Officially unsolved, the case of New York City's "Charlie Chopoff"' murders occupied police for more than two years, from March 1972 through May 1974.
The files are officially open today, despite the arrest of a promising suspect and his eventual commitment to a mental institution for the criminally insane.
While he remains incarcerated and incompetent for trial, the crimes may not be cleared, but lead investigators on the case are quick to note that "Charlie's" random depredations ended when their man was taken off the street.
Erno Soto's marriage seemed to be the root of all his problems. Separated from his wife for several years, he made a stab at reconciliation, but was startled to discover she had conceived a black child in his absence. (Soto and his wife were Puerto Ricans.)
He pretended not to care, but as the boy's eighth birthday rolled around, Soto's behavior grew increasingly erratic, resulting in his commitment to Manhattan State Hospital in 1969 and 1970.
He would return for further treatment at sporadic intervals thereafter, but the evidence suggests that Soto found his primary relief by stalking small, dark boys on New York's streets. The first to die was Douglas Owens, black and eight years old, found murdered two blocks from his Harlem flat on March 9, 1972.
Discarded on a rooftop, Owens had been stabbed 38 times in the neck, chest, and back, his penis slashed but still appended to his body by a bloody flap of skin.
An anonymous phone tip, received by police on March 23, fingered Soto as a suspect in the case, but it was not pursued. Another black boy, ten years old, was attacked on the city's Upper West Side, on April 20. Stabbed in the neck and back, he was also sexually mutilated, his penis severed and carried away by the man who left him for dead. The boy survived his injuries and offered homicide detectives a description of the suspect, but the trauma he had suffered limited his value as a witness.
On October 23, another black boy -- nine-year-old Wendell Hubbard, was killed in East Harlem, six blocks from the site of the Owens murder. Hubbard was stabbed 17 times in the neck, chest, and abdomen, his penis removed by the killer and carried away from the scene.
Five months later, on March 7, nine-year-old Luis Ortiz, a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, vanished on an errand to the corner store. His body -- stabbed 38 times in the neck, chest, and back, penis severed and missing -- was found in the basement of an apartment house along his route of travel.
The death of Steven Cropper, on August 17, 1973, appeared to break the killer's pattern. Cropper fit the victim profile perfectly -- a black boy, eight years old -- and while he had been murdered on a rooftop, he had not been stabbed. Instead, the fatal wounds were razor slashes, and his genitals were still,intact. Police initially suspected that a second killer was responsible, but they eventually decided it was too coincidental for a pair of slashers to be simultaneously stalking young black boys.
On May 25. 1974. Soto was arrested after bungling the abduction of a nine-year-old Puerto Rican boy, surrounded by neighbors and held for police after the child escaped his clutches. In custody, he confessed to the Cropper slaying, but "Charlie Chopoff's" sole surviving victim refused to pick Soto out of a lineup, saying only that the suspect's appearance was "similar."
Officials at Manhattan State Hospital initially provided an alibi, stating that Soto was confined on the date of Cropper's slaying, but they later admitted he sometimes slipped away from the facility, unnoticed. Found to be insane, the suspect was returned to the hospital under closer guard, the "unsolved" murders terminating after he was locked away.
Tagged with the pseudonym of "Miguel Rivera"
when author Barbara Gelb described his case in "On the Track of
Murder" (1975), Soto continues to confound some authors who report
his crimes under the false name, instead of his own.
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia
of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans
The place is New York. The time is 1972. The victims,
well lets find out about them.
The first was an eight year old black kid, his name
was Douglas Owens. On March 9, 1972, he was stabbed 38 times. His penis
was sliced but, unlike the later victims, was not severed. Not long
after the attack police received an anonymous phone call stating that
Soto was the killer. The call was ignored.
Six weeks later the killer struck again. An unnamed 10
year old boy was brutally sodomized, then gutted by the man who also
hacked off and 'stole' his penis.
From this point of he would be known as 'Charlie
Chopoff'. Somehow the kid survived the attack.
The next victim wasn't quite so lucky. Wendell Hubbard,
9, was stabbed to death on the rooftop of the East Harlem house where he
lived on October 23. Apparently he was rather badly mutilated. His penis
was also carried away by the attacker.
'Charlie Chopoff' took a bit of a holiday break
following this attack but was back in business the following March when
he killed Luis Ortez, 9. He slaughtered the kid in pretty much the same
way as the previous victims, again taking a souvenir from the boys groin
At this stage police were getting pretty worried about
the case. They had 3 dead kids in the morgue and a guy who had a taste
for young boys running loose in the streets. The only lead they had was
from the survivor who's description of the killer was that he was either
Spanish or Italian (he was actually Puerto Rican), his skin was neither
dark nor fair, and he may have had a limp. Pretty flimsy stuff.
On August 17, 1973, Steven Cropper, 8, was found dead.
He had a slashed artery in his arm and a chest resembling mincemeat.
This victim differed from the earlier ones as the body was not sexually
mutilated, and the weapon used was a razor blade instead of a knife.
'Charlie Chopoff' took another break, not even
attempting to strike again until May, 1974. But he screwed up, he let
the kid get away. Neighbors, all aware of the recent string of murders
were quick to jump into action at the sight of a young boy running from
a man screaming for help. They caught, and held, the suspect until
police arrived. Soto was charged for the attempted kidnapping, and
immediately suspected of the 'Charlie Chopoff' murders.
Under questioning (no doubt this was very stressful,
and probably very violent) Soto cracked. He claimed that God had
instructed him to turn little boys into little girls. This was seen as
complete proof that this was the guy they were after. Police called in
the earlier survivor of 'Charlies' attack, but the kid DID NOT pick him
out of a line up. This was not seen as a problem by police.
They just went out and 'found' someone who happened to
see Soto with Steven Cropper on the day he was murdered (funny how this
guy didn't come forward until police had caught the guy).
But police were to be let down by those higher up.
Soto was found too mentally unstable to stand trial, meaning all that
hard police work following the arrest was to go down the drain. What a
As far as I know Soto has never actually been found
guilty of these crimes, but is still in a mental institution somewhere
in New York. In Hunting Humans (Newton, 1990) it states that the case is
still open, but there were no more 'Charlie Chopoff' murders following
Soto's wife had left him a few years before the
murders. When he attempted a reconciliation in 1969 he found out that
she had a black child. Since both he and his wife were Puerto Rican it
didn't take long for him to figure out that it wasn't his. It was during
this time that he started to lose it. He was placed in the Manhattan
State Hospital (a psych. hospital) in 1969. This wasn't his only visit
to the place.
Also of interest to those who believe sometime police
get it wrong, Soto has an alibi for at least one of the killings. He was
in a mental institution on the date in question. Obviously he could have
'jumped the wall', committed the crime, then come back, but it is
something worth thinking about.
The Wacky World of Murder