Twenty years ago on the morning of July 26, 2003, a woman walking her dog along secluded Halsey Manor Road in Manorville discovered a body that was later identified as that of Jessica Taylor. Eight years later, her additional remains were found 50 miles away on the side of Ocean Parkway.
When Taylor was linked to the unsolved Gilgo Beach murders in 2011, she stood out among the cases for having been the only one identified years prior to her connection to what is now known as the Long Island Serial Killer case. Her family marked what would have been her 40th birthday on June 17.
Rex Heuermann has not yet been charged with Jessica Taylor’s murder
Police are still searching for her killer. Rex Heuermann, who pleaded not guilty July 14 to killing three women found dead in Gilgo Beach, has not been charged in Taylor’s death.
“We are very aware that this year marks 20 years of Jessica being gone. It’s the same amount of time that she got to be alive before being taken from us in one of the most awful ways imaginable,” Jasmine Robinson, Taylor’s cousin who has been advocating for justice in the case, told the Press. She has expressed hope that Heuermann’s arrest may lead to a break in Taylor’s case as well.
When Taylor’s nude body was found near a sump decapitated, missing her hands and with a tattoo that her killer had mutilated in a failed attempt to avoid her ever being identified — putting names to victims helps police advance investigations — speculation of a serial killer on the loose focused on Manorville, where several murder victims had been found in the abundant woodlands of the Long Island Pine Barrens.
At the time, police downplayed that speculation, despite the fact that another victim in particular was found brutally murdered and dumped in a nearly identical fashion just down the block from where Taylor was initially discovered in Manorville.
“Until we know who these people are, we can’t formulate a connection between any of them,” the Suffolk County Police Department told the Press in a statement in response to a story about the Manorville bodies that was published six months before the Gilgo discoveries were made. “If they all had similar backgrounds or if they all knew the same people… But if we don’t know who they are, we’re not going to be able to tell if they’re related or not.”
Jessica Taylor was eventually linked to the Gilgo Beach killings
But when police found 10 sets of human remains along Ocean Parkway while searching for Shannan Gilbert, who was also later found dead in the area, police were no longer in denial — although experts continue to debate whether more than one killer had been using both Manorville and Ocean Parkway as a dumping ground.
Three of the victims remain unidentified, but of those who were, all had been sex workers at the time of their murders.
The woman found near Taylor, initially dubbed Jane Doe #6, has since been identified as Valerie Mack. Her identification in 2020 was among the biggest recent breaks in the case. Investigators identified Mack using genetic genealogy, matching her with public DNA databases.
In Taylor’s case, a police photo taken at the scene showed a tattoo on the right side of her back, with dozens of razor-thin crooked gashes, as though someone spent some considerable time not merely cutting the tattoo off but repeatedly slicing it from top to bottom.
Police say it took medical examiners pushing the skin together to figure out what the tattoo was: a red heart with an angel wing that said, ‘‘Remy’s angel.’’ A Washington, D.C. detective recognized the tattoo, six months later, as belonging to a woman reported missing by another local sex worker.
Taylor was an upstate New York native, last seen on the streets of Manhattan, working near the Port Authority Bus Terminal the week before her body was found, according to police reports.
She had been arrested in Atlantic City, New York, and D.C., where she had just relocated from that same month. Little else was known about Taylor at the time.
She had been working near the Port Authority Bus Terminal between July 18-21, an area once known as the Minnesota Strip — a term coined by cops in the ’70s because that stretch of Eighth Avenue between 42nd and 57th Streets was known for prostitution, and when Minnesota passed tough anti-prostitution laws, many women left for the streets of New York City.
During that time, city-based punk rock band The Dictators penned the song “The Minnesota Strip” [“The strip is hopping on Friday night / They come from so far away”]. In the ’90s, the area was cleaned up — making it much more unusual to see women walking the streets topless after midnight — but there are still a handful of adult shops scattered around the area, and, although you may have to look a little harder, there are still sex workers.
Questions surround the death of Jessica Taylor
As of this story, Suffolk police say there are no updates in Taylor’s case, although even if there were new leads, homicide squad detectives would likely not publicly release them in order to secure a conviction should they eventually make an arrest, as is standard practice.
But in 2016, Khalil White — who was alternately described as Taylor’s pimp and boyfriend — told the A&E docuseries The Killing Season that homicide squad detectives informed him that she was found wrapped in burlap.
That detail was significant because it was also widely reported that the first four victims found in Gilgo Beach in December 2010 were also wrapped in burlap. Taylor, however, was previously reported to have been covered with plastic, although police did not confirm that detail.
“The department has not addressed the question of burlap vs. plastic or any other materials,” police recently told the Press.
Heuermann’s arrest came after Suffolk police last year formed a multiagency Gilgo Beach Homicide Investigation Task Force that includes 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.
“As I said on day one as police commissioner, I believe this case is solvable and identifying the person or people responsible for these murders is a top priority,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison said, echoing the theory that more than one person may have used the same dumping ground along Ocean Parkway.
Experts say keeping the case in the public eye can be key to advancing an investigation into a cold case such as Taylor’s.
“Often the public holds the keys to these cases,” said Joseph Giacalone, a retired New York Police Department homicide detective who commanded a cold case squad in the Bronx. “Sometimes a photograph, sometimes a name can jog someone’s memory. You get that information out in the front of the right person, whether it’s in the newspaper or social media … those are the kind of things that break cases.”
20 years on, loved ones remember Jessica Taylor
In recent years, Taylor’s cousin has been working to clarify the widely reported narrative of Taylor being estranged from her family. Robinson counters that despite Taylor being a sex worker before she was killed, Taylor was loved.
“Jessica was a person who was a true force,” said Robinson. “She had a huge heart and she’s incredibly loved and missed. She was an inspiration and somebody that I looked up to. She also had a feisty streak and would stand up for herself when necessary — she didn’t easily take disrespect.”
— With additional reporting by Jaclyn Gallucci