Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arthur Shawcross, the Genessee River Strangler

On a Tightrope

Patrol units were hot on the trail of the man in the Celebrity, and the helicopter team followed.  They watched as the car pull into a municipal parking lot across the street from the Wedgewood Nursing Home in Spencerport.  The driver went into the nursing home, and a check on the licenses plate number revealed that that car belonged to a woman named Clara Neal.  The troopers took over while the helicopter team returned to protect the crime scene.  They saw that there were fresh footprints in the snow.  Those would be good evidence.  They roped everything off and called for more support.

State Police Officer John Standing asked the man in the Celebrity for an ID, and he produced it.  His name was Arthur John Shawcross, 44 (though with his graying hair he looked much older), and he said he thought that they'd followed him because he'd urinated out in the woods.  That was his story, anyway, and he agreed to cooperate.  When asked for his driver's license, he admitted he did not have one and then revealed that he had been in jail for manslaughter.

That revelation struck everyone at once.  This was no ordinary citizen who'd happened to get close to a crime scene.  This was a one-time killer.  The profilers had told them that this offender was returning to his victims, and that could very well be what they'd caught him doing.  Just by a sheer stroke of luck, they had flown over the scene at the very time he'd decided to have another look at his brutal handiwork—have lunch over it, in fact.

Yet they weren't sure yet that they had the right guy.  They had to be careful.  Interrogators often make mistakes by showing their eagerness and trying to rush someone into a confession.  They had spent too many hours on this case to blow it right here and now.

Arthur Shawcross, mugshot
Arthur Shawcross, mugshot (Corbis)

Investigator Dennis Blythe managed to persuade Shawcross to accompany him to the State Police Barracks for further questioning.  Shawcross was happy to oblige and even signed forms that gave the troopers permission to search the car and his home.  The police then took both him and Clara Neal (in a different car) to Brockport.

An experienced interrogator, Charlie Militello, assisted Blythe with the questioning and they soon got Shawcross to describe the places where he liked to fish—most of them where victims had been dumped.

He also admitted that he'd been arrested sixteen years earlier in Watertown because "two kids died."  He would not elaborate on these crimes.

He insisted it was just a coincidence that he was parked over the body on Salmon Creek, that he was just driving around and had stopped to take a piss when the helicopter flew over.  He hadn't seen anything.

Though excited by what they heard and by the feeling they finally had the killer right in front of them, the investigators continued to build rapport rather than press for details.  They wanted him to feel comfortable talking with them because they intended to question him again and they wanted it to be voluntary.  They had him in the interrogation room for about five hours, taking Clara home before they released him.  He did finally tell them more details about how he had killed the children, raping the little girl anally before he'd strangled her.  Everyone was disgusted but they tried not to show their feelings.  Shawcross also told them how he'd had sexual relations with his younger sister, and he thought that had something to do with why he had assaulted a child, as well as why he had killed so many people in Vietnam.  He liked to talk about his "accomplishments" there.  He'd been quite the soldier.

While he was being questioned, a "profile expert" (characterized thus by Jack Olsen but never named) advised them that a pedophile would not change his victim type to adult women.  However, that "profile expert" was neither Ed Grant nor Gregg McCrary, who knew that some killers just go for victims of opportunity who are vulnerable.  Shawcross had been in prison for fifteen years.  He could have developed fantasies along different lines, or he might have learned that communities that get outraged over child murders might not care as much about prostitutes.  Not all serial killers choose the same victim type.  That's an erroneous notion passed around in the circles of academic psychology.

That Shawcross had self-serving explanations for everything he did was soon evident, and the officers fully expected that if he confessed to the recent spate of killings, he would have reasons for them as well that served his own purposes. 

Before they released him, they asked to take his photograph, and Shawcross allowed it. 

Investigators put it into a photo spread and brought it to several of the prostitutes working Lyell Avenue.  One was Jo Ann Van Nostrand, who had told the police about "Mitch," the john who'd wanted her to pretend she was dead.  She immediately identified him.  "That's the guy!" 

Now she knew for sure that she'd come close to being killed.  He'd reached for her throat several times during their encounter, but she had blocked him.  She also indicated that Shawcross was the john with whom Elizabeth Gibson, another victim, had last been seen.  Several other prostitutes identified him as well.  They all knew him as a regular customer who'd never been a problem.

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