Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arthur Shawcross, the Genessee River Strangler

Trial Preparation: Corroboration

"Once a killer like this is captured," writes McCrary, "we always compare him against our profile.  Shawcross was much as we had envisioned him." 

He was a regular john, white, married, menially employed, living near the pick-up scenes, with a history of sexually violent crimes.  He often fished in the Genesee River Gorge and he'd gone unsuspected by most of the prostitutes.  The profilers had gotten his age wrong by ten years or so, but they viewed his time spent in prison as tantamount to putting his sexual crimes on hold.  Once freed, he'd resumed as if he'd never been put away.

Assistant District Attorney Chuck Siragusa had been working on the case for months and was getting ready to prosecute this man to the full extent of the law.  New York had no death penalty at the time, but he could certainly ensure that Shawcross had no further opportunities to kill. 

One of the victims had been found in an adjoining county, but Siragusa still had ten murders to work with.  They had some physical evidence, some witnesses, and Shawcross's lengthy confession.  Nevertheless, with his plea of insanity, the prosecution knew they would have a fight ahead of them.  Some of the things Shawcross came up with after spending time with a psychiatrist had never been mentioned in his self-pitying discussions with the interrogators.  He seemed to make things up as he went along.

Self-report in killers is always suspicious and must be corroborated.  That meant asking a lot of questions of people who knew the man.  Shawcross's parents and sister completely denied his allegations about his childhood traumas and sexual encounters.  He had slapped his sister, they admitted, but there had been no form of corporal punishment in the home.  He did well in the early years of school, attended church, and was good to animals.  He did not wet his bed (he said he did till he was thirteen), set fires or abuse animals or other children, as so many psychologists insisted to be true of serial killers.  His introduction to oral sex by his mother's sister (he also said it was his mother) turned out to be questionable when his mother claimed she had no sister by that name.  His younger brother said that Artie had been basically happy, although he had a quick temper.  Neighbors confirmed that they had never known the mother to be abusive.

As for his self-described superhuman feats in Vietnam and his military traumas, reporters discovered that he'd served in an area that had been relatively free of combat.  No one in his unit even remembered him, and he won no medals of honor.  They concluded that the Vietnam tales were largely fabricated.  He spent a lot of time reading novels set in Vietnam, so he could have been inspired by fictionalized descriptions, and one of his tales most definitely came from a popular Vietnam movie.  He had never been exposed, as he claimed, to Agent Orange, or been on a jungle patrol.  He certainly hadn't massacred whole villages.

Robert Ressler

To counter some of the supposed contributing factors to the claim of insanity, Sirgusa hired forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, and he recommended using Robert Ressler to check into Shawcross's record in Vietnam.  

Robert Ressler had retired from the FBI but he still consulted on criminal cases, and this one utilized more than one area of expertise.  He'd been with the Army CID as well as being an FBI field agent and profiler.  Since part of Shawcross's insanity defense was based on his trauma in Vietnam, Ressler analyzed the roots of his alleged post traumatic stress disorder, the village he "helped to destroy," and his "confirmed thirty-nine kills."  (Shawcross did admit in one psychiatric interview just before his trial that he'd actually killed no one.)

Whoever Fights Monsters, by Robert Ressler

"I had put in thirty-five years of active duty and reserve time in Army military police and CID matters," Ressler writes in Whoever Fights Monsters, "and my experience helped me to quickly debunk Shawcross's PTSD defense." 

He looked over the military records and compared them with interviews that Dietz had done.  "The information that was brought out indicated the Shawcross was malingering quite a bit. It was clear that he was being deceptive and that opened up the door to breaking down his story of how his homicidal tendencies came about.  Allegedly he was under hypnosis with the defense psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis and we saw these tapes she had and realized the interviews were bogus.  He was just leading her by the nose."  He found Shawcross's claim of having witnessed certain wartime atrocities to be "patently outrageous and untrue," and he says that his pretrial work shattered the issue of possible wartime PTSD to the point where the defense dropped it altogether and concentrated on something else.

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