Long Island Serial Killers

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On July 13, 2023, Rex Heuermann was arrested and charged with the murders of three women, whose bodies were found in 2010 on Gilgo Beach. Those murders are part of a larger cluster involving bodies dumped near beaches on Long Island, NY.

Long Island is appropriately named. It is 118 miles long, and roughly 20 miles wide for most of its length. From southwest to northeast, it contains Brooklyn and Queens (boroughs of New York City), Nassau county and Suffolk county. Brooklyn and Queens are highly urban, Nassau county is suburban, and Suffolk county is rural/exurban. As a whole, the island contains over 8 million people, with the majority living in the southwest.

Long Island has barrier islands on its Atlantic side, which are long thin islands of sand created by waves and tidal currents. Two are important for this story: Jones Beach Island and Fire Island. Gilgo Beach is on Jones Beach Island. Despite being close to New York city, parts of these barrier islands are very isolated. There is just sand, scrub vegetation and salt marshes with tall reeds.

The story of the Gilgo Beach murders usually begins with the strange disappearance of Shannan Gilbert, on May 1, 2010. She was a prostitute who had taken a job in Oak Beach, a small community on Jones Beach Island. She had a driver who took her to the job and waited in the car for her to finish.

At some point, her customer came out to talk to the driver. He said that Shannan had become irrational and was refusing to leave. The driver went into the house and tried to persuade her to leave. During this time, she called the police. The recording of her 911 call has been made public. In it, she is incoherent and seems somewhat delusional.

She then left the house and ran through the community, knocking on some doors and asking for help. Because she seemed intoxicated or crazy, residents called the police instead of letting her in. When the police showed up, she was nowhere to be found.

The police did not take her disappearance seriously at first. The stories of the driver and the customer were consistent, so there was no reason to suspect foul play. Prostitutes and drug users are not known to be reliable, so this is understandable. After Shannan’s family filed a missing person report, the police did some searches for her. The first searches, in the summer of 2010, found nothing.

In December 2010, the police decided to do another search with a cadaver dog. The officer searched along Ocean Parkway in nearby Gilgo Beach. He knew that bodies are often dumped near roadways, away from buildings and streetlights. Gilgo Beach seemed like a good place to dump a body. Sure enough, the dog struck a scent, and led him to a body wrapped in burlap, hidden in the bushes near the road. This body was not Shannan Gilbert, however. It turned out to be Melissa Barthelemy, a prostitute who had been missing since July 2009.

As the police continued to search the area, they found three more bodies. All were women who had been tied up. Three were wrapped in burlap (apparently camouflage burlap used for duck-hunting blinds). They were missing clothing and personal possessions. The bodies were eventually identified as Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Megan Waterman and Amber Costello.

That cluster of victims is called “the Gilgo Beach four”. But more bodies were to be found in the area.

As the police identified the bodies, they were able to investigate the circumstances related to their deaths. The Gilgo Beach four were all prostitutes. At least three had advertised on Craigslist, a site that had rapidly grown in popularity over the preceding few years.

The killer had used burner phones to contact the victims and arrange “dates”. In two cases, he had used the victim’s phone to contact the friends or family of the victim. He told a friend of Brainard-Barnes that she was staying at a whorehouse in Queens. After Melissa Barthelemy disappeared in July 2009, her sister received mocking phone calls from the killer. He said that he had raped and killed her sister, and that he was going to watch her rot. Police were able to trace the locations of some of those calls to Manhattan and Massapequa, but not to a specific address.

In the spring of 2011, additional searches found more victims: Jessica Taylor, an unknown Asian male, Valerie Mack and an unknown toddler.

The head and hands of Jessica Taylor were found roughly a mile up the parkway from the Gilgo four. She was a prostitute who had gone missing in 2003. Her torso had been found in 2003, in Manorville, a Long Island town to the northeast.

The body of a still-unidentified Asian male was found, between the remains of Jessica Taylor and the Gilgo four. He was wearing a dress, and it is likely that he was a transsexual prostitute. The body had probably been there for 5 to 10 years before its discovery.

The head, hands and a single foot belonging to Valerie Mack were found further up the parkway. Her remains were not identified until 2020. They were genetically linked to a torso that was found in Manorville in November 2000, wrapped in garbage bags. She had gone missing in the summer of 2000.

The skeletal remains of a toddler, aged about 2 at death, were found near the partial remains of Valerie Mack. The body had been wrapped in a blanket.

All of the bodies were dumped near the road, on the opposite side from the beach. This probably made them less likely to be discovered, as most people visiting the beach would stay near the ocean.

More remains were found further to the southwest, near Jones Beach.

The partial remains of an unknown black woman, dubbed “Peaches”, were found in a plastic bag in Jones Beach State Park. Her torso had been found in 1997 in Hempstead Lake State Park, inside a Rubbermaid storage container. She had a peach tattoo on her chest, hence the nickname “Peaches”. She has never been identified, but she is known to be the mother of the toddler found near Valerie Mack.

A human skull and teeth were found at Tobay Beach (also on Jones Beach Island). They have been linked to a pair of severed legs that were found in 1996, in a garbage bag on Fire Island, a barrier island to the northeast. She is called “Jane Doe #7” or “Fire Island Jane Doe”.

Odd Stops: The Long Island serial killer’s dump site

Finally, in December 2011, Shannan Gilbert’s body was found, about half a mile from where she disappeared. Her body was in a salt marsh, close to the Ocean Parkway. The cause of death could not be determined. Although it would be a very strange coincidence, her death is probably not linked to the other bodies found in the area. It is also strange that her body was discovered long after the search began, despite being very close to where she disappeared.

Most of the victims died before Shannan Gilbert disappeared, but two were killed after. Did the killer know about her disappearance, but continue to use his dumping ground anyway?

Was there one killer? Multiple killers using the same dumping ground?

Now, let’s talk about three murders that occurred in the early 1990s on Long Island.

On November 2, 1993, the body of Rita Tangredi was found in the forest in East Patchogue. She had been beaten and strangled. She was known to be a prostitute, and had been hitch-hiking when she went missing.

On November 20, 1993, the body of Sandra Costilla was found in a forested area near Southampton. She had been strangled. I don’t have information about whether she was a prostitute.

In January 1994, the body of Colleen McNamee was found in the forest in Shirley. She was known to be a prostitute. She had been beaten and strangled.

In 2014, John Bittrolff was arrested for the murders of Rita Tangredi and Colleen McNamee, based on DNA evidence. His brother had to submit a DNA sample for an unrelated charge. This sample was automatically checked against unsolved cases, and it partially matched two. This led to John. In 2017, he was found guilty of the two murders, and sentenced to 50 years.

John Bittrolff was a married father of two, living in Manorville, and self-employed in construction. Yes, he lived in Manorville, where the torsos of Jessica Taylor and Valerie Mack were found in 2003 and 2000, respectively. He was born in 1966, and grew up in Suffolk County. He was a troublemaker as a youth, getting into fights and (possibly) torturing or killing animals for fun. By his early 20s, he had a criminal record for theft and assault. So, he had a violent streak, and a tendency to disregard the law. However, he seems to have settled down as he got older, and stayed out of trouble.

Wikipedia: John Bittrolf

Odd Stops: John Bittrolf’s House

Here is a table of the victims in the order that they were killed, as far as we know. For the Asian male, I will just have to guess.

# Victim Died Body Location(s) Probable Killer
1 Rita Tangredi 1993-11 East Patchogue John Bittrolff
2 Sandra Costilla 1993-11 Southampton John Bittrolff
3 Colleen McNamee 1994-01 Shirley John Bittrolff
4 Jane Doe 7 1996-04 Fire Island, Tobay Beach ?
5 Peaches 1997-06 Hempstead Lake, Jones Beach ?
6 Peaches’ daughter 1997-06 Gilgo Beach ?
7 Valerie Mack 2000-09 ? Manorville, Gilgo Beach ?
8 Jessica Taylor 2003-07 Manorville, Gilgo Beach ?
9 Asian Male 2005 ? Gilgo Beach ?
10 Maureen Brainard-Barnes 2007-07 Gilgo Beach Rex Heuermann
11 Melissa Barthelemy 2009-07 Gilgo Beach Rex Heuermann
12 Shannan Gilbert 2010-05 Oak Beach ??
13 Megan Waterman 2010-06 Gilgo Beach Rex Heuermann
14 Amber Costello 2010-09 Gilgo Beach Rex Heuermann

There are three different patterns and two anomalies.

Cases 1 to 3 were strangled and left in forested areas. Bittrolff is the probable killer, although he was only convicted in two of those cases.

Cases 4 to 8 involve dismemberment and body parts dumped in different areas. (The toddler was not dismembered, but her murder is clearly linked to her mother’s.) It seems very likely that those murders were committed by the same person.

Case 9 stands alone, as the sole male victim. Also, he was bludgeoned to death rather than strangled.

The Gilgo Beach four (cases 10, 11, 13 and 14) are all linked to Heuermann, and are very similar. He is the probable killer in those cases, although of course he has not been found guilty.

Shannan Gilbert (case 12) is another anomaly. Her cause of death is unknown. She might not have been murdered.

Is a third killer responsible for cases 4 to 8? Their style is different from the cases attributed to either Bittrolff or Heuermann. The torsos of Valerie Mack and Jessica Taylor were found in Manorville, which seems to point to Bittrolff. However, their heads and hands were found on Gilgo Beach, which seems to point to Heuermann.

My guess (and it is only a guess) is that a third, unknown killer is responsible for cases 4 to 8. He wanted to show off his handiwork, but he also wanted to conceal the identities of his victims, perhaps because he could be linked to them.

Other bodies could have been included in the table. In November 2000, the body of an unknown male was found in the forest near Manorville and Shirley. He was only wearing boxer shorts and he had been strangled.

Although it might seem to be a very strange coincidence for multiple serial killers to dump bodies in the same locations, it is not that unlikely. If someone from New York City wanted to dump a body, he might naturally drive up Long Island until reaching an isolated area. Manorville and Gilgo Beach are both natural destinations.

Now, let’s talk about Rex Heuermann. He grew up on Long Island, in the town of Massapequa (population about 25,000). At the time of his arrest, he was living in his childhood home, which he purchased from his mother in 1994. He was an architect who worked in Manhattan. He was married, with a daughter of his own and a stepson. Both of his children were adults at the time of his arrest. He had a large collection of guns. He is a big man: 6 feet 4 inches tall and overweight.

Heuermann seems to have become addicted to prostitutes. At the time of his arrest, he was still using burner phones to look for sex and to access pornography. He had searched for porn related to young girls, rape and torture. He also searched for “Asian twink tied up”, which suggests that he might be responsible for killing the unidentified Asian male.

Heuermann was caught because a new task force finally did the police work that should have been done at the beginning. They identified two areas based on cell phone activity. They had a description of the man whom Amber Costello was meeting before her death, and a description of his vehicle. Based on that, it was not too difficult to find Heuermann.

The police found some hairs in the bindings and burlap. They gathered DNA from Heuermann’s trash, and matched some of the hairs to Heuermann’s wife. They collected Heuermann’s DNA from a pizza box in Manhattan, and matched him to another hair. They linked him to burner phones and monitored his online activity. Then they arrested him.

Apparently, the DNA matches were based solely on mitochondrial DNA, perhaps due to the age of the specimens.

Heuermann Bail Application

Assuming that Heuermann is guilty (which seems likely), why did he do it?

Maybe he got addicted to prostitutes first, as Joel Rifkin did. Commuting to Manhattan from Long Island, he had plenty of opportunities to pick up prostitutes. For some reason, he developed the fantasy of killing one. Then he turned that fantasy into a reality. Perhaps his first kill was the Asian male. Maybe he was outraged because he had expected a woman, not a transsexual. Or perhaps his first kill was someone else. After the first kill, it became easier to turn the fantasy into a reality. My guess is that he slowly developed a secret sex life, which eventually escalated to murder.

His primary motivation seems to have been sexual sadism. However, in the case of Amber Costello, the motive could have been revenge. She had just scammed him. He went to her place for a “date”, but then her boyfriend showed up and pretended to be outraged, so Heuermann had to leave. (The boyfriend later described Heuermann to the police.) Maybe Heuermann took more risks in that case, because he wanted revenge.

Heuermann and Bittrolff are very different. Heuermann was a well-educated professional — an architect. Bittrolff was a high school dropout who worked with his hands. (Heuermann did some woodworking as a hobby, however.) Heuermann carefully disposed of bodies, so that some were undiscovered for years. Bittrolff dumped bodies in forested areas, and did not make much effort to conceal them.

Heuermann wasn’t that careful, however. His use of phones was naive. He should have known that the police could find his location from cell phone data, although not precisely. He disposed of bodies in ways that allowed DNA evidence to be collected. Maybe he assumed that the bodies would never be found, but he continued to dump bodies on Gilgo Beach after the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert. However, her disappearance probably wasn’t big news, or news at all, until after the discovery of the bodies. He might not have known about it.

I suspect that Heuermann dumped bodies on Gilgo Beach partly because it was a good dumping ground, but also because it had emotional significance to him. He had grown up in the area, and presumably had spent time on that beach as a child. He had probably explored the area, including the swamps and scrubland that adults would avoid. Maybe he felt a strange sense of ownership over the bodies, and wanted to keep them in his territory. Maybe he wanted to watch them rot, as he said about Melissa Barthelemy to her sister.

It is a common belief that serial killers never stop killing, but the evidence doesn’t show that. Some kill for a while and then stop, for various reasons. Did Heuermann stop after 2010, due to the discovery of his victims? Or did he just start dumping bodies elsewhere? Did Bittrolff stop after killing Colleen McNamee? If so, why? If not, who else did he kill?

The story is far from over. Big questions remain unanswered. Who killed the other victims? What motivated the killers? Are there more bodies waiting to be discovered?