Arthur John Shawcross: The Genesee River Serial Killer
Psychiatrist J. M. MacDonald published a theory in a 1963 issue of the America Journal of Psychiatry that came to be known as the MacDonald Triad. Sometimes referred to as the “triad of sociopathy” or “serial killer triad,” the theory is all serial killers share three common traits: consistent bed-wetting after the age of five, cruelty to animals, and an obsession with setting fires.
Since the publication of the issue to introduce this theory, the MacDonald Triad has been a source of much debate and some claim, at the very least, the issue of nocturnal enuresis has been disproved.
Arthur John Shawcross however, is not one dissenters of the triad can use in their arguments.
Early Life of a Serial Killer
Arthur John Shawcross was considered “slow” by teachers, neighbors, and other kids while growing up in Watertown, New York. Possibly to compensate for their (correct, as IQ tests would later reveal) perceptions and retaliation for the teasing he took for being a persistent bed-wetter until he was 12, Art was a bully to anyone and everyone who crossed his path.
Sometime between 1960 and 1967, Art had married and the union had produced a son, but he was unable (sometimes unwilling) to hold a job for any extended period of time and still ready to fight a person at the slightest perceived infraction – including his wife whom Arthur frequently left bruised and bloody.
Most folks were relieved when the Army drafted Arthur at the age of 21. The first Mrs. Shawcross was particularly glad to see him go, and knew she was truly free when Art signed away all rights to his son.
Following his tour of duty in Vietnam, Art married for a second time and was living in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Linda Shawcross was one of the earliest reporters of Shawcross’ fascination with fire-starting and witness an incident where he killed their six-month-old puppy by throwing it against the wall.
When Art was discharged from the Army in 1969, he and Linda moved to Clayton, New York. Soon after the move, Linda divorced him and his arson activities escalated and he added burglary to his list of crimes. It didn’t take authorities long to bust the Vietnam Veteran and Art was sentenced to five years in prison for the crimes, but served only twenty-two months before being released. After his parole, he moved back to Watertown.
There seemed to be some hope for Art’s future when he landed a good job with the Watertown Public Works Department and married for the third time.
Things aren’t always what they seem, however.
Jack and Karen
In May 1972, Mary Blake was in a panic when her 10-year-old son Jack Owen Blake didn’t return home. Although it wasn’t his habit to be out past when the street lights came on, Mary hoped that Jack had gotten busy at a friend’s house and didn’t realize the time. Calling everyone she could think of, Mary searched for her son; then she headed out to search all of the neighborhood hangouts as well as anywhere else she could think of.
But Jack was no where to be found. Mary called the Watertown police but they assured the worried mother that her son would come home soon. Mary knew better and continued to hassle officers, who were less than excited to deal with the inconsolable mother whose son they were certain had just run away for a few days.
But the days turned into months and Jack never came home.
Mary Blake and Art Shawcross, now married to his fourth wife, were neighbors and Mary suspected him of being involved in her son’s disappearance. On several occasions, Mary confronted Art and received only vague and incomplete answers in return. She reported these conversations to police, but there was nothing more than Mary’s suspicions to go on. But police too found Art to be weird and dodgy, and he was kept on a list of suspects.
Four months after Jack went missing, 8-year-old Karen Ann Hill had come to Watertown with her mother to visit relatives during Labor Day weekend when she disappeared. This time, police took the report of a missing child much more seriously.
Little Karen’s body was soon found under the Black River bridge. She had been sexually assaulted before she had been strangled to death.
Art was known to fish quite frequently off the bridge where Karen’s body was found and police brought him in for questioning. Within a few hours, Art confessed and even provided police with enough information that they were able to locate Jack’s body. Because of the advanced state of decomposition, it was uncertain whether he had been raped but, like Karen, he had been asphyxiated.
Instead of standing trial for the children’s murders, he made a plea bargain with prosecutors that allowed him to plead guilty to the murder of Karen Hill while the charges of murder for Jack Blake were dismissed. Art was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Everyone hoped it was the last they would hear of Art Shawcross, but it wasn’t to be.
In April 1987, only 14 1/2 years into his sentence, Art was noted as a model prisoner and, as such, was paroled. But the domain of public opinion proved much more harsh than prison and Art was run out of Binghamton and Delhi, New York, by residents aware of his crimes and unhappy with his residence in their towns.
Unable to find work and unwelcome any place he tried to settle, Art’s parole officer moved him and his girlfriend Rose Marie Walley to the Cadillac Hotel in Rochester, New York. In an effort to avoid previous problems, the parole officer did not notify local law enforcement that a convicted child molester and killer was living in their community.
The Genesee River Killer
Three guys were out for a day of hunting on March 24, 1988, when they came upon what they first believed to be a mannequin on the banks of Salmon Creek. One look at her face and the men realized it was a frozen, dead woman’s body they were looking at.
She was later identified as Dorothy “Dotsie” Blackburn, a 27-year-old mother of three who was known as a prostitute who frequently worked along Rochester’s Lyell Avenue. Her sister had reported her missing on March 18, 1988.
An autopsy revealed that Dotsie had been beaten with a blunt object, had been kicked in the groin, had teeth marks around the vaginal area, and was strangled to death before being tossed into the river.
It was a brutal death that would be repeated at least eleven more times against area prostitutes over the next two years. As the police used every possible investigative method and tool available to solve the murders, the media dubbed the killings as the work of The Genesee River Killer.
Whereas many murders that occur are committed by someone close to the victim, this is a rule that is often difficult to apply to prostitutes because of the nature of their business. While several women had told cops about strange men they had observed or heard about from fellow “sex workers,” names, if any, were typically fictitious and descriptions vague.
There was little detectives could do but wait for the serial killer to screw up. On January 3, 1990, the anticipated mistake finally happened.
Pee Pee Or Bust…Or Both
On New Years Eve 1989, Felicia Stephens‘ body was discovered by hunters. Just a few days later, on January 3, 1990, the body of June Cicero was spotted by an aerial surveillance team. One witness told police he had observed a man supposedly urinating off the Salmon Creek bridge, which was near where the bodies had been discovered. The surveillance team reported they too had seen the same man and provided police with a description of the car he was driving.
When police caught up with the Chevrolet Celebrity, a check of the license plate found it was registered to one Clara D. Neal.
The driver was identified as her boyfriend, Arthur John Shawcross.
Confession and Trial
Art was taken in for questioning that January day. He told detectives he believed he was being arrested for urinating in the woods. When they began asking him about the murders, he denied any knowledge.
Investigators then began a tactic where they revealed some of what they knew, stopping at critical points or leaving out important details. At first it seemed that Art wasn’t going to crack but after they brought in his wife and girlfriend, Art decided it time to talk.
He had an excuse for every murder, however. Some victims had tried to steal his wallet, some had ridiculed him, one had bitten him during oral sex, and one had threatened to tell his wife about their “affair.”
On and on and on he went. None of the murders were his fault. Every single one of the ladies had been responsible for their own murder.
Art pled not guilty by reason of insanity and went on trial for ten of the murders in November 1990. His defense was that he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from his service in Vietnam and childhood abuse.
His claims fell on deaf ears and he was found guilty on all counts. Art was sentenced to serve 250 years in prison. A few months later, he pled guilty to the murder of Elizabeth “Liz” Gibson and was sentenced to life in prison.
The state of New York had decided Arthur John Shawcross would spend the rest of his life behind bars.
It was 11 murders too late.
If He’s Lying, He’s Dying
Rose Shawcross divorced Art in 1994 and he married girlfriend Clara Neal in 1997, but they divorced several years later because, according to Art, she wasn’t faithful.
In 2006, Dr. Michael Stone – of Gail Katz disappearance and Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald murders fame – interviewed Art at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York, where he was incarcerated. During the interview, Art claimed to have been sexually abused by his mother as a child and admitted to having sexually assaulted his younger sister. Art also claimed that he murdered the prostitutes in retaliation for having been exposed to HIV by another prostitute.
On the afternoon of November 10, 2008, Art complained to prison officials of severe pain in his leg and chest. He was taken to Albany Medical Center where he went into cardiac arrest and died at 9:50 p.m.
Art was cremated and his ashes were given to his only daughter, Margaret Deming, of Brooklyn, New York.
True Crime Author Jack Olsen Publishes Book About Arthur John Shawcross
Late author Jack Olsen is known as the ultimate author of true crime because of his intense research into the cases about which he rights and his knack of gaining much of what he writes about by interviewing in person those closest to the victims and killers and if given the opportunity, the killer him/herself.
The Misbegotten Son (1993) is one of the best books out of Olsen's many excellent books. I found it to be written with the ease of the novel while never steering from the truth of the story and most certainly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the life and crimes of Arthur John Shawcross.
© 2016 Kim Bryan