Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killers Who Surrender

Charlie Chop-off

There are different types of false confessions, and sometimes people just confess spontaneously to something they did not do. In 1932, when Charles Lindbergh's baby was kidnapped and killed, over 200 people took credit. A decade later, more than 30 people confessed to the murder of Elizabeth Short, "the Black Dahlia," a case still unsolved. Voluntary confessions are usually made in response to a high profile case where fame is a possibility, but they might also be given to protect someone or to exacerbate a personal sense of guilt over something else. Sometimes a mentally ill person has seen the news and somehow mingles the information with his own delusions, erroneously believing he did something. That makes solving such cases difficult.

In the early 1970s, young boys were being attacked and murdered in Manhattan's Harlem area. It appeared to be some type of fetish or torture crime, because when their bodies were found, the penises had been mutilated or removed. Clearly, this perpetrator was a sexual deviant and experts speculated that he hated his own manhood.

On March 9, 1972, Douglas Owens, only eight years old, was found on a rooftop, viciously stabbed 38 times. His penis was sliced open as well. The police received an anonymous phone call identifying an area resident named Erno Soto as the killer, but the lead apparently was not checked out. Six weeks later on April 20, another boy was stabbed and his penis was removed and taken away. Miraculously, he survived, but the next victim, Wendell Hubbard, did not. On October 23, the nine-year-old was found stabbed 17 times, and his penis had been sliced off and carried away. In another five months, another nine-year-old boy encountered a similar fate, stabbed 38 times. He was found in the cellar of a building in East Harlem.

Then Steve Cropper was killed on August 17, 1973. He was eight, but instead of being stabbed, he'd been attacked with a razor. His penis remained intact, so there was speculation that, despite his age and the color of his skin, he should not be included in the series of murders attributed to "Charlie Chop-off."

The police were alerted to Erno Soto once again in May 1974, as he accosted a nine-year-old Hispanic boy. He immediately confessed to killing Steve Cropper and detectives believed they'd closed this case, especially after they learned more about Soto's history. A Puerto Rican, he had separated from his wife and then reconciled. But he'd had to live with the fact that she'd had a child with a black man during their separation. Soto had apparently decided to accept the situation, but as the child grew older, Soto's behavior became erratic. He entered a psychiatric institution in 1969, spending about a year there, but it apparently did not cure his compulsion to stalk young boys with dark skin.

With the information, the police believed that Soto was good for the other cases as well, but then they faced a setback: the surviving victim could not identify Soto as his attacker. Officials at the psychiatric hospital also indicated that he'd been confined at the time of the murder to which he'd confessed, although they admitted that he sometimes left the building without permission.

Given Soto's mental instability and the lack of physical evidence linking any murder to him, the crimes could not be officially solved. Soto's confession might have been nothing more than a delusion. Nevertheless, he was committed to a forensic psychiatric hospital, and once he was locked away more securely the attacks on local boys ceased. While that's not a definitive argument that Soto was the perpetrator, it provides a bit of circumstantial evidence to support his confession.

Another man who killed during altered states decided he had to stop. He's the most recent case of a serial killer who surrendered.


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