Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mysterious Charlie Chop-off


Sketch: Erno Soto
Sketch: Erno Soto

In 1974, the police were alerted to Erno Soto once again. On May 24, he was caught in the act of accosting a nine-year-old Hispanic boy who was running an errand, and was arrested. But given his disorganized mental state, he was taken right away to the prison psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital for an evaluation. The thirty-three-year-old man's appearance perfectly fit the description of the killer, and it turned out that he had relatives in all the relevant neighborhoods. The widely dispersed murders now made some sense. In fact, it was found that the mental institution that had been Soto's occasional residence had a footbridge that went across the river to 104th Street, twenty blocks from the first murder, twenty-seven from the second one, and directly across from where the surviving boy had been attacked. Soto's father lived in Cropper's neighborhood.

When detectives from the Seventh Precinct heard about the arrest, they rounded up some witnesses and took them to Bellevue. According to Times reporter Wolfgang Saxon, they identified Soto as the man they had seen. Soto immediately confessed to killing Steve Cropper and detectives believed they'd closed this case, especially after they learned more about Soto's history.

Gelb lays it out and Newton repeats it, accepting that Soto's unusual marital arrangement might have been influential, if not causal. A Puerto Rican, Soto had separated from his wife for several years but then they'd reconciled and decided to try again. Yet during their time apart, the wife had been involved with a black man and had a child with him. If Soto was going to move back in, he'd have to accept that. From all appearances, he had, but it's possible that the arrangement got under his skin more than he cared to admit. It's also possible that his own mental illness had progressed to the point where he could no longer restrain its manifestations, and the situation with his marriage simply gave those manifestations their specific frame: stalking and mutilating children with dark skin.

Dunlop-Manhattan Psychiatric Center
Dunlop-Manhattan Psychiatric Center

As his wife's son grew older, Soto's behavior became increasingly erratic, getting very bad as the boy turned eight. In 1969, Soto entered the Dunlop-Manhattan Psychiatric Center, spending about a year there. Although he was released, he returned from time to time in 1972 and 1973 for extended stays, largely because he was prone to uncontrolled bouts of violence. The Times adds that he had spent a total of eleven years in jail for charges ranging from burglary to possession of narcotics, and had also been treated for heroin addiction.

Despite the logic of the explanation, it's unlikely that at this point in Soto's life, being father to a black child would inspire sudden pedophilia. Something had affected him much earlier, but since his records are not available, no one can know. Yet it's facile to say that because he allegedly stalked dark-skinned boys it must have been because of his wife's son. Still, the state of psychiatry at the time often promoted such interpretations, so it's trickled down into our lay understanding. Soto himself insisted that God had told him to turn little boys into girls.

Whatever the case, just as it seemed that the killings had finally been stopped, the case began to unravel.