The women were expendable. They were sex workers, after all. When they disappeared between 2007 and 2010, Long Island law enforcement formed no task forces. There was no huge outcry from the public. Their killer had chosen victims who could go missing without fanfare.
In December 2010 during a training exercise with his handler, a police dog found the remains of Melissa Barthelemy near Gilgo Beach. Authorities then found the remains of Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Megan Waterman and Amber Costello. Police were confronted with the ugly reality that they were dealing with a serial killer.
More searches pushed the body count to 11 — nine women, a male dressed as a woman and a toddler. Yet the case stalled for more than a decade.
Newspapers are full of accurate stories about FBI misbehavior and bad police work. This is the story of law enforcement officials who, in the face of easy criticism, soldiered on when few expected them to.
In 2022, new-to-the-job Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison formed a task force of federal, state and local investigators and prosecutors as he announced the Long Island murders a “top priority.” Then everything began to change.
Six weeks later, the task force had a suspect: Rex Heuermann, a 59-year-old area architect, who was charged in a 32-page indictment with the murders of Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman and Amber Costello.
The indictment also noted Heuermann is the prime suspect in Brainard-Barnes’ death. It’s a start.
Heuermann has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer Michael Brown said the case against his client is circumstantial. Be it noted, Heuermann should be presumed not guilty in a court of law.
Let us salute the task force that decided the cold case could and needed to be solved.
With the aid of advanced forensics, the task force was able to solve the puzzle by painstakingly reviewing threads of evidence gathered more than a decade ago when a witness reported a dark-colored Chevy Avalanche near where Costello had been staying.
That put Heuermann, a Long Island resident who owned such a vehicle, on the task force’s radar.
Advances in technology tracked key cell-site locations for the burner phones he used to contact his young victims.
Heuermann, prosecutors charged, phoned Barthelemy’s family just to taunt them. Those and other calls made from victims’ phones confirmed that the suspect was near cell-site locations related to the murders.
As investigators surveilled Heuermann, he threw out a pizza box with a crust that offered up mitochondrial DNA evidence cited in the indictment.
Violent criminals, beware. Methods used to enable offenders to cover their tracks have run smack into the possibilities of new technologies. Privacy advocates and civil libertarians rightly warn that these methods can be used against anyone.
But according to the indictment, authorities didn’t cast a wide net to access private DNA databases. They followed one piece of evidence — the Avalanche — to another source — cellphone records — which led to the pizza crust.
During a Friday press conference, Suffolk County District Attorney Raymond A. Tierney spoke of his commitment not to use the probe as background for photo ops at Gilgo Beach. Secrecy was vital to the mission. He noted, “We were playing before a party of one.”
It must have been agonizing for lawmen and women to continue their probe as the suspect, Tierney revealed, “continued to patronize sex workers at all hours of the night,” surfed the internet for torture porn and depictions of women being raped and killed.
At a time when Americans are drowning in cynicism and low expectations, local, state and federal officials worked together to go after a “demon” — as Harrison called him — who apparently thought that because his victims were “escorts,” he could get away with it. He didn’t count on the good guys. He didn’t even know they were there.
Debra J. Saunders is a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership. Contact her at [email protected].
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