Could DNA on pizza crusts nail the infamous Long Island serial killer?

Could DNA on pizza crusts nail the infamous Long Island serial killer?

August 9, 2023

Could DNA on pizza crusts nail the infamous Long Island serial killer who was so callous he rang victims’ families to gloat about his sickening crimes?

Sixty miles along the coast from the billionaires’ playground of The Hamptons is Massapequa Park, a less glitzy town on the South Shore of New York’s Long Island that exudes middle-class respectability.

It’s the America of scores of Hollywood movies: suburban, tidy and, until very recently, unremarkable.

In summer, children cycle around broad streets lined with well-kept, white weatherboard houses flying the Stars and Stripes, often with a ‘Welcome’ banner on the lawn.

But one small, scruffy bungalow, starkly at odds with its neighbours, has never been welcoming.

When the Mail visited recently, few neighbours said they had ever exchanged more than a few words with Rex Heuermann, the hulking and — many agreed — distinctly sinister owner of 105, 1st Avenue. 

Nor did anyone admit to being invited inside the modest home he shared with his equally reclusive wife and two grown-up children.

Suspect: Person of interest under arrest Rex Heuermann is spotted being walked out of the Suffolk County Police 7th Precinct on July 14

Victims: Maureen Brainard-Barnes (top L), Melissa Barthelemy (top R), Megan Waterman (bottom L) and Amber Lynn Costello (bottom R)

They would see the 59-year-old only on his daily walk to the station, dressed in a suit and tie, to catch a train into Manhattan, where he ran an architecture practice, or when he worked outdoors, often chopping firewood.

Now, Heuermann may be about to ensure that Massapequa Park becomes as notorious as Amityville, only three miles away, where a 23-year-old man slaughtered his family in 1974, a crime that spawned the infamous book and film The Amityville Horror.

For prosecutors have accused Heuermann of being the ‘Gilgo Beach Serial Killer’ — named after a stretch of sand 17 miles from the town — who has terrorised the local community for decades after murdering perhaps 11 or more people and dumping their bodies — wrapped in the camouflage hessian used by hunters — in dense undergrowth off an isolated coastal road.

The alleged killer was so sadistic, he later used his victims’ mobile phones to call their families and gloat about the misery he’d inflicted on them.

‘Rex Heuermann is a demon that walks among us, a predator that ruins families,’ claims Rodney Harrison, a New York detective whose decision to reopen the case in 2022 after he took over the local police force proved instrumental in Heuermann’s appearance in a Long Island court last month.

Heuermann has been charged with the murders of Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman and Amber Lynn Costello, all former sex workers whose unclothed remains were found in December 2010. He denies the charges.

Heuermann was also named the ‘prime suspect’ in the death of another sex worker, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, whose corpse was discovered in the same spot as the others. They are now known collectively as the Gilgo Four.

Investigators have indicated that more victims will be identified. In addition to the 11 bodies discovered near Gilgo Beach, inquiries have spread to New Jersey, South Carolina and Las Vegas, where Heuermann also owned homes. 

Only last week, a body found on the stretch of Long Island beach was identified as that of Karen Vergata, a 34-year-old escort last seen in Manhattan in 1996. Police declined to confirm that she too was a victim of the same killer, though a connection has long been suspected.

Chilling discoveries: The scenic coastline of Long Island

Rex Heuermann (pictured Tuesday) was arrested last month in connection to the murders of three women whose bodies were found dumped in burlap sacks on Gilgo Beach 

In January, after watching Heuermann and his family since last March, the detectives in the case seized a pizza box he’d thrown in the trash outside his Manhattan office

It has also emerged that since police started searching Heuermann’s six-room home, they have removed more than 200 firearms and discovered that he had a special concrete-lined vault with walls several feet thick constructed in the basement.

Police say he may have kept his gun arsenal inside it but, given that investigators are now digging up the back garden in the belief that he may have killed some victims in the house, it’s possible the vault had a far darker purpose.

Recently, a former ‘cold case’ police detective urged investigators to search woods near Heuermann’s home, saying he believes bodies may be buried there.

Many in Massapequa Park are shocked to find they have an alleged serial killer in their midst but some claim that, in one sense, they are not surprised at all.

Carpenter Nick Ferchaw, 23, told the Mail of an unsettling encounter with 6ft 4in Heuermann four years ago.

‘He was chopping wood in front of his house and as I walked past I said, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ He stopped chopping and just glared at me. He didn’t say a thing.’ Ferchaw added: ‘At the time, I joked he had to be a serial killer. And I now know other people round here thought the same.’

Others said the bungalow and its occupants were ‘creepy’ and that local children would dare each other to knock on the door while trick-or-treating at Halloween. Once, Heuermann surprised them by offering them sweets.

His next-door neighbour Etienne Devilliers said he once had to ask Heuermann to stop bothering his wife over the fence when she was sunbathing in their back garden. ‘It wasn’t a pleasant conversation,’ he told Fox News. ‘We spoke pretty harshly but he didn’t get aggressive, and he never did it again.’

Heuermann grew up in Massapequa Park, attending the same local school as brothers Alec, Daniel, Billy and Stephen Baldwin, all of whom would go on to become Hollywood actors. Former classmates remember Heuermann as a geeky type who kept to himself and was sometimes bullied.

The first victim, Melissa Barthelemy, 24, was discovered by Suffolk County Police on December 11, 2010. The body of Megan Waterman, 22, was found two days later

Maureen Brainard-Barnes was 25 years old when she went missing (left). Amber Lynn Costello was 27 years old. Their bodies were found near Barthelemy’s the same day

In a community where everybody generally knows everybody else, Heuermann and his family flew under the radar.

He inherited his house from his father, an aerospace engineer.

His days were spent at the office, where he specialised in advising clients — who included American Airlines, a major Catholic charity and the Trump Corporation — on how to navigate New York’s complicated planning laws. Opinion is split on his professional expertise: some business associates admired his attention to detail but others saw him as arrogant and pedantic.

One long-time associate described him as ‘a big goofy guy, a little bit on the nerdy side’, who was devoted to his wife and his elderly mother.

A YouTuber who once interviewed Heuermann about his work recalled that shaking his hand ‘was like shaking a very thick piece of marble — that’s how strong his hand was’.

There was certainly an antisocial side to his personality that occasionally slipped out: last summer Heuermann was escorted from a Massapequa Park supermarket when he reacted in fury after being told off for stealing clementines left out in a bowl for children.

Icelandic-born Asa Ellerup, Heuermann’s 59-year-old second wife of 27 years, last week gave her first interview since her husband’s arrest. She told the New York Post that her son Christopher Sheridan, 33, has special needs and has ‘cried every night’ since his stepfather’s arrest.

Her daughter with Heuermann, Victoria, worked at her father’s firm in Manhattan. Ellerup told the Post that Victoria had felt ‘not human’ since the shocking revelation.

Ellerup has filed for divorce. Her lawyer insisted she was ‘in complete shock’, as were her children, adding: ‘Their entire lives have been turned upside down.’

Speaking to the Mail, Ellerup said last week: ‘The neighbours want the house gone. They want it bulldozed. I don’t want to walk down the street. I heard what people said about us. I heard it.’

Some neighbours and supporters have been more sympathetic. A GoFundMe has been set up by Melissa Moore, whose father Keith Hunter Jesperson was convicted in 1995 of murdering eight women. So far, $36,000 has been raised to help Ellerup and her children ‘start a new life’.

Annalara Ellerup, Asa’s cousin, told the Mail: ‘We’re all very sad for our cousin and for the victims. It’s heartbreaking.’ Of Asa, she said: ‘She’s not doing well, let’s put it like that. This was all a complete shock and she’s worried for her daughter.’

At the supermarket in Massapequa Park, staff recalled how Ellerup would look ‘depressed’ on her regular shopping visits with her children and — unusually, given that her husband ran his own architecture consultancy — would pay using food stamps, a benefit for low-income households.

Gilbert’s body was found in a marsh nearby one year after the discovery of the bodies of Melissa Barthelemy, 24; Megan Waterman, 22; Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25; and Amber Lynn Costello, 27

For more than a week following his July 14 arrest, investigators had been conducting an exhaustive search of the house

Frankie Musto, who lives two doors away, says Ellerup looked as untidy and neglected as her home, observing: ‘It could be middle of the afternoon and she looked like she just rolled out of bed. I’m friendly with everybody around here but she didn’t talk to anyone.’

A divorcee when she met Heuermann, Asa Ellerup and her sister grew up on Long Island after emigrating to the U.S. with their parents. Her father, now in his 90s, still lives in the family’s house two miles away. When asked by the Mail about his son-in-law and daughter, he said: ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

Investigators say Ellerup was away from home, either in another state or abroad, when each of the murders happened. But even if she didn’t know about her husband’s alleged crimes, it was Asa Ellerup who inadvertently led police to him.

Stray strands of her hair [believed to have come from her husband’s clothing] were found on the bodies of alleged victims and, when detectives obtained other samples from the couple’s household rubbish, allegedly proved a DNA match.

It was in December 2010 that the first discovery of one of Heuermann’s alleged victims was made by a police officer and his dog during a search of dense vegetation near Gilgo Beach for Shannan Gilbert, a 24-year-old prostitute from New Jersey who had disappeared in the area.

The German shepherd instead sniffed out the skeletal remains of another missing sex worker, Melissa Barthelemy, also 24.

Within days the police had uncovered three other bodies — Amber Lynn Costello, Megan Waterman and Maureen Brainard-Barnes.

Like Ms Barthelemy, they were all petite women in their 20s who worked as escorts. All had advertised for clients in the same way, using online sites such as Craigslist, and were found bound at the feet or ankles. They are thought to have been killed over a 20-year period.

Further searches of the area led police to the remains of Valerie Mack, a young mother and part-time sex worker who had been missing for 20 years, and those of six other people — including four more women, a young Asian man found wearing women’s clothes and the two-year-old daughter of one of the women.

An investigation was launched by police but soon became mired in allegations of incompetence and corruption. The local Suffolk County police chief James Burke refused to bring in the FBI, who, astonishingly, were investigating him for beating up a man who had stolen pornography and sex toys from his car. Burke was later jailed for nearly four years.

His successor focused on the disposable ‘burner phones’ the suspect had used to contact the victims via their advertisements online. Although these phones are prepaid with no billing records identifying the user, police used mobile phone towers to identify locations the calls were made from.

In December 2021, Rodney Harrison took over Suffolk County police force. The NYPD’s first black detective chief in 175 years, Harrison swiftly announced a new task force — including the FBI — to investigate the Gilgo Beach killings. The police had been accused of neglecting the murders because most of the victims were prostitutes. But Harrison insisted the cold case was ‘solvable’ and vowed his department ‘will not rest until we bring those accountable to justice’.

The task force made its first breakthrough when it picked up on a crucial detail that was initially overlooked. According to one witness, the killer of Amber Lynn Costello had been driving a distinctive pick-up truck — a Chevrolet Avalanche.

Heuermann  appeared disheveled as he stood before the judge in Riverhead, Long Island Tuesday

Heuermann, who had never been a suspect in the Gilgo Beach killings, was found to own such a model. Investigators were then able to establish that he lived and worked in two locations from which many of the burner phone calls had been made.

Heuermann also allegedly used victim Melissa Barthelemy’s mobile phone to make a series of brief ‘taunting’ calls to members of her family. ‘Do you think you’ll ever speak to her again?’ he asked Melissa’s 16-year-old sister, Amanda, in one call.

After she said she hoped she would, the caller calmly told her that her sibling was a prostitute and that he’d killed her after having sex with her.

A trawl of Heuermann’s internet activities revealed some chilling facts, say prosecutors.

As recently as 2022, he was said to be typing out Google searches such as ‘Long Island serial killer’; ‘Why could law enforcement not trace the calls made by Long Island serial killer’; and ‘Why hasn’t the Long Island serial killer been caught’.

Police learnt he had licences for 92 firearms and claim he had set up a fake email account that he used to search for violent pornography showing women and children being sexually assaulted.

But it was DNA evidence that proved crucial to arresting Heuermann. In July last year, a detective took 11 bottles from a rubbish bin outside Heuermann’s Massapequa Park home. DNA extracted from the bottles was compared with DNA from hairs found on some of the bodies.

Last month, a crime laboratory matched DNA from a hair found on victim Megan Waterman’s body with DNA extracted from pizza crusts that Heuermann had disposed of in a rubbish bin near his office. Prosecutors say Heuermann’s DNA was found on one of the bodies and his wife’s on two of them (there is no suggestion she is implicated in the killings).

The case against Heuermann is, however, ‘only beginning’, according to investigators.

In 2006, the bodies of four strangled prostitutes were discovered in a ditch in Egg Harbor outside the East Coast gambling mecca of Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 2011, an unnamed law enforcement insider told the New York Post that there were so many similarities to the Gilgo Beach case, it had to be ‘the same guy’, although investigators recently said they don’t believe the cases are linked.

Police in Las Vegas, where Heuermann owned a time-share property, say they are also examining his possible connection to unsolved murder cases there and in South Carolina, where he also owns a home.

The families of ‘The Gilgo Four’ will, it is hoped, finally get justice — but they are unlikely to be the only bereaved relatives to find closure from the arrest of Rex Heuermann.

Source: Read Full Article