Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney came to the Newsday studios for a one-on-one interview on the state of the investigation with Newsday columnist Joye Brown. Credit: Newsday staff

This story was reported by Anthony M. DeStefano, Nicole Fuller, Michael O'Keeffe, Grant Parpan and Sandra Peddie. It was written by Fuller.

Gilgo Beach serial killing victim Maureen Brainard-Barnes’ remains were bound with a distinctive belt embossed with the initials “WH” or “HM,” Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney said in a Newsday interview Thursday — the first time authorities have disclosed that detail publicly.

The belt, images of which Suffolk police released during a news conference in 2020 in an attempt to drum up investigative tips in the case, was one of three belts used to bind Brainard-Barnes, whose killing was not part of the indictment of alleged Gilgo Beach serial killer Rex A. Heuermann, though prosecutors have named him as the “prime suspect” in her slaying. The police previously said the belt was "handled" by the suspected killer.

“There was a question hair that is still being tested that was removed by the buckle of the belt,” said Tierney, referring to one of the other belts, without any initials, used to bind her legs. “One had 'WH' on it. One had the distal end of the belt cut off, meaning the end of the belt furthest from the buckle and it was cut off, and that would have been the section where, had there been initials on it, that’s where those initials would have been.”

Heuermann, a 59-year-old architect from Massapequa Park, was charged with killing three women — Megan Waterman, Melissa Barthelemy and Amber Lynn Costello — whose remains were found in 2010 near Gilgo Beach in the same vicinity of Brainard-Barnes’ remains. All four women were sex workers.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Gilgo Beach victim Maureen Brainard-Barnes’ remains were bound with the distinctive belt embossed with the initials “WH” or “HM” that police previously said was “handled” by her suspected killer, the Suffolk DA said.
  • The belt with the initials, images of which the Suffolk police released in a news conference in 2020, was one of three belts used to bind Brainard-Barnes, Ray Tierney told Newsday. Suspected Gilgo Beach serial killer Rex A. Heuermann is the "prime suspect" in her slaying, Tierney has said.
  • The district attorney also revealed that authorities likely will be able to identify the remains of three of the total 10 victims whose remains were found in the vicinity of Gilgo Beach.

A Suffolk County grand jury is currently empaneled to hear evidence in the case through next month, and Tierney said it possibly could be extended.

Tierney, in a more than hourlong interview with Newsday on Thursday to discuss the ongoing Gilgo Beach homicide investigation and the efforts that culminated in the indictment and arrest of Heuermann more than 13 years after the first victims’ bodies were discovered, also revealed that authorities likely will be able to identify the remains of three of the total 10 victims whose remains were found in the vicinity of Gilgo Beach.

Those victims — a woman whom investigators have nicknamed “Peaches” because of a tattoo she had, a toddler who was found with her and those of a man who was found separately — have remained unidentified.

Then-Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, left, speaks about the...

Then-Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, left, speaks about the Gilgo murders investigation, during a news conference in Yaphank in January 2020. Credit: James Carbone

“I think we’re getting closer with regard to all of those profiles,” said Tierney, who confirmed that the identifications would be made by the FBI using genetic genealogy, “among other things." The FBI used genetic genealogy to positively identify another of the 10 victims tied to Gilgo Beach: Valerie Mack, in 2020.

“We’re honing in on that, and I think we’ll have information on that — on some of the identifications shortly,” Tierney said.

Asked to specify if that meant weeks or months, Tierney replied: “Real shortly.”

Tierney has so far declined to say whether investigators believe Heuermann may be responsible for any of the other killings, saying he is concentrated on prosecuting the July 14 indictment charging him with killing Waterman, Barthelemy and Costello. But he said it appears that Heuermann worked alone.

Newsday got an inside look at the Gilgo Beach killings investigation from Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney on Thursday. Newsday's Shari Einhorn reports.    Credit: Newsday/Drew Singh; Randee Daddona

“We have no evidence that this defendant conspired or acted with any other person,” Tierney said.

The district attorney’s office plans to hold a news conference Friday morning with members of the Gilgo Beach Homicide Task Force, which was created in 2022 by Police Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison, to provide an update in the case. Tierney declined to discuss what officials plan to announce.

The three belts found with Brainard-Barnes’ remains, dark in color, were identical except that only one of the belts was embossed with lettering. The belt bearing the initials was bound around her chest area, Tierney said.

One of Heuermann’s grandfathers was William Heuermann, who died in 1964 at the age of 76 in Copake, according to a brief obituary published in Newsday at the time.

Asked about the possibility that the belt had belonged to the grandfather, whose initials were “WH,” Tierney dismissed it as speculation.

“Yes, there was 'WH' or 'HM' on the belt,” Tierney said. “The last name is Heuermann. There are ancestors with WH, so assign to that what you will.”

A copy of William Heuermann’s will, located in Columbia County Surrogate’s Court, shows he bequeathed all of his personal property to his wife, Gertrude.

Gertrude Heuermann died in October 1976, according to an online obituary. Her will is not on file in Columbia, Nassau or Suffolk counties, where she maintained residences, officials said.

Theodore Heuermann, the couple’s son and Rex Heuermann’s father, died one year before his mother in November 1975, according to an online obituary.

Rex Heuermann’s attorney, Michael J. Brown, did not respond to a message seeking comment Thursday. After his client appeared in court Tuesday, Brown said he has maintained his innocence, denying he had committed the crimes.

Asked if there was any discussion of a plea deal, he said, “There’s no plea deal.”

Brainard-Barnes, 25, of Norwich, Connecticut, was last seen alive in Manhattan on July 9, 2007. Her remains were found on Dec. 13, 2010, on the north side of Ocean Parkway, near Gilgo Beach. Police have said she is believed to be the first victim in what is known as the “Gilgo Four.”

The search in the thick vegetation near the beach began that month as police searched for another then-missing sex worker from Jersey City, New Jersey, named Shannan Gilbert, who had gone missing from Oak Beach.

Efforts by law enforcement to locate Gilbert in late 2010 and early 2011 ultimately led authorities to the remains of 10 other victims in one of the country's most notorious serial killer cases. Police have said they believe Gilbert’s death was accidental and not a homicide. Her cause of death after an official autopsy was "undetermined.”

Investigators made a major breakthrough in March 2022, when a New York State Police investigator working as part of the task force first identified Heuermann as a possible suspect. The investigator, whose name has not been revealed, reviewed a witness statement that said a man who prosecutors said fit the description of Heuermann was seen driving a first-generation Chevrolet Avalanche — a pickup that Heuermann owned previously and was now registered to his brother, who lives in South Carolina — the day before Costello was last seen alive.

Tierney said using the grand jury process, which is conducted in secret, was also key to not tipping off Heuermann, who prosecutors said searched the internet for details of the case more than 200 times.

But still, Tierney said, he was always worried that Heuermann’s name could leak to the news media, tipping off the suspect and creating a potentially dangerous situation. After authorities raided his home following his July 13 arrest, they found 279 firearms there.

Tierney confirmed that Heuermann’s name was only revealed to members of the grand jury toward the end of the process.

“We wanted to sort of do it, set the stage, and toward the end, backload the information with regard to the defendant,” Tierney said. “We felt that would minimize the chances of leaks.”

Even among the members of the task force — which includes investigators and prosecutors from the district attorney’s office, police homicide detectives, and personnel from the FBI, state police and sheriff’s office — Heuermann’s name was not uttered.

“When we were investigating the case, we never mentioned the name, even among ourselves,” Tierney said. “It was always the subject. At most, it was RH.”

Tierney, in the interview, also dismissed the notion that the victims, whose deaths have been attributed by the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s office to “homicidal violence,” died after being shot. Prosecutors said in court documents filed this week that initial autopsies conducted in December 2010 concluded that each victim died from “homicidal asphyxia” or strangulation, but a recent independent review of the findings resulted in Suffolk County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Odette Hall ruling the cause to be “homicidal violence.”

“That would be highly unlikely because getting shot with a gun is a very violent thing, which almost invariably causes damage to your skeletal system, and since there was no damage to the skeletal system …,” Tierney said.

Prosecutors have said they connected Heuermann to one of the victims though mitochondrial DNA lifted from a pizza box and a “used napkin” he allegedly discarded outside his Manhattan office that authorities said linked him to one of the victims, as well as cellular phone site data that investigators said linked his whereabouts to the victims at key times.

Prosecutors, who have turned over to the defense more than 2,500 documents as part of the discovery process, are looking to collect a cheek swab from Heuermann to test against a mitochondrial DNA profile developed from the pizza crust and napkin, which prosecutors have said was matched to a hair sample found at the bottom of burlap used to “restrain and transport” Waterman and the remains.

Tierney called that move to more definitively link Heuermann to the crimes through DNA a “routine” practice.

Tierney, who has said he plans to lead the prosecution team during Heuermann’s trial, said he couldn’t predict when it would start, noting the voluminous amount of evidence collected over 13 years that will have to be reviewed by Heuermann’s defense counsel.

“It’s going to be a lengthy process," Tierney said. "It would have been a fairly lengthy process if this was just a three-count murder indictment, but when you overlay 13 years of investigation, it’s a monumental amount of material, especially given the work that went into it."

A Newsday analysis shows the number of referees and umpires has declined 25.2% in Nassau and 18.1% in Suffolk since 2011-12. Officials and administrators say the main reason is spectator behavior. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports. Credit: Newsday Staff

'Why am I giving up my Friday night to listen to this?' A Newsday analysis shows the number of referees and umpires has declined 25.2% in Nassau and 18.1% in Suffolk since 2011-12. Officials and administrators say the main reason is spectator behavior. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports.

A Newsday analysis shows the number of referees and umpires has declined 25.2% in Nassau and 18.1% in Suffolk since 2011-12. Officials and administrators say the main reason is spectator behavior. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports. Credit: Newsday Staff

'Why am I giving up my Friday night to listen to this?' A Newsday analysis shows the number of referees and umpires has declined 25.2% in Nassau and 18.1% in Suffolk since 2011-12. Officials and administrators say the main reason is spectator behavior. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports.

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