Forty-seven-year-old Ethel Atwell pulled into the parking lot at the Staten Island Development Center (previously the Willowbrook State School) around 6:00 a.m. on October 24, 1978. She was expected for her shift as a therapist’s assistant.
Two women inside the building heard screaming across from Building #47 and contacted the security department. Wendy Zatwarnicki in Building #48 reported that she heard a woman yelling, “Don’t beat me, don’t beat me.”
A different version claims witnesses overheard a male saying, “Come on, come on” and a woman replied, “No, you’ll beat me!”
Nearly thirty-eight years later no one knows for sure what happened to Ethel.
According to an Intradepartmental Correspondence dated October 30, 1978 Sgt. Carlsen found one earring, one black shoe, Ethel’s tan purse, three coat buttons, and half of Ethel’s set of dentures on the ground beside her locked car. The car keys were later located in a wooded area approximately seventy-five feet from the vehicle.
Police and civilian volunteers launched an exhaustive search of the grounds by foot, in the air, and on horses but aside from Ethel’s personal effects and vehicle there were no other significant clues.
A pair of underwear recovered couldn’t be identified positively as Ms. Atwell’s.
On October 31 Ethel’s four sons sent a letter to detectives at the Nutley Police Department in New Jersey requesting further assistance finding their mother, as the New York investigation was at a standstill. (In 1978 Ethel lived in Newark, New Jersey and commuted to New York.)
Thoughts, Speculation, Etc.
Most accounts of Ethel’s disappearance mention a possible link to convicted Staten Island kidnapper, sex offender, and rumored murderer Andre Rand but there is no evidence that the two crossed paths in October 1978. You might recognize Andre Rand’s name as a central figure in the 2009 documentary Cropsey.
Many people suspect that Rand was also involved in the murder of another Staten Island Developmental Center employee, Shin Lee.
The accuracy of a sketch on Ethel’s NamUs profile resembling Rand is questionable. The women who overheard the screams in the parking lot told police that they “could not see much of anything” because it was dark and the street lights were off.
Rand was an orderly at Willowbrook from 1966 to 1968 and lived in makeshift camps on the grounds of the school after its closure. When he was arrested for Jennifer Schweiger‘s kidnapping and murder in 1988 his camp was in close proximity to the little girl’s body. The jury was deadlocked on the murder charge but he was found guilty for her kidnapping.
Many years later while serving time for Schweiger’s abduction he was also convicted for Holly Hughes‘ abduction and additional time added to his sentence. Rand will be eligible for parole in 2037.
The film Cropsey suggests that Rand is also connected to the disappearances of other Staten Island children (and one man in his early 20s) from the 1970s and 1980s, most of whom had disabilities.
Ethel was older than the other alleged victims and to my knowledge had no serious impairments. These differences could be significant but it’s not unheard of for criminals to modify or deviate from their “normal” activities.
Did Ethel meet her fate at the hands of “The Staten Island Boogeyman” or was she the unfortunate victim of a crime of opportunity?