by the throat and bitten into her genital area, and then later had strangled her to death.  "I choked her for a good ten minutes."

Some of them he smothered with something over their faces and with others he'd pressed his arm across their throats.  As for the mutilation of June Stott, a woman he had known and had welcomed to his home for meals, it was to "aid in decomposition," because he had "cared" about her.  His explanations were hollow, but at least he was offering details and solving a few mysteries.

As he talked, it became clear what the strange marks were that had been found across Dorothy Blackburn's chest.  Apparently Shawcross liked to squire his victims around in the front seat of his car before dumping them, so he'd used a bungee cord to tie them in place.

The detectives showed him photographs of the two missing women, Maria Welch and Darlene Trippi.  He admitted that he had killed them both and marked on a map where he had left them.  Eventually, he led investigators late that evening into the cold to the exact places where he had dumped their bodies.  One had been left sitting up in some bushes near the river and the other dumped in water near some houses.  The pool had iced over, making the victim look like some ethereal underwater fairy out of Arthurian mythology.   Both women had been asphyxiated, as usual.

As the investigators drove Shawcross back from these places, they took him by the area where they'd found Felicia Stephens and noticed that he seemed to recognize it, though he initially denied it, saying, "I don't do black women."  Yet they used what they'd observed of his behavior as leverage to get him to finally confess to her murder.  According to him, she had run up to his car to solicit his business and her head had gotten caught in his automatic car window, nearly killing her, so he'd pulled her into the car to finish strangling her.  He was adamant that there had been nothing intimate.   He did not like black prostitutes.  (He later told someone he had killed a black prostitute to throw the police off his trail.)

Some investigators, such as Gregg McCrary, believed that Shawcross was good for one more murder than those to which he admitted: the black prostitute named Kimberly Logan, who was dumped in someone's yard and covered with leaves.   Leaves had also been stuffed down her throat—the same MO as the eight-year-old female victim in Watertown.  Yet Shawcross would not accept this one as his, and he was never prosecuted for it.

Arthur Shawcross in court where charges were laid
Arthur Shawcross in court where charges were laid (Corbis)
When he finally gave his complete formal confession to a court stenographer, it was seventy-nine pages long.  On the advice of his attorney, David Murante, who was appointed by the court, he pleaded innocent.  That would soon be elaborated as a plea of insanity.

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