Health Management

Inside the Hunt for the Gilgo Beach Serial Killer


They referred to as it the polygon.

Utilizing telephone data and a classy system that maps the attain of cell towers, a workforce of investigators had drawn the irregular form throughout a map of tree-lined streets within the Lengthy Island suburb of Massapequa Park. By 2021, the investigators had been in a position to shrink the polygon in order that it lined solely a number of hundred properties.

In a kind of properties, the investigators believed, lived a serial killer.

A decade earlier than, 11 our bodies had been discovered within the underbrush round Gilgo Seashore, a distant stretch of sand 5 miles away on the South Shore. 4 had been certain with tape or belts or wrapped in shrouds of camouflage-patterned burlap, the kind that hunters use for blinds. They’d labored as escorts and had gone lacking after going to fulfill a consumer.

Every, shortly earlier than she disappeared, had been involved with a special disposable cellphone. Investigators ultimately decided that through the workday, a few of the telephones had been in a small space of Midtown Manhattan close to Penn Station, and at evening they pinged within the polygon, mirroring the tidal actions of the 150,000 Long Island residents who head into Manhattan every day.

Final Friday, Suffolk County authorities introduced that they’d arrested a person who they believed had killed the 4 ladies: Rex Heuermann, a 59-year-old architect who had an workplace close to Penn Station and lived on a quiet road proper the place they’d anticipated to search out him. He was charged with three of the murders, to which he has pleaded not responsible, and was named because the prime suspect within the fourth.

The arrest ended years of anguish for a few of the victims’ households. However the investigation additionally raised an unsettling query: Might the authorities have solved the case years earlier?

The next account is drawn from a 32-page bail utility and interviews with present and former investigators and Suffolk County’s high regulation enforcement officers.

The case had unfolded fitfully over greater than a decade. Nevertheless it took a brand new police commissioner and his process pressure simply six weeks to uncover a vital clue within the sprawling case file.

Working underneath Commissioner Rodney Okay. Harrison, the core group of about 10 investigators was drawn from his division, the sheriff’s workplace, F.B.I. and State Police and labored intently with District Lawyer Ray Tierney of Suffolk County and his prosecutors.

They labored in a beige workplace, its partitions lined with maps, pictures and a large timeline, scouring their suspect’s digital and every day life — e-mail addresses, social media accounts, search historical past.

All of the whereas, Mr. Heuermann was looking out, too, asking Google the identical query that so lots of his neighbors had been asking one another for greater than a decade: “why hasn’t the lengthy island serial killer been caught?”

Choosing up the path of a serial killer is an distinctive problem. The killer usually has no private connection to the victims. If the victims lived on society’s margins, months or years can go by earlier than their disappearances are handled as critical issues — and even acknowledged because the work of a single assassin.

The conclusion {that a} serial killer was looking on Lengthy Island’s South Shore got here in December 2010, when a Suffolk County police officer, John Mallia, and his canine associate, a German shepherd named Blue, were searching for a 24-year-old woman named Shannan Gilbert, who had gone lacking within the space.

As a substitute, over a number of days they discovered 4 different our bodies close to Gilgo Seashore. They’d been positioned roughly 10 yards from Ocean Parkway, the principle east-west thoroughfare that traverses a barrier island off the South Shore. After they found the our bodies, investigators looked for proof close by with meticulous care — “sifting the sand like gold miners round every physique,” one investigator recalled.

Ms. Gilbert’s corpse and different stays, together with those who the authorities described as a person sporting ladies’s clothes and a toddler, could be discovered alongside the identical roadway over the next 12 months. The grisly discoveries riveted the area because the police speculated that the killings could be the work of multiple individual.

However the first 4 our bodies — all petite ladies of their 20s who had gone lacking within the earlier 4 years — appeared linked. Investigators surmised they’d been killed by the identical man, partially due to the way in which the our bodies have been wrapped and their proximity. And there was purpose to imagine {that a} witness might need gotten a take a look at the person.

The final of the 4 to vanish had been Amber Costello, a 27-year-old with a “Kaos” tattoo on her neck who marketed on Backpage and Craigslist. Shortly earlier than she was final seen in September 2010, a would-be consumer contacted her from a disposable cellphone and visited her on the West Babylon home she shared with three roommates, parking in her driveway, in accordance with court docket papers filed after Mr. Heuermann’s arrest. He drove a car with a particular look: SUV within the entrance, pickup within the again.

The motive force was simply as distinctive: hulking, in his 40s, with bushy darkish hair and Seventies-style eyeglasses. A witness described him as an ogre.

However as quickly because the would-be consumer paid Ms. Costello, a chaotic scene unfolded. A person “pretending to be the outraged boyfriend” rushed in, a part of a ruse to steal the cash, in accordance with the court docket papers.

Startled, the hulking man rushed out of the home.

He didn’t disappear for lengthy, although. He texted Ms. Costello asking for “credit score for subsequent time” and organized one other assembly, in accordance with the court docket papers. Ms. Costello was final seen alive the following evening strolling out of her residence, apparently to fulfill the person.

Not lengthy after, a witness reported seeing a darkish truck drive by.

The outline of the car within the driveway, a darkish, first-generation Chevrolet Avalanche, ended up tucked away within the case file, the authorities stated.

The actual fact apparently lay buried for years amongst a whole lot of 1000’s of pages of interviews; phone, journey and credit score data; and countless suggestions because the Suffolk County police division and district lawyer’s workplace endured years of turmoil.

James Burke, the swaggering police chief who had been working the division since 2012, was arrested in 2015 and later convicted on federal civil rights and obstruction of justice fees. He had crushed a suspect who had been arrested after stealing cigars and a bag containing pornography and intercourse toys from his sport utility car. The subsequent cover-up ensnared the district lawyer on the time, Thomas J. Spota, who additionally landed in jail.

The federal investigation into Suffolk County’s high lawmen spanned years through the Gilgo Seashore case, a interval throughout which each Mr. Burke and Mr. Spota had spurned assist from the F.B.I.

After Mr. Burke’s arrest, the brand new head of the Suffolk County police, Tim Sini, redoubled the division’s efforts. Mr. Sini, a former Manhattan federal prosecutor, targeted on monitoring the disposable cellphones, hoping there have been extra clues to be gleaned.

F.B.I. brokers in 2012 had already recognized the world the place protection from 4 cell towers overlapped in Massapequa Park. By mid-2016, Mr. Sini had secured a court docket order for “tower dumps” — data on each telephone that linked to explicit towers in a given window of time.

Know-how and software program had superior. And Mr. Sini had invested in a system that allowed investigators to “take the related areas,” as he told Newsday, and “shrink them to extraordinarily manageable areas.”

They whittled down the world to what they got here to name the polygon, which left them with a number of hundred properties round First Avenue in Massapequa Park, regulation enforcement officers stated.

A sample emerged from the disposable telephones used to contact the victims: Within the night, nighttime and predawn hours, some have been in a small space of Massapequa Park, an individual with information of the investigation stated. That’s additionally the place the telephone of 1 sufferer, Megan Waterman, was final logged at 3:11 a.m. on June 6, 2010, shortly earlier than she disappeared, in accordance with court docket papers.

Throughout the day, the telephones have been utilized in Midtown Manhattan

Amongst different communications that investigators scrutinized have been sadistic, taunting calls somebody constituted of the cellphone of 1 sufferer, Melissa Barthelemy, to her teenage sister shortly after she had disappeared in 2009. “Do you think you’ll ever speak to her again?” the individual had requested in bland, calm voice.

These calls have been additionally linked to cell towers close to Penn Station, the court docket papers stated.

For years, investigators regarded for suspects who labored in Manhattan and had lived within the polygon. The going was sluggish, and although investigators expressed optimism they might discover their man, they’d little to point out.

The large break got here in March 2022.

Simply weeks after the formation of the duty pressure, an investigator discovered the witness’s description of the Chevrolet Avalanche within the case file, authorities stated. Utilizing a database that may seek for autos by make and mannequin with out license-plate numbers, the investigator discovered an Avalanche linked to Mr. Heuermann in 2010, the 12 months Ms. Costello went lacking.

His title had by no means come up within the investigation as a suspect, officers stated. His bodily description matched that of the ogreish man who had rushed out of her home shortly earlier than she disappeared: He was 6-foot-4 and heavyset. His workplace was within the patch of Manhattan recognized by the delicate cellphone mapping.

And he lived in what investigators believed was their serial killer candy spot: the a part of Massapequa Park the place they’d begun drawing their polygon.

The Avalanche lead, stated Mr. Tierney, the district lawyer, had been “identified just about from the start.” Mr. Tierney, who took workplace in 2022, stated he didn’t know why investigators had not pursued it. He recommended that maybe the element hadn’t been deemed credible or had sunk in significance amid what appeared like extra promising leads.

“There are piles of proof,” he stated. “What’s credible, what’s not, what appears possible, what’s not — so it’s not so simple as it appears.”

However crimes are sometimes solved by monitoring down a car, and instances usually begin with a automobile description. David Berkowitz, referred to as Son of Sam and maybe the state’s most infamous serial killer, was arrested within the Seventies after the police discovered that he owned an illegally parked Ford Galaxie that had obtained a parking ticket close to one of many shootings.

Within the Gilgo Seashore investigation, the vital clue had fallen by means of the cracks.

“In the event that they knew about it then, a significant mistake was made in not monitoring down this automobile earlier,” stated Rob Trotta, a former Suffolk County detective and a present county legislator, who stated he expects to make an official inquiry into what occurred.

Dominick Varrone, the previous chief of detectives who oversaw the primary 12 months of the investigation, questioned whether or not the Avalanche clue had really been within the case file, however added, “I’ll really feel very, very badly if our workforce missed one thing.”

“I’ll inform you proper now: No suspect car was on our radar once I was nonetheless there,” he added.

When investigators did lastly hyperlink the Chevrolet Avalanche to Mr. Heuermann, the investigation entered its vital part. Investigators started exploring each facet of his life, utilizing 300 subpoenas and search warrants.

They examined his Tinder account and a number of other e-mail addresses — all fictitious names — that led to extra disposable telephones that Mr. Heuermann was utilizing to contact therapeutic massage parlors and girls working as escorts, the court docket papers stated. They discovered web searches for baby pornography.

The extra investigators discovered about Mr. Heuermann, the extra satisfied they have been.

A lot time had handed because the killings that exact locational knowledge from Mr. Heuermann’s private cellphone — registered to his architectural enterprise — now not existed. However his billing data confirmed the overall location of the telephone when calls have been made, the court docket papers stated, placing it in New York Metropolis across the identical time in 2010 that the merciless and taunting calls have been made on Ms. Barthelemy’s cellphone.

Investigators discovered that a number of of the murders had occurred when Mr. Heuermann’s spouse and youngsters have been out of city, in accordance with prosecutors. One coincided with a visit his spouse took to Iceland; one other occurred when she was in Maryland and a 3rd when she was in New Jersey.

However they’d nothing to place the burner telephones that had been involved with the victims in Mr. Heuermann’s arms.

Nor did they’ve any bodily or forensic proof straight linking him to the crimes.

That might quickly change.

Within the investigation’s early days, at the very least 5 hairs have been found on the victims or caught to the burlap or duct tape that enveloped them. They have been deemed unsuitable for detailed DNA evaluation.

Forensic science moved forward: Up to now three years, two exterior laboratories have been in a position to generate thorough DNA experiences, in accordance with court docket papers.

Now, investigators wanted genetic materials from Mr. Heuermann. Final July, an undercover detective rooted by means of his recycling for empty bottles. In January, he tossed a pizza field right into a sidewalk rubbish can exterior his workplace in Midtown. A surveillance workforce fished it out and the ragged crusts inside gave them what they wanted.

Investigators concluded that many of the hairs discovered on the victims have been more likely to have come from Mr. Heuermann’s spouse. One was a possible match for Mr. Heuermann himself.

One laboratory in contrast the DNA profile from the fifth hair to the genetic materials discovered on Mr. Heuermann’s pizza. It discovered sufficient markers in widespread to conclude that whereas 99.96 % of the inhabitants might be excluded as a match, Mr. Heuermann couldn’t, the authorities stated.

Mr. Tierney discovered of the ends in June.

He learn the report many times — maybe dozens of occasions, as if making an attempt to persuade his mind of what his eyes have been seeing.

Investigators believed they now had direct proof linking Mr. Heuermann to the killings.

However investigators knew one thing else: Mr. Heuermann was scouring the web for details about what they have been doing.

Web searches linked to his nameless accounts included greater than 200 queries prior to now 16 months about serial killers usually and the investigation into the Gilgo Seashore victims particularly. “Why may regulation enforcement not hint the calls made by the lengthy island serial killer” was only one.

Mr. Tierney had grown more and more nervous that extra victims would drop on his watch. He stated that Mr. Heuermann had been visiting therapeutic massage parlors — and contacting ladies working as escorts.

Mr. Tierney stated he was sleeping badly, bedeviled by stress and fear. Final week, he determined the case had reached a tipping level.

So on the night of July 13, detectives in fits and ties approached Mr. Heuermann after he walked out of his workplace constructing.

Mr. Heuermann, prosecutors stated, had methodically lined his tracks and intently monitored the investigation.

However when the detectives arrested Mr. Heuermann after greater than a dozen years of pursuit, Mr. Tierney stated, his response was easy and instinctive: real shock.

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