From March 1972 a savage serial killer began stalking the streets of Manhattan, preying on young Black and Puerto Rican boys. In several instances the victim was stabbed repeatedly with a knife before the killer mutilated the boys genitals, before leaving them for dead. By 1973 four young children were dead and had one miraculously survived, although he would be severely traumatised by the ordeal. The following year police made a break in the case when a man was arrested whilst attempting to abduct a young Puerto Rican boy. The suspect, Erno Soto confessed to the murder of one of the victims, Steven Cropper and the police believed they had solved the case. However, Soto was a frequent resident of the Manhattan State Hospital as a psychiatric patient and despite a lack of evidence linking him to the crimes, his confession was enough to charge him with the murders, which stopped with his incarceration.
The first incident occurred on 09 March 1972 when 8 year old Douglas Owens went missing. He had been running errands that day and his body was eventually discovered on a rooftop just two blocks from his home. It was determined he had been stabbed 38 times and his penis had been cut, but not entirely severed from the body. Owens shoes had been removed by the killer, and it was believed he had been sodomised either before or after he was murdered. Shortly after the crime, someone placed an anonymous call to police and identified a possible suspect in the Owens case. The tipster named a local man, Erno Soto as the killer but provided no evidence to support the claim and whilst investigators interviewed Soto's relatives, they told police he had not been with them for several months and subsequently no further action was taken.
The following month a 10-year-old unidentified black youth was attacked in a similar manner. On 20 April 1972, the boy was accosted in the hallway of an apartment building, and was sexually assaulted by the perpetrator, who stabbed him repeatedly and succeeded in cutting off his genitals. The young boy was found alive lying on the floor, bleeding heavily from his wounds, whilst his attacker fled the scene, taking with him the victims mutilated genitals which were later recovered from a local park by police who found a group of curious children playing with them.
There were several similarities between this attack and the murder of Douglas Owens, specifically the removal of the victims shoes and the fact that both boys had been running errands when they were attacked. The traumatised victim was only able to provide police with a vague description of his assailant, recalling him as being thin, and being neither dark-skinned or light-skinned with a mole on his cheek and a limp when he walked. He said the man had lured him with the promise of 50 cents and believed he was either Spanish or Italian and referred to himself by the name "Michael".
No more incidents were reported until later in the year when on 23 October 1972 another young boy fell victim to the vicious killer. 9 year old Wendell Hubbard disappeared whilst playing near his East Harlem home. It was only discovered he was missing when his mother Mary called out for him to come home, and when he didn't reply she went to the police at 5:30pm. His body was found several hours later by three boys who were playing on the rooftop of the Fifth Avenue Apartment building where his family lived.
Wendell had been stabbed 17 times, mostly in his abdomen, neck and chest and his genitals were mutilated and removed by the killer who took them with him. Like the other victims, he had been sodomised by his killer and the circumstances of his murder was mostly identical to that of Douglas Owens, who lived only six blocks always from the Hubbard family home. Police from the Sixth District Homicide and Assault Squad began an extensive search of the area and knocked door to door to see if anyone had witnessed the crime or seen anyone suspicious, but no-one had seen the boys murder.
There were no more attacks until the following year when 9 year old Luis Ortiz went missing on 07 March 1973. Like the other boys, Ortiz was sent on an errand to purchase bread and milk from a local convenience store and when he didn't return his parents contacted police. Unlike the other boys, he was a dark-skinned boy of Puerto Pican heritage, whilst the others had been black. His body was eventually discovered, and he was found to have been stabbed 38 times in the chest, neck and back and his genitals had been removed and taken by the killer. Unlike the previous cases, multiple witnesses reported seeing Ortiz' abduction and over 300 tips were called into to detectives which helped police to develop a composite sketch of the suspect. The local community was in fear over the death of Luis Ortiz, and public meetings were held to determine the best way to keep their children safe.
The composite sketch was distributed to local schools, and children were warned to stay away from strangers. It was around this time that people began referring to the serial killer as "Charlie chop-off". In response the Police established a task force to hunt down the suspect. Officers began searching through police records, interviewed over 150 suspects based on the witness statements and consulted Interpol on the particulars of the case because of the potential for an international criminal linked to child molestation. The Ortiz family returned to Puerto Rico shortly after their sons funeral.
Although the intense police pressure did not result in the apprehension of a suspect, there were no more attacks reported. However, later that same year the body of 8 year old Steven Cropper was located on the 6th floor of a tenement building on 17 August 1973. Steven had been reported as missing to the police and when his body was eventually discovered, and he was found to have bled to death after being slashed with a razor blade, which had severed an artery in his arm. Although there was no mutilation to his genital area, he had been posed in a "sexually suggestive" manner, which investigators believed was the work of the same individual. Despite some detectives believing it the work of another killer, there were enough similarities to assume it was not a copycat. The killer had removed the boys shoes and placed them next to his body, but this time the killer used a razor blade instead of a knife as with the previous attacks.
The police investigation now intensified and a suspect was arrested in connection with Steven Cropper's murder and publicly named in the papers as Luis Alberto Gonzalez. He was seen loitering in some of the areas where the abductions occurred and was believed to fit the description of the composite sketch. Witnesses were unable to identify Gonzalez as the man they saw, and the police decided to release him without charge. However, a large mob of over 500 angry residents of the Lower East Side descended on the station and demanded they hand over the suspect. When the police barricaded the entrance to the precinct, some protesters attempted to climb the barricades and scale the roof of the building.
When police attempts to persuade the crowd to go home failed, they decided to escort Mr. Gonzalez out of the precinct in disguise. Another officer was dressed in civilian clothes and taken outside by two officers in an attempt to draw away the crowd, and when this failed the area became the focus of the media, with traffic blocked by the apparent lynch mob and news camera recording the event. Despite this, the police were able to spirit Gonzalez out of the precinct wearing a poorly fitting police uniform and into a waiting patrol car. Although the mob dispersed, the atmosphere of suspicion remained and another man who resembled the composite sketch was chased out of the Lower East Side neighbourhood and jumped into the river to escape the mob.
Several weeks after Steven Cropper's murder, another man was arrested who fit the suspect's profile. Daniel Olivo was charged with luring a 5 year old boy to a secluded area of a park at 172nd Street and Sheridan Expressway, which was in the Morrisania area of the Bronx on the pretext of playing a ball game with him. he then proceeded to molest him and the boy managed to escape and alert his father, a hotdog vender, who chased after Olivo and found him hiding in some bushes near the site of the assault. Although Olivo resembled the composite sketch and was of a medium skin tone and walked with a limp, Police could not match up his known movements with those of the murders and he was dismissed as a suspect.
There was a break in the case on 15 May 1974 when Erno Soto, who was of Puerto Rican birth, was arrested after the botched abduction of a Puerto Rican boy. The boy was approached by Soto who attempted to restrain him and the boy managed to escape and was seen by witnesses running down the street calling for help. Neighbours came to him aid and they detained Soto until the police arrived. After his arrest Soto was questioned about his involvement in the murders, which he strenuously denied.
A witness came forward who claimed to have seen Soto in the company of Steven Cropper on the day of his death. Also the only surviving victim of the attacks from the 20 April 1972 assault was brought in and shown a line-up of men which included Erno Soto. Although the young boy was not able to identify Soto as his attacker, he did comment that he looked similar in appearance. Afterwards Soto confessed to the murder of Steven Cropper, but refused to admit to any involvement in the other murders and revealed that he regularly stalked young black boys in the area. He reportedly told detectives that God had told him to "make little boys into little girls".
Upon further investigation, detectives discovered Soto was a regular patient at the Manhattan State Hospital where he had been institutionalised intermittently since 1969. A contributing factor to his mental frailty came from an incident with his wife. The couple had become estranged and spend some time apart, but later reconciled and Soto's wife then became pregnant and gave birth to a black baby boy. Despite this the couple remained together, however Soto began to show signs of a mental breakdown when the boy reached his 8th birthday. He began exhibiting urges of uncontrollable violence and was hospitalised several times.
Soon he was arrested for the first of many times for burglary and and drug possession and was treated for heroin addiction. Although he was in hospital during some of murders it was later revealed that he had a weekend pass, and would often leave the hospital when he wanted because of the relaxed security in place. The exit to the hospital was near where some of the boys bodies were found. On this evidence, detectives charged Erno Soto with the murder of Steven Cropper, believing they had caught the serial killer known as Charlie Chop-off. However, at his trial he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was placed in the care of a high security mental institution.
Despite the doubts surrounding Soto's culpability in the crimes, many believed he was the man responsible and soon after his incarceration, the murders stopped altogether. The killings are still listed as an unsolved case because no one was ever charged and found guilty of the murders, but the investigators in the task force believe Soto was the vicious killer they sought.
Written by Nucleus
Written by Nucleus