The neighborhood boys didn’t realize what it was they were playing with, just that it was small, spongy, and covered in dirt. They had squeezed any blood that may have once filled the insides from its capillaries and now it lacked the fleshly color it once had. It was only when the detectives arrived at the neighborhood children’s park that they snatched it away from the boys, brushed away a thin layer of dirt, and deposited it into the evidence bag. The specimen — a severed penis of a six-year-old child — would help bring a maniacal killer to justice. A deranged fellow who would rightly earn his name as Charlie Chop-off.
Flap of Flesh
Douglas Owens was never told to stay away from strangers—"stranger danger" was a term of the 80s. It was March 1972 and the 8-year-old's parents were relieved that he got on well with the other Harlem boys.
Still, no-one knows why Douglas followed a total stranger to the rooftop of 121st street, or what this person said to convince the child to come along. All police know is that's where Owens' body was found, or what was left of it.
The dead child was filled with small holes—exactly 39—hacked from the straight razors left scattered next to his lifeless body. The scene was undoubtedly monstrous, but even worse was that the killer had nearly severed the boy's penis; a tiny "flap of flesh" connected it with his body.
With this unspeakable act of evisceration, Charlie Chop-off was born.
The mutilation and murder of Douglas Owens didn't make the newspaper—at least not until the unknown child slayer claimed another two.
Living in "Fear City"—moniker given to 70s New York—provided families with enough to worry about. The crime rate had hit new highs and gang violence, subway crime, rapes, and muggings were all too common. And, if we sprinkle in some economic turmoil, police brutality, and violence of extremist organizations, such as the Black Liberation Army (BLA) and The Armed Forces of National Liberation (AFLN), we see that most people had more than enough fear occupying their day to day.
Perhaps, the terrible mutilation of Douglas Owens was just a onetime thing, thought surely nobody. But, if true, the maniac had his fun and would now move to another hobby; unfortunately, Charlie Chop-off was just getting warmed up.
From what police know, "Charlie" struck again on October 23, 1972, when he convinced Wendel Hubbard, 9, to follow him to the roof of 2013 Fifth Avenue.
Again, no one knows what was said between the two, although a few neighborhood boys would claim that a man named "Michael" was offering fifty-cents to follow him. (That bribe may seem measly, but for an 8-year-old, two quarters—today worth $7.12—could buy him and his pals an ice cream.
Police found Wendel's body after it had been stabbed nineteen times, mutilated, and positioned in a "ceremonial fashion". The boy's penis was removed and was found in the neighborhood children's park.
The killer would wait nearly six months before claiming his next victim, a 9-year-old boy named Louis Ortiz. Ortiz had walked to the corner store for milk and bread, but never made it the few blocks. Instead, police found Ortiz's body in nearly the same mutilated state. He was stabbed thirty-eight times and, much like Wendel, had had his penis sliced completely off; it was never recovered.
If it was recognition Charlie Chop-off was looking for, he got it. The killer became an all-too-real boogeyman for the neighbor kids. Some would even say a cultural icon of sorts.
"But what is interesting is how the boys cope with this danger." Dr. Robert Martinson, sociologist of the City University of New York, said. "This unknown man has become somewhat of a culture hero and is called 'Charlie Chop-off' by my twelve-year-old son and his friends, and this intelligence is simply intermixed with their conversations about sports and girls and homework."
Charlie's victims all fit into a similar profile, that of being poor, black, inner-city Harlem children. Potential witnesses claimed to see a lighter-skinned man, Puerto Rican, in the area around the same times. So with this information, and a pissed-off public wanting justice, a composite sketch was publicized.
One man who matched the description of the composite sketched was "roughed up" by locals to the point of being nearly lynched. This unlucky bastard was guilty only of having some identical facial features, but had nothing to do with the slayings themself.
"Police rescued the man and took him to the neighborhood station house but as word spread through the community that a suspect" was in custody, a crowd of about 500 residents gathered outside trying to get at the man. He was finally disguised as a policeman and spirited away in a squad car."—Edward Butler, United Press International.
Now that the mad slasher was being recognized for his work, newsmen asked other experts to chime in to his potential motive.
One psychiatrist theorized the killer was a religious person, "who thinks he may be God, or a divine person, and is doing this for some unknown reason."
Dr. Harvey Schlossberg, a New York Police psychologist, added that the murderer was most likely a "desire killer" and that the method of mutilation was "extremely sexual" similar to "an orgasm". According to Schlossberg, the killer was "likely crazy, terrified of women, and harbored latent homosexual desires. Outraged by these desires, the killer castrated the boys to turn them into girls."
Many people think the police simply got lucky that the actual killer stopped after they arrested a homeless, schizophrenic, former drug addict, who fit the bill—somewhat. Or perhaps, Ernesto "Erno" Soto, 33, was actually guilty of the Charlie Chop-off.
In May 1974, police arrested Soto after he attempted to molest an 8-year-old boy—which itself was concerning, since he had recently been released from a mental institution for pedophilia. Still, Soto seemed to fit the crimes, although not wholly, but at least good enough for a press conference and conviction.
Sgt. Jerry McQueen said, "We got him because of himself. He grabbed a kid, the kid started screaming and someone called the police."
For starters, Erno was arrested "babbling religious" nonsense, which fit into the potential behavioral beliefs of the killer. Also, Soto had relatives near where the kids were scooped up, although one witness couldn't identify him out of a lineup.
However, the nay-sayers will remind us that suspect Soto was institutionalized during one murder and couldn't possibly have committed the awful deed, which, to many, serves as a pretty compelling alibi.
Perhaps, more strange is the fact that the public has never seen Soto's face, only a sketch released by the police.
If the police wanted a solid conviction, they were surely disappointed when Soto proved to be mentally incompetent, so much so that he couldn't even stand trial. The man was schizophrenic, suffered hallucinations and delusions, but somehow submitted a full confession—never publically released, if even done.
Erno said that he was only a vessel and "God" had been instructing him to "change boys into ladies".
Personally, I find it most interesting that, if Erno was the killer, that God was instructing him to kill his victims, while just a few streets over—albeit a few years later—a "satanic dog" named Sam was telling another to kill as well.
Technically, the Charlie Chop-off murders still remain UNSOLVED. Perhaps, the real Charlie is still alive somewhere, waiting for his next cut.