A disgraced police chief who inherited the infamous Gilgo Beach murders spent more time dodging the feds than looking for a killer who dumped 10 bodies along Long Island’s South Shore.
Since James Burke took over, the department’s sham investigation was marred by corruption, cover-ups, infighting, squabbles between detectives and prosecutors and territorial bouts between the local police and the FBI.
The dysfunction pushed the 10 victims to the back burner, and vital tips and evidence — like a Chevy Avalanche sighting in 2010 and the suspect’s cell phone data — collected dust for more than a decade.
Until Rex Heuermann’s arrest last month, the infamous cold case was more like local lore than an active law enforcement investigation.
The “Gilgo Beach 4” — Melissa Barthelemy, 24, Amber Lynn Costello, 22, Megan Waterman, 27, and Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25 — and at least six other victims were found in the same area between December 2010 and April 2011.
By the time the last body was found, Burke had been the police chief less than nine months, and he essentially cleaned house, which included the forced retirement of Chief of Detectives Dominick Varrone.
Authorities have said in previous interviews with news outlets that Burke blocked Varrone from debriefing incoming investigators on the case, something the county’s top prosecutor at the time, Tom Spota, has denied. But vital evidence slipped through the cracks.
That included a witness’s description of a potential suspect, a 6-foot, 4-inch “ogre” driving a first-generation Chevy Avalanche who visited Costello around the time her body was found.
Those were unearthed last year after newly elected DA Ray Tierney put together a task force that included investigators from his office, along with detectives from all levels of law enforcement.
The “ogre” description and the Avalanche were highlighted in Heuermann’s detailed bail application as vital pieces of evidence that narrowed down the suspect pool.
Josh Zeman, who produced a documentary about the Long Island serial killer that aired in 2017, attended the July press conference where Heuermann was identified as the suspected Long Island serial killer.
“I never thought this case would be solved,” Zeman told Fox News Digital after the press conference. “Of course, (Heuermann’s arrest) brought questions about whether or not this case could have been solved right away. … That’s one of the things that’s so frustrating about this. It seems like all the evidence and leads were there since the beginning.”
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The scandal that took down Burke and Suffolk’s top prosecutor
In December 2012, Burke tracked down and beat a handcuffed man who stole his duffel bag filled with porn and sex toys from his squad car.
His actions put him in the FBI’s crosshairs.
For the next three-plus years, Burke “spearheaded an extensive cover-up,” federal prosecutors said after his November 2016 sentencing to 46 months in prison.
That included persuading at least one detective to lie under oath and other members of the department to back up his bogus story, according to court documents.
“No police work is getting done” by the Suffolk County Police, prosecutor Lara Treinis Gatz said during the court case. “They’re spending their day protecting Jimmy.”
Former federal prosecutor Robert Capers said in a 2016 statement that Burke “considered himself untouchable.”
“He abused his authority by brazenly assaulting a handcuffed prisoner. He pressured subordinates to lie to cover up his criminal acts, and he attempted to thwart the civil rights investigation into his conduct,” Capers said.
Spota was also embroiled in the cover-up after federal investigators learned he pressured officers not to cooperate with the FBI to protect his protege.
Spota, who was Suffolk County DA at the time, was ultimately convicted of witness tampering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy in 2019 and sentenced to five years in prison.
“Instead of serving the people of Suffolk County, these defendants brazenly abused their exceptional positions of power and public trust to protect their friends and hurt their enemies,” Acting U.S. Atty. Jacquelyn Kasulis said at the time of Spota’s conviction.
Justice for the Gilgo Beach murder victims became a casualty of the years-long scandal that crippled the police department and prosecutor’s office.
What happened after Burke and Spota were gone?
In 2015, Tim Sini took over the embattled police department as the new chief and then became the county’s top prosecutor in 2017 after Spota was jettisoned from the position.
During his time as chief and DA, Sini made baby steps in the Gilgo Beach investigation, which relied on cell phone data collected by the FBI in 2012.
The data showed the suspect’s cell phone pinged in Manhattan and Massapequa Park, Long Island, which Sini said in 2021 shrunk the suspect pool from about 1,250 to 200.
He needed the Suffolk County Homicide Squad to vet suspects, but the homicide unit was “an open mutiny” against Sini, Washington Post investigative reporter Gus Garcia-Roberts said during an Aug. 9 appearance on the “LISK: Long Island Serial Killer” podcast.
Garcia-Roberts also wrote a book, “Jimmy the King,” that detailed Burke’s rise and fall as a cop.
He said during the podcast that Sini and the detectives frequently clashed, which again stalled the investigation.
By 2021, the FBI refused to work on the Gilgo Beach investigation until lead Det. Patrick Portela, a Burke-appointed holdover, was removed from the case, Garcia-Roberts said during the podcast.
Portela was ultimately removed after he was threatened with demotion.
The suspected Long Island serial killer is finally captured
Sini lost his DA re-election bid to Tierney, who made the Gilgo Beach murders his primary objective after he took office.
Within months, the task force he put together identified Heuermann as the suspect using evidence collected in the early days of the investigation, trailed him for about a year and finally slapped the cuffs on him July 13.
He was charged in the murders of Costello, Barthelemy and Waterman and is the prime suspect in Brainard-Barnes’ slaying.
Heuermann, a Manhattan architect who lives about 15 miles from a dump site in Massapequa Park, pleaded not guilty to all charges.
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“It was bittersweet” watching Tierney announce Heuermman’s arrest, Zeman said. “For so many years, we had connected with the families who were telling their stories. … They took the brunt of Burke’s actions.
“You had a police chief literally on the run from the FBI. He wasn’t working with the FBI because he didn’t want the FBI to see what was going on behind the scenes in his own fiefdom. … That left the families (of the victims) out in the cold.”
Double life of an alleged serial killer
Heuermann allegedly lived a double life. By day, he was a successful businessman, devoted husband and father to two children.
By night, he was allegedly a predator who terrorized sex workers and their families for his gratification.
Heuermann’s wife, Asa Ellerup, filed for divorce after his arrest.
Last week, she showed photos of the chaotic aftermath police left behind after executing search warrants for two weeks.
Officers found a “vault” in the basement, nearly 300 guns and boxes upon boxes of other evidence, most of which prosecutors have not publicly described.
Heuermann was taken off suicide watch in a Long Island jail, according to the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office.
He faces life in prison without parole and is still under investigation in Suffolk County and elsewhere in unsolved murder cases that may fit a pattern.
A judge ordered him to submit a DNA sample that prosecutors had requested, overruling opposition from his defense attorneys.