When the biggest story in years broke this month in the unsolved Long Island Serial Killer case, few noticed that an online community of crime buffs and two filmmakers sparked the revelation.
The news went national when local investigators reported to a federal database that a DNA match meant partial skeletal remains found on Ocean Parkway in 2011 belonged to an unidentified woman whose torso was discovered in Rockville Centre in 1997, which in turn confirmed the victim—dubbed “Peaches” because of her fruit tattoo—was the mother of the lone child recovered amid the carnage uncovered in the Gilgo Beach murders probe. It was widely reported to be the most significant update in the investigation since the last bodies were found. Although most reports omitted it, the story behind how this forensic clue was unearthed raises as many questions about the case as the news itself.
“Unfortunately, we’re playing catch up,” Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD cold case investigator told the Press while questioning why authorities didn’t announce Peaches’ link to Gilgo sooner. “We haven’t given her a name yet, but at least we have a connection.”
News of the link came on the week of the sixth anniversary of police finding the first of 10 murder victims along Ocean Parkway—11 for those that believe the missing woman authorities were looking for at the time, Shannan Gilbert, was also slain, although investigators have said they suspect she accidentally drowned in Oak Beach. Besides Gilbert, five of the victims have been identified. All five were last known to be sex workers.
Among the remains were a set of skeletal extremities in a plastic bag found in the brush at Jones Beach State Park in Nassau County on April 11, 2011. It was one of the last discoveries on Ocean Parkway amid a massive search sparked by the unearthing of four women in Gilgo Beach four months prior. The Jones Beach remains were dubbed Jane Doe No. 3 and confirmed via DNA to be the adult relative of the toddler found a week prior about seven miles east, across the county line near Cedar Beach in Suffolk, but the woman didn’t appear to be listed in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a federal database designed to help investigators and the public identify John and Jane Does.
“There just has to be at least an accurate accounting of these victims,” a man who uses the online pseudonym “Fieldnotes” on Websleuths, a popular online forum for true crime aficionados, was quoted as saying in episode three of The Killing Season, a docu-series about LISK and related cases that recently aired on A&E.
Fieldnotes is widely believed to be the first to bring attention to the fact that Jane Doe No. 3 wasn’t listed in NamUs. The English teacher and Massapequa native who asked that we not use his real name told the Press that he first learned of the omission while attending a vigil for the victims. He provided emails indicating that he first asked the NamUs in February 2013 why Jane Doe No. 3 wasn’t in the database—and continued pressing the issue for years.
Josh Zeman and Rachel Mills, the filmmakers that produced The Killing Season, sent the same question to the Nassau County Medical Examiner’s office last month to follow up on Fieldnotes’ observation. The Press sent similar queries to the Nassau ME earlier this month. Eric Smith, a forensic medical investigator in the Nassau ME’s office, confirmed Dec. 13 that the reason Jane Doe No. 3 didn’t appear to be in NamUs is because she was actually Peaches, but the Peaches file wasn’t clarified to reflect that until Dec. 8.
“It had always been our…belief that identifying the unidentified along Ocean Parkway would lead to a break in the case and we really believed that the Websleuths community could help do this,” Zeman said.
Webslueths’ owner, Tricia Griffith, and longtime website moderator Deb Smith, who goes by the handle Bessie, confirmed that Fieldnotes was the first to bring attention to Jane Doe No. 3’s omission from NamUs. They pointed to it as an example of how the site can help advance investigations.
“There are still police departments that look at us as annoying and interfering,” Griffith said, “and others see the potential and understand Webslueths is an amazing tool that they can use.”
A Suffolk police spokesman told the Press that the news on Peaches “was not a revelation” to their detectives. Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini told Newsday that the department knew of the link for two years. Asked why there was a delay in releasing information that could potentially help identify Peaches and her child, dubbed Baby Doe, both Nassau police and the Nassau medical examiner’s office declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
“There must be a reason why this was not made public,” Zeman said, theorizing that Peaches’ mutilation suggests that she and her child could have died at the hands of the same killer that similarly dismembered three other Ocean Parkway victims whose partial remains were also found scattered on Fire Island and in Manorville over the past 20 years. Authorities have said they believe there is two or more killers that used Ocean Parkway as a dumping ground.
Todd Matthews, a spokesman for NamUs, and Dr. Michael Caplan, the chief Suffolk County Medical Examiner, noted that it’s not unusual for found partial remains to be linked via DNA with a previously discovered victim. Matthews doubted that investigators intentionally withheld the information. Giacalone, the former cold case investigator, said that if the information was intentionally held back by authorities, it wasn’t a wise move.
“To me, there would be no investigatory reason to withhold that information,” he said. “It would actually benefit Nassau to get that information out there, because at least their clearance rates would improve.”
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All involved expressed hope that the revelation will help detectives learn the identity of Peaches and Baby Doe. Both the extremities and Baby Doe were found with similar gold jewelry.
“If we can ID any of the unidentified, I think that can be the biggest step in the next big break in the case,” said Mills, the filmmaker.
Zeman wondered aloud why the update came now. Was it because the anniversary of the case drew increased interest? Because a recently enacted New York State law requiring coroners to post information on unidentified deceased persons into NamUs? Or because so many people were asking about Jane Doe No. 3?
“At some point you have to ask yourself, does revealing the fact that there’s a serial killer in both Nassau County and Suffolk County, do the police have a requirement to release that to the public?” Zeman asked. “To somehow say that this is only an issue for sex workers continues to marginalize them. They are human beings and part of the public and therefore this is a public safety issue.”