From the Archives: FBI Agent: Secret room where Katie Beers was kept 'Medieval'
GalleriesThe Katie Beers case
This article was originally published Jan. 15, 1993
As a special agent with the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit, Clint Van Zandt has seen many secret rooms built to hide kidnap or sexual assault victims.
But what he saw yesterday when he descended below the concrete slab of John Esposito's garage apartment in Bay Shore, into the secret bunker where Esposito kept 10-year-old Katie Beers, topped everything.
"I've never seen anything in all my years as elaborate as this. It was like a prison from medieval times," said Van Zandt, who flew to Long Island yesterday from the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. "This thing was out of a horror movie."
Van Zandt gave little description of the inside of the 6-foot-by-7-foot room where Katie was imprisoned for 16 days - it was divided into two sections, including one for sleeping with a Pullman-style, pulldown bed. But Van Zandt did detail the elaborate access to the bunker buried in the soil below Esposito's home - the bookcase on hidden wheels that covered the entrance, the concealed hook in the ceiling for the block and tackle needed to lift the slab over the door, and the two narrow, wooden tubes leading down, then over to the secret room constructed under an enclosed carport attached to the converted garage.
Esposito's attorney, Sidney Siben, yesterday described the room as a bomb shelter, but police and Van Zandt said it wasn't. Islip Town officials said it was an illegal addition to the illegally converted Bay Shore garage, built in 1986, where Esposito lived.
"He told me he built it in case of nuclear attack. He denied he had any other children there," Siben said of room. But if it was built as a bomb shelter, Islip officials said they knew nothing about it. They did not even know that Esposito was living in the converted garage, which sits behind his childhood house on Saxon Avenue, now occupied by tenants and an office for Esposito's home improvement business.
'The certificate of occupancy was issued for a garage in 1986. There have been no complaints and we haven't gone back," said Rim Giedraitis, Islip's commissioner for building and engineering. He said state building codes prohibit any underground rooms beneath an accessory structure like a garage.
"It is nothing more than a garage on a slab. There was no living structure at the time the CO [certificate of occupancy] was issued," he said. "It was a 700-square-foot garage and there was no living structure in it at the time we inspected it, at the time the CO was issued." Since then, though, Esposito constructed an elaborate hidden bunker at the end of a small, underground tunnel, which he took numerous precautions to disguise from the inside, police said.
Access to the bunker was hidden beneath a large bookcase, which appeared to be built into the rear wall of the converted garage. When the bookcase was unbolted from the wall, it slid on hidden wheels to allow access to the bunker's entrance.
But the entrance was hidden beneath four layers of deception - a rug, rug padding, linoleum and finally a large concrete slab that had to be lifted using a block and tackle that could be attached to a concealed hook, said Van Zandt, who had been working with Suffolk Police before Katie's discovery compiling a profile of who might have abducted her and where she might have been taken.
Once the slab was lifted, that exposed a shaft, similar to a manhole, with a ladder that led 7 feet underground, Van Zandt said. A door at the bottom of the shaft led to another wooden tube, this one horizontal, that was 2 feet wide, 2 feet high and 5 feet long, he said. Crawling through that tube led to another door and the small room, soundproofed with foam insulation, where Katie was kept.
Police yesterday sent an officer into the room, closed one of the three underground doors and had him scream at the top of his lungs, said Det. Lt. Dominick Varrone, head of the Suffolk Police Kidnap Investigation Team. The officer could not be heard, Varrone said.
"We could have gone back there ten times and unless we knew or believed the girl was underneath, we could never have found it without being led to it," Varrone said.
Echoing that opinion, Van Zandt said, "No normal search would have uncovered it."
Jim Mulvaney contributed to this story.