Suffolk Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison on Tuesday said he created a new task force to tackle the unsolved Gilgo Beach killings in the latest police effort at solving a case that has stumped authorities for more than a decade.
The multiagency "Gilgo Beach Homicide Investigation Task Force" includes investigators from the Suffolk County Police Department and the FBI, as well as the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office and the Suffolk Sheriff’s Office. Some task force members will meet daily, he said.
"I’m very confident it’s going to help us identify a suspect going to the near future," Harrison said Tuesday during a virtual news conference via Zoom.
"When I first came into this position, there was a commitment; the commitment is I’m going to make sure that we use all our resources to be able to identify the individuals or individual that was involved in this case and make sure we hold them accountable and bring them to justice."
The 10 sets of human remains, known collectively as the Gilgo Beach homicide victims, were found in December 2010 while Suffolk police searched for Jersey City-based sex worker Shannan Gilbert, who went missing on May 1 of that year in Oak Beach. Gilbert’s remains were not found until the following December and authorities have said they don't believe Gilbert is a homicide victim. The Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the cause and manner of Gilbert’s death undetermined.
Harrison said Tuesday he thought DNA would be key to solving the case of who killed the victims, largely women who worked as sex workers. Harrison declined to discuss if the case had advanced with the use of any DNA technology since investigators in 2020 identified one of the victims, previously known as Jane Doe No. 6, through DNA.
"Getting some type of DNA is going to be very important for us to really take a closer look at who our suspects are," Harrison said. "Working with our federal partners, I think that’s going to be something that’s definitely going to get us over that hurdle going to the future of this case."
Melissa Cann of Connecticut, the sister of Gilgo Beach victim Maureen Brainard-Barnes, said she spoke recently with Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney and investigators involved in the case and said she is encouraged.
"I hope in my lifetime I can face whoever did this to my sister," Cann said. "To know that this person will be held accountable for what he or she did is important."
Tierney, in a statement Tuesday, said he had met with the families of the victims.
"One of the first things I did after coming in to office in January was meet with the families of the victims to let them know that solving this case is a top priority," Tierney said. "It has been more than a decade and these families deserve answers and reassurances that we will not let up until we find those responsible for the murders of their loved ones."
Suffolk Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said the Human Trafficking Unit he created in 2018 will attempt to gather intelligence on the Gilgo Beach case from inside the county's jails.
"This unit has obtained valuable information and leads that we hope to share with our partner agencies to help solve this case and bring justice to these victims," Toulon said.
Harrison said the task force will help investigators more seamlessly share information.
"It’s a great way to make sure we’re all in connection and sharing information real-time and right away," said Harrison. "I think having all these partners who are gonna help us utilize technology, utilize scientists, cultivate witnesses, cast a broader net out to as many people as possible that can possibly assist in helping us in this investigation."
Harrison, the former NYPD chief of department who became Suffolk's police commissioner in December 2021, has promised to bring a fresh perspective to the unsolved homicides.
WHAT TO KNOW
Suffolk Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison has created a new task force to tackle the unsolved Gilgo Beach killings.
The "Gilgo Beach Homicide Investigation Task Force" includes investigators from the Suffolk County Police Department and the FBI, the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office and the Suffolk Sheriff’s Office.
The police commissioner said he thought DNA would be key to solving the case of who killed the victims, largely women who worked as sex workers.
Harrison said some task members will meet daily.
Back in December, Harrison toured the area of Oak Beach where several sets of remains were found. Harrison is the fifth Suffolk police commissioner to oversee the investigation.
Harrison said then he would consider publicly releasing 911 calls made on the day that Gilbert disappeared as long as it didn't impede the investigation. Asked about that Tuesday, Harrison said: "I’m still working with my investigators to make sure that the release doesn’t hinder the investigation in any way."
The remains of four women were found in December 2010: Melissa Barthelemy, 24, of the Bronx; Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 24, of Norwich, Connecticut; Megan Waterman, 22, of Maine; and Amber Lynn Costello, 27, of North Babylon.
Partial remains of a fifth woman, Jessica Taylor, 20, of New York City, were found in the spring of 2011 during later searches along Ocean Parkway. Her torso had been found in Manorville in 2003.
The Gilgo Beach homicide investigation was hobbled in its crucial early days by law enforcement infighting. The Suffolk police shut out the FBI, losing access to critical resources. When Timothy Sini became police commissioner, he re-engaged the FBI in the investigation.
In January 2020, former Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, a former FBI official, released an image of a belt believed to have been handled by the killer at one of crime scenes.
Five months later, police announced they had identified the remains of a woman found near Gilgo Beach in 2011 and in Manorville in 2000 as Valerie Mack, a Philadelphia-based escort, using genetic genealogy DNA technology. Mack was previously identified as Jane Doe No. 6.
The lawyer representing Gilbert's estate said the task force creation is a welcome development.
"It is an indication that new eyes will be on this case and new work will be done to solve this case," said attorney John Ray of Miller Place.