Beginnings of a Serial Killer – Arthur Shawcross

Arthur Shawcross

Arthur Shawcross confessed to killing and mutilating 11 women in Rochester, N.Y., and is suspected of killing at least 19 more women.

In October of 1989, Rochester, N.Y., police had uncovered the bodies of three women and believed them all to be the work of the same twisted serial killer. The three women were prostitutes who worked on Lyell Avenue, were decomposed and had been strangled and left dead on or near the bank of the Genessee River. When the body of the fourth woman was discovered, the police department felt it was crucial to have the Federal Bureau of Investigation come in and do a profile of the killer to help the department track down the suspect.

FBI Serial Killer Profile

The profile the FBI came up with pointed toward a white man who was a regular customer, an avid hunter or fisherman working a menial job, and who had a wife or girlfriend. In short, the Rochester Police Department should be looking for someone who was “extraordinarily ordinary,” according to Special Agent Gregg McRary of the FBI.

Before the Rochester Police were able to come up with a suspect, four more women were missing, and a state police helicopter was patrolling the river area. After the helicopter began keeping watch, it didn’t take police long to find their man. On Jan. 3, 1990, the helicopter saw a man in a gray car parked over the body of a dead woman. Police followed the car and questioned the 44-year-old driver, Arthur Shawcross.

Police Questioning of a Suspected Serial Killer

When police took Shawcross in for questioning, they had no idea he had previously spent almost 15 years in jail on manslaughter charges after killing a 10-year-old boy and raping and suffocating an 8-year-old girl. They also soon would discover that Shawcross fit the FBI profile nearly to perfection – he worked at night preparing salads while maintaining relationships with both his girlfriend and wife. They also discovered that many of the bodies turned up at Shawcross’ favorite fishing spots.

With little evidence that Shawcross had committed the murders but loads of suspicion, the police let Shawcross go after eight hours of questioning. Immediately, officers headed out Lyell Avenue and began showing his photo to the prostitutes. One woman identified him as a regular client almost immediately, and also said she had seen Shawcross with the first victim just 11 hours before her body was found.

Shortly after, police brought Shawcross back in for questioning, where he admitted killing the first victim, saying that he didn’t mean to kill her. When police presented the earring they had found in his car from another of the dead women, Shawcross broke and confessed to 11 murders, going through a stack of photos of missing women, sorting the women he had killed from those he hadn’t. On Jan. 3, 1990, police announced the arrest of Shawcross, and almost immediately the community was outraged that a man who had killed two children had been let loose onto the streets – police officers among them.

“I get tears in my eyes when I think about it,” Rochester Police Officer William J. Bates told A&E’s Biography in an episode about Shawcross during the first season. “How could a guy kill two children and still be walking around free? It’s obscene.”

Childhood, Vietnam War, and Life of Crime

Shawcross had grown up in Brownville, N.Y., a city near the Canadian border. The oldest of four children, Shawcross claimed to have been sexually abused by his mother and her friend. He also claimed that he had sex with various family members as a child and had trouble with other children in school.

“He was considered peculiar by his teachers,” defense psychologist Dorothy Ortnow Lewis told Biography. “… He couldn’t relate to other children.”

Shawcross was arrested for the first time when he was 18 for breaking and entering at a party store. Shortly after, he was drafted and sent to fight the war in Vietnam, where he claimed to develop his taste for murder. He was honorably discharged in 1969 and returned to the United States.

Shortly after his return, Shawcross was arrested for burglary and arson when he set fire to a barn and two factories. He was sent to prison for five years, but was released on parole after only two and a half years. It was six months later that he killed Jack Blake, the 10-year-old boy, and four months after that, Shawcross killed Karen Ann Hill, the 8-year-old girl.

When questioned, Shawcross admitted the murders and was allowed to plead guilty to one count of manslaughter for the murder of Hill. He was not charged with her rape or with the murder of Blake. The two are the only murders for which Shawcross has ever expressed any remorse.

“It’s too painful (to talk about),” Shawcross said when questioned on Biography. “There’s a lot of shame. I regret it badly.”

But the shame of murdering another human was not enough to keep Shawcross from doing it again. Less than 15 years after he plead guilty to murder, Shawcross was released onto the streets of New York, only to continue with his spree.


  1. Arthur Shawcross. Biography. Season 1, Episode 43. A&E Full Length Episode