Children in Staten Island grew up hearing spooky stories about a child-snatching boogeyman named "Cropsey" — and when Andre Rand started kidnapping and allegedly murdering local children, it seemed as if the urban legend had come to life.
In the 1970s, the children of Staten Island were regaled with spooky tales of a boogeyman called “Cropsey.” A shadowy figure with a hook for a hand, Cropsey was said to have escaped from a nearby mental institution and to be camping out in its ruins. It was there that he supposedly killed young children he kidnapped.
But while the legend of Cropsey started as a story shared over campfires, the lines between myth and reality began to blur as children around Staten Island really did begin to disappear in the 1970s and 1980s, driving Staten Islanders into a panicked frenzy.
When one girl was finally found dead, buried in a shallow grave on the abandoned property of the Willowbrook State School, police finally arrested a suspect: Andre Rand, a former custodian at the school — who reportedly was sleeping in a makeshift camp on its property.
Soon, Rand came to embody the legend of Cropsey. And while he was ultimately convicted of kidnapping two of the missing children, it’s widely believed he was responsible for the murders of many more, making him one of the most notorious criminals Staten Island has ever known.
Who Is Andre Rand?
Andre Rand was born as Frank Rushan on March 11, 1944 in Manhattan and grew up in Ithaca before serving in the army in the early 1960s.
From 1966 to 1968, he worked as a custodian at Staten Island’s Willowbrook State School, a state-funded mental institution for children with disabilities. Years later, in 1987, the school would be shut down and its campus abandoned when officials discovered its staff was abusing and neglecting the children housed there.
Rushan left his job at the school long before it shut down. In 1968, he changed his name to Andre Rand and began working a number of odd jobs while sleeping at various shelters, boarding houses, and even makeshift camps on Willowbrook’s campus.
Unfortunately, he also spent his time on more nefarious activities.
Andre Rand’s Crime Spree Begins
Andre Rand’s first known kidnapping attempt happened on May 25, 1969, when Rand lured a nine-year-old girl into his car. He drove to an empty lot and attempted to rape her — but fortunately, he was stopped by passing police officers and swiftly arrested. He served 16 months in prison for the attempted sexual assault.
But he didn’t stop there. Shortly after Rand was released, several young girls in the area started to go missing.
The first was five-year-old Alice Pereira. On July 7, 1972, The Charley Project reports, Alice was playing in the lobby of her building, just a few miles from Willowbrook, when she vanished without a trace.
Naturally, authorities suspected Andre Rand, who had a track record of abducting young girls. However, there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him — and Alice was never seen again.
The Cropsey Legend Becomes Reality
In 1981, Andre Rand tried to lure a 9-year-old girl into his green Volkswagen by offering her a lollipop. The girl managed to escape, and though Rand followed her home, no charges were pressed against him.
That name year, another girl was far less lucky.
On July 15, 1981, seven-year-old Holly Ann Hughes went missing while out buying a bar of soap from a deli in Port Richmond. Her parents filed a missing persons report, and several witnesses claimed to have seen Rand’s Volkswagen circling the area around the time of Holly Ann’s disappearance. But yet again, there wasn’t enough evidence against him, and Rand wasn’t arrested.
In 1983, Rand picked up 11 children from a local YMCA and bought them White Castle burgers before taking them to Newark Airport to watch the planes. Five hours later, he brought them back to the YMCA. He was given 10 months in jail for unlawful imprisonment.
Shortly after he got out of prison, ten-year-old Tiahease Jackson disappeared while out running errands in her Staten Island neighborhood, never to be seen again.
Other alleged victims of Andre Rand’s murder spree were 18-year-old Audrey Lyn Nerenberg, who disappeared in 1977; forty-two-year-old Ethel Louise Atwell, an employee at the former Willowbrook State School, in 1978; and 22-year-old Henry Gafforio in 1984.
These unnerving incidents left the people of Staten Island in a state of terror, and as time passed without any arrests, residents began to note that the disappearances eerily seemed to mirror the tales of Cropsey.
Then, fifteen years after the disappearances began, police finally made a breakthrough in the investigation.
The Horrific Murder Of Jennifer Schweiger
On July 9, 1987, Jennifer Schweiger — a 12-year-old girl born with Down syndrome — was reported missing after she didn’t return from a walk near her Westerleigh home. The search for her lasted 35 days — and ended in tragedy. Jennifer’s naked body was found in a shallow grave on the former property of the now-abandoned Willowbrook State School.
“When we dug it up and found a little foot there,” said Bob Devine, a volunteer on the search committee for Jennifer. “It’s something that’s going to stick with you the rest of your life.”
Rand had already been arrested and charged with the kidnapping of Jennifer Schweiger about a week before the girl’s corpse was discovered. The New York Times reported multiple witnesses had seen Rand walking hand in hand with Jennifer towards Willowbrook on the day of her disappearance.
What’s more, in an eerie parallel to the Cropsey legend, Rand had been camping in the abandoned institution’s ruins around the time Jennifer was murdered.
Andre Rand Faces Justice
When Jennifer Schweiger’s body was found, Andre Rand was charged with her murder. Initially, Rand insisted he had never met the girl — but he changed his story during the trial once his defense lawyer heard about the witnesses who’d seen Rand with her.
While the jury failed to come to a verdict on the murder charge, in 1988, they convicted Rand of the first-degree kidnapping of Jennifer Schweiger. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Then, in 2004, The New York Daily News reported, Rand was found guilty of Holly Ann Hughes’ kidnapping as well — over two decades after she went missing. Since there is no statute of limitations in New York for first-degree kidnapping, it was possible to charge and convict Rand of the crime.
Rand was given an additional 25-years-to-life sentence on top of the one he was already serving. To this day, the Staten Island boogeyman sits behind bars — and won’t be eligible for parole until 2037. Provided he lives that long, he’ll be 93 years old.
His Bizarre Letters From Prison
Even while in prison, Andre Rand has continued to deny his guilt.
According to the Staten Island Advance, in 2011 Rand sent out a series of strange “Mother’s Day” letters. In neat writing, he addressed the missives to “all the ladies on Staten Island who supported ‘prosecutorial vindictiveness’ against an innocent person!”
“Should I become a millionaire,” he wrote, “it would be my true nature to grant all of you with each, an envelope full of seeds, to plant and cultivate a rosebush (shrub) that produces roses every season, as a token of my heartfelt forgiveness (year after year), rather than bouquets of rosebuds which blossoms and shortly dies-out.”
These letters came nearly a decade after his last correspondence with the Advance. In November 2001, he sent the paper a batch of mail dated to 1994. These were just as precisely written, and drafted so neatly that it appeared he’d used a ruler.
The letters included thorough arguments against the nuclear arms race, nostalgic memories of racing hot rods as a boy, and emotional pleas to develop a kind correspondence with a stranger for “friendship.”
Rand also included a sketch of a small airplane and the interior control panel.
Cropsey And The Impact Of Andre Rand’s Crimes Today
In 2009, Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio’s documentary Cropsey premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film, which won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, vividly explored the Cropsey folk tale and the man who came to embody it.
The filmmakers’ approach was to posit to an audience whether or not this local urban legend had any actual, warranted ties to the life of Andre Rand.
For some of the people who experienced those years on Staten Island and who were involved in the search for the borough’s missing children, a boogeyman figure didn’t even come close to portraying Rand’s twisted psyche. And while Andre Rand is now behind bars, the terror his crimes inflicted has left an impression on Staten Island that has endured for generations.
“I call him the Hannibal Lecter of Staten Island,” said Donna Cutugno, the president of Friends of Jennifer for Missing Children, a volunteer group that still searches Willowbrook’s 385 acres twice a year in search of the other missing girls.
“He terrified a whole community. He still haunts us.”
After learning about Andre Rand, the alleged “Cropsey” killer, read these serial killer quotes that will chill you to the bone. Then read the story of Etan Patz, the first missing child to appear on a milk carton.