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Tribeca Takes: Joshua Zeman on Cropsey

Horror film + urban legend + doc = Cropsey, making its spooky way into theaters on Friday. What's happened since the film's premiere at TFF 2009? The director fills us in.

A year after his film's premiere at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, director Joshua Zeman updates us on the criminal investigations that inspired Cropsey, a horror documentary with a healthy side of urban legend. Audiences can check out the spooky flick starting Friday, June 4, at IFC Center in New York City, or on demand via major cable providers starting July 2.


Tribeca Takes: Joshua Zeman on Cropsey


Cropsey, the documentary I co-directed with Barbara Brancaccio, took us nearly ten years to make, but the urban legend and the crimes we investigated span over three decades. The film profiles Cropsey, the well-known summer camp urban legend come true, surrounding five missing children in Staten Island and the real-life bogeyman linked to their disappearances. Having grown up on Staten Island, this story held particular interest for us as filmmakers.
Given that Cropsey is about a series of crimes local to New York City, the Tribeca Film Festival was our number one venue to premiere the film. Of course, simply getting the film in the public eye was important so we could spotlight the unsolved abductions profiled in the story. To this day, only one of the five children we investigated has ever been found. As the police always say, you never know what can happen. So, we made Cropsey in hopes that seeing the film will jog someone’s memory about a seemingly mundane fact that could then lead to another break in these ongoing cases.


These kids disappeared over the course of 30 years, and during that time there was never one central clearinghouse for information about these children or Andre Rand, the man who was suspected in these crimes; in some ways the film ended up filling that role. Our premiere at Tribeca was actually the first time many of the investigators from the various cases had ever even been in the same room together.
In the weeks following the Festival, a shocking amount of people came out to share new information. I received one call from a former detective, now living in Florida, who thanked us for tackling these cold cases. He was assigned in the 70s & 80s to the NYPD’s “Devil Desk,” which investigated many of the cult-related crimes of the period. The devil worshipping element touched briefly on in the film had always played more as “Satanic Panic“ to us, but hearing how serious the NYPD took these claims was a revelation which, along with some further concrete facts, helped us corroborate a few of the stories we heard.
With many serial killers (as some consider Rand to be), there are often unsolved homicides that police believe could be connected. One such case we encountered while filming concerned a nurse at Willowbrook named Shin Lee, who disappeared in 1978. Lee was found buried on the institution’s grounds in the same wooded area where Rand had lived. There were also other coincidences: Shin Lee was petite, almost childlike; she was found nude and buried in a shallow grave (similar circumstances to another case connected to Rand). I spoke to a retired detective who had suspected Rand at the time, but was never able to push the case. During our initial research we tried to find Shin Lee’s family, but because the Korean community was so isolated, it was impossible.


About a week after the premiere, I received a call from Shin Lee’s daughter. She had heard about the film and wanted to know if we thought Andre Rand could have been involved. Obviously it wasn’t our place to say, but as a detective once told us, there is no such thing as a “coincidence.” I gave her all the info I could and encouraged her to pursue her own research by calling the cold case squad and old detectives, or even possibly having her mother’s body exhumed to check for the potential DNA evidence. None of these are easy decisions, but for some, closure is paramount in order to take the next steps in life.
Screening at Tribeca was a crucial step in the life of Cropsey. Now we are embarking on the next phase—the theatrical release. Hopefully with the film showing in theaters, we will be able to cull even more information about these cases. Perhaps a clue will pop up that could lead us, or more people like Shin Lee’s daughter, to the ultimate discovery.

Cropsey opens theatrically at New York's IFC Center on June 4; will screen on Staten Island on June 5; and will open in LA, Austin, Denver, Philadelphia and more cities in the coming weeks. Cropsey will also be available on VOD on major cable providers starting July 2.

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