clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Long Island serial killer case may finally be solved — but many questions remain

A surprise arrest after a 13-year investigation shocked the true crime community — and relieved New Yorkers.

A Suffolk County police van and caution tape.
Police cordon off the area after a suspect was arrested in the Gilgo Beach serial killings in Massapequa Park, Long Island, New York, on July 14, 2023.
Kyle Mazza/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

He murdered at least four people, likely 10, and possibly more. His victims, which included an unidentified toddler and her mother, were left discarded like trash along a short stretch of beach highway. Over the last decade, his specter became a pop culture boogeyman.

And now, authorities may have finally caught LISK: the Long Island serial killer.

On July 14, police on Long Island swarmed tiny Massapequa Park, a small village located about 20 minutes from Jones Beach Island, the long, narrow strip of land where all of LISK’s assumed victims were recovered between 2010 and 2011. They were there to search the home of 59-year-old Rex Heuermann, an architect and building consultant who’d been taken into custody outside his Manhattan office building earlier that morning.

According to the New York Post, authorities first identified Heuermann as a potential person of interest over a year ago due to a DNA match. Evidence has connected him with the first group of LISK’s confirmed victims, known as “the Gilgo four.” These were the first four victims, who were all discovered in December 2010 around the Gilgo Beach stretch of the island.

Heuermann was subsequently charged with the murders of three of the original four recovered victims — Melissa Barthelemy, Amber Lynn Costello, and Megan Waterman. He was arraigned in court July 14, where he entered a plea of not guilty. Evidence linking him to the crimes according to court documents include phone records, internet searches, and DNA.

The news of Heuermann’s arrest sent social media into a frenzy, as the true crime community celebrated a huge win for an investigation many people doubted would ever be closed. That’s because the LISK case, also referred to as the Gilgo Beach murders or the Long Island Ripper case, is one of the most complicated, confusing, and frustrating serial killer cases in recent memory.

The reasons for this are complex, but they’re also very familiar. Like many serial killers, LISK targeted sex workers, likely due to the myriad factors that can lead to sex workers being marginalized and missing, often going unreported and unidentified. Authorities sometimes fail to take the disappearances of sex workers seriously, which can hinder investigations. In this case, a jaw-dropping level of alleged corruption and misconduct from the former Suffolk County Police chief further jeopardized the entire investigation. Then we have the killer himself, whose MO may have changed over time, leading to questions about how many murders he committed or whether he was working with a partner.

The renewed investigation has already yielded multiple new developments, including not only the arrest of Heuermann but the identification of one of his potential victims — Karen Vergata, a woman formerly known as “Fire Island Jane Doe.” As developments unfold, there are plenty of new and unresolved questions about this case. The biggest is one that has haunted the case since its inception: Are all LISK’s victims the work of one serial killer, or are there multiple perpetrators stalking the wilds of Long Island?

Here’s what to know about the murders that became an eerie shadow for a generation of New Yorkers, and what we know so far about the man who may have committed them.

The LISK case was long and frustrating — and very scary

The LISK case burst into the public’s awareness because of Shannan Gilbert, a 23-year-old aspiring singer who vanished on May 1, 2010. Prior to her death, Gilbert made a 23-minute 911 call in which she wandered, confused and disoriented, around the Oak Beach neighborhood where she’d had an earlier escort appointment, frantically begging for help and claiming to be in danger. Gilbert’s body was eventually discovered in December 2011, in the marshes near Oak Beach. Thirteen years later, the nature of Gilbert’s death remains a subject of controversy. Her unsolved case has long been considered by authorities to be unrelated to LISK, but it’s because of her that the deaths of LISK’s actual victims — most of whom were marginalized — were ever investigated at all.

In December 2010, the investigation into Gilbert’s death uncovered four bodies, subsequently dubbed “the Gilgo four.” All were discovered over a two-day period, all discarded near each other along desolate Ocean Parkway, a two-lane road that spans the length of Jones Beach Island, a long strip of land that forms part of Long Island’s South Shore.

First was the body of Melissa Barthelemy, discovered on December 11, 2010. Barthelemy, a 24-year-old cosmetologist, had first gone missing in July 2009. The subsequent investigation into Barthelemy’s death quickly located three more bodies. The second located victim was Amber Lynn Costello, 27, who had gone missing in September 2010. Next police located 25-year-old Maureen Brainard-Barnes, a single mom who’d gone missing in 2007. Finally, Megan Waterman, 22, a single mom who had gone missing in June 2010. All four of the victims were sex workers of similar age, height, and appearance; all four of their bodies were found whole, three wrapped in burlap.

Over the next five months, the partial remains of six other victims, all disposed of along Ocean Parkway, were discovered. Because these bodies were dismembered and their remains scattered in various locations, there is some debate about whether they are related to the Gilgo four.

In July 2003, the fifth victim to be discovered, thought to be connected to the others, 20-year-old Jessica Taylor, also went missing from New York City; her partial remains were found in Manorville, Long Island, later that same month. But it wasn’t until March 2011 that authorities recovered her skull along the Gilgo Beach highway.

The sixth victim to be discovered, in April 2011, was an Asian trans woman in her late teens or early 20s. Early media reports and true crime blogs frequently misgendered her, though more recently, she has been referred to as “Gilgo Beach Doe” or “Ocean Parkway Doe.” She is believed to have been killed up to five years earlier by a blow to the head. Very little is known about this victim; like most of the other LISK victims, she is believed to have been a sex worker.

A modified police reconstruction sketch, showing what Gilgo Beach Doe might have looked like.
Suffolk County Police/Imgur

In April, the remains of an unidentified toddler, the seventh victim, were found. Subsequently, the partial remains of an eighth victim, a Black woman known as “Peaches” because of a peach tattoo she had, were found in Cedar Beach off Ocean Parkway. Her initial set of remains had previously been located in Hempstead Lake State Park in 1997. This state park is about 45 minutes away from where more of her remains were ultimately located in April 2011. “Peaches” was confirmed through DNA matching to be the mother of the unidentified toddler. Both mother and daughter are believed to be LISK victims. Authorities have recently traced Peaches’ possible roots to Alabama but have not yet made an identification.

The ninth victim, 24-year-old Valerie Mack, went missing in October 2000. In November 2000, her torso was found in Manorville, 40 minutes away from Gilgo Beach. Known for years as “Jane Doe no. 6,” Mack, who also went by Melissa Taylor, was eventually identified in 2020 via forensic genealogy. She had never been reported missing.

The partial remains of the 10th LISK victim, known as “Fire Island Jane Doe,” were first discovered in 1996 on Fire Island. Her skull was discovered in April 2011, just south of Gilgo in Tobay Beach. She is believed to be LISK’s earliest known victim. On August 4, 2023, investigators announced at a press conference that they had identified the victim using genetic genealogy as Karen Vergata. According to authorities, no missing persons report for Vergata had ever been filed. It’s currently unclear whether Vergata, or any of the other victims after the Gilgo Four, are connected to Heuermann.

An undated photo of Karen Vergata, formerly known as the Fire Island Jane Doe.
Suffolk County Police

It’s easy to see just from this list how confusing and troubling these murders were. The victims were found in a relatively short time but had been murdered over a range of more than a decade. The thought that a serial killer had been operating, undetected, for all of that time rattled the community of Long Island as well as true crime watchers around the globe.

As pressure grew to catch the killer, Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke, appointed in 2012, came under fire for refusing to work with the FBI. But Burke had bigger problems: He was then attempting to cover up his brutal beating of a suspect who stole a bag of sex toys from his car. His efforts to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into the beating ultimately wound up implicating Burke, the county prosecutor, the deputy prosecutor, and multiple members of the Suffolk police force.

The case heats up — and becomes a true crime linchpin

All of this directly impacted the LISK case, which languished for years as a result of Burke’s hostility toward the FBI and his ongoing legal problems. But during this time, amid the burgeoning true crime boom of the 2010s, LISK was capturing the attention of the nation. A 2016 Netflix documentary series, The Killing Season, drew widespread attention to the case, as did numerous podcasts and a book, The Lost Girls, which was subsequently adapted in 2020 into a fictionalized Netflix drama.

The victims’ families weren’t always happy with this increased publicity; in April 2023, a lawyer for two of the victims’ families objected to a LISK panel at a local true crime festival.

In 2018, Burke was replaced by, ironically, a longtime FBI agent. Geraldine Hart was the first female police chief in Suffolk County’s history. She immediately resumed full-scale investigation into the LISK case, and in 2020 released an eye-catching piece of new evidence: a belt found near one of the crime scenes, believed to belong to the perpetrator. Inscribed upon the belt was what appeared to be an insignia:

Belt believed to belong to LISK.
Suffolk County Police/Gilgo News

This insignia proved as mysterious as everything else about the case; web sleuths debated what the symbols meant. Were they letters? Symbols? Nothing? As recently as a month ago, one Redditor declared the belt was “probably a misdirection” and that attempts to track down a killer with the initials “HM” were probably futile. They may have been partly right; after Friday’s arrest, many have pointed out that “HM” might stand for “Heuermann.”

Hart’s replacement, police commissioner Rodney Harrison, also tackled the case with zeal. In a 2022 press conference, he described law enforcement’s “relentless pursuit to identify the individuals and bring them to justice.”

What we know about the suspect so far

Rex Heuermann in a gray suit poses for a photo in front of a brick Manhattan building.
Rex Heuermann.
RH Architecture

Married with two adult children, Heuermann is a lifelong Long Island resident whose specialty as an architect seems to be dealing with the New York City building code. In a 2022 YouTube interview, he spoke about knowing the details of city codes and compared himself to a “hammer.” His architecture firm, R.H. Architecture, has since removed its staff listing, which also included a listing for one of Heuermann’s relatives. According to the New York Times, Heuermann lived in his dilapidated family home and his neighbors largely avoided him. One neighbor described him to the New York Post as “a big talker,” adding that it “makes sense that he’s a serial killer.”

Heuermann’s arrest comes less than a day after authorities discovered a new set of skeletal remains in the Suffolk County town of Islip (about 20 minutes from Jones Beach Island, where most of the LISK victims’ remains were found), but so far no connection is known.

On July 14, police went to Heuermann’s Massapequa Park neighborhood, where they searched his residence. Authorities were spotted removing a large cooler from Heuermann’s home on Friday, though the significance of this discovery has not been made clear.

According to his lawyer, Michael Brown, Heuermann was “in tears” after his arraignment on Friday, insisting that he “did not do this.” But while the case against Heuermann seems to be circumstantial, it’s compelling. For starters, according to court documents, Heuermann’s wife was out of town every time each of the three victims Heuermann is charged with killing went missing. Heuermann also had a long history of conducting internet searches for extreme sexual kinks, as well as an interest in serial killers and specifically LISK.

And then there’s the DNA: Authorities matched DNA found on the burlap material used to wrap Waterman’s body to a discarded pizza crust from Heuermann obtained by police in January 2023.

Still, this case is by no means open and shut. There will be more prosecutions to follow, and more questions to answer. One of the big ones: Are there more victims? Among the list of other potential LISK victims are Tina Foglia, whose dismembered remains were found in Gilgo Beach in 1986; Judith Ramona Veloz, who went missing from New York City in 1993; and Natasha Jugo, whose car was found abandoned in Gilgo Beach in 2013.

After Heuermann’s arrest, victims’ families expressed their thanks to police and their relief that a killer might finally have been caught. “The suspect deserves to rot in prison for the rest of his life,” Gilbert’s sister Sherre Gilbert told NBC News. “He destroyed many lives so while it won’t bring our loved ones back, it does help that one less monster is off the streets and he can’t ever hurt anyone else!”

Among the many grateful bystanders was New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who issued her own statement about the arrest.

“I know there is a community out there that, as the facts unfold, will be sleeping a lot easier tonight,” Hochul said.

Update, August 4, 12:10 pm: This piece has been updated to reflect the identification of Karen Vergata’s remains.

Correction, July 16, 10:30 am ET: An earlier version of this story misstated Heuermann’s town of residence. It is Massapequa Park.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.