By Robert Kolker. It was just a few days after Memorial Day — the start of a summer like no other, a pandemic shutting down all s 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. Hunters had first found parts of her body, in plastic bags, in the pine barrens in ; then, inafter the discovery of several other victims, the Suffolk County police found more of her body near Gilgo Beach.
Now, seemingly out of nowhere, Ms. Hart was revealing that the police had learned Jane Doe No. 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 roide brambles of Long Island. Jane Doe No. 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, Ms. Hart, 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 inMs. Hart, had spent more than 20 years largely behind the scenes as an F. But for this case, Ms. Hart seemed eager to be accessible. An interview request got a quick response, something of a first in my experience with the Suffolk police. None of this escaped Ms. 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. Gilbert had made a 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, three miles from where Ms. Gilbert was last seen alive. 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 Ms. Mack, Ms. Taylor was identified right away, though her case also went unsolved. During the expanded search for Ms. Gilbert inmore remains from Ms. Taylor and Ms. Mack were found along Ocean Parkway. Manorville and Gilgo Beach are more than 40 miles 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. In Decembermore than a year and a half after Ms. Gilbert made her last, frantic 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 F. By all outward appearances, the case seemed frozen for six years, until Aprilwhen 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, Ms. Hart, who grew up in Northport, ed the F. She spent 15 years in the F. In that case, Ms. For me, that was always the most rewarding piece of the work.
She was still with the F. According to Ms. Hart, the F. And there was a reason for that, too: The Justice Department was investigating him for corruption. In latea year after assuming control of the Suffolk police, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Burke and Mr. This was the police department Ms. Hart took control of in the spring of a compromised institution stained by scandal that — apart from pressing challenges with the MS 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 F. But the takeaway for Ms. 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 F. For decades, the Golden State Killer case had loomed large among cold-case enthusiasts. The nickname was coined by Michelle McNamaraa dedicated crime journalist and researcher who spent years corralling information from far-reaching jurisdictions to develop a profile. McNamara and helped complete her book after her death.
The floodgates opened. That question has swirled around the case since: Could sifting through DNA records of the general public find this murderer, too? Jensen said. The Long Island case may be receding into historyhe said, but a killer or killers may still be at large.
Hart and her team would click away on a DNA database for a few minutes before finding a match for the killer. 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.
But Ms. 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. Hart needed a workaround. ZIP: 11967