Gilgo Beach murders: What happened to the victims and has the serial killer been caught?

More than a decade after 11 bodies were found dumped in Long Beach, Manhattan-based architect Rex Heuermann was arrested for the murders of three of the women. What happened to the victims who were murdered and how did police find the man they believe to be responsible? Rachel Sharp reports

Wednesday 15 November 2023 18:11 GMT
From L to R: (top) Melissa Barthelemy, Amber Lynn Costello, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Megan Waterman. From L to R: (bottom) Jessica Taylor, Valerie Mack, John Doe
From L to R: (top) Melissa Barthelemy, Amber Lynn Costello, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Megan Waterman. From L to R: (bottom) Jessica Taylor, Valerie Mack, John Doe (Suffolk County Police Department)

For around two decades, the sands and marshes of Long Island’s Gilgo Beach kept a dark secret.

A killer or killers roamed the locality, luring in escorts and sex workers and brutally murdering them.

Body after body was dumped along the shoreline, hidden for months and even years without being discovered.

Then, in 2010, a chilling 911 call made by a woman in fear for her life led police to search the area.

What they discovered was far more horrifying than anyone could have imagined.

Over the next year, the remains of 11 victims – mainly female escorts – were discovered dumped in the area, plunging the Suffolk County community into terror.

But, the case went cold and no arrests were made, no suspects were named and there was no justice for the victims and their families.

That is, until now.

In July, there was a sudden break in the case when local married father-of-two Rex Heuermann was arrested on suspicion of being the infamous serial killer.

The 59-year-old was charged with the murders of Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman and Amber Costello and is also the prime suspect in the murder of a fourth woman Maureen Brainard-Barnes – who was last seen alive in New York City in early June 2007.

Rex Heuermann in a video about architecture posted on YouTube (Bonjour Realty)

Long Island native Mr Heuermann lived close to Gilgo Beach, where the killer dumped his victims. He also worked as an architect in Manhattan, where some of the women were last seen alive.

Does this mean that the hunt for the Gilgo Beach serial killer is finally over?

How were the Gilgo Beach victims murdered?

For more than a decade, the Gilgo Beach murders stumped law enforcement officials in Suffolk County who believed it could be the work of one or more serial killers who targeted sex workers and dumped their bodies along the remote beaches on Ocean Parkway.

The case began in May 2010 when Shannan Gilbert, a 24-year-old sex worker, vanished after leaving a client’s house on foot near Gilgo Beach.

She called 911 for help, saying she feared for her life, and was never seen alive again.

In the chilling call, released last year, Gilbert is heard repeatedly telling the 911 operator that “somebody’s after me”.

She is also heard arguing with a man – who she refers to as Mike – who appears to be trying to encourage her to get back into a car; at one point, she is heard asking if he is “going to kill” her.

Map of the sites the bodies were dumped (Suffolk County Police Department)

“These people are plotting to kill me,” she tells the dispatcher.

During a search for Gilbert in dense thicket close to the beach, police discovered the remains of another woman.

Within a matter of days, the remains of three more victims were found close by.

By spring 2011, the remains of a total of 10 victims had been found – eight women, a man, and a toddler.

Gilbert’s body was found in December 2011. Her cause of death is widely contested, with authorities long claiming that it is not connected to the serial killer or killers but that she died from accidental drowning as she fled from the client’s home.

However, an independent autopsy commissioned by her family ruled that she died by strangulation and her mother believes she was murdered.

Like Gilbert, most of the victims targeted were sex workers.

Several theories have been considered over the years but no one had ever been charged with the killings.

Authorities have previously said they believe that three separate serial killers could be responsible for the slayings over a period of around 20 years.

Brush area along Ocean Parkway. where Megan Waterman’s remains were recovered in 2010 (Suffolk County Police Department)

The case appeared to go cold for several years until last year when Suffolk Police’s Rodney Harrison vowed to finally close the case and bring the killer or killers to justice.

The newly appointed commissioner said that, with “a set of fresh eyes”, he had faith that he could get the cold case “across the finish line”. He launched a dedicated taskforce for the case.

Who were the Gilgo Beach victims?

The remains of at least 11 victims were found in the Gilgo Beach area though it remains unclear if they are all the work of the same killer. Many were sex workers who offered escort services on Craigslist or worked in New York City.

The first victim found was Melissa Barthelemy, whose remains were discovered along Ocean Parkway on 11 December 2010 during the search for Shannan Gilbert – a 24-year-old sex worker from New Jersey who vanished after visiting a client in Oak Park and making a chilling 911 call where she revealed fears for her life.

Two days later on 13 December, the remains of three other victims – Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Megan Waterman and Amber Lynn Costello – were found close by.

All three women were known to advertise escort services on Craigslist.

Brainard-Barnes – known as one of the Gilgo Beach Four – was last seen alive in early June 2007 in New York City while Costello was last seen leaving her North Babylon home one day in early September 2010.

Waterman was last seen alive in early June 2010 at a Holiday Inn Express in Hauppauge.

This combination of undated image provided by the Suffolk County Police Department, shows Melissa Barthelemy, top left, Amber Costello, top right, Megan Waterman, bottom left, and Maureen Brainard-Barnes (bottom right). (AP)

Seven months later, on 26 July 2011, the remains of Jessica Taylor were found in a wooded area in Manorville during the ongoing search for Gilbert. Taylor worked as an escort in New York City.

Valerie Mack also worked as an escort but was last seen alive in Philadelphia in 2000. Her remains were found on two separate occasions in Manorville in 2000 and in Oak Beach in 2011 but she was only identified in 2020 through the use of genetic genealogy.

On 4 August 2023, Long Island officials announced that another victim – known as Jane Doe 7 or Fire Island Jane Doe – had also finally been identified.

Karen Vergata, 34, was last seen alive in Manhattan in 1996 while working as an escort.

Her legs were first found wrapped in plastic at Davis Park on Fire Island’s Blue Point Beach in 1996. Almost exactly 15 years later on 11 April 2011, her skull was found off Ocean Parkway close to some of the other Gilgo Beach victims.

In a press conference announcing her identity, officials refused to confirm whether or not Vergata’s murder may be linked to Mr Heuermann.

Some of the victims have never been identified.

The skeletal remains of an Asian male, aged between 17 and 23 years old, around 5 feet 6 inches tall and with poor dental health, were found along Ocean Parkway in April 2011. He is believed to have died around five to 10 years earlier.

That same day, the remains of a female toddler were discovered. She was later identified as the daughter of the also-unidentified female victim dubbed “Peaches” whose remains were found in Nassau County.

Who is the serial killer in Gilgo Beach?

On 13 July, there was a huge breakthrough in the case when Mr Heuermann was finally arrested and charged with three of the murders – and suspected of a fourth.

Dramatic video captured him walking along a Manhattan road when he was suddenly surrounded by plainclothes officers and taken into custody.

Gilgo Beach: What we know so far

The accused killer has been married twice and shares a 26-year-old daughter and stepson, with special needs, with his second wife Asa Ellerup.

Mr Heuermann is president of architecture firm RH Consultants & Associates, a company which he founded in 1994 and which his adult daughter also works for.

According to the company website, Mr Heuermann’s company has worked with the likes of Catholic Charities, NYC-DEP Sewerage Treatment and American Airlines and other major tenants at the JFK International Airport.

A company page called Meet The Team and featuring his photo was taken down as news of his arrest broke.

In an interview posted on YouTube by Bonjour Realty last year, the father-of-two said that he was “born and raised in Long Island” but had been “working in Manhattan since 1987... [a] very long time”.

The architecture firm is based in Midtown Manhattan – where some of the Gilgo Beach victims were last seen alive.

According to court records, phone calls made from burner phones and some of the victims’ cellphones can be traced to his office.

In his professional life, some acquaintances described him as arrogant while others said he was “creepy”.

Paul Teitelbaum, who worked with Mr Heuermann on a building in Brooklyn Heights, told The New York Times following his arrest that the suspect had a “swagger” and an attitude that said: “I’m the expert, you’re lucky to have me.”

Meanwhile, Dominique Vidal – an interior designer who was part of the same architecture networking group as Mr Heuermann – said that he repeatedly called her and left her a “creepy” voicemail despite them never having worked together.

Rex Heuermann booking photo (AP)

“He left this [voicemail] for me end of February after I left the group,” she said in a TikTok video posted on Sunday.

“Previous to that, he did call me a couple of times. I answered the phone. Nothing really significant. I found it odd he was calling me because I had no work for him. There’s no ongoing relationship. We were just two people who used to be in the same networking group.

“There’s nothing incredibly scary about the voicemail, besides the fact that he is the Gilgo Beach murderer.”

Neighbours of Mr Heuermann in Massapequa Park – which is located just a 20-minute drive from Gilgo Beach where the killer dumped the bodies of his victims – gave a mixed picture of the accused killer following his arrest.

Neighbours told The Independent that he was a quiet family man who lived in the close-knit community with his wife and two children.

One neighbour, who has lived a stone’s throw from the Heuermanns for more than two decades, said that the family is “a very quiet family” who made “no imprint at all” on the neighborhood.

“Basically, we never had any contact with him... living here 22 years and never said two words to him,” the long-time Massapequa Park resident said, adding that “one bad apple doesn’t spoil the bunch” in a “great neighbourhood”.

Yet another neighbour – who had lived there for 13 years – told Newsweek that children would avoid his home on Halloween.

“Most people don’t knock on his door,” said Barry Auslander. “During Halloween, the kids are told to stay away. He’s not a very nice person.”

He added that his home was “dilapidated” and always dark.

New York State police officers move a metal cabinet as law enforcement searches the home of Rex Heuermann, Saturday, July 15, 2023, in Massapequa Park, N.Y. (AP)

Mr Heuermann has lived on Long Island his whole life – living in the very same property that he grew up in with his wife and two children. He grew up in Massapequa Park and attended Berner High School where Billy Baldwin was a classmate.

Maureen Holpit, 59, who also attended Berner High School with Mr Heuarmann, told The Independent that Mr Heauerman was once a shy teen who would often leave “love notes” in her locker. Ms Holpit said her exchanges with the now suspected serial killer were always pleasant and polite.

“I was always nice and friendly to him, you know. Seemed like he kind of got picked on and people would make maybe portray him as a little nerdy. He was very quiet, mild-mannered. So I was nice and would say, ‘Hey, Rex, how are you?,’” Ms Holpit, who now lives in Florida, tells The Independent.

“I was getting these notes in my locker. As I’m remembering, there were multiple little love notes but they were not signed,” she added. “Then, one day I did see him put it in my locker and so I knew they were from him. I may have said to him that I had a boyfriend or I just liked him as a friend.”

How did they catch the Gilgo Beach killer suspect?

In 2022, the Suffolk County Police Department, New York State Police, Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI revamped the probe into the killings that ultimately led to Mr Heuermann’s bombshell arrest.

A bail application released by the Suffolk County District Attorney revealed that Mr Heuermann was linked to the serial killings through cellphone evidence and surveillance.

Prosecutors have argued that no bail should be set for Mr Heuermann due to his recent searches for “sadistic materials, child pornography, images of the victims and their relatives.”

Mr Heuermann was first linked to the cold case in March 2022 after investigators discovered that a Chevrolet Avalanche registered to him was possibly the one spotted by a witness in Costello’s disappearance.

Mr Heuermann appeared in court in handcuffs on Friday and pleaded not guilty to six murder charges (Fox 5/YouTube)

As law enforcement closed in on him, they served more than 300 subpoenas and search warrants that uncovered cellphone records for burner phones used to arrange meetings with three of the “Gilgo Four” victims before they went missing.

Further analysis also allegedly linked Mr Heuermann to taunting calls made to family members of the victims, according to investigators. The calls were made from the Midtown Manhattan area, where the offices of Mr Heuerman’s architecture business are located.

Among the evidence linking Mr Heuermann to the murders was a hair found on burlap material used to wrap Waterman’s corpse, according to court documents. DNA analysis had not been possible in the early stages of the investigation, but new technology allowed testing in July 2020.

A team surveilling Mr Heuermann collected a discarded pizza box that then confirmed a DNA match with the suspect on 12 June.

Records also show that several online accounts under fictitious names linked to Mr Heuermann were used for illegal activities. Mr Heuermann allegedly used those accounts and burner phones to contact women for prostitution services, as well as making chilling online searches.

Police remove evidence from home of Long Island serial killer suspect (Patrick Reichart)

The searches included sadistic, torture-related pornography, child pornography and other disturbing content.

Mr Heuermann is also accused of searching “why could law enforcement not trace the calls made by the long island serial killer,” “why hasn’t the long island serial killer been caught” and “new phone technology may be key to break in case.”

More forensic analysis revealed that female hairs found in the three crime scene locations belonged to Mr Heuermann’s wife. However, authorities have determined through cellphone records that Mr Heuermann’s wife was out of state when the murders took place.

At the time Barthelemy went missing in July 2009, Mr Heuermann’s wife was in Iceland. She visited Maryland around the time Waterman disappeared in June 2010, and also travelled to New Jersey when Costello was last seen in September of that year.

“It is likely that the burlap, tape, vehicle(s) or other instrumentalities utilised in furtherance of these murders came from Defendant Heuermann’s residence, where his wife also resides, or was transferred from his clothing,” prosecutors explained.

Mr Heuermann is also the prime suspect in the murder of Maureen Brainard-Barnes, who is believed to be one of the “Gilgo Four.” Prosecutors noted in the application that records for the burner phones used to contact Brainard-Barnes were not obtained at the time she went missing and no longer exist.

Investigators in Suffolk County are also investigating his possible ties to the other murders.

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies across the country have revealed that they too are taking a fresh look at cold cases.

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