In gritty 1970s New York, an unidentified serial killer known as “Charlie Chop-Off” targeted young black and Puerto Rican men and brutally mutilated their genitals, never being caught.
It sounds like an urban legend: a serial killer who attacks young children and cuts off their genitals. But the nightmare case of “Charlie Chop-off” was very real and remains chillingly unsolved.
Between 1972 and 1973, a serial killer targeted young black and Puerto Rican men living in Manhattan, brutally cutting them up, mutilating their genitalia, and sometimes even taking their severed penis with him as a gruesome trophy.
Eyewitnesses described the killer as a thin man in his 30s. But despite interviewing hundreds of people, the police were unable to find the killer, until a botched kidnapping led them to a mental patient with a criminal record.
Was the disturbed Erno Soto actually Charlie Chop-off, or did the real killer get away with it?
The Innocent Victims of Charlie Chop-off
Every serial killer has a pattern, and Charlie Chop-off was no exception. Each of his victims was between 8 and 10 years old. All were black or dark-skinned Puerto Rican children. And they all suffered cuts on their bodies.
The first victim was 8-year-old Douglas Owens. Policeman found his body on March 9, 1972, on a Harlem rooftop, killed by 38 stab wounds throughout the body. Disturbingly, the killer had also mutilated his genitalia.
At first, it seemed like an isolated crime, until a month later, the killer struck again.
This time, the victim was a 10-year-old boy. Then, on April 20, Charlie Chop-off attacked the boy, stabbing him in the neck and back. This time, the killer cut off his genitals and took them with him.
Miraculously, the second victim survived the attack and was able to give police a description of Charlie Chop-off. But the murders did not end there.
In October 1972, a 9-year-old boy named Wendell Hubbard died in East Harlem. Hubbard lived just six blocks from Douglas Owens. Charlie Chop Off also stabbed Hubbard 17 times and gruesomely removed his genitalia.
Then, in March 1973, the unidentified killer claimed another victim. Nine-year-old Luis Ortiz disappeared as he was going to the corner store, and police later found his body in the basement of a nearby apartment.
Like the previous victims, Ortiz had suffered 38 brutal stab wounds and had his genitals severed by the killer. But the police were no closer to catching the killer.
Panic in New York by Charlie Chop-Off
In the summer of 1973, the New York police knew they had a serial killer on their hands. But finding Charlie Chop Off wouldn’t be easy.
The only surviving victim described the killer as Spanish or Italian, and possibly with a limp. The vague description left police without a clear suspect.
Police distributed a sketch of Charlie Chop Off in Harlem and asked neighbors to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior.
After a fourth murder on August 17, 1973, police wondered if his killer had changed his pattern or if they had a copycat on their hands.
Steven Cropper closely resembled the previous victims. An 8-year-old black boy, Cropper’s body was found on a rooftop. But instead of stab wounds, police found razor cuts on the boy’s body. And the killer hadn’t mutilated the boy’s genitals.
Police interviewed about 100 suspects, according to the New York Times – but they were no closer to finding Charlie Chop-off.
Witness statements convinced police that Cropper’s killer had also killed Hubbard and Owens. Witnesses saw Cropper with a thin Hispanic man in his early 30s, between 5’6″ and 5’10” and “with a strange, almost limping gait.”
The description was nearly identical to that of Charlie Chop-off, described as a Hispanic male, around five feet, nine inches tall, with a slight build, and in his 30s or 40s. And the only victim who escaped said the killer had a limp.
Was Erno Soto the infamous Charlie Chop-Off?
A botched kidnapping finally led the police to their best suspect in the gruesome genital mutilation murders: a disturbed man named Erno Soto.
On May 25, 1974, Soto attempted to kidnap a 9-year-old Puerto Rican boy, but neighbors intervened and held Soto until the police arrived to arrest him.
During interrogation, Soto confessed to killing Steven Cropper. But he refused to confess to any other crime. And the lone surviving victim was unable to get Soto out of a lineup.
The police were sure they had caught the murderer. Soto had a criminal record: he had been in jail on robbery and narcotics charges. He was unstable: Soto was committed to a state mental institution years before the first murder.
Soto’s personal history also seemed to fit the profile. After separating from his wife, Soto discovered that he had a child with a black man. And soon after that, the attacks against black children began.
And then the police discovered an anonymous tip after the first murder accusing Erno Soto of the crime.
But was he the killer?
Erno Soto went on trial for the 1976 murder of Steven Cropper. During the trial, a psychiatrist testified that Soto was a “dangerous person” who “needed constant surveillance,” according to the court. Times.
“When he’s alone in society, he’s literally a walking time bomb,” said Dr. John Baer Train.
However, there was a big gap in the case against Soto. Manhattan State Hospital said Soto was at their facility the day Cropper died. Hospital officials claimed Soto could have slipped off the premises, but doubt had already crept into the case.
Instead of finding Soto guilty of murder, the jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. The ruling landed Soto in a maximum security mental institution.
Officially, the Charlie Chop-off case remains unsolved. More than 40 years after the first murder, the police still classify horrific crimes as open cases.
But several clues still point to Soto as the murderer. He fit the eyewitness description and his alibi was not airtight, given that he was allowed out of the mental institution over the weekend and reportedly checked in when Douglas Owens and Wendell Hubbard were killed.
And the Charlie Chop-off murders ended after the police arrested Soto. Either they caught the killer, or a hideous serial killer is still on the run.