John Bittrolff arrest 'miracle of modern DNA science,' DA Thomas Spota says
New DNA evidence provided the missing link that led to the arrest of a Manorville carpenter in connection with the killing of two women about 20 years ago, Suffolk authorities said Tuesday.
John Bittrolff, 48, a married father with two children, was arrested Monday and charged with two counts of second-degree murder in the killings, which occurred in November 1993 and late January 1994, police said.
He was ordered held without bail during an arraignment in Central Islip attended by both his relatives and those of one of the victims. It was unclear whether he entered a plea. Bittrolff is accused in the strangling and beating deaths of Rita Tangredi, 31, of East Patchogue, and Colleen McNamee, 20, of Holbrook.
Both women were believed to be prostitutes, authorities said. Investigators first made the connection to Bittrolff after DNA taken from his brother Timothy matched DNA from semen found inside the bodies of both women and stored in a state database, said a source familiar with the investigation.
Bittrolff's brother was convicted of criminal contempt for violating protective orders and therefore was required to submit his DNA to the database last year, officials said.
Suffolk police said they have additional evidence linking Bittrolff to the killings, but declined to give details.
Focus on a lone killer
Detectives long suspected the same perpetrator in the cases because both bodies were positioned similarly and the same "significant piece of wardrobe" was missing from the crime scenes, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said, declining to elaborate. Bittrolff lived in the Shirley-Mastic area at the time of the killings, he said. McNamee's body was found in Shirley and Tangredi's in East Patchogue.
Bittrolff is also being investigated in a third cold case homicide of a woman found posed in a similar way, authorities said.
Assistant Suffolk District Attorney Robert Biancavilla said in court that DNA from the Tangredi and McNamee crime scenes was that of "a single-source male." The Suffolk crime lab was able to "enhance" those samples and, over the course of a long investigation, "an exemplar DNA sample" was obtained and matched to both victims.
Biancavilla said that once Bittrolff was taken into custody Monday, police obtained his DNA after he "drank a glass of water" and matched the sample from that cup to the murder scene samples. The case will be presented to a grand jury Thursday, he said.
Bittrolff's attorney, Harry Tilis of Bohemia, requested Bittrolff be released on cash bail of $50,000 or $75,000, calling the married father of two children a "family man."
Tilis disputed the strength of the prosecution's DNA evidence, specifically Biancavilla's assertion that the crime lab had enhanced the DNA found at the crime scenes.
"Changed evidence does not make a strong case," Tilis said in court. He declined to comment afterward.
Family members of both the accused killer and the victims reacted emotionally at the arraignment. A man who identified himself as Tangredi's son cried during the hearing, but declined to speak to reporters afterward.
Bittrolff's supporters also sobbed in court. One of Bittrolff's brothers told reporters: "We love him very much."
In a brief phone conversation from his North Carolina home, Lawrence McNamee, Colleen's father, said it took "a long time for the wounds to heal and now it's all being brought up again. At least the last bit of justice will be done."
There is no evidence tying Bittrolff to the Gilgo Beach slayings, one of the largest and most baffling homicide cases ever in Suffolk County.
"The evidence recovered from the bodies of Tangredi and McNamee, the manner in which their bodies were found and the crime scenes are unique to them, and very distinctly different from the Gilgo crime scenes," Spota said.
Ties to third death probed
But investigators are trying to determine if the carpenter also killed Sandra Costilla, 28, found strangled in November 1993 in a wooded area of North Sea. Spota said her manner of death and the positioning of her body point to a connection with the two other women. But unlike theirs, Costilla's body was mutilated after her death, officials said.
Spota asked for the public's help in piecing together the movements of Bittrolff and the women in the early 1990s. He held up an old photo of Bittrolff to show what he may have looked like, one that was taken when he was arrested in 1990 on assault.
Spota said Bittrolff "has an arrest record that predates the murders," but "has never been arrested since," so his DNA was not in the state database established in 1996.
"Had this DNA been required in 1990, certainly this crime would have been solved a lot sooner," Spota said.
Both Tangredi and McNamee were strangled and sustained a severe blow to the head, which the medical examiner ruled was the cause of death in both cases.
Tangredi was found on Nov. 2, 1993, a day after she was last seen hitchhiking on Montauk Highway, east of County Road 101 in East Patchogue, officials said. The driver of an all-terrain vehicle found her partly buried body in an abandoned East Patchogue housing development.
A little more than two months later, the parents of McNamee, a 1991 Sachem High School graduate, reported her missing to Suffolk police.
On Jan. 30, 1994, McNamee's body was found after an anonymous caller told them about a woman's nude body in Shirley just off the eastbound service road of the Long Island Expressway near the William Floyd Parkway exit. McNamee was last seen on Jan. 5, 1994, getting into a small blue car in front of a diner in Islandia.
At the time of her disappearance, McNamee was an outpatient of the South Shore Treatment Center in Islandia, authorities said.