Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arthur Shawcross, the Genessee River Strangler

The First Victim

The Genesee River Gorge outside Rochester, New York, is a scenic vacation and recreation spot that features three picturesque waterfalls along the Genesee River.  The area offers activities for hikers and picnickers, as well as people out fishing and hunting.  Twenty-two miles long and fairly deep, the Gorge is touted as the "Grand Canyon of the East."  No one ever thought about murder there.  At least, not until 1988.

It was a hunter and his companions at Salmon Creek along Route 31 who came across a sight that they would never forget.  It was nearing the end of winter on March 24 and the ice had broken over the water.  Rising to the surface and covered in silt was the body of a dead woman, clad in jeans and a sweatshirt.  At first they thought she was a discarded mannequin, but one look at her frozen face told them otherwise.

The men called the authorities and they brought the corpse out of the water.  It was clear right away from serious bruises that this woman had been beaten, but they allowed the medical examiner, Nick Forbes, to complete a full examination and autopsy before making a final judgment.  He noted that she had been strangled.  Vaginal trauma, surrounded by teeth marks, was clear as well, although this might as easily have occurred after death as before.  She appeared to have been viciously kicked in the groin.  Though she'd been in water, she had not drowned.  There was no water in her lungs, so her killer had dumped her there after she died.

It wasn't long before she was identified as Dorothy "Dotsie" Blackburn, 27, a regular on prostitute row along Rochester's seedy Lyell Avenue, and the mother of three.  Her sister had filed a missing person report on March 18, and it was she who identified the body.   

Dr. Forbes determined that Blackburn's wounds had been made by a blunt object, but could not identify just what had made the patterned indentation, about two inches wide, across her chest.  It had left a mark but had not broken the skin.  He took photographs and made a note of what he saw but did not otherwise comment.

Prostitute murders were not unusual, and this woman had been a cocaine addict with a debt.  A disgruntled john, a cheated pusher, an angry pimp—almost anyone could have done this, and without physical evidence it would be difficult to link this victim with a killer, let alone prosecute that person.  Prostitution was a high-risk occupation with a low risk of discovery for whoever decided to target such women for murder.  The Rochester police examined the shooting and knifing murders of two other prostitutes in the area, but spotted nothing to link them.  They made a file for Dotsie and put it away. 

A year passed and the case faded.  Then they started finding other dead women.

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