How police tracked the Suffolk County sniper suspect
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Originally published in Newsday on Nov. 29, 1994.
The gun was exactly where Peter Sylvester said it would be - stashed in the hallway ceiling of the Nesconset home he shared with his widowed mother and grandmother, police said.
And Suffolk County ballistics experts had matched the hyper-powered deer rifle, complete with a bipod and a scope, to bullets recovered from the first and third Suffolk sniper shootings.
The match of the 35-cal. Remington Whelan rifle, one of three guns stolen in a June gunshop burglary, capped the most massive manhunt in the county's history. At its peak, 200 uniformed officers fanned out along the North Shore to prevent the sniper from striking a fourth time and to gather as many leads as they could to feed to the 100 detectives working the case.
"Over 4,100 people were interviewed by detectives knocking on 2,600 doors to develop thousands of leads," said Police Commissioner Peter S. Cosgrove at a news conference yesterday. "These efforts resulted in charges being prepared against Peter Sylvester."
Sylvester admitted to police that he shot his three victims in random attacks in Commack and Stony Brook. He also confessed to a house burglary in Nesconset in which a 15-year-old girl was sodomized and raped, Cosgrove said.
"Sylvester has confessed to the shootings and to the rape," said Cosgrove at the news conference.
"He was forthright and relatively open to investigators," said Det. Lt. John Gierasch, commander of Suffolk's homicide squad, which cracked the case.
The investigative trail began with information from parole officials about Sylvester's history with weapons, police said. The former owner of the rifle and experts in the Suffolk County Crime Lab provided the crucial final pieces.
District Attorney James M. Catterson Jr. said the case would be presented to the grand jury in three weeks. Possible charges are murder, attempted murder, felony assault, criminal possession of a weapon and criminal use of a firearm.
"Certainly before the first of the year," he said. "We're not under the gun to present the case within five days. You can present a healthy package."
Sylvester, 24, told police he knew none of his victims and shot them to camouflage a murder he planned. Gierasch said Sylvester told investigators the name of the intended victim, but Gierasch didn't make it public. He did say it was not a crime for profit and the victim was not a family member. Investigators said Sylvester is not a suspect in a pair of Nassau snipings. He has been in prison since his arrest in August on weapons and parole violation charges.
The sniper case began to unfold June 7, when Eastern Taxidermy in Farmingville was burglarized and three guns stolen - a 410 shotgun, a .356-cal. Remington rifle and a .35-cal. Remington Whelan.
Seven weeks later, on July 22, around 9:30 p.m., Sylvester drove near the North Shore Restaurant on Jericho Turnpike and took up his position across the street, police said. He spread out the bipod on the Whelan, lay down on the ground and took aim at a man sitting in a window booth eating dinner with his wife. Sylvester fired once, got up and gathered the gun. He then got in his car, a 1994 Firebird, and drove off. The bullet killed Steven Chaifetz, an accountant from Dix Hills, hitting him in the chest.
Three days later, police said, Sylvester took up a similar position across from the Amoco gas station. He again fired one shot, this time at Ali Gocmez, the attendent. The bullet shattered the safety glass but missed Gocmez.
Sylvester's name first surfaced at the end of July, when local officers from the State Division of Parole called homicide detectives to advise them of his record and his recent release.
"He's been spoken of as being obsessed with weapons," said Gierasch. "Virtually every case we've linked him to has been weapons-related."
Up until that time, Sylvester had no violent crime in his past, police said.
Investigators said Sylvester spent the early-morning hours of an August day burglarizing homes in the Nesconset area. His tries at two houses failed. Then he came upon the third, in which he found a 15-year-old girl sleeping as he rummaged through the house for valuables.
On Aug. 3, the day after the rape, Sylvester once again took up a position across from a business open at night, this time picking the Burger King on Nesconset Highway in Stony Brook, police said. He fired once as Kathryn Spatafora cleaned tables near the window, critically wounding her. Again, he left after firing the Remington Whelan. But this time, someone spotted his car and phoned the tip in to police.
Days later, the police recovered one of the weapons stolen in the June burglary in the house of a man being committed to a psychiatric hospital. The man later told investigators he bought the gun from Sylvester, police said.
In mid-August, Sylvester rose to the top of the short list of sniper suspects.
"We really focused on him, and we determined he was violating a number of parole conditions," said Gierasch. "But we lacked sufficient information to go forward on the sniper matters. The ballistic linkage and other information all pointed to him."
Armed with a search warrant, homicide Dets. Robert Henn and Vincent Daly arrested Sylvester Aug. 25 as he drove to work. Tucked in his back pocket, they found a 9mm handgun and a loaded clip. He was charged with third-degree criminal possession of a weapon, and pleaded guilty. He denied any link to the snipings.
Still searching for the murder weapon, detectives waited two months for their next big break - the previous owner of the Remington Whelan, the only one of the three guns investigators had yet to recover.
He took investigators high on a mountain in upstate Roscoe, where they recovered bullets that had been fired by him into a tree in the past. When they took them back to the Suffolk County crime lab, they found that those bullets matched the ones recovered from the sniper scenes.
They still had no weapon, but they had enough information to go back to Sylvester, who later told police where the gun was.