Charles in Charge: a Charlie Chop-off Reinvestigation

Posted: June 13, 2018 in Uncategorized

Every cripple does his dance — Irish proverb as quoted in On the Track of Murder (Barbara Gelb, 1975)

 

I swear to god I’m not racist.

I live in the city; I despise all races equally.

Airing the fruits of my google alerts in Daily Dread, however, has shed a somewhat unflattering light on my monochromatic crime obsessions—I’m tracking more missing middleclass white women than Fox News and Nancy Grace combined.

I don’t know the words to “Kumbaya” and I’m not interested in learning but I do think equal representation is important;
all murders matter, to repurpose the phrase.  
Cases that receive more attention garner more resources and are thus more likely to be solved—so this seems to be an ideal time to revisit the crimes of Charlie Chop-off, killer of urban nonwhite males,
a demographic underrepresented in media coverage and overrepresented in victimology statistics.

charliechop2

FOR PEDANTS ONLY:  a Note on Sources and Nomenclature

One of the most exasperating aspects of reinvestigating the Charlie Chop-off murders is a dearth of reliable contemporaneous sources. 
Although the slayings were mentioned somewhat fleetingly in the New York Times I’ve opted to use their coverage as the gold standard—the Times’ current political bureau is odious but their 1970s crime reportage is,
in my experience at least, above reproach.

Published in 1975, Barbara Gelb’s book On the Track of Murder is considered by many to be the seminal work in the Charlie Chop-off canon;
I was initially skeptical about relying on a source using pseudonyms—anonymity has historically been exploited to tweak facts into a more salacious narrative. 
That said, with one minor exception Ms. Gelb’s reportage tracks perfectly with the Times, lending credence to the details in her book which failed to make it into the newspaper’s coverage.

The New York Daily News and the Harlem-centric Amsterdam News both published a smattering of articles about the murders but their reportage is too rife with inaccuracies and contradictions to be taken as gospel—the Daily News’s varietal spellings of the participants’ names is particularly atrocious.

The only (somewhat) recent source I consulted is this Court-TV article written by the venerable Katherine Ramsland;
it’s only available via the Wayback Machine, however,
and a glut of unreliable (and often debunked) information has sprung up on the web in recent years.

Finally, I should note the name “Charlie Chop-off” appears only in On the Track of Murder;
Ms. Gelb claims the nickname originated with the youngsters in the targeted communities but the appellation fails to appear in any print archives—I’ve opted to retain it for the sake of convenience, however.

 

THE LOST BOYS

Name:  Douglas Owens

Age/Race:  8 years old, African American

Date:  March 9th 1972 (with some variations noted below)

Location: Douglas’s body was found on the roof of 221 East 121st Street, two blocks from his home

Circumstances:  Douglas was waylaid after dark while running an errand for his mother. 
He was stabbed 38 (some sources say 39) times in the neck, chest and back; he had also been sexually mutilated—his penis split in half but not severed.  
Douglas was fully clad although his pants had been slashed open; his sneakers had been removed and placed neatly near his body. 
According to On the Track of Murder the coroner found “inconclusive” evidence of sodomy, but the precise indicia exhibited are unspecified.

Although I was unable to find much information about any of the Charlie Chop-off victims the media coverage of Douglas Owens’ death was particularly abysmal.  
His murder received not a single contemporaneous article in the press, and although March 9th is the date most often cited for his slaying an early New York Times article gives the date as March 4th;
a more recent Daily News article lists the date as March 16th.

 

Name:  On the Track of Murder uses the pseudonym Jimmy Wallace but we shall call him The Boy Who Lived

Age/Race:  10 years old, African American

Date: April 20th, 1972

Location: the attack occurred on the roof of the victim’s dwelling at 174 West 107th Street

Circumstances:  The Boy Who Lived was on his way to a nearby shop when he encountered a mid-30ish, white but olive-skinned (possibly Italian) stranger;
introducing himself as Michael, the man had a slender build, bad skin and a prominent mole on his left cheek. 
The victim, preternaturally observant for his age, also noted his soon-to-be attacker was right-handed, walked with a limp, had foul breath and stood approximately 5’7” tall. 
After a few pleasantries the man offered the Boy Who Lived fifty cents for assistance with a task on the roof;
the pair proceeded upstairs.

Upon reaching their destination the assailant forced the Boy Who Lived to disrobe;
the victim was then sodomized, castrated, and stabbed in the neck and back (the precise number of wounds has never been publicized).  
After the assault was completed the perpetrator moved the child to a downstairs hallway where he was subsequently discovered by a neighbor; although some sources note the victim’s sneakers were placed nearby it’s unclear if the shoes were located at the roof attack site or hallway dumpsite.

Although the significance of these anomalies remains unknown, the Boy Who Lived is the only victim moved to a secondary location post-assault;
he’s also the only castrated victim whose missing genitals surfaced—his penis was found the following day by a trio of frolicking children in a playground several blocks away.

“On April 21st, 1972 one Eugene Q. G— approached Patrolman Lavendero, 24th Precinct, and said he discovered some youths playing with a black penis on Amsterdam Ave. He turned it over to the Officer, who in turn brought it to the attention of the (major crimes) squad.”  Police report as quoted in On the Track of Murder (Barbara Gelb, 1975)

 

Name:  Wendell Hubbard

Date: October 23rd, 1972

Age/Race:  9 years old, African American

Address:  The attack occurred on the roof of the victim’s residence, 2013 Fifth Avenue near the corner of 125th Street

Circumstances:  At approximately 5:45pm Wendell asked his father for a quarter to buy candy at a local shop;
as Brooks Hubbard later tells the Daily News, “I never seen the boy no more.”  
At around 9:45pm a gaggle of neighborhood children playing on the roof discovered Wendell’s body,
sneakers removed and placed at his side.

The medical examiner will later determine Wendell had been sodomized, castrated and stabbed 17— some sources say 19—times in the neck, chest and abdomen;
his pants had been pulled down but not removed.  
The assailant absconded with the victim’s penis which to date has never been located.

A week after Wendell’s death the Amsterdam News had a small blurb about the crime,
the first Charlie Chop-off attack mentioned in the press. 
Two child homicides and one castration in a fifteen-block radius and the New York Times won’t mention the murders for another ten months.

“I have the death certificate. I have a little Boy Scout flag and a little cap he had from Troop 157. I keep them in a drawer. Sometimes I go into that drawer and look at them.” Wendell’s father Brooks Hubbard on his mementos of his murdered son, New York Daily News, February 4th, 1993

 

Name:  Luis Ortiz

Date:  March 6th, 1973

Age/Race:  10 years old, Hispanic (Puerto Rican)

Location:  Luis’s body was found in a basement stairwell at 200 West 106th Street, one and a half blocks from his home

Circumstances:  At 8:15pm Luis’s mother sent him to a nearby store to buy bread and milk;
he arrived at the shop, successfully completed his purchase—despite being 13 cents short—and then promptly disappeared.  
When he failed to return home in a timely manner his mother notified law enforcement;
the NYPD launched an overnight search but no trace of Luis could be found.

[Short at the Register, Shortly to Die:  Luis’s cash shortage at the market calls to mind 5-year old Eric Shunk of Philadelphia, 15 cents short while buying a notebook in 1983; and 7-year old Holly Ann Hughes of Staten Island, 5 cents short when buying a bar of soap in 1981. Both children departed the store with their purchase but neither returned home alive.]

At approximately 1pm the following day Luis’s body was found in a basement stairwell by a woman taking out her trash;
the location is only one block from the site of the attack on the Boy Who Lived. 
Luis had been sodomized, castrated and viciously stabbed (37, 38, or 40 times, depending on the source).  
The victim’s sneakers were placed at his side but his groceries and genitalia were missing.

A canvass of local inhabitants revealed several neighbors had seen Luis in the company of a stranger shortly before he vanished. 
The description of Luis’s mystery companion— a slender, olive-skinned man with bad skin,
between the ages of 35-50, standing between 5’7” and 5’10” inches tall—closely mirrored the description of the Boy Who Lived’s attacker with one minor difference: 
Luis’s companion had black marks on his chin while the living victim’s assailant sported a prominent mole on his left cheek.

Eventually investigators located a woman in the neighborhood who may have previously interacted with the killer;
On the Track of Murder uses the pseudonym Mrs. Hernandez but we shall call her Mama Bear.  
Two days before Luis’s murder a man approached her 9-year old son Juan
offering a free bicycle in exchange for help with an errand. 
Juan agreed to accompany the man, who introduced himself as Tony, but not until the next day because Mama Bear was strict and he knew he had to ask permission first.

Ortiz crime scene

The next day at the appointed time Juan failed to appear—instead Mama Bear arrived at the meeting place and told the stranger to stay the hell away from her son or she’d call the police.  
Even though at this point the neighborhood attacks had barely made the news Mama Bear implicitly understood the price of a “free” bike would be far higher than 9-year old Juan could imagine.

The day after Mama Bear’s confrontation with the gift-bearing stranger Luis disappeared. 
Although Mama Bear’s description closely matched that of the surviving victim there was one notable discrepancy;
the Boy Who Lived said his attacker was an olive-skinned white man but Mama Bear said the man she encountered was Hispanic and spoke with a slight but noticeable Dominican accent. 
Mama Bear later worked with an NYPD artist to produce the first composite sketch of the slayer.

Luis was the first Charlie Chop-off victim seen with his attacker and his death marked another milestone as well—his slaying was the first murder to get significant media traction. 
On March 10th, four days after his death protestors staged a demonstration at the 24th Precinct on West 100th Street, angry the NYPD had failed to devote more resources to finding the predator in their midst.
The event was given saturation coverage in the newspapers;
the precise number of dead nonwhite children necessary for media attention has now been definitively determined: 
three (Douglas Owens, Wendell Hubbard, Luis Ortiz) and a half (the Boy Who Lived).

“Are you crazy?” Get back here, right by the door where I can see you!”  Worried mother on 108th Street screaming at her children out a fifth‐floor window, New York Times, March 12th, 1973

According to On the Track of Murder the NYPD, galvanized by the community’s wrath, now created a taskforce with the sole objective of finding the Harlem castration killer. 
The unit was soon besieged with leads, including a phone call from a Bronx woman who identified a man she felt closely resembled the composite: chronic mental patient Erno Soto, currently institutionalized. 
Detectives paid a visit to Soto’s wife at her 125th Street apartment; at 6’1” her husband was much taller than the suspect’s estimated height of 5’7,” she informed investigators.  
A subsequent consultation with the Ward Island’s Manhattan Psychiatric Center confirmed Soto had been in custody at the time of The Boy Who Lived’s attack, dismissing him from contention.  
Investigators then moved on but spoiler alert:  the hospital staff had failed to give a full accounting of their 33-year old patient’s proclivities. 
Erno Soto’s involvement in the Charlie Chop-off case had not yet reached its final chapter.

[Errata Interlude AKA Three Wrongs Don’t Make a Right:  in The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers Michael Newton states the phone call implicating Erno Soto was received in 1972, soon after the murder of first victim Douglas Owens; the correct date is March 23rd, 1973, shortly after the Ortiz slaying.   In Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters  author Peter Vronsky incorrectly lists Erno Soto’s name as Miguel Rivera, the pseudonym used in On the Track of Murder.  Also, the Charlie Chop-off illustration proliferating on the web isn’t an approved NYPD composite.  I tracked down the attributed artist, Nathan MacDicken, who was kind enough to take a few minutes to correspond with me.  Mr. MacDicken said he’d been contracted to draw the illustrations for Court TV articles; he was given only a description of the suspect and his victims.]

The Serial Killer Who Wasn’t and the Victims Who Weren’t


 

Name: Steven Cropper
Date: August 17th, 1973
Age/Race: 7 years old, African American
Location: Steven’s body was found approximately two blocks from his home on the roof of 325 (or 323, according to On the Track of Murder) East Houston Street on the Lower East Side

Circumstances: Steven and a friend were idling in front of a community pool imploring passersby for spare change when a slender, limping Hispanic man approached.
Steven exchanged a few words with the man and then he and his new acquaintance departed the scene;
several bystanders saw the duo walking together in the area at approximately 3:30pm.
Steven would never be seen alive again.

At 5:30pm a woman walking her dog discovered Steven’s bloodied body on the roof of her building,
his sneakers placed nearby.
His shirt had been pulled up above his shoulders and a deep 9-inch “X”—administered postmortem, according to Medical Examiner Michael Baden—had been etched into his chest.
A third gash traveled the length of the victim’s arm, severing the artery in his left elbow; the gore-encrusted razor used in the crime was discovered beneath the boy’s corpse.
Steven’s pants—two pairs of tightfitting jeans, an unlikely choice on day the temperature reached 91 degrees—were unbuttoned but not removed; no overt evidence of sexual molestation or mutilation could be detected.

“It effected everyone. It split the whole family up. The tragedy of Stevie’s death is not only did we have to deal with him dying, we had to deal with the rest of us dying.” Victim’s brother Christopher Cropper, New York Daily News, February 2nd, 1993

Cropper crime scene

Initially NYPD detectives were uncertain if Steven’s death was related to the Charlie Chop-off series; aside from his age and race his murder shared few commonalities with the Harlem child slayings.
Unlike the previous victims Steven had been assaulted during daylight hours, slashed three times with a razor
instead of stabbed repeatedly with a knife;
more significantly, he hadn’t been raped or castrated and his attack occurred a hundred blocks distant from the previous crimes, which had all been perpetrated within a fifteen block radius.

“I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve seldom seen anything like it [Steven’s murder].” NYPD Lieutenant Louis Karcher, New York Times, August 18th, 1973

Steven’s sneakers were found next to his body, but—as chronicled in On the Track of Murder—some investigators downplayed the significance of the footwear placement.
If an assailant intended to sexually assault a child, one detective reasoned, he’d tell his prospective victim to disrobe—which in almost all cases necessitates a prior removal of shoes.
Perhaps Steven’s attacker had aspired to rape but pivoted to homicide when the boy attempted to flee,
or perhaps he’d been slain by a copycat killer.
The similar description of the suspect in the Harlem and Cropper slayings, however, convinced other investigators both the uptown and downtown crimes had been committed by a single assailant.

“The probability that the same man did all four crimes is fantastic.” Enigmatic proclamation of unnamed NYPD detective, New York Daily News, June 27th, 1974

INVESTIGATION FRUSTRATION

“Every lead is investigated no matter how whacky (sic) it seems.” Lieutenant John Yuknes, New York Times, August 23rd, 1973

During the 16 months of Charlie Chop-off’s reign the NYPD utilized every then-existing investigative technique including:

• Obtaining the mailing list of a chicken-hawk magazine and interviewing local subscribers
• Casing the area methadone clinics perchance the killer was a loose-lipped opiate addict
• Sorting through 9,000 police records of known child molesters
• Knocking on thousands of apartment doors searching for witnesses and clues
• Distributing more than 1,500 fliers featuring the suspect’s composite to police departments throughout the country
• Bringing 150 persons of interest down to the station for questioning
• Contacting Interpol in a fruitless search for similar murders abroad
• Canvassing the local bike shops since Mama Bear’s son was enticed with a free bicycle

NYPD detectives also created a revised image of the suspect using an Identikit, a then-cutting age technology which promised to revolutionize the field of forensic composites.
The Boy Who Lived spent an entire afternoon choosing facial features from a catalog to recreate the face of his attacker—the result was a new, more accurate depiction of the suspect.

“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, but needles have been found in haystacks before.” Sergeant Edmund Klan, NYPD optimist, New York Times, April 17th, 1973

Although the field of profiling had not yet been established investigators asked an NYPD psychologist to devise a blueprint of the castration killer’s psyche.
Dr. Harvey Schlossberg theorized the perpetrator was a self-hating homosexual who endeavored to emasculate his victims as an antidote to his same-sex yearnings; by turning the little boys into little girls, the doctor opined,
the slayer believed he could negate his own homosexuality and absolve his acts of sodomy.
Dr. Schlossberg also detected erotic undertones in the assailant’s penetration-heavy modus operandi.

“Symbolically, it’s an orgasm—it’s really quite sexual.” Dr. Harvey Schlossberg on the assailant’s frenzied stabbing technique, New York Times, April 17th, 1973

A week after Steven’s murder the New York Times announced the first named suspect in the case; Daniel Olivo, age 30, arrested for the rape of a 5-year old boy in a Bronx park on August 20th, three days after the Cropper murder.
After luring the child to a secluded area on the pretext of playing ball
Olivo pounced on the victim and committed an act of sodomy.
The child managed to escape after the attack and alerted his father, a hot dog vendor stationed nearby.

According to the Times, Olivo—standing 5’7” and weighing 140 pounds—was “Hispanic in appearance” with a pockmarked complexion and noticeable limp.
Investigators were unable to develop any information linking Olivo to the Charlie Chop-off crimes, however, and he was eventually dropped as a suspect.

UNQUIET RIOT

August 22nd, 1973; “Let’s kill him,” screamed the mob. Luis Alberto Gonzalez’s ordeal showcased the ugly side of community activism—all he wanted was a job and he ended up cowering from a lynch mob in a downtown precinct house.

I hope you like riot photos because we have riot photos

While applying for a technician’s position in a Lower East Side health clinic an employee noticed Gonzalez bore a striking resemblance to the Charlie Chop-off composite, prominently featured in area storefronts.
The suspicious employee alerted law enforcement who transported Gonzalez to the station and summoned the witnesses in the Steven Cropper case; Gonzalez was then interrogated and showcased in an identity parade.

After a thorough grilling failed to elicit any incriminating information and witnesses confirmed Gonzalez was not the man who led Steven Cropper to his doom detectives were confident he had no involvement in any of the slayings.
Gonzalez was now dismissed from suspicion but dismissing him from the police station would not be so simple; erroneous reports of the killer’s arrest had spread throughout the neighborhood like wildfire.
As Gonzalez was questioned 500 irate citizens, many brandishing nooses and makeshift weapons, encircled the police station demanding he be handed over for a swift administration of NYC street justice.

“We might have been out catching the real murderer instead of protecting this guy.” NYPD Sergeant Richard Bowes on the resources wasted quelling the riot, New York Times, August 26th, 1973

The horde was unmoved when an NYPD spokesperson grabbed a bullhorn:
“This is not the man! Go home!” officers announced in English and Spanish—but law enforcement’s entreaties were met only with jeers and projectiles from the crowd.
Howling for vengeance, the rabble-rousers refused to budge for hours, pelting the precinct house with bricks and garbage.
Worried the increasingly lawless assemblage would breach the station’s defenses detectives smuggled Gonzalez out of the building clad in a police officer’s uniform.
The outcome of his employment interview at the health center has never been publicized but I’m fairly certain Luis Alberto Gonzalez didn’t take the job.

Nine months passed, community furor lessened and detectives continued to chase worthless leads; eventually the taskforce was quietly disbanded, the NYPD unwilling to further fund an investigation stalled on the fast track to nowhere.
Then, finally, on May 25th, 1974 a major break in the case:
Erno Soto, the too-tall suspect fingered shortly after Luis Ortiz’s murder was arrested while trying to abduct a dark-skinned 9-year old boy on East 8th Street in the Village.

“He was walking along holding the kid up over his head, holding him up to the sky, and the kid was screaming.” Retired NYPD homicide detective Ed Gomez, New York Daily News, February 4th, 1993

ERNO SOTO RIDES AGAIN

Back in the NYPD crosshairs, detectives launched a reinvestigation of Soto—and this time investigators unearthed information which indicated his dismissal as a suspect may have been premature.
Soto, who had an eleven year rap-sheet for burglary and narcotics but no known history of pedophilia, had ties to both the Harlem area—his wife lived on 125th Street—and the Lower East Side where Steven Cropper was slain:
Soto’s father Felix lived on Ridge Street, directly around the corner from the crime scene.

A check with the Ward Island’s Manhattan Psychiatric Center revealed Soto had been free on a weekend pass when
Steven was slain, and during the interview asylum employees revealed a pertinent fact they’d previously omitted:
Soto had a history of creeping out of the psychiatric center undetected.
Although he was listed as confined during the Boy Who Lived’s attack that didn’t necessarily mean he was present—-it was possible he’d been absent without leave.

“He was crazy. There was no doubt about that. He was nuttier than a fruit cake.” Retired homicide detective Ed Gomez on Soto’s mental state, New York Daily News, February 4th, 1993

Periodically committed since 1965, Soto wasn’t covertly mentally ill; he was psychotic, a raving maniac, babbling incessantly about religion and careening with a shambolic gait as he crooned along to the voices in his head.
Disheveled with subpar hygiene—“slovenly” was the tactful descriptor favored by the New York Times—Soto was described in hospital records as being “so out of it he can’t give useful information.”
Nonetheless when interrogated Erno Soto confessed to Steven Cropper’s murder, though he declined to take credit for the Harlem slayings.
Soto was unable to provide any details about Steven’s murder but in the 1970s a confession was sufficient for the NYPD to close the case.

According to On the Track of Murder, the homicide taskforce was divided in their opinions about Soto’s guilt, the team breaking into a three-way split.
One third of the detectives believed Soto had committed all of the attacks,
one third believed he’d killed Steven Cropper but not the uptown boys, and the final third believed him to be a false confessor, innocent of all crimes.
One of the most interesting things I stumbled upon in my research was a July 11th, 1974 article in the New York Times absolving Soto of the Harlem murders;
two-thirds of the NYPD may have decided Soto wasn’t Charlie Chop-off but the crimes would stick to him forevermore.

I know what you’re thinking; you want to see a photo of Erno Soto to determine whether he resembles the composite sketches in the case.
Brace yourself for bad news; below I’ve posted the only image of Erno Soto available in the newspaper archives:

Not very helpful, is it? I have no idea why the New York Times would print the mugshot of a minor suspect like Bronx rapist Daniel Olivo and fail to provide a photo of a man actually arrested for child murder but here we are.
Amplifying their unhelpfulness, none of the contemporaneous newspapers conclusively state whether Soto resembled either the Identikit or composite sketch—but here’s what we do know about his attributes vis-à-vis the witnesses’ descriptions:

Pros:
• The phone tipster who initially fingered Soto believed he looked like the sketch composite
• 33-years old when arrested, Soto fell into the witnesses’ estimated age range of 30-45
• As all witnesses reported and both composites reflected, Soto had bad skin
• I’m going out on a limb here, but if Soto had poor hygiene he probably also possessed the swamp breath noted by the Boy Who Lived

Cons:
• At 6’1” Soto was significantly taller than the 5’7”-5’10” reported by witnesses
• Soto was left-handed while the Boy Who Lived believed his attacker to be right-handed
• Soto had a Puerto Rican accent, not the Dominican accent detected by Mama Bear or the absence of an accent reported by the living victim
• Soto had neither black marks on his chin nor a prominent mole on his left cheek
• Soto did not limp, although he did favor the Thorazine shuffle

Hewing to the case’s three-way split theme the results of Erno Soto’s identity parades were mixed.
Witnesses to Steven Cropper’s final amble through the Lower East Side identified Soto as the victim’s companion,
but the Boy Who Lived was adamant Soto was not his attacker—according to On the Track of Murder he deemed Soto far too tall.
Tragically, Mama Bear was unable to give her opinion on the matter;
she’d moved without leaving a forwarding address, a common witness hazard in the pre-computer era.

[Overlapping Murder: on June 10th, 1974, two weeks after Erno Soto’s arrest for the attempted 8th Street abduction, his younger brother joined him in police custody. Eugenio Soto, age 31, was engaged in an airing of grievances with family paterfamilias Felix when things took an ugly turn. Eugenio blamed Felix’s poor parenting for brother Erno’s legal and mental travails, according to police reports; decisively seizing the last word, he stabbed his 60-year old father to death with a kitchen knife. Eugenio was later convicted of first degree manslaughter and sentenced to a ten-year term in the penitentiary; he was released on February 10th, 1982.]

Personally, I’m of the opinion Soto most likely did kill Steven Cropper—I find the eyewitnesses and geographic proximity compelling—but I’m not convinced he committed the Harlem crimes.
On the Track of Murder‘s author theorized Soto was driven to homicide by his wife’s promiscuity—-during a period of marital separation she birthed a mixed-race son—and in retaliation he eliminated black boys
in a campaign of psychological revenge.
I find this explanation too pat—especially since the uptown victims were sodomized, an act unnecessary for racial cleansing and incompatible with Soto’s lack of history as a sex offender.
Viewed with modern sensibilities the racial motivation theory fails to impress.

“When the police find [the killer] they’ll just say he’s a sick man and send him to a hospital for two years.” Max King, prescient Delancey Street shopkeeper interviewed during the Lower East Side riot, New York Times, August 26th 1973

Did someone say riot? Here’s some police station riot footage, courtesy of the Associated Press:

Theories are plentiful but for practical purposes debating Soto’s guilt in the Steven Cropper case, at least, is moot;
although he was found competent to stand trial Soto was acquitted of murder by reason of insanity on December 1st, 1976—not a surprising outcome for a man with a documented 20-year history of psychosis.
After trial Soto was remanded back to Ward’s Island, this time to the maximum-security Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center,
an institution impervious to his Houdini act—as far as we know, anyway.

“The history and nature of his psychosis renders him to be a dangerous person; he is in need of constant surveillance. When he is out in society on his own he is literally a walking time bomb.” Trial testimony of Soto’s psychiatrist Dr. John Baer Train, New York Times, December 1st, 1976

As the years passed Erno Soto faded into obscurity, remembered only in the nightmares of his victims’ kin and schoolmates—as they grew into adulthood they would always hold their children a little closer than most.
As all horror connoisseurs know, however, the boogeyman is never truly vanquished:
in 1993, seventeen years after his acquittal in Steven Cropper’s murder Soto emerged like Nosferatu from a coffin and swooped back into the public’s consciousness.

According to his lawyers the now-55 year old Soto was terminally ill, confined to a wheelchair and dependent on daily dialysis, a souvenir of his youthful drug abuse.
Seeking to be released on compassionate grounds, Soto’s application for emancipation set off a bombshell in the media and occasioned a three-day series in the Daily News rehashing his storied history as the number-one suspect in the Charlie Chop-off crimes.

“My parents were never notified. We didn’t know anything until we read the [Daily News series] on Friday. I know my mother was shocked. And my father—I thought he was going to have a heart attack. I thought he was going to die right in my arms because he was crying and he was very upset.” Steven Cropper’s brother Christopher on the possibility of Soto’s release, New York Daily News, February 2nd, 1993

Dubbing Soto “the Monster of Ward’s Island” and painting him as unquestionably guilty in both the Cropper and Harlem attacks, Daily News journalists interviewed the families of Steven Cropper and Wendell Hubbard
and revealed Soto’s extensive history of misbehavior while confined.
Soto, reporters learned, had faded from the news cycle but his stay at the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center had not been uneventful: Soto had been disciplined for cold-cocking a staff member, possessing marijuana,
attempting to slit his psychiatrist’s throat and threatening to “jab the eyes” out of a fellow patient.

In court, citing Soto’s still-active psychosis Manhattan Supreme Justice Bruce Wright declined to release him from maximum-security confinement,
but as a mental patient—as opposed to a convict, sentenced to a finite term—-Soto is eligible to apply for emancipation every two years.
Soto is not a registered sex offender and he’s never been convicted of homicide;
he was committed not as punishment for Steven Cropper’s murder but as a societal panacea—as soon as Soto is adjudicated sane, as unlikely as that seems, the Monster of Ward’s Island will be back on the prowl.

Erno Soto’s name never again appears in the newspaper archives but he’s still with us;
if he had a terminal illness in 1993 it’s a slow-acting one.
Now 79 years old, his address is listed in online databases as 1 Wards Island, New York, NY—not the Kirby maximum security ward but a combination psychiatric hospital/homeless shelter.
It’s unclear how much freedom Soto has gained over the years—and due to stringent medical privacy laws the public has no right to know if he’s eligible for day passes, just another maniac on New York City streets.

L’Hôpital Erno-Soto, an abandoned mental asylum in France—tell me again how there are no coincidences

The assumption of Soto’s guilt in the uptown Chop-off attacks—as propagated in the Daily News’s 1993 series—has carried over online, unfortunately;
I’d like to do what I can to combat that misapprehension—considering the Harlem crimes closed is an affront to the victims and their families.
It’s too late to help Douglas Owens, Wendell Hubbard and Luis Ortiz but the Boy Who Lived may still be alive and to discount his fervent disavowal of Soto as his attacker is reckless and disrespectful.
The Boy Who Lived was maligned in the Daily News series, incidentally—portrayed as beset by “mental problems” and too unstable to recognize his assailant.
More recently, the baseless allegation the living victim “refused” —as opposed to “failed”—to identify Soto as his attacker has metastasized online like free downloads and porn.

I’m aware of the vagaries of eyewitness identification, of course;
but the Boy Who Lived’s disavowal isn’t the only evidence which tends to exonerate Soto in the uptown crimes—and there’s absolutely no meaningful evidence implicating him, even by 1970s standards.
To paint the Boy Who Lived as incapable of recognizing his attacker is heartless; “Believe the Victim” is our current mantra and it’s not solely applicable to heterosexual sex crimes.

Let’s give the Boy Who Lived the benefit of the doubt—-even the Marquis de Sade would agree he’s suffered enough.

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