The Genesee River Killer
by Alyssa Jackson | published Oct. 3rd, 2015
"The first body we found was a woman named Dorothy," said Charles Siragusa, a senior United States District Judge in the U.S. District Court for the Western New York. "Then there were a series of bodies found, so it became apparent that it was the work of one individual."
This one individual was Arthur Shawcross, although law enforcement didn't know this at the time of their 1988 investigation and wouldn't know it for two more years. Between 1988 and 1990, Shawcross was responsible for the murder of at least 11 victims in the Rochester area, though there is speculation that there may be more. The man struck fear in the heart of Rochester as the "Genesee River Killer."
Siragusa was one of the main men who helped put Shawcross away for the murders. During the time, Siragusa served as the prosecution on the case, battling insanity pleas so that Shawcross wouldn't get away for the second time in his criminal career.
The Beginning of it All
Shawcross was born in 1945 in Maine before his family moved to Watertown, New York, according to Crime and Investigation. Shawcross claimed during his trial to have had a terrible childhood with an abusive mother and sexually abusive extended family. Members of his family denied these claims and there were no reports of abuse during his childhood filed, so it became a hearsay argument. There were, however, several reports of bad behavior in school before he dropped out of the ninth grade.
Shawcross later claimed to have been an Army sniper in Vietnam, resorting to cannibalism during the war.
"We interviewed his supervising officer and found out that he wasn't a sniper, he was in supply," said Siragusa with a chuckle. These claims were an attempt to plea insanity at the time of the murders, a strategy that would end up failing.
Shawcross by and large flew under the radar despite his erratic behavior. Written off as a troubled boy, Shawcross's claim to fame wasn't until after he had left military and returned to Watertown. It was at this time he killed his first victim - ten-year-old Jack Blake.
A Taste for Murder
Blake was a child from Shawcross's neighborhood. He was missing for five months before his body, which had been sexually assaulted and suffocated, was found. It wasn't long after this that Karen Ann Hill's body was found in Watertown as well. Shawcross was eventually caught and found guilty for the murder of Hill. He confessed to both crimes, but was not charged in Blake's death due to a plea deal. He was sentenced to 25 years but was released on parole after serving less than 15.
Some sources claim that Shawcross was released despite warnings by psychologists not to. Many sources blame an overcrowded prison system for the oversight. Whatever the reason, Shawcross went free and was run out of several towns for his criminal record. Authorities eventually decided to seal his record to prevent public outcry before relocating to Rochester.
27-year-old prostitute Dorothy Blackburn's body was found in March of 1988. It is unclear whether Shawcross targeted prostitutes for being unlikely to be missed or to to highlight his sexual inadequacies.
"The point clearly came where law enforcement believed we had a serial killer; and despite efforts by the police, we weren’t finding who this was," said Siragusa. Siragusa wasn't sure when this point was, but as more strangled prostitutes turned up in the Genesee River it was clear there was a problem.
The Genesee River Killer
The case gathered national media attention as police searched for the Genesee River Killer. Rochester Police interviewed prostitutes and the homeless, searching for a man that they believed to have a military background based on the kills. State police were called in and help came in the form of an FBI profiler and other federal agents.
It wasn't until a helicopter was patrolling the North Hampton Park that a new clue came into the case. Searching for the body of missing prostitute Felicia Stephens, law enforcement instead saw the frozen body of June Cicero near a silver car with Shawcross in it, according to Siragusa.
"It came out that he frequented the Genesee River where a lot of the bodies had surfaced," Siragusa said. "Up to this point eight bodies had been found, including one in which the head was missing."
Despite this evidence, police had nothing to charge Shawcross with until the next day, when another prostitute claimed that he had solicited her services. Police brought Shawcross in for questioning based on this charge, and eventually obtained a confession.
Siragusa explained that Shawcross could not fall back on an insanity plea because his attempts to cover up the bodies clearly showed conscious intent.
"It's important to understand that to plead insanity, you have to claim that you didn't know what you were doing," Siragusa said.
The defense attempted to claim that he suffered from disorders such as multiple personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder and labeled him as a schizoid psychopath. Linday Schenkel, an associate professor in the psychology department at RIT, explained that while serial killers share traits with those who suffer from antisocial personality disorder, there is an important difference between the two.
"Serial killers are psychopaths," Schenkel said. "Not just someone who's antisocial or breaks the rules, it's really a lack of empathy. Many [serial killers] suffer from antisocial personality disorder, but they also have no ability to feel for other people."
It's uncertain what types of mental disorders that may have been at the root of Shawcross's disturbing problems.
"If you look at any of the tapes of the trial you'll notice he just sat there and didn't show any emotion," Siragusa explained. "The guard told me that he was animated once he was out of the presence of the jury, I don't know if it was just an act to get the jury to believe an insanity defense."
Either way, the jury dismissed his insanity plea and Shawcross was charged with all ten counts of second-degree murder in Monroe County, later being charged with one count of murder in Wayne County for Elizabeth Gibson. He was sentenced to 25 years for each count, totaling 250 years of imprisonment. He died in prison on Nov. 10, 2008 due to cardiac arrest.
You might be asking yourself at this point why you read an entire article on a serial killer that killed a few decades ago and is now dead. 'What does this have to do with me?' you may be wondering. The answer is simple, actually: no one ever believes it will happen to them.
"A couple of things stand out about the case," said Siragusa. "First of all, if you ask someone where a serial killer will strike, they won't say Rochester. New York City or Los Angeles, but definitely not Rochester. If it happens in Rochester, it can happen anywhere."
The other thing that continues to stay with Siragusa, years after putting away the monster of anyone's nightmares, is that he was a wolf in sheep's clothing.
"If I were to ask you what a serial killer looks like, you would describe someone crazy looking, drooling, something like the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Shawcross didn't look like that, he looked like someone's grandfather," said Siragusa. "Bad people come in all sizes, and he was as bad as they come."