When the remains of four dead women were found last month along a quarter-mile stretch of Ocean Parkway, the desolate beachfront roadway became the backdrop for reporters nationwide speculating that a serial killer could be in our midst.
The mystery proved irresistibly sensational for many news outlets. The spotlight on Suffolk County police brought on a flood of press calls, swamping the department and testing its media relations capabilities. And behind the scenes, with a tenser-than-usual hustle between competing reporters to get the story, a power struggle was at play between the press and police.
The situation is not without precedent. When LA Weekly asked the LAPD in 2008 to comment on their then-secret investigation into “The Grim Sleeper,” an alleged serial killer arrested last summer after 25 years at large, the agency initially declined and was later forced to go public. In Suffolk, it is the flip side of the same coin.
“We could have a serial killer,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said in a noncommittal response to a reporter’s question the day after the bodies were found.
Cue the biggest press feeding frenzy Long Island has seen since Jeffrey Conroy was convicted in March of killing Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero in a Patchogue hate crime—although it has yet-to-be determined if the women are even homicide victims.
ANOTHER JOEL RIFKIN?
So far, police have released few facts in the case—to be expected, as forensic experts need time if they are to identify the women using DNA evidence—but on first blush, there were signs that made jumping to the serial murderer conclusion hard for anyone to resist.
An officer first stumbled upon skeletal remains in Gilgo Beach on Dec. 13 while searching for a New Jersey prostitute who was reported missing May 1 from a John’s house three miles away in Oak Beach. Nearby, remains of three more women were found about 500 feet apart three days later. Serial killers, of course, typically prey on prostitutes.
Later that week, investigators ruled out 24-year-old Shannon Gilbert of Jersey City as being among the remains, but it was too late: the serial killer story was already out of the bag.