Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arthur Shawcross, the Genessee River Strangler

The Dumping Ground

Many people were involved in this case and have written about it or produced it in various forms.  Not all of the accounts agree on the details, so those who had firsthand involvement are accorded more credibility than those who received documents.  Gregg McCrary was called into it from the FBI as a behavioral profiler, while former FBI special agent Robert Ressler evaluated certain aspects of it.  Dorothy Lewis and Joel Norris were both invited into the case, and both addressed their participation in separate books, while Mark Olshaker made an award-winning film production for NOVA.  Jack Olsen, a true crime writer, added his own rendition with The Misbegotten Son, the longest account of the case ever produced and including detailed comments from many participants.

Nothing much happened during successive months after the discovery of Dorothy Blackburn and her murder remained unsolved.  Several more prostitutes were killed during the summer of 1989, although none of the cases seemed clearly linked to one another and none seemed unusual.  One woman had been dumped along the roadway on an exit ramp, another shot, and a third one killed by a car in a way that looked suspicious.

Then the police had reason to sit up and take notice.  On September 9, a man looking for empty bottles to sell came across another set of remains.  He spotted a bone sticking up and believed it was from a dead deer, but upon closer inspection saw a pile of clothing, so he knew what he'd found and he reported it. 

This woman had apparently floated upriver, as Joel Norris describes it, until construction debris had snagged her in place.  No one had seen her there, and she had decomposed quite a bit, making it difficult for Dr. Forbes to offer a cause of death, although he listed it as probable asphyxia.  There were no knife or gunshot wounds evident in the bones.  But who was she?

According to Jack Olsen in The Misbegotten Son, the police found 138 possible match-ups for identity purposes from reports of missing women, but all were eventually eliminated.  Unable to identify her or to find someone like her as being reported missing from the area, the police hired William Rodriguez III, a forensic anthropologist; to use the victim's skull to reconstruct what her face had looked like.  It is a long, involved process to provide a distinct face from bone, but he produced a clay bust and added a wig and fake eyeballs, and they took a photograph of the final product   and published it  in  local papers.  The victim's distraught father identified her as Anna Steffen, and dental records confirmed it.  The man believed a drug dealer or pimp had killed her.

Her body had been discovered far away from where Blackburn's had been found, so while their manner of death and disposal may have been similar, no one was talking about a multiple killer.

On Saturday, October 21, six weeks later, three sportsmen from Pennsylvania went into the Gorge and came across the remains of a decomposing headless corpse, mostly bones, hidden in tall grass along the riverbank. Her neck was broken and the cause of her death was difficult to determine, but it seemed to have been done by blunt impact with something.

As her remains were collected, Norris writes, nobody realized that the killer was standing nearby, watching.  He appeared to be just an ordinary fisherman, someone who frequented the area, so no one gave him a thought. 

Olsen says that an employee of a county jail read about the discovery and reported that a homeless woman named Dorothy Keeler, age 60, had not been seen in some time.  Again the remains were given to the anthropologist and the identity was made.

Six days after that one, nearing Halloween, a boy retrieving a ball saw a foot sticking out from beneath a pile of debris and cardboard near a YMCA that was not far from the Gorge.  He summoned the police, who uncovered a decomposing, maggot-infested corpse, dressed in black pants and a sweater.  The dead woman turned out to be Patty Ives, a once-pretty Lyell Avenue prostitute whose loss made her pimp cry.  He was not a viable suspect.

That made four apparently dead by asphyxia, with three in quick succession.  The press began to write about "the Rochester Strangler" and "the Genesee River Killer."  Some of these women had been concealed beneath something, and a cop suspected the killer might be afraid of air patrols, which indicated either criminal or military experience.  The pressure was on now to stop this person.  It was suggested, from lack of struggle on the part of the victims, that this strangler killed quickly and that he was probably quite strong.  He appeared to strangle these women without much effort.

Since he was targeting mainly prostitutes, the vice cops went around talking to some of the women whom they knew were in the same trade.  "When these killings started," Lt. James Bonnell is quoted as saying in The Misbegotten Son, "we figured we're gonna need the cooperation of every prostitute." 

On average, around 35 women worked the area at any given time, though many came and went.  The police sat in unmarked cars, watching them and allowing them to ply their trade.  They wondered about the transvestite, a rather striking man dressed as a woman, who seemed to get the most action, but there was nothing overtly suspicious about him.  The women were tentative about this unusual arrangement, not altogether trustful that the police watching them wouldn't just bust them.  Neither side was used to working with the other.  Yet they also felt safer.

The cops knew that several of these women were streetwise and tough, and if the strangler got near one of them, he'd be the worse for it.  They'd spot the guy, everyone was certain about that.  June Cicero had her own moves, for example, and she'd be likely to maim anyone she suspected of even the slightest bad intent.  In fact, she would not even walk up to a car she did not know.  She probably had an instinct for bad eggs.

Another prostitute, a hefty older female who went by the name Jo Ann Van Nostrand, told them about a john named "Mitch," that she'd been with one night that had seemed potentially violent.  He was strange, too, she added.  He had mentioned the strangler, had taken her pretty far afield, and had wanted her to pretend she was dead.

"He was real nervous," she said later on The Mind of a Serial Killer, "and that made me nervous.  Little things kept clicking and the hairs on the back of my neck started standing up."  She'd brought out her knife and told him she'd use it.  He did not seem upset about that and even admired her for it, though she was sure that he'd tried reaching for her throat several times.  He wanted to see her again, but she avoided him.

The word spread among the women to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior in men who approached them.  They were nervous, but not so much that they didn't still get into cars with johns.  They told the cops repeatedly about a suspicious "gray van" that roved the area, but the driver of one that they stopped turned out to be an ordinary guy.  Leads came in every day, but none provided a constructive direction.

Other prostitutes were soon missing, like blond Maria Welch, who resembled Patty Ives in build.  Then a petite blonde was discovered dumped in the Gorge, down a steep slope, wearing only a pair of boots.  Her cause of death was asphyxia, and bruises on the body indicated that she'd been beaten.  Everyone assumed this victim was Maria, but they were wrong.  Her name was Frances Brown.  She'd been out with someone named "Mike."

A few johns were questioned but none panned out.  Some of the early victims were traced to their killers but most of the cases remained unsolved.  The police thought they had a series of six to eight women who had been killed by the same man.  Checking files of sexual predators who'd been paroled from upper New York prisons, they found nothing to indicate that they had one in the area.

Then an older man whose twenty-six-year-old girlfriend had been missing for eighteen days decided to report her.  She had mental problems and sometimes just stayed away.  Yet he had not heard from her in far too long.  He had taught her to stay out of strangers' cars, so he did not believe that she had fallen victim to anyone, but he was worried.  Since she wasn't a prostitute, the police did not believe she was vulnerable to this phantom killer.  They took down the information about the missing June Stott and spread it around among the patrol officers.  But their primary concern was the next potential victim of the strangler.

We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'