Saturday, July 22, 2023

Inside the 'polygon' the Giglo Beach serial killer investigation

They called it the polygon.

Using phone records and a sophisticated system that maps the reach of cell towers, a team of investigators had drawn the irregular shape across a map of tree-lined streets in the Long Island suburb of Massapequa Park. By 2021, the investigators had been able to shrink the polygon so that it covered only several hundred homes, reported The New York Times.

In one of those homes, the investigators believed, lived a serial killer.

A decade before, 11 bodies had been found in the underbrush around Gilgo Beach, a remote stretch of sand five miles away on the South Shore. Four women had been bound with tape or belts or wrapped in shrouds of camouflage-patterned burlap, the sort that hunters use for blinds. They had worked as escorts and had gone missing after going to meet a client.

Each, shortly before she disappeared, had been in contact with a different disposable cellphone. Investigators eventually determined that during the workday, some of the phones had been in a small area of Midtown Manhattan near Penn Station, and at night they pinged in the polygon, mirroring the tidal movements of the 150,000 Long Island residents who head into Manhattan each day.

Last Friday, Suffolk County authorities announced that they had arrested a man who they believed had killed the four women: Rex Heuermann, a 59-year-old architect who had an office near Penn Station and lived on a quiet street right where they had expected to find him. He was charged with three of the murders, to which he has pleaded not guilty, and was named as the prime suspect in the fourth.

The arrest ended years of anguish for some of the victims’ families. But the investigation also raised an unsettling question: Could the authorities have solved the case years earlier?

The following account is drawn from a 32-page bail application and interviews with current and former investigators and Suffolk County’s top law enforcement officials.

The case had unfolded fitfully over more than a decade. But it took a new police commissioner and his task force just six weeks to uncover a crucial clue in the sprawling case file.

Working under Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison, the core group of about 10 investigators was drawn from his department, the sheriff’s office, F.B.I. and State Police and worked closely with District Attorney Ray Tierney of Suffolk County and his prosecutors.

They worked in a beige office, its walls covered with maps, photos and a giant timeline, scouring their suspect’s digital and daily life — email addresses, social media accounts, search history.

All the while, Mr. Heuermann was searching, too, asking Google the same question that so many of his neighbors had been asking each other for more than a decade: “why hasn’t the long island serial killer been caught?”

Picking up the trail of a serial killer is an exceptional challenge. The killer often has no personal connection to the victims. If the victims lived on society’s margins, months or years can go by before their disappearances are treated as serious matters — or even recognized as the work of a single murderer.

The realization that a serial killer was hunting on Long Island’s South Shore came in December 2010, when a Suffolk County police officer, John Mallia, and his canine partner, a German shepherd named Blue, were searching for a 24-year-old woman named Shannan Gilbert, who had gone missing in the area. 

Instead, over several days they found four other bodies near Gilgo Beach. They had been placed roughly 10 yards from Ocean Parkway, the main east-west thoroughfare that traverses a barrier island off the South Shore. After they discovered the bodies, investigators searched for evidence nearby with meticulous care — “sifting the sand like gold miners around each body,” one investigator recalled.

Ms. Gilbert’s corpse and other remains, including those that the authorities described as a man wearing women’s clothing and a toddler, would be found along the same roadway over the following year. The grisly discoveries riveted the region as the police speculated that the killings might be the work of more than one person.

But the first four bodies — all petite women in their 20s who had gone missing in the previous four years — seemed linked. Investigators surmised they had been killed by the same man, in part because of the way the bodies were wrapped and their proximity. And there was reason to believe that a witness might have gotten a look at the man.

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