The Babysitter Mystery
IN 1955, A 14-YEAR-OLD BABYSITTER WAS ABDUCTED FROM A SUMMER HOUSE AND ATTACKED BY A MASKED STRANGER. BIZARRELY, AN INTRUDER BY THE SAME DESCRIPTION RETURNED DAYS LATER TO THE SAME HOUSE, TERRIFYING A SECOND BABYSITTER. DESPITE A VAST MANHUNT, THE CASE WENT COLD. BUT RECENTLY, A WITNESS WHO GREW UP HAUNTED BY WHAT SHE SAW RETURNED TO EAST HAMPTON SEEKING ANSWERS
The headlines read Police Hunt Sex Maniac. The papers called it one of the most exhaustive manhunts ever conducted in eastern Suffolk County.
During the height of August 1955, police were investigating the rape and abduction of a 14-year-old babysitter from an East Hampton Village summer house. The out-of-the-ordinary crime became even more unfathomable when, just eight days later, an intruder broke into the same house while another babysitter was there. Police who had been stationed near the house to keep watch chased the masked man through the house and into the woods; he was never to be seen again.
Christiane Citron, who was among the children under the care of the victim — victims, actually, as it would transpire — hardly remembers this horrifying episode at all. The daughter of Casper H. Citron, a radio host, and the granddaughter of Minna Citron, an artist who hobnobbed with Jackson Pollock and other art-world luminaries, she recalls her childhood as idyllic and her summers in East Hampton as a fairy tale. More than 60 years later, though, what happened on those two night troubles her. It remains a mystery, the crimes unsolved.
“East Hampton is stirred to its depths this week by a terrifying occurrence of last Saturday night,” the article on the front page of The Star’s Aug. 11 issue said after the first attack.
The cold case was all but forgotten until last year. No one who worked on it is living; local lore had not kept the mystery in circulation. No one working at East Hampton Village Police headquarters even remembered hearing about such a shocking story until Citron sent an email to Gerard Larsen, then the chief of police, asking if she could come in to visit and have a look at the case file.
The chief said he did not even believe it at first. But Citron had proof — news clippings she had found in her own research. So Larsen made his way to the basement, thinking he would never find any records, as they are usually filed under the victim’s name: The police had never revealed it, and Citron didn’t know it, either. But as chance would have it, he uncovered the dusty folder listed under her family’s name, instead.
If the file was any indication, the case was thin. There were newspaper clippings and scribbled-down license-plate numbers, some on a paper bag. Chief Larsen said it was possible that the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office had led the investigation, given that the village police had no detectives back in 1955, though he could not understand why the village police would have some of the file and the rest would be with the D.A.
He was intrigued, and invited Citron, who lives in Colorado, to his office to discuss what he knew and her memories.
She was 6 years old on Aug. 6, 1955, when her parents woke her in the middle of the night: Did she know where the babysitter was?
Her father, Casper H. Citron — who had run for Congress, in addition to his work on radio and as a theater critic — had returned with her mother, Anne Citron, a fashion model, to their La Forest Lane house at 2 a.m. Their kids were asleep in their beds but the 14-year-old babysitter was gone. They called the girl’s home, but her parents knew nothing of her whereabouts either. The police were called and a search began.
One of Citron’s few memories of that night was of the beams of flashlights going back and forth across the lawn at their four-acre property overlooking Georgica Pond, and the officers and her parents asking her questions.
It was not until daybreak that the babysitter turned up. Her father and brother found her walking near her home, “weeping and suffering from the injuries she sustained,” The News-Review said.
She told police that at about 11:15 p.m. that night, which was a Saturday, a man who had covered the lower half of his face with a bandanna and was wearing no shoes, broke in through a French window in one of the Citron house’s bedrooms. He pointed a toy gun at her, blindfolded her, and took her away in his automobile, which was parked on Jericho Road. They drove for about 15 minutes to a spot about 300 feet off the Sag Harbor Turnpike (that is, off Route 114), into Northwest Woods, The Star reported.
He told her he had graduated from high school a year earlier at 19, and had wanted to go into the Army. He removed her bandanna blindfold. She told police she found herself in a four-door sedan with tweed-type upholstery. An Army blanket and a duffel bag or sleeping bag, along with junk and papers, was on the back-seat ledge. According to an article in the Aug. 18 News-Review, he “raped her repeatedly and struck her many times, threw her out of the car, and kicked her.” Before he let her go, he photographed her wearing only a blouse.
The Star articles do not give a description of the attack, other than to say that a hand mark on the left side of her face had been left by a slap and that she had a swollen lip.
“The girl’s statement that she had heard a camera click, and her description of the picture that must have been taken of her by the man, leads police to believe that a pervert committed the crime,” The Star reported. “They fear that similar crimes may have already been committed here, or may be in the near future, by such a character. No case, Police Chief Leddy says, has ever disturbed his force as much as this one.”
Lt. Richard Steele of the East Hampton Village Police (left) and State Trooper William Spencer inspect the door the intruder jumped through, August 1955. Photograph from The East Hampton Star archive
Eight days later, Casper and Anne Citron went out again, this time to Manhattan. The house was under surveillance, with officers stopping in often for coffee. Bernice Hulse, an 18-year-old East Hampton girl, was left in charge. Bernice was reading to Christiane in a second-floor bedroom at around 10:30 that Sunday evening when her cocker spaniel, Snookie, growled and ran down the stairs. The man had broken in through a window in the bedroom, where a 1-year-old sibling was asleep.
Bernice went to the landing and was “accosted by the intruder,” his face covered with a yellow bandanna. He pointed a toy pistol at her and kicked her twice in the legs, yelling “Come on, let’s go,” The Star reported on Aug. 18. She screamed. So did Christiane. The cocker spaniel nipped the man’s leg. He ran down the stairs, then up again.
With Christiane in tow, the babysitter got to the telephone, lifted the receiver, and asked the switchboard operator — this was before direct dialing — for the police. “The operator keeps saying, ‘Do you want the town police or the village police? Do you want the town police or the village police?’ ” Citron recalls. “In my memory she said that for an hour, over and over.”
There is nothing in the old logbook about the call, Chief Larsen said. But, whatever was said over the phone, Lt. Richard Steele burst onto the scene in a matter of moments. There are some discrepancies in the news reporting, but it appears that the lieutenant was watching the house and heard Snookie’s bark and the screams. He chased the intruder, who went through a glass and screen door to escape. He lost sight of the masked man in the woods.
“Chief Leddy is quoted as stating that a check is being made of young men of the village who keep late hours,” The News-Review wrote.
The babysitters provided similar descriptions of the assailant; between 25 and 30 years old, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighing about 150 pounds with dark hair and a husky voice. He wore a bandanna mask, dark trousers, and a long-sleeved jacket. He wore shoes the second time. An artist drew a sketch at the request of Newsday, which reported hundreds of calls from readers, leading to a “key suspect.”
Newsday, the only daily serving eastern Long Island, reported the number-one suspect was a Suffolk man, a former mental patient, who had been charged in 1952 with the rape of a 17-year-old babysitter. He does not appear to have ever been arrested over the Citron affair.
In East Meadow that same summer, a masked bandit broke into a house where a 15-year-old girl was alone, and demanded money at knifepoint. Newsday reported at the time, “Although the intruder wore a polkadot bandana similar to one used by the East Hampton attacker, police suspected he was an imposter, trying to throw them off his track.”
Meanwhile, the investigation continued in East Hampton. A. Russell Richards, the chief investigator in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, said they were building a case. A dozen men, “picked from files of known and
suspected sex deviates, were questioned and released yesterday as police tried to narrow down the list of suspects,” Newsday wrote.
There was “some talk of a vigilante patrol,” Newsday reported, but police warned against it.
By the Aug. 25 issue of The Star, the story had drifted off the front page. A small article said no arrests had been made. “Cruel rumors have been flying about the village; some started as jokes. This is a very serious type of crime and it should not be the subject for joking, Police Chief Francis Leddy says. The police here are making every effort to solve this crime without hurting any innocent party.”
In the Sept. 1 issue of The Star, in a small front-page blurb under the headline No Evidence on Intruder, it was reported that Chief Leddy said possible suspects were being eliminated every few days. “Nothing so far has come even close.”
And news traveled. A note in the paper said The Star editor’s elder son, who was out on the West Coast, read about the attack in the Los Angeles paper “before he received any word of it from home.”
There were also some initial questions as to whether the first attack happened at all. “Chief Fritz Leddy said last night he had ‘doubts’ about the girl’s story because he believed she might have known her attacker and was trying to shield him,” a Newsday article said.
The door of a downstairs bedroom was smashed during the second incident.
For Christiane Citron, the incidents were never brought up again. “This was never talked about. and yet it was hugely traumatic for me,” she said. From a young age, she watched her younger siblings in that house and would be scared of what was beyond the glass doors. Any noise startled her.
She actually never knew the story of the first babysitter’s abduction, until she discovered a newspaper clipping as a teen. But the night the intruder confronted her and Bernice Hulse on the stair landing is etched in her memory. “I was scared to sleep in my room, needless to say, for many years,” she said.
While the family never spoke about what had happened with the babysitters, they did recall another incident exactly one year later. On Aug. 11, 1956, the family had piled into their car to drive another babysitter home to Springs, and were headed up Springs-Fireplace Road when a car passed them going fast on a curve and forced them off the road. When they caught up, the wreck had already occurred. The wheels were still turning. Jackson Pollock and a passenger were dead.
It was another traumatic experience, for the whole family, Citron says. Two days later, her mother rushed to the East Hampton clinic (which was where the Pantigo Road funeral home now stands). Christiane’s brother, Steven, was born at the clinic, a month early; her father attributed the premature birth, in a New York magazine article in 1993, to the shock of seeing the accident.
Despite all this, Citron says, these incidents were not representative of her life in East Hampton, in an era now long gone. She once wrote it was a life “of potato fields, puddle walks, and painters.”
She said she was grateful that Chief Larsen took an interest in her story and allowed her to sit with him and discuss the case. She found it therapeutic.
Chief Larsen, who has since retired, said last year that he had tracked down the first babysitter, but that she had died. He would not release her name: She has living relatives in the area, and he said there was no way to know if she ever even told them she had been raped. He did not want to be the one to tell them.
Hulse, the second babysitter, died in 2011. Chief Leddy and Lt. Steele are also long gone. Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr., who joined the force in 1958, just three years after the attacks, said he never heard about it until Citron’s visit in 2016.
Even though there are so many questions left unanswered, Citron said talking about it helped. “In a way it was as if I was imagining it, except of course I didn’t,” she said. “It was unprecedented before or since, and bizarre.”
Police said the statute of limitations is long past, but Citron is hoping someone might know something and come forward after reading this.
Steven Citron, the prime witness’s brother, in front of the family house on La Forest Lane around the time of the mysterious events. Photograph courtesy of Christiane Citron. At top: The sketch of the attacker wasn’t done by police but by Newsday, based on victims’ descriptions: “between 25 and 30 years old, about 5 feet six inches tall, weighing about 150 pounds with dark hair and a husky voice.”