NEW YORK — More than 13 years since police recovered 11 sets of human remains of mostly young women on the South Shore of Long Island, a multi-agency task force arrested Rex Heuermann, 59, an architect from Massapequa Park on Long Island with the murders of Melissa Barthelemy, 24; Amber Lynn Costello, 27; and Megan Waterman, 22.
Heuermann, who pleaded not guilty to the charges on Friday, is also a “prime suspect” in the murder of a fourth woman, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, according to Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney, although that investigation is ongoing.
Together, the women are known as the Gilgo Beach Four. The skeletal remains of the four women were discovered while police searched for a missing woman, Shannan Gilbert, whose body was ultimately discovered in a marsh near Oak Beach in 2011.
The majority of the victims were known sex workers, many of whom advertised their services on Craigslist. Police determined that most of the identified victims died by strangulation.
Prior to Heuermann’s arrest, the investigation into the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK) had made little progress but instead fueled rampant speculation about the killer and police corruption, as well as spawning a cottage industry of documentaries, podcasts and amateur true-crime investigators.
But a change in police brass along with the formation of a task force and development of new leads, evidence and advances in DNA technology led to the suspect’s arrest and the hope that police will be able to bring closure for the rest of the victims and their families in the difficult, complex homicide investigation.
At a press conference on Friday, Tierney detailed how the arrest of Heuermann came about.
“The women went missing between July 2007 and September 2010 and their bodies were found in 2010 by the Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD) and then there was nothing. Absolutely nothing for the next 13 years. Their cases went unsolved, until today,” he said.
He said that when he took office in January of last year, he made Gilgo a “priority,” adding that he met with some of the victim’s families, telling them the case would be handled differently.
Tierney, along with Suffolk Police Commissioner, put together last year a multi-agency task force comprised of investigators from the FBI, New York State Police, Suffolk County Police Department Homicide Squad, Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office and the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office to take a renewed look at finding the suspect or suspects responsible for the murders.
Noting that the person responsible for the murders would be “looking at them,” he said the secrecy of the Grand Jury was very important to preserve the integrity of the case.
“On March 14th, just six weeks after the creation of the task force, the name Rex Heuermann was first mentioned as a suspect in the case,” Tierney explained.
He went on to detail the evidence, noting that the bodies were buried similarly. Tierney was also careful to not label the women as “sex workers,” although he did say that “all the women did the same thing for a living.” He also added that burlap camouflage, used by hunters, was used to bind the women and also to conceal their bodies.
The suspect, said Tierney, used “burner phones,” which are prepaid, anonymous cell phones that are difficult to track.
“Then, after the death of each victim, he (the suspect) disposed of the phones,” Tierney said, noting that police began analyzing cell phone data which led them to cell towers near the suspect’s house in Massapequa Park as well as where his office was located in midtown Manhattan.
The evidence, Tierney said, included hair samples recovered from several women. He said advanced DNA analysis wasn’t available at the time the bodies were discovered in 2010 but later, newer techniques such as Mitochondrial DNA testing, were used to help tie Heuermann to the victims.
Heuermann’s vehicle, an older Chevy Avalanche, was also identified by investigators with the help of a witness who recalled it from a meeting with Amber Costello.
Other things that helped investigators included taunting calls that the suspect made to a victim’s family member while near his office in Manhattan, as well as several DNA samples, including one taken from a pizza crust that had been discarded. That DNA would ultimately match to a hair sample recovered from one of the victims.
“The Gilgo task force put together more in a year than in the previous 10 years combined,” said Joe Giacalone, a retired NYPD sergeant who ran the Bronx Cold Case Squad and now is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
Giacalone, who also serves as a board member of the Murder Accountability Project, a group that tracks unsolved homicides nationally, added, “It goes to show you, that when you have motivated investigators and experienced leadership, you can move mountains. Commissioner Rodney Harrison and DA Ray Tierney have not only fulfilled part of their promise with this case, they have established honor and credibility to the offices they hold.”
Sherre Gilbert, sister of Shannan, told NBC News, “It’s been a long time coming, and I never gave up hope that one day justice would be served.”
She added, “I’m just happy it happened sooner rather than later. The suspect (Rex) deserves to rot in prison for the rest of his life. He destroyed many lives, so while it won’t bring our loved ones back, it does help that one less monster is off the streets, and he can’t ever hurt anyone else!”
“Finally, something has been done. Finally, someone has been caught,” attorney John Ray told CBS News on Friday. Ray represents the family of Shannan Gilbert and Jessica Taylor.
Near Heuermann’s home in Massapequa Park, Tara Alonso said he was a frequent customer at the local Whole Foods where she worked at. “He was weird, very strange,” she said. “He used to steal our oranges from kid’s corner. Really crazy.”
One of Heuermann’s neighbors, who gave his name as Bob, said he rarely saw Heuermann and didn’t really know much about him or his run-down house at 105 First Ave. “I did notice there were Verizon crews here in the last couple of weeks,” he said, possibly part of police efforts to analyze cell phone data.
At this time, Heuermann has not been charged in connection to other, possibly connected cases including that of Shannan Gilbert, who reportedly was also a Craigslist sex worker and whose case continues to be disputed by police as being among the victims of the Gilgo killer.
The SCPD has continued to say that her death was “not consistent with her being the victim of violence or a violent offender.”
Police accounts say Gilbert, while working as an escort off Craigslist, had visited a client at an Oak Beach home on May 1, 2010. Following a dispute, Gilbert reportedly fled on foot into the Oak Beach community and knocked on several doors before disappearing.
While the SCPD calls Gilbert’s death an “unfortunate accident,” it says it will continue to evaluate any information surrounding Gilbert’s death.
An autopsy conducted by well-known pathologist Dr. Michael Baden was “inconclusive” for a definite cause of death yet consistent with “homicidal strangulation.”
But Long Island-based attorney Johnathan Ray, who represents the estate of the Gilbert family in an ongoing wrongful death suit against former Oak Beach resident Dr. Peter Hackett, isn’t satisfied with the SCPD’s investigation thus far.
“We were utterly unimpressed with the SCPD’s press conference when Shannon’s 911 call was released showing convoluted portions of the call,” he said, referring to the call’s release in May 2022.
“The call was designed to support their (SCPD’s) original, absurd theory that somehow Shannon died an accidental death, so we didn’t accept that.”
The lawsuit, filed against Hackett in 2012, is still pending today although some parts of it have been dismissed.
“The case against Dr. Hackett is for the wrongful death of Shannon Gilbert and for malpractice,” said Ray, adding “We’re saying he’s responsible for her death.”
Part of the suit against Hackett, who moved to Fort Myers, FL, shortly after Gilbert was found, alleges that Gilbert spoke to Hackett on the night in question. The suit alleges that Hackett administered Gilbert narcotics, saying that she had been distressed, and then released her from his care.
Moreover, while Gilbert’s death is not linked officially to the Gilgo Beach investigation, it is one of seven or more additional homicides in New York State, dating back to the 1980s, that may be connected to the case.
Other confirmed victims in the case include Jessica Taylor, Valerie Mack, the unidentified remains of an Asian male, skeletal remains of a female toddler, her mother who police identified as “Peaches,” whose remains were found in 1997 inside a container in Hempstead Lake Park and finally, the still unidentified remains dubbed “Fire Island Jane Doe,” first found in 1996 near Davis Park on Fire Island as well as near Tobay Beach, a stone’s throw from Gilgo, in 2011.
Mind of a Killer
Before Heuermann’s arrest, several experts weighed in on the mindset of a serial killer.
“The suspect is of higher intelligence and able to interact well with others,” said John Delatorre, an Austin, TX-based forensic psychologist with Resolution Forensic and Consultation Services.
Delatorre, who is a frequent commentator for Court TV and Law & Crime Trial Network, says a likely motive for the killer was more about “power” over someone’s life than about sex.
He added that the killer’s gratification could have been due to some type of sex deviancy or just as a means to get control.
Dr. Louis Schlesinger, a professor of forensic psychology with John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC, who specializes in the study of ritual and signature in serial sexual homicides, has his own theory on the Gilgo killer.
“For serial-sexual murderers like the BTK killer and the Boston strangler, killing itself is sexually gratifying… It’s very hard for people to understand sexual murder,” said Dr. Schlesinger. “It’s a fusion of sexual gratification with aggression… Killing alone is sexually sufficient, but the arousal pattern is deviant, so there’s strong incentive to do it again.”
Describing the mindset of a serial killer, Schlesinger noted that the underlying personality is anti-social and narcissistic, yet they have a pathology that can often enable them to elude law enforcement.
Yet, he pointed out that sometimes these killers are given credit for being smarter than they actually are.
“Americans want their serial killers to be evil geniuses, with IQs of 500… but nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “Even the very few who had education, such as Ted Bundy, don’t use their intelligence in any productive way.”
Before Heuermann’s Arrest
The SCPD had faced an enormous amount of criticism for their handling of the Gilgo investigation.
The criticism, which ranged from an overall lack of transparency to allegations of corruption and a cover-up, has come from many directions, including from victim’s family members, their advocates as well as politicians, members of the media and even web sleuths and true-crime amateur investigators.
However, in recent years, the department had made strides in helping to move the investigation forward.
In 2021, former NYPD Chief of Department Rodney Harrison took over as Suffolk County’s Police commissioner, and he listed solving the Gilgo Beach murders as one of his top priorities.
Last year, Harrison along with Tierney, formed the task force that would ultimately help identify Heuermann as a prime suspect.
But, in 2017, a prosecutor with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, Robert Biancavilla, suggested a Manorville carpenter convicted of two cold case murders could be linked to the Gilgo killings. John Bittrolff was convicted in September 2017 of killing two sex workers, found in Manorville, in 1993 and 1994. He was sentenced to 50 years to life for the murders of Rita Tangredi and Colleen McNamee.
Biancavilla told the Associated Press at the time that “there are remains of the victims at Gilgo that may be attributed to the handiwork of Mr. Bittrolff and that investigation is continuing.”
Zenger News reached out to Bittrolff, who is incarcerated at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY, for comment on the case. He did not respond.
However, a woman claiming to be a private investigator, Patricia Burton, said in an email, that she had been working on the case for “11 years and that the Gilgo murders were carried out by more than one person.”
She also claimed, without any proof, that Bittrolff is not guilty of the murders he was convicted of or responsible for any of the Gilgo killings.
She said, “Until all the pieces are put together, your haphazard allegations will do nothing but cause further harm to a family that, in my opinion, has been accused unjustly.” Burton provided no further information, and it is unclear exactly what her connection is to Bittrolff.
Other notable persons of interest include James Burke, the former Suffolk County Police Chief. Burke is one reason why some have accused the department of a cover-up. Burke reportedly blocked the FBI from the Gilgo probe during his tenure as chief. In addition, he was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison in 2016 for assault and conspiracy related to a suspect whose rights were violated while in custody.
Further, in 2016, Ray held a press conference during which an escort who said her name was “Leanne,” stated that she had seen Burke at a party in Oak Beach in 2011 and that she was paid for sex by Burke at that party. Ray told the Long Island Press that this was the first time a connection had been made between Burke, prostitution and Oak Beach. He called the connection “significant.” In addition, the Press had reported that “Burke had been documented to have patronized sex workers.”
Despite being cleared of any wrongdoing by police, Dr. Peter Hackett continues to be a name that surfaces as part of the investigation into the Gilgo Beach killings with Ray insisting that Hackett is connected to Gilbert’s death.
Before Heuermann’s arrest, the most recent lead in the case involved the FBI seeking relatives and friends of a dead man from Mobile, AL, Elijah Wood. Police believe the man may be connected to “Jane Doe number three” known to police as “Peaches,” and her female toddler. Mobile police posted a message on their Facebook page in October of last year, seeking the public’s help in identifying relatives of Mr. Wood.
Former New York State Senator Phil Boyle, who left office last year, sought answers on the LISK case from various officials in 2021.
Boyle, who also pushed for the state’s use of genetic genealogy testing to help identify victims in the Gilgo case and other major crimes, had sent letters to current Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, former Suffolk police commissioner Stuart Cameron and current New York Attorney General Letitia James.
“I had asked Bellone why he didn’t fire Burke when he was the police chief?,” Boyle said, adding that Bellone could’ve fired Burke at any time.
He said Burke should’ve never been named police commissioner to begin with, given his record of involvement with prostitutes.
“As expected,” he said, “I did not receive any response from Steve Bellone or from Stuart Cameron.”
AG Letitia James did respond, however, saying that she couldn’t launch her own investigation, and it would have to be referred to her by the governor or another state entity. Boyle was unable to make the reference.
Boyle said that while James couldn’t pursue an investigation, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo could have and did not, and Bellone also could have but had “no interest.”
Boyle explained that he felt that when Burke was Suffolk’s chief, it was like “three lost years,” and very little was done on the case. “Any investigation is hurt when leads aren’t acted on immediately.”
Giacalone’s comments on the investigation just a few months ago now seem even more prescient.
“I’d concentrate on the Gilgo four first,” said Giacalone. “It can likely be said they (Gilgo four) were all killed by the same suspect… They were also closest to the actual killer,” he said, adding that the other victims are very far removed from the killer, in terms of years.”
Giacalone said that looking at 10 or 11 cases at a time is too much, from a cold case investigative angle. He reiterated that he would tackle the Gilgo four first and focus on them to see what that can lead to, possibly to help solve the other cases. “I would work the hell out of the first four.”
Allure of an unsolved serial killer case
The case has spawned a variety of documentaries, podcasts, books and television programs that have attempted to chronicle the case and its various twists and turns. And now, with a suspect in custody, the list will likely only grow.
Some of the more high profile projects include The Killing Season, a TV series which debuted on A&E in 2016; Lost Girls, a mystery drama broadcast on Netflix in 2020 and based on the book Lost Girls, written by Robert Kolker in 2013 as well as The LISK podcast, Unraveled: Long Island Serial Killer podcast and Grim Tide podcast.
There are also numerous web sleuths online, such as websleuths.com, a discussion board and those who engage on an LISK Reddit thread, that continue to talk about the case..
Push for a permanent memorial
A recent drive out to Gilgo Beach reveals that all the makeshift memorials have long since been taken down.
But there is now a petition circulating online to build a permanent memorial for the victims of the Long Island Serial Killer. The petition, which now has 700 signatures , seeks to build the memorial along Ocean Parkway in Gilgo Beach, near where the victims were found.
The petition’s organizer, Sara Ferro, writes, “We have secured the support of local Long Island political figures, family members and dedicated followers who care deeply about justice in the case of these women and men who have had their lives taken from them.”
Some petition signers have posted reasons including “the victims deserve to be remembered and honored,” and “I’m signing because a dedicated memorial is the right thing for Suffolk County to do to make amends for the decades-long delayed justice.”