Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arthur Shawcross, the Genessee River Strangler

The Tale Unfolds

The task force quickly developed Shawcross's background.  Before talking with him again, they wanted the facts.  They also wanted to know how a sex offender who'd been imprisoned for manslaughter and pedophilia had been released into their area without anyone finding the records.  This last part was on everyone's minds, since they had done a thorough search several times.  They were stunned when they discovered the truth.

Shawcross had admitted to several crimes in Watertown, New York, an old factory town located on the Black River off Lake Ontario.  It was the place where he'd grown up.  He'd dropped out of school at the beginning of the ninth grade---at age 19.  He'd then enlisted in the Army and served a tour in Vietnam, where he claimed he'd been exposed to many traumatic events and had become something of a one-man army.  He had married three times, and was now on his fourth wife.  Through the years, Shawcross had accumulated criminal offenses for burglary, but his violence had eventually escalated as a young man into arson.  Then he'd started to kill.

Jack Black, victim
Jack Black, victim

His first victim, in May 1972, was 10-year-old Jack Blake.  He had disappeared near the apartments where Shawcross lived.  Jack's mother had an instinct about Shawcross, then 27, who had taken Jack and his older brother fishing a few days before.  When she confronted him, he offered several conflicting stories.  That seemed suspicious, but with no body and no evidence, the cops could do nothing.  Searches for the boy turned up nothing.

Shawcross said to his interrogators that the boy had pestered him, so he'd hit him and had accidentally killed him.  This story would eventually change.

Karen Ann Hill, victim
Karen Ann Hill, victim
Four months later, eight-year-old Karen Ann Hill was visiting Watertown with her mother, Helene, and she disappeared.  Her body was found under a bridge that crossed the Black River.  She'd been raped and murdered.  Oddly, mud, leaves and other debris had been forced down her throat and inside her clothing.  Shawcross, who often fished under the bridge, was a suspect.  Detective Charles Kubinski of the Watertown Police Department knew him.  With persistence and skill, he eventually got Shawcross to confess to the crime.  He also gathered enough information about Jack Blake that the police were finally able to locate the boy's body.  Due to its advanced state of decomposition, it was unclear whether Jack had been sexually assaulted, but like Karen Ann, he'd been asphyxiated.  Shawcross had admitted to having sex with the girl, and forcing himself on her while she screamed.

For these crimes, he had gone to prison.  Then he was considered for early release.  He'd been a model prisoner, so he was evaluated for risk of repeating his crimes.  His evaluators wrote positive things about him, believing that he would be a safe and contributing member of society.  Yet a senior parole officer in the Binghamton area wrote that Shawcross "was possibly the most dangerous individual to have been released to this community in many years."  They tried to settle him in Binghamton, but angry citizens discovered this and resisted.  So they covered up his trail and made his file inaccessible (even to other police departments), settling him in Rochester with his wife. 

During the flurry of publicity that targeted them in the weeks to come, they defended their decisions by saying that he'd have been released the following year anyway.   A year was insignificant.  Yet it was a year that had resulted in a lot of deaths.

Two months after coming to Rochester, Shawcross had a job packing salads for a catering company, and when that didn't work, he got another one.  He used his free time to develop a relationship on the side with Clara Neal, and often borrowed her car to go off on his own.

When officers asked Clara to show them where   they often went for a lovers' rendezvous, each place was significant: they were all areas where bodies had been dumped.

No one could quite believe that the parole board had released this killer and that they'd made it impossible to check his records.  He could have been located and at least questioned and put under surveillance before so many women had been killed.

The only defense for this decision was that three communities that were informed had turned him away, and "we had to put him somewhere."

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