Some Cell Phone Evidence a Hang Up in Gilgo Beach Serial Killer Case

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Alleged Gilgo serial Killer Rex Heuermann appears inside Judge Timothy P. Mazzei’s courtroom with his attorney Michael Brown at Suffolk County Court in Riverhead on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. Heuermann is indicted in the death of Maureen Brainard-Barnes.
James Carbone/Newsday via Pool

The same cell phone data that authorities used to arrest Gilgo Beach serial killer suspect Rex Heuermann have also proven a complication in the continuing investigation — which includes hundreds more electronic devices.

Suffolk County prosecutors noted in court documents that there were several instances in which cell phone records no longer exist for the suspect and his wife due to cell service provider data-retention policies. That fact appears to have been partly the reason why a grand jury didn’t indict Heuermann on a fourth victim, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, until January — until six months after he was apprehended in July. He pleaded not guilty in that and the other three cases.

“Unfortunately, cell site records for the burner cell phone used to contact Ms. Brainard-Barnes were not obtained at the time of her disappearance and no longer exist,” prosecutors wrote in a footnote in the bail application that details much of the evidence against Heuermann. In another part of the court filing, prosecutors note: “Neither cellular telephone billing records, nor travel/financial records, could be obtained for defendant Heuermann’s wife [Asa Ellerup] for 2007, as such records were no longer available due to retention policies. Therefore, it is undetermined at this time [if Ellerup] … was traveling out of state during the time of Ms. Brainard-Barnes’ disappearance and murder.”

It is unclear which wireless carriers Heuermann and his wife used, but such companies generally retain that data for a few months to a few years. The footnotes suggest that fact complicated the investigation into the murder of Brainard-Barnes, who was the first of the so-called Gilgo Four to go missing — she was last seen alive in 2007, three years before her body was found on the side of Ocean Parkway. 

It’s an issue that may come up again, as prosecutors said in court documents that “law enforcement seized hundreds of electronic devices from the defendant’s home and place of business.” The filings also state that Heuermann’s cell data that has been recovered has been used “in a similar fashion” as others, which entailed contacting sex workers and searching violent pornography. 

“This is not an unusual obstacle that you find in a cold case … this is something that happens quite often,” Joseph Giacalone, a retired New York Police Department homicide detective who commanded a cold case squad in the Bronx, said of cell data retention policies sometimes tripping up investigators. “It’s just the nature of the beast.”

The family members of victims related to the case expressed frustration with the issue. 

“I’ll tell you it’s extremely frustrating to know those records aren’t kept longer,” said Jasmine Robinson, the cousin of Jessica Taylor, who was among 11 victims whose remains were found along the same parkway a decade ago. “It’s something most people don’t think about unless they have to.”

The 60-year-old Massapequa Park architect was previously charged with killing Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, and Amber Costello, who were all found dead yards from each other in Gilgo Beach in December 2010, triggering the serial killer investigation. Police found the Gilgo Four while searching for Shannan Gilbert, a New Jersey woman who had last been seen in Oak Beach in May 2010, when they found the four women dead. That led to a larger search of Jones Beach Island that unearthed the remains of six more murder victims — including Taylor — who Heuermann hasn’t been charged with killing. Gilbert was also later found dead in nearby Oak Beach, but authorities have suggested she may not be a victim of foul play — yet her family maintains she was murdered.

44Profile Maureen
Maureen Brainard-Barnes

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 Hemlock Cove off Gilgo Beach.

Brainard-Barnes was found bound with a belt that had the initials “WH” or “HM,” and investigators have speculated that this belonged to Heuermann – his grandfather’s name was William Heuermann, purportedly. According to the bail document, hairs found on Brainard-Barnes’s body were matched to Heuermann’s wife and daughter.

Heuermann’s attorney, Michael Brown, claimed again that the DNA evidence is faulty, saying Heuermann is only a “donor” for this DNA.

“Two out of 10,000 people could be the donor,” Brown said. “Nassau and Suffolk have 3 million people. That means 600 people could be the perpetrator — and that’s assuming that the DNA on the victims is that of the perpetrator.”

Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney declined to comment for this story but held a news conference after Heuerman’s latest charges were unveiled.

“The task force will continue to investigate those cases,” Tierney said. “And when it is appropriate, and if we have anything to say, we will say it at that time, but we’re going to let that investigation play out.”

The victim’s daughter, Nicolette Brainard-Barnes, told reporters the latest development gave her hope, despite the delay.

“For years, it looked like there might not be charges filed against any suspect for the murder of my mother,” Nicolette said. “While the loss of my mom has been extremely painful for me, the indictment by the grand jury has brought hope for justice for my mom and my family.”

Heuermann, who has been held without bail at Suffolk jail since his arrest, is due back in court Feb. 6. 

With Michael Malaszczyk 

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