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Rochester, New York, lies along the south shore of Lake Ontario, about fifty miles east of Buffalo. Rochester is a medium-sized city, population about 250,000. It grew where the Genesee River flowed into Lake Ontario. Later it became the spot where the Genesee River crossed the Erie Canal. A large ninety-foot waterfall in the river-known as the High Falls-could be used to power mills, where grain was ground into flour. During the nineteenth century, Rochester was known as the Flour City. (Rochester maintains today the same nickname, but because of the annual Lilac Festival in Highland Park, the spelling has been changed to Flower City.) The original settlement was near the falls that marked the city's geographic center-only a few hundred yards from the courthouse where the trial in this case was held. During the nineteenth century, the city took root and grew outward.
During the twentieth century, the Erie Canal was moved to a new route, south of the city, and Rochester no longer existed because of water transportation. It found a new raison d'être in cutting-edge technology. Eastman Kodak (photography), Xerox (photocopying), Bausch & Lomb (lenses), all made their homes in Rochester. Like many cities in America experienced during the middle of the twentieth century, suburbssurrounded Rochester as old-time Rochesterians moved out and were replaced by newcomers, often poor minorities, who took their place in the city proper. Though the city itself had shrunk in population, from 350,000 to 250,000, the metro Rochester area (which included most of Monroe County) had grown by the first decade of the twenty-first century to a population of close to 1 million. The crime rate in the suburbs was only a fraction of that which law enforcement had to battle in the city.
The Edgerton section of Rochester, New York, where most of the murders in this book occurred, was bordered on the east by Lake Avenue, which had been that city's main north-south thoroughfare before the expressways were built. Lake Avenue was so named because it took motorists from downtown to the lake, where there had been for decades a major recreation area called Charlotte, Rochester's own Coney Island.
Another factor that took the shine off Lake Avenue was the shrinkage of the Eastman Kodak Company. Lake Avenue was the route one took to Kodak Park, a massive industrial region where film and cameras were made. It was four miles from one side of Kodak Park to the other. In its heyday, before 1980, Kodak employed 64,000 Rochestarians. In 2009, less than ten thousand work there, and much of Kodak Park is closed.
Despite all of this, Lake Avenue was still a main drag, with a few stores and some hustle and bustle. It was one of the first streets to be plowed when it snowed, and in the winter, that was often. To the north, between Edgerton and Lake Ontario, there were spacious homes along sycamore-lined streets-once homes to the rich, but now available cheap, because of the same urban blight that had rocked most of Rochester.
The Edgerton section was bordered on the south by Lyell Avenue, a main east-west drag before the expressways, now known mostly for its drug deals and prostitution. In fact, the epicenter of Rochester's hooker activity was unofficially at Lyell Avenue and Sherman Street, due south of Edgerton Park, and the location of a strip joint. The neighborhood was bordered on the north by Lexington Avenue, and on the west by the New York Central railroad tracks.
Older Rochesterians still sometimes called it the Edgerton section; although, truth be told, Edgerton Park had not been its focal point for half a century.
That park-originally called Exposition Park, then renamed after Hiram Edgerton, the beloved mayor of Rochester, from 1908 to 1922-was once one of Rochester's proud points, a hub of activity throughout the year.
Sadly, it had for decades been little more than the unusually large, forty-acre grounds behind the former Jefferson High School. There were tennis and basketball courts, baseball diamonds and the football field, but it had been a couple of generations since it was a place where huge crowds gathered.
When the circus came to town each year, the tent was set up in Edgerton Park. When a traveling rodeo show passed through, they performed their tricks in front of the football stands in Edgerton Park. Before the new Rochester Museum was built on East Avenue in 1942, the museum was in Edgerton Park, and was recognized by schoolchildren of the time for its dark and spooky hallways.
The park once held the bandstand where the city's summer concerts were played. It held the football stadium where the city's biggest games were played. It was the home field of the Rochester Jeffersons, a pro football team named after the high school that was even then a neighbor. The Jeffs played from 1908 to 1925. During the last five of those years, they were a franchise in the National Football League (NFL).
The park was also the site of the Edgerton Park Arena, an ancient crate of a building that had been originally used as the drill house for Rochester's bad boys during the nineteenth century when the park was the site of the city's juvie facility, known as the Industrial School. The spooky old arena was the home of the Rochester Royals pro basketball team from 1945 to 1957. The Royals played at first in the National Basketball League, which later became the National Basketball Association (NBA).
Yes, there was a time when Rochester, population approaching four hundred thousand, was big league. But that was a long time ago. The Edgerton Park Arena was torn down in the late 1950s, replaced by the city's War Memorial Arena downtown, now known as the Blue Cross Arena. The football field is still there, but the large roofed grandstand is long gone.
And by 1990, Edgerton Park was a memory held dear by Rochester's older citizens-most of whom now lived in the suburbs-and the neighborhood that still bore its name was among the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in America.
Not that there weren't other sections of the city that were almost as bad. It was merely the worst of several Rochester neighborhoods that had been collectively named "the Crescent" by police, because they formed a crescent shape around Rochester's center.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, at least three serial killers operated in the Edgerton section of Rochester. If you'd based a fictional movie on such a premise, it would have seemed ludicrous.
Homicide detectives, overloaded and pressured from every side, got tough or burned out. It was a full-time job just trying to figure out which kills belonged to which killer-or killers.
The nightmare of multiple maniacs who killed for kicks was exacerbated by a drug war. A Jamaican crew had moved into town and sought exclusivity when it came to Rochester's cocaine trade. If you dealt sniffable coke or smokable crack, and you didn't have dreadlocks, your life expectancy could be measured in weeks. According to a retired member of law enforcement, "The Genesee River ran bloodred for a few years."
But this is not a story about a drug war. It is about the murders of mostly women. Many, many women. Most of them addicted to crack.
If a woman was working the streets, johns were expected to supply the drugs during a trick. Trouble sometimes came when the woman expected to get paid in cash, in addition to getting high-and the johns thought that the drugs were sufficient as payment.
For years it was very dangerous to be a woman anywhere near Edgerton. Like the crime spree of "Jack the Ripper" in London, the murders in Edgerton brought public attention to Rochester's underbelly, its strips of streetwalkers and drug dealers. The victims were all women, most of whom were down on their luck, some turned out by their boyfriends, their mouths never far from a glass pipe and a crackling rock.
The evening news had a nightly feature on the plight of some of Rochester's most vulnerable citizens, its nocturnal streetwalkers. Television cameras videotaped the scene along Lyell Avenue, the sunken faces of the crack-damaged women covered with blue dots.
One by one, these women climbed into a pickup truck and were never seen again. Journalists interviewed the survivors. Filmed now from the neck down, the women all chanted the same mantra: "We're careful. We never got in a car with a john we don't know and trust."
And then another one would disappear, only to be found discarded somewhere in the desolation of Rochester's growing urban wilderness. Murder victims were last seen within blocks of each other. A cluster of victims had been found in their homes-one here, one across the street, another down the block.
It is rare for even the largest cities to have two serial killers active at once. Three in one 'hood was off the charts-unprecedented before or since. Multiple killers. No way to tell the number of killers, really. The methods of operation, the signatures, were too variant for it to be one. At least two. Probably three. Maybe more. Who knew? Homicide investigators developed circles under their eyes. There was no place in America where life was cheaper.
It was as if Rochester had been infiltrated by a cult of misogynists, as if killing women had become a fad-a savage pastime for hellish enthusiasts.
Then-early in the game, as it turned out-police caught a break, and the number of serial killers working in Edgerton decreased by one.
In January 1990, one of these killers was caught. He was the "Genesee River Killer" (GRK), the guy who liked to dump his bodies near water. Many of his victims had last been seen walking Lyell Avenue at night. GRK's Rochester crime spree officially began during the fall of 1989 when the bodies of Dorothy Keller and Patricia Ives were discovered dumped in a remote area at the bottom of the Genesee River Gorge. The crimes were eerily similar to the unsolved murder of Dorothy Blackburn, whose body was discovered in the spring of 1988. When police started to keep an eye on the gorge, the killer simply moved his dumping ground. The bodies of downtrodden women decomposed along other county waterways.
January 3, 1990, was an icy winter day, the ground white with "lake effect" snow. On that day, police found a pair of female jeans and the ID for a missing woman in Monroe County's rural outskirts, but they didn't tell the public. Instead, they staked out the area in hopes the killer would return to the scene. It wasn't long before they hit pay dirt.
On January 5, a policeman with binoculars aboard a police chopper spotted a man standing near the spot where the items were found. The man stood beside a creek, with his penis out. Seeing the helicopter circling overhead, the man put his member back in his trousers, got in his car, and left the scene. He didn't get far. He was soon tracked down by police on the ground. When asked what he was doing with his penis out, he said he was "trying to pee in a bottle." Police asked him to come downtown and answer a few questions, and he said okay. He told police his name was Arthur J. Shawcross, and he was subjected to intense questioning.
At first, the FBI profiling team working the case said Shawcross didn't look like the guy. Their profile said it had to be a younger man. This guy was forty-five.
Despite FBI skepticism, Shawcross eventually signed an eighty-nine-page confession. Present at the confession was homicide investigator Tony Campione, who recalled Shawcross being handed a stack of photos, each of a murdered or missing woman. The suspect was asked to divide the pictures into two piles, those he did and those he didn't do. When he was done, there were eleven images in the "did" pile. Campione and the other investigators had hoped for more.
The FBI profilers amended their thinking because of Shawcross. They said, since men did not emotionally mature while in prison, the "age" of an unknown perpetrator-based on the nature of his crimes and other known activities-could only count the number of years he was out of jail. Or so the new FBI theory went.
Shawcross's confession included admissions of abhorrent postkill rituals. He didn't just murder his victims, he said. He sometimes used a knife and sexually mutilated them. He shattered another taboo when he cannibalized them as well.
Years later, Campione had a bone to pick with the experts in Quantico regarding the Genesee River Killer case: "The FBI profilers said the guy couldn't be gainfully employed, but it turned out he had a job. They said he was not involved in a meaningful relationship and it turned out he was married-with a mistress on the side. The only thing the FBI got right about Shawcross was 'white male.'"
A quick look at Shawcross's background revealed that the Rochester prostitutes were not his first murder victims. He was born in Maine, raised in Watertown, New York, which is in the northernmost part of the state. As a kid, he didn't get along with others, had a reputation as a bully, and developed into a loner. He dropped out of school, floated around for a couple of years, and then enlisted in the army, where, although doing a stretch in Vietnam, he saw no combat.
Later he told a shrink that he learned to kill in Vietnam, but all of his claimed wartime kills were of young female Vietcong-enemy agents. All female. Since he only saw duty as a cook in Saigon, it was believed that he fantasized these killings to boost a possible post-traumatic stress defense. It was also possible that these stories of knifing female members of the "enemy" were simply bastardized versions of real murders he'd committed as a young man in the United States, murders with which he had never been connected.
In 1972, he committed his first known murder near his hometown of Watertown when he took ten-year-old Jack Owen Blake into the woods, sexually abused him, and then killed him. Later that year, he raped and killed an eight-year-old girl named Karen Ann Hill, who was from Rochester.
For the two Watertown murders, Shawcross got off easy, bizarrely easy. Because of sloppy paperwork, he served a shortened sentence. It turned out that Shawcross had never been formally charged with one of his child killings.
Shawcross served fifteen years in prison and was freed in 1987. He was placed first in a small upstate New York town, but word got out as to who he was. He was then driven from the town, forced to move to Rochester, where he could better assimilate with society without sticking out like a sore thumb because he was a newcomer.
Soon thereafter, he began to kill again. And again. His victims were now predominantly prostitutes instead of children. He had grown strong and burly; he was confident he could control larger human beings now.
Shawcross was a celebrity at the time of his trial, which was broadcast gavel-to-gavel by RNews, the local all-news TV station. Because of the subject matter-prostitution, sexual mutilation, cannibalism-the trial became the most popular TV show in Rochester, and many Rochesterians heard things coming out of their television sets that they'd never heard before. Beatings, stranglings, asphyxiations-the whole city sat transfixed.
Shawcross claimed he was nuts, and attempted an insanity plea. One defense shrink testified for nine days, saying Shawcross suffered from multiple personality disorders, post-traumatic stress from Vietnam, and was the victim of horrible child abuse.
Acting insane, for Shawcross, took his behavior even further through the figurative looking glass. A hypnotist had put him into a trance with a video recorder going and Shawcross "remembered" previous lives dating back to the thirteenth century, when he was Ariemes, a medieval British cannibal.
But the reality was that Shawcross was a cool and cunning hunter. He worked for a food distributor and supplied food to the streetwalkers who populated the shoulder of Lyell Avenue, just west of Lake Avenue.
The group of ladies who became his victims-Patricia Ives, Frances Brown, June Cicero, Darlene Trippi, Anna Marie Steffen, Dorothy Blackburn, June Stotts, Marie Welch, Elizabeth Gibson, Felicia Stephens and Dorothy Keller, many of whom walked the streets-trusted him. Long after everyone knew someone was systematically killing Rochester's hookers, women in that area happily continued to trust Shawcross.
Excerpted from KILLER TWINS by MICHAEL BENSON Copyright © 2010 by Michael Benson. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 4, 2010
When Stephen Spahalski was released from prison in 2009, the Elmira, NY community was all abuzz about what he and his brother Robert "Bruce", had done. In a search, I found out this book was coming out. I wanted to read it, only to find out what was "true" and what was "rumor". I was stunned.
Mr. Benson truly did his homework. From the Spahalski's childhood, their drug fueled crime sprees and eventual murders, to the frustration and eventual relief of law enforcement in the solving of the murders, it's all there. Your heart breaks for the victim's families, and you get angry when the confessions come. There are a few graphic pictures in this book for the Ripley murder.
If you enjoy reading "true crime" books, this is one to pick up. Once you start reading, you won't want to put the book down until you are done.
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