The areas near rivers are sometimes used as body dumps for serial killers. While Gary Ridgway favored locations around the Green River, another man frequented New York’s Genesee River, becoming known as The Genesee River Killer. Today on True Crime Corner, who was Arthur Shawcross?
Arthur John Shawcross was born in Maine on June 6, 1945, one of four children. His family moved to New York when he was young. The elder Shawcross was a bigamist. When his wife learned that her military husband had first married a woman in another country and had a child with her, she made their home life unbearable. Young Arthur was already bullied and tormented at school, adopting violence to defend himself. It’s also thought that Shawcross became a bully himself. He ran away from home on more than one occasion, and with this revelation about his father, he spent even more time away from the tumultuous household.
Shawcross claimed that he endured a most shocking childhood, but those claims have been disputed. He also made grandiose assertions about his time spent in the Army after he was drafted. He alleged that he killed and cannibalized people in Vietnam, and had a high number of kills during the conflict, but that has also been disputed.
Shawcross was in and out of trouble with the law before and after his military service. His criminal activities included burglary and arson, for which he served time. Although he had wives and mistresses throughout his life, he frequented prostitutes in Rochester, New York, as well. In 1988 one such woman was found dead in the Genesee River. The following year another woman would be found, killed by suffocation. It wasn’t just prostitutes who were found dead; Shawcross also murdered homeless women and those from backgrounds that didn’t include prostitution. He even murdered the woman who cleaned his home. Some victims were strangled, while others were beaten to death or suffocated. Remains were sometimes mutilated, and attempts were made to hide them from the view of anyone who might come upon them.
Shawcross’ rampage was near its end when he was spotted by his vehicle as authorities conducted an aerial search, looking for someone whose identification had been found. They located a body of another murder victim near a bridge. Shawcross disposed of something in the water and fled the area, only to be apprehended later. Rather than let his girlfriend take the fall for his crimes, as she owned a piece of jewelry from one of the victims, Shawcross confessed to some of the murders. He even led the police to other bodies he’d dumped. One time he claimed that he thought he had AIDS when he preyed on the Rochester women because he heard that one of women was HIV positive. Since he wasn’t sure which of his dates he thought may have exposed him, he went after many of them to kill them. He also says that he cannibalized the women to hasten his death from the disease (if he even had the virus at all). However, this story did not explain the deaths of the women not involved in that lifestyle.
Before these women were murdered from 1988 to 1990, Shawcross confessed to killing two children, a boy and a girl, in Watertown, New York, in 1972. The boy vanished when Shawcross took him fishing, and the girl had been seen with him before her disappearance. He was charged only with the girl’s murder, because there wasn’t enough evidence in the boy’s case. He served less than 15 years of a 25 year sentence before being paroled. Once released in 1987, his prior background prevented him from settling into a new town to start over. Concerned citizens ran him out of places he tried to call home. His records were later sealed, allowing him and his future wife to relocate without an uproar to Rochester, New York, where the killing continued.
Shawcross was essentially given life in prison for the deaths of the adult victims, despite an unsuccessful attempt at an insanity plea. The defense tried to show that his childhood, the post-traumatic stress from the war, and medical issues led to his crimes. However, it took the jury only a few hours to reach a verdict. Shawcross sustained a fatal heart attack while serving his time in prison and died on November 10, 2008 at the age of 63.
If you want to read more about these tragic events, Jack Olsen wrote The Misbegotten Son: A Serial Killer and His Victims. Another book is Joel Norris’s Arthur Shawcross: The Genesee River Killer: The Grisly True Crime Account of the Rochester Prostitute Murders!
A&E’s Bio has an episode on Arthur Shawcross that can be found on DVD.