20 year-old Richard Samuel McCroskey was a self-taught graphic artist that lived in Castro Valley, California with his older sister and father. He was considered quiet, reserved and non-violent by friends and family. In fact, when he was bullied in school for having red hair and being overweight, he would never fight back.
Perhaps his pent up anger was partly what attracted him to horrorcore- a subgenre of hip hop that often focuses on extremely violent lyrics and imagery. McCroskey immersed himself into horrorcore and even rapped under the name Syko Sam. A common theme to his songs was brutally killing people and watching them die. A sample of his lyrics:
“You’re not the first, just to let you know. I’ve killed many people and I kill them real slow. It’s the best feeling, watching their last breath. Stabbing and stabbing till there’s nothing left,”
While the lyrics certainly sound threatening, creative people often express their darker thoughts through various forms of art.
This is an argument that 16 year-old Emma Niederbrock may have had to use with her parents; Debra Kelley, an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice studies at Longwood University, and Mark Niederbrock, a Presbyterian pastor. Her parents were concerned when Emma began an online relationship with McCroskey in 2008, but they decided to let her follow through with it. They felt they ran the risk of losing her entirely if they pushed back.
Emma lived with Debra in Farmville, Virginia and was also into the horrorcore scene, where she went by “Ragdoll”. She was obsessed with the music and had an interest in the macabre and the occult. Debra and Mark had divorced at the beginning of the year. The combination of the divorce and Emma’s age and interests led Debra and Mark to seek family counseling.
McCroskey could relate to Emma. His parents had been separated for nearly six months. The two first connected on the social media platform of the day: MySpace. After almost a year of online dating, the two finally met in person on September 6th
McCroskey flew to Virginia to meet up with Emma and her friend, 18 year-old Melanie Wells. The three would travel to Michigan to attend a horrorcore event called “Strictly for the Wicked Festival”. It was put on by Horrorcore label Serial Killin’ Records or SKR, which was run by Andres Shirm. McCroskey and Wells had both informally promoted SKR and were excited to meet Shirm in Michigan Melanie had been active on MySpace leading up to the 12th. She wrote that she couldn’t wait to attend the after parties to get drunk. On her personal MySpace page, she described herself as an SKR Unholy Disciple, a believer in Laveyan Satanism, and listed her interests as “blood, gore, open graves, dead people and animals. She also posted a poem with the following lyrics:
“You’re screaming and bleeding lying on the floor
I can’t help it; I’m aching for more gore
Slowly I make an incision in your main artery
I feel the blood rush, gush all over my body
It’s going deeper and deeper; your life is slowly fading
Your eyes roll back and your body starts shaking”
Both McCroskey and Melanie stayed at Emma’s house. Melanie was from West Virginia and was set to return home after their road trip to Michigan.
Saturday, September 12
Mark Niederbrock and Debra Kelley drove Emma, Melanie and McCroskey to Southgate, Michigan for the first annual “Strictly for the Wicked” music festival.
Everything seemed to be going fine until Emma exchanged text messages with someone that McCroskey saw as a rival love interest.
McCroskey’s anger festered, and only grew when they returned to Virginia two days later. He felt that his relationship with Emma was exclusive and was distraught over what he perceived to be her unfaithfulness.
Tuesday, September 15, 3:00 AM
Everyone in the house was asleep; everyone, but McCroskey. He had been popping pain pills in between drinking alcohol and smoking pot in the hours leading up to this moment. McCroskey crept through the house, carrying a wood splitting maul he found earlier on the Kelley property. He first stopped at the first floor den, where Melanie slept on a sofa. He stood over her and raised his weapon. He struck the sleeping 18 year old multiple times in the head.
McCroskey then moved on to Debra Kelley, who slept in her upstairs bedroom. He repeated his earlier attack, striking Debra multiple times in the head with the maul.
McCroskey walked back downstairs to Emma’s bedroom. Again, he raised the heavy maul and brought it down on Emma’s head, several times.
Emma never saw it coming. None of them had. All three women had been bludgeoned to death, and later autopsies would show no defensive wounds. In a span of less than ten minutes, Richard McCroskey had killed three people. But he wasn’t done.
Wednesday, September 16
Melanie Wells was supposed to have returned home to Inwood, West Virginia. Her parents, Kathleen and Thomas drove to the Kelley house to pick their daughter up. When nobody answered the door or answered the phone, they waited outside the house. After seven hours of no activity at the house, Kathleen and Thomas drove back home and called the Kelley house again. This time, Richard McCroskey answered the phone. He had been staying at the house with the decomposing bodies of the three people he had murdered. McCroskey gave Kathleen an excuse as to where Melanie was and hung up.
Thursday, September 17
The worried mother called several more times with McCroskey giving a different story each time. Kathleen contacted the police and filed a missing persons report.
Officers soon arrived at the house to conduct a welfare check. A calm and casual Richard McCroskey answered the door and told them that Melanie had gone to the movies with a friend. The police officers accepted the story and left without any further investigation.
Meanwhile, Mark Niederbrock had also become concerned after not hearing from Debra or Emma for days. It was around 5PM when he arrived at the house to check on his ex-wife and daughter. McCroskey was waiting for him. When Mark entered the living room he was immediately bludgeoned with the same wood splitting maul that McCroskey used to kill the other three. Mark Niederbrock was dead at age 50.
Friday, September 18
Somewhere under Syko Sam’s hardcore shell was a shred of guilt, or at least recognition that he would face repercussions. While still at the house, he had used a digital camera to record a video. That video was never released to the public, but in it, he stated that he knew he had to pay for what he had done, and also indicated that he was contemplating suicide.
Nevertheless, McCroskey decided instead to finally leave the Kelley house, so he stole Mark’s car. He was on his way to the Richmond Airport when he was pulled over by police. McCroskey surely thought he couldn’t get away after two run-ins with the police, but since the car hadn’t been reported stolen, the officer only ticketed him for driving without a license, and let him go. They had the car towed to an impound lot since they couldn’t let McCroskey drive it. The tow truck driver dropped McCroskey off at a nearby gas. The driver later said of McCroskey “The first thing I noticed was the stench coming off of him. It was awful. Like a dead animal, only worse. He stunk like the devil.” McCroskey called a cab to take him the rest of the way to the airport.
By this time, Kathleen once again called the police after not being able to get a hold of her daughter. Police received another phone call around the same time, from Andres Shirm alerting them that McCroskey had confessed to the murders via a phone call to a mutual friend.
This time when the officers visited the house, they smelled the foul odor of death emanating from within. They entered the house and discovered the grisly scene left by McCroskey.
Despite accounts of McCroskey being quiet and harmless, it seemed there was more to his lyrics than pure expression.
A sampling from his song “The Voices”:
“The evil voices; they’re in my head,
They want to see me kill; they want to see me dead.
They’re always in my head; telling me to never stop.
They don’t care about my life; they hope I get caught.
They just want me to murder continuously
they want me to take lives on a mass murder spree.
I’ve got this deadly urge and I don’t know why
When I hear the voices they say you’re going to die. “
Saturday , September 19
McCroskey was sleeping in the baggage claims area of the Richmond Airport just before noon, when police officers approached and arrested him without incident. He was initially uncooperative during questioning. When asked about the motive for the slayings, he said “Jesus told me to do it.”
He was held in Piedmont Regional jail on suicide watch, while awaiting trial.
September 20, 2010
The families of the victims agreed to a plea deal allowing McCroskey to avoid the death penalty. They didn’t want to drag their nightmare out any longer than necessary.
A year after the slayings, McCroskey plead guilty to two counts of capital murder and two counts of first degree murder. He waived his right to an appeal and is currently serving life in prison at Red Onion State Penitentiary in Pound, Virginia.
While Syko Sam took four lives in Virginia, a serial killer in Ohio was in the middle of a decade- long reign of terror.
March 10 2007
Larry Higgins Jr. was looking for scrap metal in the brush along Victory Road- a stretch of road just over a mile long that ran along US-23 in Marion, Ohio. He had little luck. All he spotted was an old Halloween decoration. People dumped all kinds of things along this secluded road, so he wasn’t surprised. But as Higgins got closer, he realized what he thought was a plastic replica of a human skull was attached to a body. He had just discovered the human remains of a woman whose identity is still unknown to this day. She would be named “Vicky” after the name of the road she was found on.
Investigators surmised that the skeletal remains of Vicky were that of a young woman between 15 and 22 years old, and that she was most likely the victim of a homicide. At the time, no matches were found in the National Crime Information Center: a computerized index of criminal justice information, including missing persons.
Feb 6, 2015
31 year-old Rebekah Leicy was reported missing from her hometown of Mansfield, Ohio.
March 16, 2015
A Columbia Gas employee was checking gas wells on County Road 1908 off Route 30 in Mifflin Township- about an hour’s drive south of Mansfield. He turned his truck onto a gas company right-of-way when he spotted Leicy’s body behind a large tree. Rebekah was a sex worker and had a history drug addiction. It was announced by Police Chief Ken Coontz that she died from a drug overdose. The coroner’s toxicology report showed she had cocaine, morphine and buprenorphine in her system at the time of death. The only foul play suspected at this time was the illegal dumping of her body.
It was around this time that 29 year-old Candice Cunningham met someone she thought was Mr. Right. According to her mother, Dianna Gardener, Candice was living in Mansfield Ohio, but was planning to move to North Carolina with a man she had met and fell in love with. Dianna never met this man, nor ever even heard his name. Candice also had a history of drug abuse- in fact, both her children had been taken away from her by child services. Candice told Dianna she would call her when she was settled in North Carolina. She sounded happy for the first time in a long time, so Dianna didn’t protest. She never heard from her daughter again.
Aug 16, 2016
29 year-old Elizabeth Griffith was reported missing from Ashland, Ohio. Elizabeth was beloved by everyone who knew her. Though developmentally disabled herself, she was always willing to help others in need. She was last seen at an Ashland Wal-Mart before going missing.
Sept 8 2016
Stacey Stanley lived in Greenwich, Ohio; less than a half hour drive from Ashland. She was reported missing by her family after she failed to return home that night. The 43 year-old mother of two was last seen at a BP gas station in Ashland trying to flag down help to change a tire. Stacey’s brother received a call from her at 10:47PM. That was the last time any of her family talked to her. Stacey’s car was later found with her wallet and phone inside.
Stacey’s uncle, Argil (ar-jul) Stanley claimed that police told him they weren’t going to look for his niece, as she had a history of heroin addiction and was quote unquote “probably getting high somewhere”. This outraged Argil. Along with Stacey’s two sons Kory and Curtis, Argil searched all night for Stacey with no luck.
The Stanley family continued to plead with the police for help, but after two days, they decided they had to take matters into their own hands. Over 30 family members descended on Ashland, canvassing the area for any sign of Stacey. After talking to hundreds of people, they narrowed their focus to an abandoned house on Covert Court. For unspecified reasons, the family was convinced Stacey was in the house. They repeatedly knocked on the door but there was no answer. Afraid to take any further direct action, they went to the Ashland Police Department with their theory and asked them to search the house. Again, according to Argil, The police refused.
September 13 7:00AM
Emergency Services in Ashland received a 911 call.
To protect the privacy of the woman in the audio you just heard, I’ll refer to her as Jennifer.
Jennifer had been abducted by a man she met the month before. His name was Shawn Grate. The 40 year-old man was homeless and squatted in various abandoned houses throughout the area. He was gregarious and even charming to those that only knew him on a surface level. Jennifer and Grate had been on friendly terms until the moment he forced her into captivity.
Grate beat and raped Jennifer several times over the course of her two day imprisonment. As she lie bound on the same bed that her abductor slept on, she found the courage to quietly work her way out of the bindings enough to crawl out of bed and use Grate’s phone to dial 911.
She made the lengthy phone call while only feet from Grate. She didn’t know the exact address of the house she was in, but said it was near a laundromat on 4th street. Using this, and other information she gave, police were dispatched to the area of 4th Street and Covert Court.
Grate could have woke up at any time, so the 911 operator stayed on the line until help arrived.
At one point, you can hear the fear in Jennifer’s voice as she realized she woke Grate up.
He goes back to sleep and as police near the house, the 911 operator encourages Jennifer to try to leave the bedroom.
And now, the moment Officers arrived to the area and found Jennifer.
With Jennifer safely out of the house and Shawn Grate in police custody, officers entered and searched the house. They found the remains of two other women. They were Elizabeth Griffith and Stacey Stanley. This had been the house that, according to Argil Stanley, Stacey’s family begged the police to search just days earlier.
Before being strangled to death, Stacey Stanley had been raped, and her face and body were so badly beaten she had to be identified by family through photographs of tattoos and rings she was wearing.
Elizabeth Griffith had also been strangled to death, and her corpse defiled. Grate later said of Elizabeth:
“I met her at a shopping center. We would hang out and play games, mostly Yahtzee. I’m trying to justify it as compassion. The short time I talked to her she cried several times just about life and how she couldn’t find anyone to love her …All I wanted to do was show her that she wanted to live, and I’d say give me a hug we’re all in this together. I’d choke her until she said she wanted to live … and she just didn’t.”
Grate was forthcoming with Police. He even admitted to killing Candice Cunningham and led officials to her remains, which were in a ravine behind another abandoned house. It turned out that Grate was the man she had met and fell in love with. In one of her last Facebook posts, she said of Grate “And I told you that I was going to be there to the end” According to Grate, they had dated for seven months. He said she was violent and suicidal, even claiming that he admitted her to a psych ward, where she stayed for a week. He said they fought almost constantly, but placed the onus on her, adding that she could have run off and told police at any time.
Shawn Grate had even more secrets to reveal. He then confessed that he killed the Jane Doe nicknamed Vicky, but couldn’t remember her name. He said he thought it was Diana or Dana, but wasn’t sure. To this day, she has not been positively identified. There are many theories as to her identity, but sadly, we may never know.
Grate claimed the young woman came to his mother’s house and tried to sell him a magazine subscription. “She tried to tell me that she would pay for half the subscription if I paid the other half. I could tell she was scheming me. I took her in the basement and took a knife and stabbed her in the throat. I had company coming over soon.”
As it turned out, Grate had one more victim. Rebekah Leicy hadn’t died of a drug overdose. Her body wasn’t dumped by a drug user trying to avoid police. She was killed by Grate. Why? Because, according to Grate, she stole four dollars from him. When asked about Rebekah, he said “I knew Rebekah. One day we were out playing pool at a bar and I went to use the restroom and heard my money clip zip. She’d stolen $4 from me.”
It became apparent that Grate always had an excuse as to why he killed. He was just trying to help them. They were trying to cheat them. They stole $4 from him. He even blamed the government:
“They were already dead. Just their bodies were flopping wherever it can flop but their minds were already dead! The state took their minds. Once they started receiving their monthly checks.”
The ugly truth is that he preyed on vulnerable people to satiate his desire to kill. These women struggled with drug addiction, mental disabilities and a societal perception that they were somehow of lesser worth. In reality, each of these women were complex human beings of as much worth as anyone else. They had people that loved them, and hopes for a better future. Hopes that were stolen from them by Shawn Grate.
Stacey’s aunt, Marlene Stanley said “Stacey was a sweetheart. She would give you anything she had. She was a kind, kind soul. For what she had to go through, it’s heart-wrenching. And as a family member, all of us out here looking for her, she was right there.”
Stacey’s sister Jeana Stanley said “She didn’t want to die. She wanted to live. She had a family. She’s got grandchildren and boys who miss her and aren’t dealing well, and this guy who did this to her and these other women? He’s a monster.”
At the time of this writing, Shawn Grate sits in jail awaiting trial. He faces 23 counts, including multiple charges of aggravated murder and kidnapping. His trial was set to begin this November but has been delayed until April of 2018.
911 audio: http://player.tout.com/dispatch/pddwk3