The Gilgo Beach serial killer’s calls taunting the victim’s family once sparked speculation that he may be skilled at evading investigators, but authorities say the taunts ultimately helped police crack the case.
When news broke in 2011 that the killer phoned in vulgar insults to the younger sister of Melissa Barthelemy — the first of the four victims found in Gilgo Beach in December 2010 — the fact that the calls were made from the victim’s cell phone in busy Midtown Manhattan led to widespread reports that the assailant may be familiar with investigative techniques and purposely kept the calls short to avoid detection. After a grand jury indicted Rex Heuermann for the murders of Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, and Amber Costello, however, investigators said cell tower data from those and other calls were among the key pieces of evidence that led to his arrest. Those and other pieces of evidence suggest the suspect defies the myth of the super-intelligent serial killer, as witnesses and investigators instead describe him as an easily-duped, impulsive ogre.
“The media has created a number of fictional serial killer ‘geniuses,’ who outsmart law enforcement at every turn,” members of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit — the team that includes criminal profilers who help local law enforcement with major cases nationwide and assisted with the Gilgo case — wrote in a report. “Like other populations, however, serial killers range in intelligence from borderline to above-average levels.”
The Silence of The Lambs portrays Hannibal Lecter — arguably the most infamous fictional serial killer — as highly intelligent and charming while the TV series Dexter’s titular character is billed as a genius forensic expert with a double life as a vigilante who kills criminals. In reality, Long Island’s most recent serial killers have not lived up to the Hollywood hype: Robert Shulman was a crack-addicted postal worker from Hicksville and Joel Rifkin was a learning-disabled landscaper from East Meadow. Both were caught in the 1990s after fumbling their coverups.
Like Shulman and Rifkin, Heuermann allegedly killed sex workers with the belief that they are easy targets, but the former anonymously found their victims on the streets, while Heuermann contacted his victims via online ads, leaving digital clues for law enforcement to follow, authorities say.
In Heuermann’s case, prosecutors said the 59-year-old commercial architect and married father of two used at least seven different so-called burner phones — prepaid, anonymous cell phones with no billing records identifying the user — and disposed of the devices after each of the three murders with which he was charged and pleaded not guilty to. But just because the burner phones have no name attached doesn’t mean there are no records of evidentiary value that trace back to the users of such devices.
“Right away, in December of 2012 … special agents with the [Cellular Analysis Survey Team] CAST Unit of the FBI, they immediately began looking at that cell site data and compared the victims’ phones with the burner phones and they immediately honed in on some serious similarities, specifically in the Massapequa Park area,” Suffolk County District Ray Tierney told reporters after personally convincing Judge Richard Ambro to hold Heuermann withhold bail. (Ambro cited the “extreme depravity.”). “They realized that this had significance because the perpetrator of these crimes was probably located within this area during, at or around the time of the murders. And that was called ‘the box.’”
It turned out that the Midtown calls were made within walking distance of Heuermann’s office, which the FBI mapped as a secondary cell site ‘box.’ Heuermann also kept the cell phone of Maureen Brainard-Barnes — a fourth Gilgo victim whose death Heuermann hasn’t yet been charged with, but is considered the prime suspect — that pinged cell sites in both boxes, according to court documents. Heuermann repeatedly checked her voicemail from the victim’s phone, the records show.
In addition, Heuermann was found to have taken selfies with his burner phones — photos that clearly show the 6-foot, 4-inch tall, 240-pound brown-haired Heuermann with his 1970s-style eyeglasses. He also continued using burners to the date of his arrest to “to conduct thousands of searches related to sex workers, sadistic, torture-related pornography and child pornography,” records show, with dozens of graphic search terms listed in court documents. Hundreds of searches over a 14-month span for information on the status of the investigation were found as well — prosecutors even highlighted in court files the Press‘ reporting on the probe as among Heuermann’s reading material. He has properties in South Carolina and Las Vegas, as well as permits for 92 guns, prosecutors added.
If he is convicted, it wouldn’t be the first case of local note in which cell tower triangulation proved to be key evidence. Former Suffolk County Conservative Party Chair Ed Walsh was found guilty of wire fraud and theft of government services in 2016 with a case federal authorities built with the help of cell phone data.
Heuermann’s lawyer, Michael Brown, said they just learned about the charges Friday morning. Speaking to reporters after the arraignment, he said Heuermann told him through tears: “I didn’t do this.” Brown called the evidence “circumstantial.” In court, Heuermann, wore the same gray collared shirt and khakis that he was seen wearing in a video of him being arrested Thursday night in Manhattan — but he didn’t speak beyond confirming his identity to Ambro.
Although investigators had the cell sites to narrow down the pool of suspects, the phones alone didn’t lead to Heuermann’s undoing. He was also scammed by one victim, resulting in eyewitness identification that proved pivotal in his indictment.
Amber Lynn Costello, who was the last of the four Gilgo Beach victims to be killed, invited him into her West Babylon home — and scared him off with a ruse in which her friend pretended to be her irate boyfriend. She then pocketed the money Heuermann left behind before she ever had a chance to perform any sex acts on him. The witnesses with her described him as a large ogre-esque man and identified his first-generation Chevrolet Avalanche to police.
“That was not nice so do i [sic] credit for next time,” Heuermann later texted Costello from Massapequa Park, according to court documents. The records show the witness told investigators, “Amber told us that he wanted to see her again, but he didn’t want to come back to the house because of her boyfriend.”
She was last seen alive the following day after leaving in a vehicle matching the description of Heuermann’s pickup. Tierney credited an unnamed New York State investigator, who was a member of the Gilgo Beach Homicide Investigation Task Force — a collaboration of local, state and federal investigators — with first identifying Heuermann as a suspect on March 14, 2022. That’s when Heuermann was confirmed to have been a registered owner of such an vehicle at the time of the murders — and a resident of “the box.”
Police then surveilled the suspect to match DNA from his discarded pizza crust with hairs found in restraints used to tie the victims’ feet, arms and head, according to investigators and court documents. Also found in the restraints was the hair of his wife, who travel records show was out of town with their kids during each murder. Authorities for the first time in 13 years released a trove of details in the case drawn from more than 300 search warrants, such as confirming the victims were wrapped in camouflage burlap used for duck hunting. But they noted that they are still holding back some information because the investigation is continuing.
“I don’t want to tell you exactly our investigative techniques because … part of the reason they are effective is because people don’t necessarily know what it is exactly we do,” Tierney told reporters after telling Ambro: “Because of the length of time the women were out in the elements, there was not much to investigate.”
Now that investigators executed a search warrant on the suspect’s home — Tierney said police took Heuermann into custody sooner than planned to avoid the possibility of him striking again — authorities have plenty of evidence to sift through.
The arrest came as a shock and a relief to some of the victims’ relatives, who feared the Gilgo Beach killer might live up to the genius myth and dodge justice indefinitely.
“I never thought they’d find this person,” Barthelemy’s cousin, Amy Brotz, said.
Now that investigators have finally outsmarted Heuermann, only time will tell how many more mistakes were made by the notorious suspect who once seemed too clever to capture.
-With Associated Press
A search for Shannan Gilbert 13 years ago led to the discovery of four dead women in Gilgo Beach and then the remains of six more who Heuermann has not been accused of killing. These are their stories.
Shannan Gilbert, 24, and her driver, Michael Pak, drove from Jersey City to client Joseph Brewer’s Oak Beach home, where Shannan reportedly became frantic, locking herself in the bathroom and making a 23-minute 911 call on May 1, 2010. After running off in the early morning hours, she arrived a few houses away at the home of Gus Colletti, yelling for help, then running away again into the dark when Colletti told her he was calling police. Later that day, Shannan’s mother Mari said he received a phone call from Oak Beach resident Dr. Peter Hackett, who allegedly claimed he ran a home for wayward girls and Shannan was safe with him — a call he later denied making. Neither Pak, Brewer nor Hackett are considered suspects by police and Heuermann has not been charged with her death. Shannan’s bones were found on Dec. 13, 2011 in the nearby marsh, in shallow water close to Ocean Parkway, where police said she likely drowned trying to get to the road. Her pants and shoes were found 1/4-mile away from her body, also in the marsh, but close to the Oak Beach community where she was last seen. This has led many, including her family, to believe her death, ruled “undetermined” by the medical examiner, wasn’t accidental.
Melissa Barthelemy, 24, left Buffalo, where she worked as a hairstylist, and moved to the Bronx. She worked as an exotic dancer, and later as a sex worker to make ends meet. Melissa is believed to have been at a Massapequa motel early in the morning the day she was last seen alive on July 12, 2009. Seven calls were later made from Midtown Manhattan from Melissa’s cell phone to her teen sister — authorities say by Heuermann, who allegedly taunted the teen about Melissa’s line of work and claimed responsibility for her death. Melissa’s body was the first to be found on Ocean Parkway, by a K-9 officer and cadaver dog looking for Gilbert, on Dec. 10, 2010. Heuermann was charged with her murder on July 14, 2023.
Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, a mother of two, had been a straight-A student who later fell into drugs. She left her Connecticut home to spend the day in Manhattan, the last place she was seen alive. She told her family she would return home the next day, but never did. She disappeared on July 14, 2007 —- 16 years to the day of Heuermann facing a judge after being named as a prime suspect in her murder — and was found dead on Dec. 13, 2010 near the bodies of three others on the side of Ocean Parkway near Hemlock Cove off Gilgo Beach.
Megan Waterman traveled from Maine with her boyfriend and pimp Akeem Cruz to the Holiday Inn Express in Hauppauge. She called her then-3-year-old daughter and hours later was last seen leaving the hotel alone at 1:30 a.m. on June 6, 2010 to meet a client. Megan’s remains were found more than 20 miles away from the hotel on Ocean Parkway. Cruz is not a considered a suspect in Megan’s murder, but was charged with the interstate trafficking and admitted to driving Megan to New York for sex work. On Oct. 21, 2010, the Press published “Lost Girls: When Women Go Missing on LI Some Matter, Prostitutes Don’t,” about Waterman’s disappearance and her family’s struggle to get her case taken seriously. She was found dead Dec. 13, 2010 near Gilgo Beach within a mile of Maureen, Melissa, and Amber. Heuermann was charged with her murder July 14, 2023.
North Carolina native Amber Lynn Costello, 27, lived in West Babylon and had been in detox at the Nassau University Medical Center the year before she was murdered. She was last seen leaving her home to meet a client on Sept. 10, 2010. She had been married but her ex-husband said the marriage ended over her alleged heroin use. Amber had been trying to get clean and cease being a sex worker before she became the last of the Gilgo Beach four to be killed. Heuermann was charged with her murder July 14, 2023.
Fire Island Jane Doe
A pair of severed legs were found by walkers on Blue Point Beach on Fire Island on April 20, 1996. They were wrapped in a plastic bag and her toes were painted red. On April 11, 2011, a skull was found west of Tobay Beach on Ocean Parkway during the expanded search that followed the Gilgo discoveries. Investigators later used DNA to determine the discoveries belonged to the same woman. Her torso and hands remain missing. She is believed to be 18-50 years old, white and had surgery on her left ankle. Fire Island Jane Doe remains unidentified and the identity of her killer remains a mystery.
A passerby found a decapitated, mutilated torso stuffed in a Rubbermaid bin at Hempstead Lake State Park on June 28, 1997. Unable to identify her, investigators dubbed her Peaches, so named for the Peach tattoo on her breast. Then on April 11, 2011, during the expanded search that followed the Gilgo discoveries, police found her skeletonized extremities in the brush 1.5 miles east of the Jones Beach tower on Ocean Parkway, but the connection to the ‘97 discovery was not immediately clear. The limbs had a snake chain bracelet and X-O bracelet. In 2016, the Press broke the news that investigators used DNA to match the Jones Beach remains with those of Peaches. She is the lone Black woman among the victims found in the area. In October, the FBI asked the publica in Alabama for help identifying her, but she remains nameless. No arrests have been made in the case.
Found on April 4, 2011 wrapped in a blanket in the brush of Ocean Parkway near Cedar Beach —- the opposite end of the dumping ground —- investigators used DNA to confirm that the unidentified girl is Peach’s daughter. The lone child found in the area was between 16 and 32 months of age and was wearing gold hoop earrings and a rope necklace. Her murder also remains unsolved.
Hikers off Halsey Manor Road in Manorville found her nude, decapitated, missing limbs and wrapped in plastic bags on November 19, 2000. Her skeletonized head, hands and leg were found on April 4, 2011 on Ocean Parkway in plastic bags near Cedar Beach. Her nose had been fractured and healed prior to her death. Police used DNA to identify her as Valerie Mack in 2020 — two decades after her discovery. She has last been seen alive near Philadelphia. No charges have been filed in her case.
Jessica Taylor, 20, was last seen working the streets of Manhattan, near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. She had already been arrested multiple times for prostitution in Atlantic City, New York and Washington, D.C., where she had just relocated from that same month. Her nude torso was found on a plastic sheet with her head and hands cut off in the Manorville Pine Barrens on July 26, 2003— 20 years ago this month. A tattoo on her hip was carved with dozens of razor-thin, crooked gashes but a D.C. detective still recognized it from a previous arrest and Jessica’s body was identified through DNA shortly after her discovery. Her case went cold until March 29, 2011, when her skull, hands and forearm were found on Ocean Parkway near Cedar Beach, a few miles east of where the bodies of Megan, Maureen, Melissa and Amber were found. No charges have been filed in her case.
Found on April 4, 2011, this unidentified victim is believed to have been between 17 and 23 years of age, Asian, approximately 5’6” tall with poor dental health. He was missing his top and bottom molars and one front tooth for some time before he was killed. The man was also found wearing women’s clothing and had been dead for at least five years, possibly 10. He was found ¼ mile away from where Megan, Maureen, Amber and Melissa were found. His case also remains unsolved.
–With additional reporting by Jaclyn Gallucci
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