This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Nicole Fuller, Michael O'Keeffe and Grant Parpan. It was written by Fuller.
The FBI has positively identified the Gilgo Beach victim previously known as “Jane Doe No. 7” as Karen Vergata, a former Glen Head resident whose partial remains were found on Fire Island in 1996, Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney announced Friday.
“Today, we are here to announce that as part of the Gilgo Task Force re-examination of all the evidence in the case, we were able to identify 'Fire Island Jane Doe' as Karen Vergata, who was 34 years old at the time of her disappearance,” Tierney said.
Vergata, who lived on West 45th Street in Manhattan at the time she went missing on Feb. 14, 1996, worked as an escort, Tierney said. A missing persons report was not filed with police at the time, he said.
Investigators have not linked Vergata's killing to Rex A. Heuermann, the Massapequa Park architect who was charged last month in the killing of three of the first four discovered Gilgo Beach victims, a source familiar with the task force told Newsday.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The FBI has positively identified the Gilgo Beach victim previously known as “Jane Doe No. 7” as Karen Vergata, a Glen Head native whose partial remains were found on Fire Island in 1996.
- Vergata, who lived on West 45th Street in Manhattan at the time she disappeared on Feb. 14, 1996, worked as an escort, the Suffolk district attorney said. A missing persons report was not filed to police at the time, he said.
- Investigators have not linked Vergata's killing to Rex A. Heuermann, the Massapequa Park architect who was charged last month in the killing of three of the first four discovered Gilgo Beach victims, a source familiar with the task force told Newsday.
“It’s important to note there are no charges at this time,” Tierney said. “Miss Vergata’s disappearance was in 1996, which was 27 years ago. We are going to continue to work this particular case as we did the ‘Gilgo four’ investigation. We’re going to have no comment on what, if any, suspects we’ve developed at this time.”
The victim's brother, Victor Vergata, in a statement texted to a Newsday reporter through a friend, said: "I would like the time and privacy to process the information that was released today. I am grateful that the team of investigators were relentless in their efforts to bring some closure to the murder of my beautiful sister, Karen. I will continue to pray that they can connect their new findings to the person that murdered my sister!"
Karen Vergata's stepsister Brenda Breen said in an interview Friday that Vergata was raised in Glen Head and attended North Shore High School.
Vergata's father, Dominic Vergata, hired a private investigator at one point and even turned over DNA to that investigator in hopes that it could be used to locate his daughter, she said.
"He kind of wanted closure, I guess," Breen said, as she tended to the bushes outside the family home in Glenwood Landing. "They never found anything."
Dominic Vergata died in December; her mother, Ann Vergata, died in 1977.
Virginia Vergata, Karen's stepmother, declined to speak with reporters. She was informed this week by police that her stepdaughter's remains had been identified, Breen said.
"It's nice to have closure," Breen added.
Karen Ann Vergata was born on Nov. 4, 1961, in Roslyn to Ann and Dominic Vergata, according to files in Surrogate's Court in Manhattan as part of Dominic Vergata's ultimately successful claim to have his daughter ruled legally dead.
Vergata's adult life was marked by struggles, as she was incarcerated more than once, and she lost custody of her two young sons, according to the court documents.
"Due to her troubled lifestyle, the boys had been removed from her care by social services and placed into foster care," her father wrote in the court papers. "Both have been legally adopted."
Vergata's youngest son, Eric Doherty, was too distraught to speak with reporters after hearing the news about his biological mother Friday, his girlfriend Michelle Nolan told Newsday.
“He’s in shock,” she said. “He knew bits and pieces about his mother, but obviously not all of this. He’s really shocked.”
Vergata didn't have a phone, but would call her father periodically, her father said in the court filings, which also noted that he was attempting to claim two life insurance policies on his daughter totaling $82,000. It's unclear if he was able to collect on the policies.
“She would call when she was low on funds and needed money," he wrote. “I would do what I could to help her.”
She visited with family on holidays, he said.
“On Feb. 14, 1996, my birthday, I received a phone call from Karen,” her father wrote in a court filing. “She had called me collect from prison and seemed very troubled.”
He added: "It was my last conversation with her."
Dominic Vergata "became increasingly worried," he wrote, and noted that on March 12, 1996, a warrant was issued for his daughter's arrest after she failed to appear at a court date. Also, she never returned to reclaim the money she had posted for a friend's bail before she was last heard from.
That year, the father said he was rebuffed by the NYPD when he attempted to file a missing persons report, with the police department citing her age.
“As the year turned to 1997, and no one had heard from Karen, we began to operate under the assumption that Karen was deceased …," Dominic Vergata wrote.
That year, Suffolk County Homicide Det. Joe White "contacted my family about an unidentified female body. … At this time members of my family provided the Suffolk County police department with blood samples for DNA testing, but they did not match the DNA of the unidentified body," he wrote.
In 2012, he hired an investigator, who was unable to find her.
The court presumed she died Feb. 14, 1999, according to an order dated July 25, 2017.
It wasn't until last August when a DNA profile that was "suitable for genealogical comparison was developed" from Vergata's remains, Tierney said, and the following month the FBI "presumptively" identified Vergata's remains using genetic genealogy.
In October, using a buccal swab, or cheek swab, from a relative of Vergata, "We were able to definitively identify her," Tierney said.
The task force made a major break in the 13-year-old unsolved mystery of who might have killed 10 people and dumped their bodies along Ocean Parkway near Gilgo Beach with Heuermann’s arrest last month. Most of the victims were sex workers, police have said.
Partial remains of the just-identified woman — two severed legs — were discovered in a black plastic garbage bag in Davis Park on Fire Island in April 1996. Other remains were found nearly 15 years later near Jones Beach, on April 11, 2011.
Vergata, who was previously referred to as both "Fire Island Jane Doe" and "Jane Doe No. 7," had several distinctive scars, police said at the time.
The second set of her remains was found near the remains of the still-unidentified victim known as “Peaches” because of the tattoo on her left breast and a toddler believed to be Peaches’ child. Also, still unidentified is the only Gilgo Beach victim who was a man, who police said was between 17 and 23 years old at the time of his death. His remains were discovered along Ocean Parkway on April 4, 2011.
Vergata is the second victim that the FBI has identified since 2020, when investigators positively identified the woman previously known as “Jane Doe No. 6” or “Manorville Jane Doe,” as Valerie Mack through genetic genealogy. Investigators, including an FBI special agent who was a trained genealogist, uploaded the victim’s DNA profile into public genetic databases and were ultimately able to link Mack to a relative living in New Jersey.
Heuermann, 59, has pleaded not guilty to first- and second-degree murder charges in the killings of Megan Waterman, Melissa Barthelemy and Amber Lynn Costello, whose remains were found near Gilgo Beach in 2010.
Authorities also have said Heuermann is the “prime suspect” in the slaying of Maureen Brainard-Barnes, whose remains were found with the other three victims.
The pair of legs found on Fire Island were discovered in April 1996 by Robert Ragona of Valley Stream and his brother, Andrew Ragona, of Danbury, Connecticut.
Recalling the gruesome discovery in a telephone interview this week, Andrew Ragona, now 86, said he and his late brother were searching for wood near a family home on Fire Island when they came across the black garbage bag partially in the water along the shoreline.
“[My brother] took a stick and he poked it open and then a toe came popping out,” Ragona recalled.
The brothers, being careful not to touch the bag with their hands, removed it from the water with the stick and placed it safely on dry land. They then headed home to report their finding to police. They returned to the site with a police officer about a half-hour later.
“He immediately got on the phone, and then I think all of the Suffolk County Police Department showed up,” Ragona said.
Ragona, who studied anatomy, has been able to move on from the startling discovery, but it troubled his brother in the years that followed. Suffolk police called him to let him know when the skull found near Jones Beach was matched through DNA to the legs he and his brother found. He has followed the Gilgo Beach case from a distance and said he’s glad police have made an arrest in connection with at least some of the victims.