The Disturbing, Unsolved Mystery Of The 'Charlie Chop-Off' Killer

The following article includes descriptions of sexual assault and violence.

New York City was a dangerous place in the 1970s. As noted by PBS's American Experience, at the time, the city was the victim of a huge decline in the local economy due to industrial decay, while New York faced social upheaval in the face of widespread unemployment, layoffs, and bankruptcy.

The 1970s was also the decade that heralded the horrifying "golden age of the serial murder," as it was named by crime historian Harold Schechter, a period of roughly three decades that saw a boom in the instance of mindless civilian attacks, per Rolling Stone. Though there is a litany of factors as to why so many serial killers emerged during this time — indeed, as to why they exist at all — experts have noted that many such killers were born and raised in wartimes, with many raised by participants in a war who returned home suffering from PTSD. It has also been hypothesized that the explosion in city populations allowed serial killers to come into contact with many strangers, to strike unexpectedly in a state of relative anonymity.

Though many serial killers are caught while active or, like the Golden State Killer, apprehended years later with advances in forensic technology, many murder cases remain frustratingly unresolved. One of these is the case of what has been named the "Charlie Chop-Off" murders, which occurred in New York in the early 1970s.

The gruesome 'Charlie Chop-Off' attacks

"Charlie Chop-Off" was the nickname given to an identified man who targeted young Black and Puerto Rican boys in the streets of Manhattan, according to Crime Library. The first horrifying attack occurred on March 9, 1972, when the body of 8-year-old Douglas Owens was discovered on the roof of a building in Harlem. Owens had been stabbed multiple times and his genitals had been mutilated. Police interviewed members of Owens' family and other people who had known the boy, but no one was charged in relation to the disturbing murder.

The following month, another boy, who was 10 years old, was also brutally attacked. Though he survived the attack, during which he was raped and stabbed repeatedly, the boy's genitals had been dismembered and taken away by the attacker. Though the attacks were similar in many ways, Crime Library claims that the killer struck two more times before the police decided that the crimes were linked by a common perpetrator.

Who was responsible?

Another attack took place in October just six blocks away from the site where Douglas Owens' body was discovered, according to "The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers." This time, the assailant attacked the child, Steven Cropper with razor blades. Though he didn't target his genitals, police still believed the attacks were linked. Soon after, police apprehended their first real suspect, who, however, would never stand trial.

Erno Soto, a psychiatric patient who had escaped from Manhattan State Hospital on multiple occasions, was captured by police after he attempted to abduct a 9-year-old boy, but was stopped in the act by a group of locals, who restrained him and called the police. Soto confessed that he had been responsible for the razor attack, though was not identified in a line-up by one of his survivors.

"The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers" notes that the case of "Charlie Chop-Off" is still open, as Soto was deemed unfit to stand trial due to his mental state. He was returned to the hospital, and the attacks ceased following his detention.