New York City, NY

Charlie Chop-off: The Harlem Serial Killer Who Preyed On Young Black Boys

The Vivid Faces of the Vanished

In 1972, Harlem was full of talent, creativity, opportunity, and hard-working people. Harlem consisted of mainly low-income, black families and vacant lots sprinkled the borough. Drug addiction ran rampant, the borough was plagued with poverty and had one of the highest crime rates in New York. In the midst of the art, culture, and fashion coming out of Harlem, came unspeakable terror.

On March 9, 1972, the body of 8-year-old Douglas Owens was found on the rooftop of 222 East 121st Street, two blocks from his home. The little boy had been stabbed 38 times in the back, neck, and chest. His penis was almost completely detached, held on by a flap of skin. There was some evidence of sexual assault, and his shoes were missing.

On March 26, 1972, authorities received a tip about a Puerto Rican man named Erno Soto. Erno Soto's wife had left him when he attempted to reunite with her, he discovered she had a child by a black man. This allegedly enraged Erno and threw him into a mental downward spiral. He became erratic and increasingly violent, and he was admitted to the Manhattan State Hospital in 1969, 1970, and various years afterward.

Authorities ignored the anonymous tip.

Then on April 20, 1972, a 10-year-old boy, who was not publicly named, was running errands. He was viciously attacked on a rooftop less than two miles from where the body of little Douglas Owens was found. The attacker sodomized the little boy and cut off his penis. Although he survived the heinous assault, the perpetrator took the genitals with him. They were later recovered in a nearby park, where some children were reportedly playing with them.

The victim was able to provide investigators with a description of his attacker. He described the man as Italian or Hispanic, in his late 30s, thin, walking with a limp, medium pockmarked skin and dark hair. He said the man called himself "Michael" and promised to give him 50 cents if he came with him.

On October 23, 1972, "Charlie Chop-Off," the public and police now called him, struck again. Wendell Hubbard's body was found on the rooftop of his building at 2013 Fifth Avenue near 125th Street. This was six blocks from the rooftop Douglas Owens was found. Wendell had been stabbed 17 times in the abdomen, chest, and neck, and his penis had been severed and taken from the scene.

On March 7, 1973, the killer struck a Puerto Rican boy, instead of a black child. 9-year-old Luis Ortiz left home to buy milk and bread at the corner store. Luis was a dark-skinned boy, and authorities believe the attacker may have mistaken him for black. His body was found in the stairwell leading to the basement of a building at 200 West 106th Street. He had been stabbed 38 times, and his penis was missing.

Fearing more attacks, the police canvassed Harlem. Officers conducted door-to-door searches from 86th to 110th Street, interviewed over 100 people, and reviewed almost 10,000 arrest records.

Neighbors and their children lived in fear.

"My kids started screaming, 'Mom, Mom,' and when I looked through the peephole, and the men said they were the police, I told them they must be kidding if they thought I was going to open the door," resident Barbara Rosenthal told the New York Times.

Officials created a special task force of more than 50 detectives to handle the case.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack, but needles have been found in haystacks before," Sgt. Gerald McQueen with the NYPD told the New York Times.

In May 1973, Erno Soto was arrested for a child molestation assault that occurred on the Lower East Side.

On August 17, 1973, around 5:30 pm, a woman walking her dog found the body of 8-year-old Steven Cropper on the rooftop of a Lower East Side apartment building. Little Steven had been slashed multiple times with a razor, posed in a graphic manner, and his shoes had also been removed.

"I've been in his business a long time, and I've seldom seen anything like it," Lt. Louis Karcher told the New York Times.

Witnesses in the area reported seeing a man limping and running from the building.

On May 15, 1974, Erno Soto attempted to kidnap a little boy who was able to escape his grasp. He was surrounded by neighbors and arrested. He immediately became a suspect.

Erno was taken to Bellevue hospital where he admitted to murdering Steven Cropper. He claimed that God told him that his job was to turn little boys into little girls. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Authorities believed Erno was responsible for the death of Steven, but he denied involvement in the murders of the remaining victims. The lone surviving victim was unable to pick him out of a line-up and Steven's murder was different from the others. Steven was killed with a razor, not a knife and his genitals were left intact.

In 1976, Erno Soto was indicted for the murder of Steven Cropper, but the State Supreme Court found him not guilty by reason of insanity. He was confined for life in a state mental facility for the criminally insane.

Although no other suspects were named and no other arrests were made, the cases remain open. The murders stopped after the arrest of Erno Soto.

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The Vivid Faces of the Vanished tells the stories of missing and murdered minorities and real stories about everyday life situations. Readers are invited to submit tips on cases, suggest new and cold cases, and submit their real-life stories to share.

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