The Botched Hunt for the Gilgo Beach Killer

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As the spring of 2011 wore on, the police seemed aggrieved. At times they subtly blamed the victims. In a meeting meant to calm the public, the chief of detectives said these women went out to meet this killer because they were “willing to get into a car with a stranger” and that it was a “consolation” that the killer was “not selecting citizens at large, he’s selecting from a pool.” There was a growing feeling, on the part of some police officers, that all this was happening to them — that it seemed almost arbitrary that 10 cold cases (11 including Gilbert) crash-landed in the middle of their jurisdiction. And then, as time wore on, the police updates stopped. To observers, the investigation seemed to stall entirely.

This summer, after 13 years, the police finally made an arrest in the Gilgo Beach murders. Rex Heuermann is a 59-year-old architect and married father of two who commuted to Manhattan from his home in Massapequa Park, a bustling bedroom community in central Long Island. Heuermann had been in plain sight the whole time in any number of ways. According to prosecutors, he had 97 gun permits — an astonishing number, by any standard, that you think would raise a few eyebrows in any cursory search. He patronized escorts, causing some to wonder who else, potentially, he might have harmed. While the families of the victims, who had been waiting for this moment, were overwhelmed by the news of the arrest, they also wondered why it took so long.

Since the case’s early days, law-enforcement officers have rarely spoken to the media. When I was reporting “Lost Girls,” my 2013 book about the case and victims, the police were largely silent. But after Heuermann’s arrest, some have been willing to discuss the investigation with a greater degree of detail and candor. Since July, I’ve conducted interviews with people close to the Gilgo case during every chapter of its bizarre 13-year timeline. (Several sources asked for anonymity, concerned that public statements by insiders might undercut the case against Heuermann before the trial.)

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The story they tell — at times self-serving and at other times soul-searching — demonstrates, inadvertently and otherwise, how institutional rot helped contribute to the delays and paralysis of the investigation. What started out as indifference and apathy soon curdled into obstinance, willful ignorance and corruption. From the moment those women were found at Gilgo Beach, the law-enforcement culture of Suffolk County seemed so preternaturally ill suited to handle this case that a killer was allowed to roam free. Which was all the more galling, given what we know now — that everything the police needed to solve the case, they had almost on Day 1.

To understand what went wrong with the Gilgo case, it helps to have a passing familiarity with the dark, contradictory nature of Suffolk County — encompassing some of the most rarefied communities in the world, including the Hamptons and Fire Island, as well as struggling towns like Brentwood, Wyandanch and Central Islip. It’s a place full of sophisticated, powerful people, where time and again, law-enforcement has closed ranks and done things their way, often with little oversight.

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