The Gilgo Beach Killings Were A True Crime Mystery. Here’s What We Know.

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Friday’s announcement that police had made an arrest in the infamous Long Island serial killings was shocking not just because of the incredible development in a cold case but also because the suspect — like those at the center of so many recent high-profile cases — lived an unassuming life near his victims, had no known history of violent crime, was seemingly successful and presumably didn’t raise alarm bells among his family and friends.

Despite numerous podcasts, books and films about the killings — and hordes of citizen sleuths speculating on message boards and social media — the case had remained unsolved since the December 2010 discovery of the bodies of Melissa Barthelemy, 24, Amber Lynn Costello, 27, Megan Waterman, 22, and Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, who died in the summers of 2009 and 2010.

So what led investigators to surround and arrest 59-year-old architect Rex Heuermann on Thursday as he strolled down Fifth Avenue after leaving his Manhattan office at 8:30 p.m.? Authorities on Friday revealed how a task force combed through evidence over the last year, and on Monday they continued to seek any potential connections to the killings in personal belongings — which included, per police, more than 200 firearms — at his Massapequa Park home and storage units in the area. So far, Heuermann has pleaded not guilty to six charges in connection with the deaths of three women.

As police continue to unspool crime scene tape near Heuermann’s home and other areas of interest, here’s what we know about the “Gilgo Four” investigation — and the many questions we have about the unsolved deaths of at least seven other people, many of them unidentified, whose remains have been found in desolate areas of Long Island.

The
The “Gilgo Four” victims are seen in a combination of handouts from the Suffolk County Police Department, April 6, 2011.

REUTERS/Suffolk County Police Department/Handout

What the Gilgo Beach victims had in common: The four women, all of whom were petite and in their 20s, were sex workers who advertised on Craigslist. Their skeletal remains were found within hundreds of feet of each other buried in the thick underbrush alongside the remote Ocean Highway, each almost equidistant from the road. All had been strangled and were “missing clothes and personal possessions,” according to prosecutors in a bail application. They had all been bound at their heads, chest and legs with belts or tape, and three of the women’s bodies were wrapped in a burlap material.

Burlap: Early reporting that the victims had been bound in burlap had taken on a life of its own, with people believing it to be the kind of burlap used in nurseries, Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney said in a news conference following Heuermann’s arraignment Friday. At the news conference, he specified for the first time that it was a camouflage burlap, like that used for duck blinds and hunting. “Obviously it was used to purposely hide the bodies,” he said.

The Gilgo Beach Homicide Investigation Task Force: According to a 32-page bail application released on Friday, an interagency task force — comprising the police department and sheriff’s office of Suffolk County along with the FBI and other investigators, analysts and prosecutors — was convened in January 2022 and zeroed in on a suspect on March 14, 2022, which Tierney called a “watershed day” for the investigation. Before the task force started its work, the investigation had languished for 13 years, drawing widespread criticism for the police department’s failure to investigate when the women were first reported missing, their disappearances seemingly dismissed because they were sex workers. Changes in staff and leadership, cronyism, corruption and agency siloing all seemed to play a role in the case growing cold, issues that were highlighted in podcasts such as “Unraveled” and “LISK: Long Island Serial Killer.”

James Burke, a former Suffolk County police chief, forced out detectives who were working on the case when he took office in 2012, blocked the FBI from continuing to assist in the investigation and had been the subject of an internal affairs investigation because of his relationship with a sex worker in the 1990s. In 2015, Burke pleaded guilty to beating a prisoner, Christopher Loeb, while he was handcuffed and shackled to the floor because Loeb had stolen sex toys and porn DVDs from Burke’s police car. Burke was sentenced to almost four years in prison. Thomas J. Spota, then the Suffolk County district attorney, and one of his top prosecutors were also sentenced to five years in prison for their role in covering up the assault on Loeb.

Tierney said he aimed to make changes when he took over the DA’s office in January 2022. “I made Gilgo a priority,” he told reporters Friday. “I made Gilgo a priority before I took office. I met with the victims’ families, some of whom I’m proud to have standing with us today, and I told them that we were going to handle this case differently.”

A map shows the location of human remains found along Ocean Parkway in Suffolk County.
A map shows the location of human remains found along Ocean Parkway in Suffolk County.

Suffolk County Police

The Chevrolet Avalanche: On March 14, in what Tierney called a “significant break in the case,” investigators found that Heuermann was the registered owner of a first-generation Chevrolet Avalanche pickup truck, a type of vehicle police believed had been driven by Costello’s killer. The truck, distinctive because of an angular frame behind its second-row seats connecting to a flatbed cover, was seen at Costello’s house on two successive nights: Sept. 1 and 2, 2010. On the first night, a witness allegedly told police, Costello had tricked a client into paying without sex by having someone posing as an outraged boyfriend barge in and persuade him to leave. Somehow the client convinced Costello not only to see him again the next night but also to leave with him to avoid encountering anyone else, prosecutors said.

He looked like an “ogre”: The witness, who last saw Costello walking toward an Avalanche, compared her client to an ogre, saying he was very tall (6 feet, 4 inches to 6 feet, 6 inches) in his mid-40s with “dark bushy hair” and wearing big “1970s-type” oval eyeglasses, according to prosecutors. Heuermann is 6 feet, 4 inches and heavyset, he would’ve been around 46 years old in 2010 and, as Tierney bluntly said in a news conference following Heuermann’s arraignment, “he matched the description of the ogre.” Megan Waterman’s sister, Allie Pertel, told ABC News, “I was honestly very shocked because he doesn’t look like the monster that he is. But hearing details from the day, I guess he really was a monster.”

Cellphone data: Once the task force found Heuermann had owned a Chevy Avalanche, they obtained his cellphone billing records, which they said they connected to burner phones used to contact all four women whose bodies were found on Gilgo Beach. He bought a new burner phone to communicate with each of his victims, Tierney said, and discarded it after their deaths. Using cell site data, police said they were able to show that the burner phones were in the same area as the victims and Heuermann’s personal cellphone, and that the burner calls originated in locations near Heuermann’s office in Midtown Manhattan and his home in Massapequa Park.

Rex Heuermann
Rex Heuermann

Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office

“Taunting” phone calls: Authorities said Heuermann used Barthelemy’s phone five times to call her family after her death. According to Robert Kolker, who interviewed the families in 2011 for New York magazine, an article that he followed with “Lost Girls,” a book about the case, the caller spoke to Barthelemy’s teen sister Amanda, calling her a “half-breed” and Barthelemy a “whore,” and, in his last call in August 2009, telling her he had sexually assaulted and killed Barthelemy. Both Barthelemy’s and Brainard-Barnes’ phones were used to check their voicemail after their disappearances, authorities said, and location data said those calls were made in the same area as Heuermann’s phone.

“Significantly, investigators could find no instance where Heuermann was in a separate location from these other cellphones when such a communication event occurred,” prosecutors said in the bail application.

Heuermann’s wife: Investigators also obtained cellphone records for Heuermann’s wife, which they said showed that she was out of New York — in Iceland, Maryland and New Jersey — when Barthelemy, Waterman and Costello disappeared. Her phone records, however, were not available for 2007, when Brainard-Barnes went missing and was found killed.

DNA: Unfortunately, Heuermann’s wife was directly tied to the case, even though police don’t believe she had anything to do with the crimes. Strands of female Caucasian hair not belonging to the victims were found on or near the bindings used to restrain Brainard-Barnes, Waterman and Costello, but DNA analysis was limited at the time the hair was collected. In July 2022, investigators sent swab samples from bottles “left out for collection” in front of the Heuermann’s house for DNA profiling. The results, which were provided between February and June 2023, showed a virtual match between Heuermann’s wife’s DNA and the hairs found on Waterman and Costello.

A DNA profile was also created in July 2020 for a white male’s hair recovered from the bottom of the burlap used to wrap Costello’s body. After investigators discovered the Avalanche belonging to Heuermann and connected his cellphone records to the victims, a surveillance team removed a pizza box from the trash can where they’d seen him discard it. Swabs of the pizza crust were determined by DNA analysts to be a match for the male hair found on Costello’s restraints, prosecutors said.

“Sadistic” phone searches: Through searches of Heuermann’s phone and banking data, investigators were able to link him to burner phones, emails and online accounts created using fake names, according to the bail application.

Through this data, police were also able to see his internet history, which they said included thousands of searches for “sadistic, torture-related pornography” and child sexual abuse images. The searches specify ages, ethnicities, and hair and eye color alongside acts of sexual violence.

His searches also allegedly included names of the victims, their family members and other details about the Long Island serial killer case.

Authorities said the online records showed that Heuermann had continued to hire sex workers, had a Tinder profile and shared selfies — photos that are included in the bail application — “to solicit and arrange for sexual activity” even after investigators had identified him as a primary target. This could possibly explain why they moved forward with an arrest without charging him for the killing of Brainard-Barnes, noting in the bail application that “there is substantial evidence” against him and that “he is the prime suspect in her death and the investigation, which is continuing and is expected to be resolved soon.”

Crime laboratory officers removes boxes as law enforcement searches the home of Rex Heuermann on July 15, 2023, in Massapequa Park, New York. Heuermann, a Long Island architect, was charged Friday with murder in the deaths of three of the 11 victims in a long-unsolved string of killings known as the Gilgo Beach murders.
Crime laboratory officers removes boxes as law enforcement searches the home of Rex Heuermann on July 15, 2023, in Massapequa Park, New York. Heuermann, a Long Island architect, was charged Friday with murder in the deaths of three of the 11 victims in a long-unsolved string of killings known as the Gilgo Beach murders.

Jeenah Moon/AP Photo

Search warrants: Meanwhile, investigators continue to search for additional evidence at Heuermann’s home and a self-storage facility. In his basement, they found between 200 and 300 guns — Tierney had previously said Heuermann had permits for 92 firearms — in a “walled-off vault behind a locked metal door,” a source told CNN, including pistols, revolvers and semiautomatic rifles. Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison referred to the collection as an “arsenal” in an interview with Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade on Monday.

“Significant and stronger leads”? In a statement released on Monday, Heuermann’s lawyer Michael Brown highlighted his client’s professional credentials and devotion to his family, saying investigators were wrongly targeting his client and ignoring other evidence. “Rex Heuermann is 59 years old with no prior criminal history,” Brown said. “He is a college graduate and is a hardworking licensed architect who has his own NYC firm. He is a loving husband to his wife of over 25 years and an involved and dedicated father to his daughter and stepson. He has entered a not guilty plea and has insisted he did not commit these crimes. There is nothing about Mr. Heuermann that would suggest that he is involved in these incidents. And while the government has decided to focus on him despite more significant and stronger leads, we are looking forward to defending him in a court of law before a fair and impartial jury of his peers.”

Shannan Gilbert: Although police do not consider the May 1, 2010, disappearance and death of Shannan Gilbert to be related to the “Gilgo Four” or other killings in the area, her mother’s dogged pursuit of justice for her daughter has been widely publicized. Shannan, like the four other women, was a sex worker who advertised on Craigslist, and “Lost Girls,” the recent Netflix docudrama based on Kolker’s book, was framed around her case. Gilbert made a frantic 911 call from her wealthy client’s home, but investigators dragged their heels on even considering her a missing person because of her sex work. Even though her disappearance predated the other women’s, her remains weren’t found until December 2011, a year after the Gilgo Four were discovered, after police drained a marsh where she was last seen. Police maintained after her body was found that her death was accidental, a result of exposure or drowning after she got lost when running away from her client’s house. Their position doesn’t seem to have changed since then: A website dedicated to the Gilgo Beach homicide investigation states, “While the department is of the opinion that Shannan’s death was an unfortunate accident, the department will continue to evaluate any information that the public may have to help determine a definitive cause of death in this case.”

In this Dec. 8, 2011 photo, investigators use a backhoe to dig while searching for Shannan Gilbert's body in different sectors of a marsh area just east of Oak Beach, New York.
In this Dec. 8, 2011 photo, investigators use a backhoe to dig while searching for Shannan Gilbert’s body in different sectors of a marsh area just east of Oak Beach, New York.

Kevin P Coughlin via AP

The other bodies: Police said they have not excluded Heuermann as being involved in the deaths of other people whose remains were found in the area in 2010 and 2011, including two sex workers, a toddler and an Asian man.

“Even with this arrest, we’re not done,” Harrison said at Friday’s news conference. “Since we discovered the first victim, there’s been a lot of scrutiny and criticism regarding how this investigation was handled. I will tell you this: The investigators were never discouraged. They continued and uncovered evidence and followed leads. We’ll never stop working and will continue to work tirelessly until we bring justice to all the families as well. Last but not least, I’m going to thank my predecessors who came before me for the work that they did. I want to thank them for really laying the foundation to help us get to here today.”

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