Asa Ellerup, estranged wife of accused Gilgo Beach killer Rex...

Asa Ellerup, estranged wife of accused Gilgo Beach killer Rex A. Heuermann arrives at the Riverhead courthouse on November 15. Credit: John Roca

Cheek swab samples collected from the estranged wife of alleged Gilgo Beach serial killer Rex A. Heuermann match her DNA material found on the remains of some of the homicide victims, a law-enforcement official told Newsday.

The DNA sample from Asa Ellerup was taken on July 13, the night her husband was arrested on charges he killed three of the women whose remains were found near Gilgo Beach in 2010. Heuermann, 60, of Massapequa Park, has pleaded not guilty to three counts each of first- and second-degree murder in the deaths of Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman and Amber Lynn Costello. Authorities said he is the prime suspect in the killing of a fourth victim, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, as a special grand jury is reviewing evidence in that case.

The samples were taken to confirm earlier DNA tests Suffolk prosecutors said pointed to Ellerup as a source of hairs found with the remains. Ellerup has not been accused of wrongdoing in the case.

Robert Macedonio, the attorney representing Ellerup in her divorce proceedings against Heuermann, confirmed authorities took the DNA sample from his client and her two children. He declined to comment on the DNA match.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Cheek swab samples collected from the estranged wife of alleged Gilgo Beach serial killer Rex A. Heuermann match her DNA material found on the remains of some of the homicide victims, a law-enforcement official told Newsday.
  • The DNA sample from Asa Ellerup was taken on July 13, the night her husband and Massapequa Park resident was arrested on charges he killed three of the women whose remains were found near Gilgo Beach in 2010. 
  • The samples were taken to confirm earlier DNA tests Suffolk prosecutors said pointed to Ellerup as a source of hairs found with the remains. Ellerup has not been accused of wrongdoing in the case.

Hair samples that were collected from the remains of the victims were detailed in court papers by Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney after investigators arrested Heuermann. In the filings, Tierney said that mitochondrial DNA from the solitary hair under Waterman’s body indicated that Heuermann was among a relatively small group men of European ancestry who could have been the source of the hair.

The information about Ellerup's DNA match comes as DNA experts say that single male hair recovered from underneath Waterman's remains may hold more genetic clues that could prove to be powerful additional evidence in the case against him.

A new method of analyzing hair from DNA creates better conditions for prosecutors as genetic scientists have been able to recover fragments of nuclear DNA from human hair to help identify suspects as well as give names to unidentified crime victims, experts say. In one scientific study, rootless hairs were able to provide 40% usable nuclear DNA profiles.

“It is a hot topic in our community,” said Colleen Fitzpatrick, a veteran genetic genealogist with Identifinders International of California, about the hair analysis method.

Tierney said in a telephone interview that he was familiar with the new advance in hair analysis. But the district attorney declined to comment further because of the grand jury investigation probing Brainard-Barnes' death.

Legally, experts say, the updated hair analysis process has not been approved by New York State courts for use as acceptable evidence in criminal cases and Suffolk prosecutors may have to use the original, less definitive mitochondrial DNA analysis done in the case against Heuermann.

According to noted DNA expert Dr. Bruce Budowle, the breakthrough was made possible by the development of a process known as next generation sequencing, something used by the U.S. military to identify war dead and also recently by the Office of the New York City Medical Examiner to identify the remains of World Trade Center victims from Sept. 11.

The advanced sequencing system has been the tool to open up the analysis of human hair, particularly samples which lack a root or may be highly degraded, Budowle said.

Attorneys for Heuermann and Ellerup say mitochondrial DNA doesn't exactly identify a suspect.

Rex A. Heuermann, right, appears in Suffolk County Court in...

Rex A. Heuermann, right, appears in Suffolk County Court in Riverhead with his attorney, Michael Brown, earlier in November. Credit: AP/James Carbone

Last month, Heuermann’s lead defense attorney, Michael J. Brown, told reporters that the mitochondrial DNA results cited in the court papers leaves open the possibility that the solitary hair found on Waterman could have come from any one of thousands of people.

“There is nobody on the face of this earth, that is credible, who is going to say the hair is from my client,” Brown said to reporters. “That is impossible under science standards. What they can do is say potentially he [Heuermann] is a donor. But so could thousands and thousands of other persons in our area.” 

Brown didn’t return calls for comment for this story.

Macedonio agreed with Brown. Macedonio said that the mitochondrial DNA analysis doesn’t positively identify Heuermann or his wife as the source of the hairs found in the case on some of the Gilgo bodies listed in the indictment. Using a baseball analogy, Macedonio said "mitochondrial DNA gets prosecutors into the batter’s box but not necessarily to first base."

Suffolk prosecutors have said that Heuermann’s cheek swab DNA matches his genetic material found on a pizza box he discarded in a trash can near his Manhattan office before he was arrested.

It is unclear if prosecutors have gone beyond using just mitochondrial DNA analysis of the hair found under Waterman’s body. While some forensic experts have privately said they believe that Suffolk County prosecutors may have used genetic genealogy to identify Heuermann as the prime suspect, a law enforcement source familiar with the investigation said that was not the case.

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