The Suffolk police homicide squad has a new chief who says he plans a fresh look at the county's biggest unsolved case, the Gilgo Beach murders, and believes more than one killer was responsible.
"My opinion is that it's very unlikely that it's one person," Det. Lt. Jack Fitzpatrick said during an interview at Yaphank headquarters. That view is at odds with a single-killer theory that was aired last December by then-Police Commissioner Richard Dormer, setting off an unusual public argument with District Attorney Thomas Spota, who also believes there were multiple killers.
Spota said it's good that he and Fitzpatrick are "on the same page."
"Jack Fitzpatrick is one of the best homicide commanders I've ever worked with and a fresh approach to the investigation is exactly what's needed," Spota said in a statement. "We are 'in sync' again, but what's more important is that the veteran homicide detectives under Jack's command are now in sync with their commanding officer."
Added Spota: "Not one detective familiar with the facts of this case believes one person is responsible for these homicides."
Had led squad before
Fitzpatrick, 57, was named March 1 to replace Lt. Gerard Pelkofsky, who retired after two years as the squad's commander. Fitzpatrick is no stranger to the post, having led the homicide squad from 2002 until he was removed by Dormer two years ago.
Fitzpatrick declined to discuss in detail the case or his theories, but he noted the reshuffled homicide squad will have new eyes on the case.
"You know, one of the interesting things is that now, I'm here," Fitzpatrick said. "There are other people in the office who are now back, and the case is going to be looked at again, from perhaps a different perspective."
He added, "I don't say there is anything new in the case, per se, but it's certainly going to get a thorough look."
Between December 2010 and April 2011, the decomposed remains of eight women, one man and a girl toddler were found alongside Ocean Parkway near Gilgo Beach, Oak Beach and extending west toward Jones Beach. The five victims who have been identified worked as prostitutes.
The searches began after the May 2010 disappearance of another sex worker, Shannan Gilbert. Her remains were found in December. Dormer said her death was believed to be an accident, and that she may have drowned while running away from a liaison with a client.
Whatever caused Gilbert's death remains unknown and results of her autopsy have yet to be released by the medical examiner's office. The department has kept quiet about the Gilgo case since December, following a policy that no public announcements would be made until it has a solid break or new information.
No new searches are planned, Fitzpatrick said, because "I think the area has been pretty thoroughly searched." He added, "I think we would probably need some very specific information to start another search there."
Fitzpatrick's comments about bringing a fresh perspective to the investigation were welcomed by families and friends of the Gilgo victims as well as Gilbert's relatives, who remain skeptical that her death was accidental.
"Honestly, I think that's what's needed," said Gilbert's aunt, Lori Grove. "A second, objective view of things I would think could only be helpful," Grove said.
"I just hope it's not too late because it's been a long time," said Lyn Barthelemy of Akron, N.Y, the mother of victim Melissa Barthelemy.
Sarah Marquis of Groton, Conn., who described herself as victim Maureen Brainard-Barnes' best friend, said the case "just seems to be at a standstill."
Fitzpatrick said he was glad to be back in command of the 20-detective squad. Dormer removed him from command in January 2010. At the time, union officials and several department sources called it retribution for a dispute over standby pay and scheduling -- a charge Fitzpatrick's bosses denied.
Also transferred at the time from homicide -- and back with the squad now -- was Det. Sgt. Edward Fandry, who worked such celebrated cases as the Theodore Ammon murder.
Fitzpatrick said his time away handling more "economic-type crimes" was "a great experience." But the homicide squad poses unique challenges.
"Every time somebody is murdered, there's family, there's friends," he said, and "these victims need justice. They need somebody to advocate for them. I really think that's the best part of the job that you are making that difference to a lot of people."
Gilgo families said they appreciated that expression of empathy.
"It's nice to have somebody in there that actually thinks of everybody else who was left behind," said Lyn Barthelemy.
With Bart Jones
and Andrew Smith