It was a hot, sticky summer Saturday morning—a perfect Long Island beach day—when Suffolk County police Homicide Squad detectives rushed to Oak Beach after a 911 caller reported finding latex gloves and a foul stench wafting through the ocean air July 17.
Police, worried a serial killer on the loose had dumped a fresh victim to the 10 bodies he scattered along Ocean Parkway over the past 15 years, discovered something far less sinister at the scene: A stinking pile of dead fish left to rot in the sun.
That was one of more than 1,200 tips—averaging about 100 per month, or three per day—since a cadaver dog sniffed out the first victim a year ago Dec. 11. Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer declines to speculate how many tips proved useful and has declined to get into specific leads, citing the need to maintain investigative integrity.
But the false alarm in July was among a few tips the Press found among thousands of incident reports on file at the Timber Point headquarters of the Marine Bureau, whose officers are tasked with patrolling half of the barrier island south of LI once better known for tourism than for dumping bodies.
Most if not all of these tips appear to have already been dismissed. Others could, at least in theory, still have potential. Together, they paint a picture of the hair-trigger reaction shared by police and the public for anything mildly suspicious seen—or smelled—along these shores nowadays.
“I’m sure that we’re going to get a lot more now that there’s publicity generated on the anniversary,” Dormer tells the Press.
He says investigators now suspect a single killer, a change from the prior theory of multiple murderers. Police were actively searching the scene as of press time for 24-year-old New Jersey prostitute Shannan Gilbert, whose May 2010 disappearance from Oak Beach led to the discoveries. Searchers found her purse with her ID and possibly her jeans, shoes and cell phone in a nearby marsh. Dormer doesn’t believe she was slain by the serial killer—despite her advertising on Craigslist, same as the first four victims found.
“The detectives on the task force are sorting through all these tips and determining which ones are useful and which ones are not,” he says.
FBI, state police and local authorities on that task force have fielded some similarly weird tips in the largest-ever whodunit on Long Island, with dismembered parts of some victims found as far away as Manorville and Davis Park on Fire Island.
For example, on Jan. 11, a passing driver spotted men holding up what appeared to be burlap sacks on the side of the parkway in Gilgo Beach, near the scene of the initial discoveries. Officers found the culprits to be a Japanese TV news crew using the suspicious visual aids. Police have never publicly confirmed widespread news reports that some victims were found wrapped in burlap.
More bizarre was the April 26 discovery of a plastic bag full of decapitated birds found in the area.
Roy Gross, chief of the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has been investigating a string of attacks on wildlife over the summer, but says Suffolk police never called his agency on that one. He says it’s unclear if the cases are related to one another and doubts any are linked to the serial killer probe, but notes there is a parallel.
“Many, if not most serial killers, began by torturing and killing animals before they moved on to humans,” he says. “People who hurt animals hurt people, so yes, there’s a concern there.”
A seemingly promising lead came on Sept. 10—two weeks after Tropical Storm Irene washed away an estimated 120,000 cubic yards of sand from the beach—when a 26-year-old West Islip woman jogging along the shoreline reported finding what appeared to be a human femur in Gilgo Beach. A K-9 officer and his dog were called in but could not find the possible remains after the tipster lost it in the sand.
Then there are the psychics, who are no strangers to sharing their visions in such high-profile inquiries.
“If I see something, I’m gonna say something,” says Jennie Reynolds of Lindenhurst, who prefers the term “gifted.” “They don’t have enough to actually grab the person, I can feel it.”
On May 15, she had a friend drive her to Cedar Beach, where she told police she found a chewed up pair of women’s underwear, a belt and a bottle that she believes may be evidence. The police report shows it was reviewed.
“I just felt that there was something else there,” she says. “They missed something. That’s just my intuition. I felt the guy was going to come back, too. I saw a truck of some sort.”
She is not the only psychic to have chimed in on the case. While she was still missing, the family of the first victim found—Melissa Barthelemy, a 24-year-old Erie County native who was living in the Bronx at the time of her murder—hired a medium who predicted she would be found in a shallow grave overlooking the ocean near a sign with the letter G.
Dormer says he doesn’t put a lot of faith in tips generated by psychics.
“It’s not very scientific,” he says. “We deal with science, computer records, good old detective legwork.”
But there is one point on which the commissioner and the visionary appear to agree. Dormer, who will be replaced next month with the change in county administration, is concerned the killer may strike again.
“This ain’t gonna be the end of it, there’ll be more,” Reynolds says.
Those with information can call Homicide Squad detectives at 631-852-6396, call Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-220-8477, anonymously text “SCPD” to “CRIMES” (274637) or email info via www.tipsubmit.com. There is a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case, the largest reward in Suffolk history.
1 Year, 10 Victims, 5 Names
Melissa Barthelemy, 24, of the Bronx: last seen July 12, 2009 in the Bronx, found in Gilgo Beach on Dec. 11, 2010.
Amber Lynn Costello, 27, of North Babylon: last seen Sept. 2, 2010 in North Babylon, found in Gilgo Beach Dec. 13, 2010.
Megan Waterman, 22, of Scarborough, Maine: last seen June 6, 2010 in Hauppauge, found in Gilgo Beach Dec. 13, 2010.
Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, of Norwhich, Conn.: last seen July 9, 2007 in Manhattan, found in Gilgo Beach Dec. 13, 2010.
Jessica Taylor, 20: last seen July 21, 2003 in Manhattan. Body found July 26, 2003 in Manorville; head and limbs found in Cedar Beach on March 29, 2011.
Jane Doe No. 6: Body found Nov. 19, 2000 in Manorville; head and limbs found in Cedar Beach on April 4, 2011.
Jane Doe No. 7, a female toddler between 18 to 24 months old found in Cedar Beach on April 4, 2011 believed to be daughter of a women whose partial remains were found near Jones Beach.
John Doe No. 8, an Asian man in his teens or 20s wearing women’s clothing found in Gilgo Beach on April 4, 2011.
Unidentified woman’s skeletal remains found 1 ½ miles east of the Jones Beach water tower on April 11, 2011, possibly the mother of the toddler.
Unidentified woman’s skull found near Tobay Beach on April 11, 2011. Her legs were found in 1996 on Fire Island.