After a decade of little movement in a series of killing on Long Island, a new sense of urgency.
It was just a few days after Memorial Day — the start of a summer like no other, a pandemic shutting down all signs of life outside of homes and hospitals. But there, in a video message released to the public on May 29, was Commissioner Geraldine Hart of the Suffolk County Police Department, standing behind a lectern and next to an American flag, making an announcement few people expected: a major break in a multiple-murder investigation that had confounded her predecessors for nearly a decade.
More than an unsolved mystery, the case of the Long Island serial killer has been an investigation with next to no visible movement — a procedural that even the police, at times, seemed to want no part of. It began with the discovery, 10 years ago, of four bodies wrapped in burlap and discarded on a desolate stretch of Ocean Parkway near Gilgo Beach. All the victims were women, and all had been escorts on Craigslist.
This was only the first of several grisly discoveries. Within months, the remains of as many as 16 victims had been found, from Gilgo Beach stretching out east to the pine barrens of Manorville. And yet for a decade, the police have announced not a single suspect or person of interest. Months passed, then years, with no comment from the department about the case.
Hart's announcement in May concerned a victim referred to as Jane Doe No. 6. Hunters had first found parts of her body, in plastic bags, in the pine barrens in 2000; then, in 2011, after the discovery of several other victims, the Suffolk County police found more of her body near Gilgo Beach. The police used DNA analysis to link the remains, but the victim's identity continued to be a mystery for more than 10 years.
Now, seemingly out of nowhere, Hart was revealing that the police had learned Jane Doe No. 6's identity: She was Valerie Mack, a 24-year-old mother from southern New Jersey who had paid the bills as an escort and had been missing for 20 years.
Mack's arrest record placed her in Philadelphia in the months before she vanished. There was nothing to connect her to Long Island. But in this, she had much in common with the other victims, most of whom also had been petite women in their 20s who worked as escorts and came to New York from elsewhere. For a decade, there has been no telling how these women died — or who took their bodies to the woods, beaches and roadside brambles of Long Island.
Jane Doe No. 6's identity was a revelation to Mack's family. "While this is not the outcome they wanted," the commissioner said with an air of formality, "we hope this brings some sense of peace and closure."
But there was a broader meaning to this moment: the possibility that after years of stasis, the Long Island serial killer case may no longer be quite so cold. The difference started with the woman at the lectern. Two years into the job, Hart had moved Suffolk County's most notorious unsolved case forward — where others once seemed determined to keep it from going anywhere at all.
"I was born and raised on Long Island, yes," said Hart, 53. "You can tell by my accent, I'm sure."
I called her in August, with the pandemic still raging. She spoke on the phone from her office at Police Headquarters in Yaphank, and her manner was unshowy, her affect flattened by a lifetime in law enforcement — and her accent, without a doubt, from the Island.
The public nature of being police commissioner still seems slightly foreign to her. Before taking the job in 2018, Hart, had spent more than 20 years largely behind the scenes as an FBI agent, later to be the head of the bureau's Long Island field office. Running one of the nation's largest police departments (let alone one that had recently been tainted with scandal) never seemed to be on her agenda.
But for this case, Hart seemed eager to be accessible. An interview request got a quick response, something of a first in my experience with the Suffolk police. Some disclosure here: I've covered this case since 2011 and wrote Lost Girls, the 2013 nonfiction account that became the basis for a film directed by Liz Garbus that streamed on Netflix this past spring. None of this escaped Hart's notice.
"I saw the movie," she told me, "but I didn't read the book." (She was quick to add politely, "I heard it got excellent reviews.")
Hart is acutely aware of how this case has become baked into the mythology of Long Island. Over 10 years, armchair detectives have parsed theories to explain the many unsolved murders: everything from a satanic sex cult to one skilled and prolific seasonal killer hitting beach towns up and down the East Coast. She also knows how poorly the police have come off in the public eye, seen as showing little more than apathy and even disdain for the victims. For many years, the commissioner's predecessors seemed reluctant to discuss the case publicly, and those who lived in the affected beach towns had tried to wish it away.
While the deaths stretch back more than 10 years, there might never have been a known Long Island serial killer case at all if it hadn't been for Shannan Gilbert — like Valerie Mack, a 24-year-old woman working as an escort. Gilbert disappeared on May 1, 2010, during an escort job in Oak Beach, a gated community on Long Island's South Shore, 5km from Gilgo Beach. Her disappearance didn't make the news at the time. Despite her family's best efforts to get her treated as a missing person, the police said there was little to be done — even after it came out that Gilbert had made a 911 call that night, during which she insisted someone was trying to kill her.
Gilbert was virtually forgotten until seven months later, when the Suffolk police discovered the four bodies draped in burlap along the side of Ocean Parkway, 5km from where Gilbert was last seen alive. In early 2011, these four victims were identified by DNA as Amber Lynn Costello, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Megan Waterman and Melissa Barthelemy — all in their 20s, all also working as escorts. They all came from towns outside New York. They all engaged in sex work to pay bills or to escape one life and invent a new one.
So did another Craigslist escort named Jessica Taylor, also a small woman in her 20s. Parts of Taylor's body, like Mack's, were first found in Manorville in 2003; unlike Mack, Taylor was identified right away, though her case also went unsolved. During the expanded search for Gilbert in 2011, more remains from Taylor and Mack were found along Ocean Parkway. Manorville and Gilgo Beach are more than 65km apart — suggesting a killer who knew the most desolate parts of Long Island and was making the place his own.
In this initial flurry of the investigation, the police expanded their search and found more victims. Not everyone fit the profile. One victim was male. One was a toddler, who would later be linked by DNA to yet another unidentified woman found in the bramble, whom the police would call Peaches, after a tattoo on her body. Mother and child were found miles apart.
At least six of these new victims could not be identified by the traditional means of searching DNA databases of missing persons — a chilling lesson in just how far off the grid a person still can fall, even in the 21st century, even in the spotlight of New York.
But the most stunning takeaway from this case was how unwilling or uninterested the police seemed in bringing justice for these women. One senior detective in 2011 even said it was a "consolation" to the general public that the victims were only prostitutes.
In December 2011, more than a year and a half after Gilbert made her last, frantic 911 call, the Suffolk police found her skeleton in a marsh in Oak Beach that the police had not searched before. But rather than expanding the investigation, the entire department seemed to go dark. Bafflingly, it withdrew from collaborations with other agencies, including the FBI. By all outward appearances, the case seemed frozen for six years, until April 2018, when Geraldine Hart was handed control of the department. It fell to her to undo some of the worst police corruption ever to affect this part of the country, and to move this cold case forward.
The daughter of a New York City police officer, Hart, who grew up in Northport, joined the FBI soon after finishing law school. "I always say I practiced law for six weeks, and then I got the call for the bureau," she said.
She spent 15 years in the FBI's organized crime division in Queens, running several major investigations, including the infamous case of two New York police officers who moonlighted as contract killers for the mobster Anthony Casso, known as Gaspipe.
In that case, Hart had one of her first meaningful interactions with a victim's family: a widow who wrote the FBI every year looking for more information before her husband's remains were found beneath the concrete of a Brooklyn parking garage. "It's heartbreaking," Hart said, "but there is some sense of peace when they have an answer. For me, that was always the most rewarding piece of the work."
She was still with the FBI's Long Island office when, in December 2010, the four victims were discovered along Ocean Parkway. According to Hart, the FBI consulted on the case in 2011, but at the end of 2012, the Suffolk police abruptly locked the agency out. Even the bureau's famous behavioral analysis unit, memorialized in "Mindhunter" and "The Silence of the Lambs," was sent away before it could complete a profile of a killer. Hart said she learned this was happening for one reason: Suffolk County's newly appointed chief of department, James Burke, seemed to want it that way. And there was a reason for that, too: The Justice Department was investigating him for corruption.
In late 2012, a year after assuming control of the Suffolk police, Burke assaulted a man being held for a parole violation. The parolee, Christopher Loeb, had been brought on suspicion that he had stolen a bag from Burke's car containing pornography and sex toys. Burke pressured detectives who witnessed the beating to deny they saw the attack. Even the Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, helped with the cover-up. Eventually, both Burke and Spota were convicted of conspiracy, and Suffolk County became notorious as one of the nation's most corrupt law enforcement jurisdictions.
This was the police department Hart took control of in the spring of 2018: a compromised institution stained by scandal that — apart from pressing challenges with the MS-13 gang and an opioid crisis — was struggling to get traction on a famously unsolved serial killer case that it had neglected for years.
Hart, whose FBI field office had been welcomed back into the case after Burke's departure, said she saw an opportunity for "a clean slate." Then, after barely two weeks on the job, on April 24, 2018, she learned that authorities in California had charged a 72-year-old man named Joseph DeAngelo with eight counts of first-degree murder: After decades, the Golden State Killer had been caught. But the takeaway for Hart was even more powerful: An epic cold case of rapes and murders had finally been solved, thanks to a new technique of analyzing DNA data.
Right away, she called an old colleague at the FBI's Long Island office who was up to speed on this very technology.
"How," Hart remembered asking, "do we get this done?"
For decades, the Golden State Killer case had loomed large among cold-case enthusiasts. The nickname was coined by Michelle McNamara, a dedicated crime journalist and researcher who spent years corralling information from far-reaching jurisdictions to develop a profile.
McNamara died suddenly in 2016 of an accidental overdose of sleep medication, before her best-selling book, "I'll Be Gone in the Dark," further publicized the case in 2018. "As we were finishing the book, we knew he was going to get caught one of two ways: geographic profiling or genetic genealogy," said Billy Jensen, an author and researcher who knew McNamara and helped complete her book after her death.
Sure enough, just months after the book's release, the police announced DeAngelo's arrest, crediting the break in the case to the accessing of the database at GEDmatch, a service that collects data from private DNA testing companies like 23andMe. The floodgates opened. Hart on Long Island wasn't the only person wondering if something similar could happen for New York's most famous unsolved multiple-murder investigation. That question has swirled around the case since: Could sifting through DNA records of the general public find this murderer, too?
"Every police department should have a genetic genealogist on staff," Jensen said. The Long Island case may be receding into history, he said, but a killer or killers may still be at large. "You've still got to figure out who this person is in order to save other people's lives," he said.
On a TV show like CSI, Hart and her team would click away on a DNA database for a few minutes before finding a match for the killer.
Reality, naturally, is not so simple.
The evidence in the Long Island case, for starters, has little in common with what the police had in the search for the Golden State Killer. California had a wealth of genetic material from suspects to sample from, much of it based on rape kits. Long Island is not known to have any DNA evidence from a suspect or even potential suspects. But the Suffolk police do have DNA from the remains of unidentified victims. And those victims, in turn, could hold clues to a killer's identity.
But Hart soon learned that New York State has some of the nation's most restrictive policies regulating the use of DNA. Before even being able to match DNA evidence with the genetic information held by private companies, the police would need to hire a private lab to process the DNA into a suitable sample. New York has yet to allow its police departments to hire any private lab for this purpose. Privacy advocates say that's for good reason: Patrons of genetic genealogy labs, they argue, have not consented to having their genetic material used by the police for any purpose.
Hart needed a workaround. That's where her old colleagues at the FBI came in. Since it was declared an official partner in the Long Island investigation, the FBI was able to reach out to a private lab to process Jane Doe No. 6's DNA and prepare a sample for matching. As that process crawled along, Hart decided to engage the public's grim fascination with the case.
On Januart 16, Hart held a news conference, her first for this case, and she disclosed a piece of evidence: a leather belt with the hand-engraved initials "HM," or if you looked at it upside-down, "WH." Hart said the police believed the belt had been handled by the killer.
She did not say why they thought that, or even where the belt came from. She didn't show the belt itself — just an image of the initials. But this was the first major clue the police had disclosed in years. Even though the police had, Hart acknowledged, found it many years earlier, it was new to the public. Alongside that clue, Hart announced a new website meant to aggregate public police information about the case and encourage tips from the community.
Not everyone was impressed. All over the internet, skeptics wondered: Why did it take this long for the police to release this image? Why did the website keep crashing? And why did the news conference take place the same day that Netflix released the trailer for "Lost Girls?" Others took the opportunity to criticize the investigation: John Ray, the lawyer for Shannan Gilbert's estate, held his own news conference the same day, blasting the inquiry as "inadequate and negligent."
Hart defended her decision to be more public about the case. "We're coming up to the 10-year anniversary on this. It's received a ton of publicity. So how do we get the word out? How do we get the message out?" she asked. "The thought is, somebody out there knows something."
The identification of Valerie Mack this May came as a complete surprise to her family, which had been in the dark about what happened for 20 years. "They had attempted to report her missing, but they weren't able to," Hart said. It was an aunt's DNA, found on a commercial genealogy website, that helped the FBI and the police identify her at last — making hers the first successful genetic genealogy investigation in New York.
The discovery has already bolstered various theories about the case. "It helps show the geographical footprint of this killer or killers is bigger than we think," suggested Josh Zeman, a documentarian whose series, Killing Season, pushed the idea that the murderer traveled far and wide to find victims. Some have tried to connect the Long Island serial killer case to a string of unsolved escort killings in Atlantic City, New Jersey. While Hart said there was no connection yet, "We are absolutely in touch with Atlantic City."
It's also tempting to connect Mack to Jessica Taylor — two women discovered in the same way, in two of the same places. Hart has her own theory — unproven of course, though she sounds energized as she shares it. She notes that two other victims were similarly disposed of: body parts, still unidentified, found at Davis Park in 1996, and the victim known as Peaches, who was found in neighboring Nassau County. It is possible, Hart has been thinking, that these four victims have the same killer — a different one from the four women found in 2010 in Gilgo Beach. "The method of dismemberment and disposal is kind of unique to these four," she said.
Before committing to that theory, Hart intends to pursue more clues by identifying more victims. But she is candid enough to admit that some victims have been tougher to trace than Mack. "The toddler and the Asian male are a little more challenging," she said. "We're not able to get their DNA raw data file out of a DNA piece that we sent over to the labs. But we are pursuing an alternative method on that."
She already sees the benefit to giving names to the nameless. Her detectives returned from their visit with Mack's family visibly moved. "I mean, 20 years, she was without a name and the family," Hart said. "I can't imagine that kind of pain of not knowing. Especially her son. He was only 6 or 7 when she disappeared. To not know if she left or if she had met with foul play, I can't even imagine what kind of agony that is."
That's a new sentiment in the Suffolk County Police Department: the idea that investigating the case and acknowledging the families' pain are two sides of the same coin, that doing one helps the other. That realization could be the greatest step forward the police have taken in this case.
"There's a lot of work left to do," Hart said. "But there is momentum. And I'm going to continue to use that momentum to move forward."
Written by: Robert Kolker
Photographs by: Uli Seit, Johnny Milano and Robert Stolarik
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES