Massapequa Park, Long Island (WABC) — In the winter of 2010, shortly after police found the bodies of his roommate and three other women buried in a secluded spot on Long Island’s coastline, Dave Schaller provided detectives with a description of the suspected killer.
More importantly, Schaller told them about his truck.
The man they were looking for was a tall, Frankenstein-like figure with “hollow eyes” who was driving an original Chevrolet Avalanche, Schaller told investigators. The man’s physique was striking, as was the rare pickup truck Schaller used to get away from the house he lived with Amber Costello.
That night, Schaller said he came home to find a stranger locked in the bathroom and threatening Costello, an occasional sex worker. The two got into a fist fight, and eventually the gigantic intruder left in a truck.
Prosecutors said Costello was last seen alive on September 2, 2010, when he had just left his home to see the same client. Her witnesses again saw a black truck pass near her house shortly after she left.
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“He was the first person that came to my mind when I was told she was dead,” Schaller told the Associated Press. “I’ve had his face in my mind for 13 years.”
On July 14, police arrested Rex Heuerman for the murder of Costello and two other women, Melissa Barthelemy and Megan Waterman. He is the prime suspect in the death of a fourth woman, Maureen Brainard Burns. Houermann, an architect who worked in Manhattan, pleaded not guilty.
The arrest is a stunning breakthrough in the search for a serial killer whose crimes have eluded investigators since the bodies of four women, all sex workers, were found wrapped in linen near Gilgo Beach, and whose crimes captivated Long Islanders.
Within months, six other bodies, including infants, were found elsewhere along the same beach highway. Mr. Heuermann has not been charged in either case. Police said the death could be the work of multiple killers.
At a time when there seemed to be nowhere to go, the arrest brought some relief to the victim’s family. But as new details emerge about how police finally apprehended the suspected murderer, questions are also being raised about whether investigators properly tracked down a key clue that might have helped the case be resolved quickly: Schaller’s description of the strange man and his truck.
County Councilor Rob Trotta, who was a Suffolk County Police detective until 2013, said: “This was extremely important information and I don’t understand why it wasn’t shared. They made a big mistake here.”
Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney, who took over the investigation when he took office in 2022, said the key to unraveling the case was a description of the truck found by state investigators after a new task force formed to freshly examine the evidence.
A search of the vehicle record database yielded one result. The man, who owns his Chevrolet Avalanche, lived in an area that investigators had already focused on a likely suspect’s location, thanks to cell phone location data and advanced analysis of call records. Heuermann also fit the physical characteristics provided by Schaller. He was 6 feet 4 inches (193 centimeters) tall and weighed 240 pounds (109 kilograms).
Tierney told the AP he didn’t know why police didn’t search for him sooner, but suggested the information may have “disappeared in a sea of other hints and information.”
He stressed that there were other factors that helped investigators eventually arrest Mr. Houermann, including new technology that helped match DNA samples to suspects.
“It was the concerted efforts of many dedicated investigators, analysts and lawyers from many agencies that solved this case,” he said.
But for Schaller, the relief of his arrest was quickly overshadowed by anger and confusion.
Speaking for the first time since his arrest, he said he met with homicide detectives numerous times in the first few years of the investigation.
About two years after the women went missing, during their final visit, they said they chose a truck model from a series of photographs provided by detectives.
“I gave them an exact description of the truck and the man,” he said. “I mean, why didn’t they use it?”
The question has also puzzled some law enforcement officials. Two senior officials who worked closely on the case and attended briefings from 2011 to 2013 said they had heard nothing of the witness statements describing the suspect and his vehicle.
Law enforcement officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information about the investigation.
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Heuermann purchased the pickup (the first model in dark green) at a Long Island Chevrolet dealership in 2002 and transferred ownership to his brother Craig in South Carolina in 2012, according to the Car History Report.
Authorities seized the vehicle last week. In the search warrant, they said they were looking for DNA, body fluids, fingerprints, telephones and other clues, including “trophy” clothing, jewelry, bibles and photographs believed to be from the victims, in cars and property owned by the brothers in Chester County, South Carolina.
Investigators said they were also looking for electronic equipment, video recordings and documents related to the killings. Burlap. duct tape; guns and ammunition; cutting tools; and a particular type of paper towel from the Bounty Modern Print Collection.
It’s not clear whether investigators were tracking information about the vehicle prior to last year, but those involved in the case pointed to sharp divisions between various law enforcement agencies and a duplication of scandals involving Suffolk County as potential explanations for the key clue slipping through the cracks.
Shortly after taking over the Suffolk County Police Department in 2012, James Burke moved to cut ties with the FBI amid federal scrutiny of his wrongdoings.
Four years later, Burke was sentenced to 46 months in prison for conspiracy to cover up an assault on a man who found sex toys and pornography in his car.
The federal investigation could also lead to prison sentences for Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, who oversaw the early days of the Gilgo Beach case, and Christopher McPartland, the county’s top anti-corruption attorney.
“This was a cloud over the community,” recalls Tim Sini, who replaced Burke as police commissioner and later county district attorney. “When the police department and district attorney’s office are obstructing the FBI, there is no trust in law enforcement.”
Sini said detectives were unable to cooperate not only with federal investigators, but also with the nearby Nassau County Police Department, where Heuermann lived, taking over a “disorganized” investigation.
He declined to say whether he knew about the suspect and his vehicle, but said his office has invested heavily in technology that would allow investigators to track data from cell towers used in the suspect’s burner phone.
Sini said the arrest was the result of a painstaking investigation based on a wide range of evidence across multiple governments. But he added, “It’s not a huge success. The case should have been resolved sooner.”
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https://abc7ny.com/gilgo-beach-murders-rex-heuermann-long-island-serial-killer/13535479/ Gilgo Beach Murders: How One Man’s Information Helped Solve Case