Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mysterious Charlie Chop-off


With the information they had on Soto in the Cropper murder, the police believed he was good for the other cases as well, but then they faced an impediment: the surviving victim, who had seen his attacker, could not identify Soto as the same man. Officials at the psychiatric hospital also indicated that Soto had been confined at the time of the murder to which he'd confessed, so he couldn't be the right person. When pressed, they admitted that he sometimes had left the building without permission (some sources report that he was actually on a weekend pass), so they could not be sure, but this nevertheless cast some doubt on the confession. (The Times reported a study that indicated that the psychiatric hospitals around the city were notoriously lax in accounting for their patients.) Given Soto's apparent mental illness, a confession might be insubstantial without physical evidence. Yet the killer had left nothing behind that would suit that purpose.

Nevertheless, his psychiatric history was telling: he had been institutionalized in 1972 shortly after the first murder, because he'd experienced religious delusions and had become violent. He then left the place, either as an escapee or on a leave, and during this time, the next boy was attacked (the one who could not identify Soto). Soon after that incident, Soto was back in the hospital but was discharged on April 23 and given outpatient status. It was his duty to report in on a regular basis, but he did not do so. In fact, the hospital lost contact with him. An outburst of violence got him recommitted in 1973. Just before this time, the other two boys were murdered and mutilated.

At Soto's murder trial before a judge on the State Supreme Court, a psychiatrist, Dr. John Baer Train, described him as a "walking time bomb" and insisted that he was "in need of constant surveillance." Another psychiatrist called him "dangerous" and diagnosed him as suffering from schizophrenia, adding that his attacks stemmed from his religious delusions and need for ritual.

Although the judge was disturbed by his own decision and even by the entire idea of an insanity defense - he claimed he was bound by the law ("a law that should be changed") to find the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity, and had Soto transferred to a maximum security psychiatric institution. No more weekend passes for him; despite his legal acquittal, he was expected to be incarcerated for life, although in reality he could have been evaluated as no longer a danger. If so, he could have been released.