Arthur Shawcross: The Genessee River Killer
Arthur Shawcross was born in Kittery, Maine on 6th June 1945. His family moved to Watertown, a small town near Lake Ontario in New York State, when he was still a child.
His home life remains a source of speculation: Shawcross claimed, in his defence at his trial, that it was turbulent, and that he endured a difficult relationship with both parents, particularly his domineering mother, exhibiting early behavioural problems such as bed-wetting. He also made extreme claims about precocious sexuality: that he was sexually molested by an aunt when he was 9 years old, had sexual relations with his younger sister whilst they were still living at home and his first homosexual encounter aged 11, which was followed by experimentation with bestiality... Read more...
Arthur Shawcross was born in Kittery, Maine on 6th June 1945. His family moved to Watertown, a small town near Lake Ontario in New York State, when he was still a child. His home life remains a source of speculation: Shawcross claimed, in his defence at his trial, that it was turbulent, and that he endured a difficult relationship with both parents, particularly his domineering mother, exhibiting early behavioural problems such as bed-wetting. He also made extreme claims about precocious sexuality: that he was sexually molested by an aunt when he was 9 years old, had sexual relations with his younger sister whilst they were still living at home and his first homosexual encounter aged 11, which was followed by experimentation with bestiality.
In contrast to these claims, however, his parents and siblings maintain that he had a normal childhood, and that the events were largely the product of his imagination. There is no way of knowing whose version represents the reality of his upbringing, but what became clear, later on, was that Shawcross would change his stories at will, as he was interviewed by various professionals in the course of their investigations.
From school records it can be independently verified that he was an inveterate truant, with a particularly low IQ, a tendency to bullying and violence, and that he came under suspicion for a series of juvenile arson attacks, as well as burglaries. He dropped out of school having failed to pass the ninth grade, and the next few years were punctuated with violence and probationary jail sentences. He received his first probationary sentence in December 1963, for smashing a shop window, and married first wife, Sarah, in September 1964. The couple had a son in October 1965.
Another probationary charge, for unlawful entry, in November 1965, proved the last straw for his marriage, and he was divorced soon after. His second marriage, following drafting into the Army in April 1967, was also tainted by violence and was equally short-lived. He served a tour of duty in the Vietnam War in October 1967, and later claimed that, while there, he had murdered and cannibalised two young Vietnamese girls, as well as murdering children, although again there is no corroborating evidence to support this. He claimed a “combat kill” total of 39 which, when investigated later, was also discounted as fabrication; authorities claim that he killed no one on his tour of duty.
On his return from military duty in 1968, he was soon in trouble again: an arson attack in 1969 saw him serve two years of a five-year jail term. He was released in October 1971, when he returned to Watertown again, where he met his third wife, Penny Sherbino, who was pregnant with his child when he married her on 22nd April 1972.
6th June 1945
7th April 1972 Jack Blake, 10
2nd September 1972 Karen Ann Hill, 8
24th March 1988 Dorothy Blackburn, 27
8th July 1989 Anne Marie Steffen, 28
29th July 1989 Dorothy Keeler, 60
29th September 1989 Patricia Ives, 25
October 1989 Frances Brown, 22
23rd October 1989 June Stott, 26
5th November 1990 Marie Welch, 22
15th November 1989 Kimberly Logan
27th November 1989 Elizabeth Gibson
15th December 1989 Darlene Trippi, 32
2nd January 1990 June Cicero, 34
3rd January 1990 Felicia Stephens, 19
5th January 1990
The CrimeFirst Crimes
By the time of his third marriage, it has been established that he had already claimed his first victim, 10-year-old Jack Blake, a neighbour’s child, on 7th April 1972. Shawcross had taken him fishing just a few days before he disappeared, but denied any knowledge of the disappearance, and it was five months before the boy’s body was finally located. He had been sexually assaulted and suffocated.
In September 1972, the body of eight-year-old Karen Ann Hill was found under a bridge. She had been raped and murdered. Mud, leaves and other debris had been forced down her throat and inside her clothing. Neighbours remembered that Shawcross had been seen with Karen in the vicinity of the bridge before her disappearance, and Shawcross, who had a history of minor run-ins with local children, came under immediate suspicion.
He was arrested on 3rd October 1972, and finally confessed to both killings, although he was only charged with Karen Hill’s killing, given the lack of evidence tying him to Jack Blake’s death. He received a 25-year jail sentence, and third wife Penny divorced him shortly thereafter.
After serving less than 15 years of this sentence, he was released on parole in April 1987. The well-publicised resettlement of a child killer in the Binghamton area of New York State was greeted by a public outcry, and he was forced to leave the area after a few months, along with his new girlfriend, Rose Whalley. His criminal record meant that he would be unwelcome almost anywhere, and the authorities made the decision to seal it, to prevent a recurrence of the public alarm in Binghamton, before moving Shawcross and Whalley to Rochester, New York, where she became his fourth wife.
In Rochester, Shawcross took on a succession of menial jobs, and his lacklustre marriage to Whalley meant that he was soon seeking solace elsewhere, both from prostitutes as well as his new girlfriend, Clara Neal.
It did not take long for Shawcross to return to his murderous ways. Whether he made a conscious decision to target prostitutes, whose disappearance might not cause as much of an outcry as children, or whether the women taunted him for his sexual inadequacies, as he later claimed, his first victim was discovered by hunters on 24th March 1988. She was 27-year old prostitute Dorothy Blackburn, and her body was found in the Genessee River, dumped there following a vicious attack, which included bite marks in the groin area, and strangulation.
With little evidence, and no public impetus to solve the murder of a prostitute, her case languished for over a year. There were other murders of prostitutes in that time, but given the danger of the profession, nothing untoward was noticed that linked any cases, until the discovery of the body of another prostitute, Anna Steffen, on 9th September 1989. She had also died of asphyxia, and her body had been dumped in a similar way to that of first victim, Blackburn. But her body was found far from the original murder scene, so again the possibility that a serial killer was at work was not recognised.
On 21st October 1989, the body of a homeless woman, Dorothy Keeler, aged 59, was discovered, followed six days later by another prostitute, Patricia Ives, in the same area. Both had been asphyxiated and the press started to show an interest as the cases were linked, coining the term “The Genessee River Killer.” In all cases at least some attempt at concealment had been made, which police felt indicated previous criminal or military experience. They began to advise prostitutes working in the area to exercise caution, and sought as much information as possible about strangers operating in the area, as well as checking criminal records for offenders who might be living in the immediate area. Shawcross’ sealed criminal record meant that he escaped police attention at the time.
As prostitutes continued to disappear, it became apparent that the killer must be someone familiar to the women who worked in the area, and police were able to piece together a description of a regular punter called “Mitch” or “Mike”, who was prone to violence, from a number of women.
Then the body of 26-year old June Stott, who was neither a prostitute nor drug user, was found on Thanksgiving Day. She had been strangled, anally mutilated after death, had her labia removed and was gutted from throat to crotch like a wild animal.
With the body count mounting the police sought assistance from FBI profilers, who divided the 11 unsolved prostitute murders into sub-groups according to method and position. They developed a profile that described the killer as a white male in his 20’s to 30’s, strong, probably with a previous criminal record, familiar with the local area, and comfortable enough with the victims that they would enter his vehicle without question: to all outward appearances a “regular guy”. The lack of sexual interference indicated it might be someone with sexual dysfunction. The post-mortem injury inflicted on June Stott, and not on any other victim, indicated that the killer was becoming more comfortable around corpses, probably returning to the crime scene again later to relive the attack.
The discovery of the body of Elizabeth Gibson, on 27th November, brought a breakthrough: suspect “Mitch” had been seen with her shortly before her disappearance, but they seemed no closer to establishing his identity. Police tried various tactics, including canvassing all the local bars, to no avail.
When a pair of discarded jeans was discovered near the river on 31st December 1989, containing an ID card for a girl called Felicia Stephens, police began an aerial search of the surrounding area. On 2nd January 1990 a helicopter spotted what appeared to be a naked female body, lying on the ice surface of the river, by a bridge in the forest. The body was not Felicia Stephens, but that of a missing prostitute, June Cicero, who had also been mutilated post-mortem, as well as sawn practically in half.
Most importantly, the helicopter spotted a man standing on the bridge next to a small van, who appeared to be either masturbating or urinating. Fortunately for the authorities, Shawcross had, as speculated, returned to the scene of one of his crimes to relive the pleasure of the attack.
Patrol teams on the ground were alerted to track the vehicle, which had made off at speed, and finally tracked down Shawcross via the registration, which was in the name of his girlfriend, Clara Neal. When approached, Shawcross agreed to assist the police with their enquiries. When they asked for his driversinglecodes license, he admitted he did not have one, and then revealed that he had been in jail for manslaughter.
Police were confident they had their killer, and further questioning revealed the earlier child deaths and a grandiose account of his Vietnam War service, which was later discounted. A photo taken of him, during the initial questioning, soon confirmed his identity as “Mitch”, and official enquiries unearthed the reason for Shawcross’ sealed record, that had prevented the police from tracking him down sooner.
Still, police were unable to get Shawcross to admit to the murders, until they confirmed that a piece of jewellery that he had given to Clara Neal had belonged to June Cicero. When police threatened to implicate her in the killings, Shawcross capitulated and admitted to most of the murders, giving detailed excuses about why he had been “forced” to kill each one. He even admitted to the killing of two undiscovered bodies, those of prostitutes Maria Welsh and Darlene Trippi, leading investigators to their bodies. His formal confession was nearly 80 pages long.
In November 1990, Shawcross went on trial for the ten murders that had occurred in Monroe County, which was all victims except Elizabeth Gibson, who had been killed in neighbouring Wayne County. The trial was a national media event, extensively televised and widely viewed.
Shawcross’ defence team tried to build a case based on an insanity plea, citing various mitigating factors, such as his upbringing, post-traumatic stress as a result of military service, a cyst on the brain and a rare genetic defect: an extra Y chromosome in his genes that inclines those with this condition to violence.
The prosecution were quick to dispute the claims about his childhood and military service, casting doubts on Shawcross’ testimony. The physiological evidence about brain science and genetic factors was, at best, spurious and beyond the understanding of the jury. It was also hindered by poor presentation, on the part of the expert witnesses called to testify.
Shawcross was found sane, and guilty of 10 instances of second-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to 25 years for each count, a total of 250 years imprisonment. A few months later, Shawcross was taken to Wayne County to be tried for Elizabeth Gibsonsinglecodes murder. Rather than claim insanity this time, he pleaded guilty and received a further life sentence.
Shawcross is currently being held at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York State.