Alleged Gilgo Beach serial killer Rex A. Heuermann appears in Judge...

Alleged Gilgo Beach serial killer Rex A. Heuermann appears in Judge Timothy P. Mazzei’s courtroom in Suffolk County Court in Riverhead on Jan. 16. Credit: James Carbone

Perusing her phone while drinking a can of Monster Java, a coffee-flavored energy drink, the only known biological child of suspected Gilgo Beach serial killer Rex A. Heuermann likely had no idea she was being surveilled as she rode the Long Island Rail Road home to Massapequa Park last spring.

Victoria Heuermann’s beverage, which the now-27-year-old discarded in a trash can as she left the station, was quickly scooped up by the law enforcement agents covertly trailing her and sent to multiple laboratories for analysis.

Using state-of-the art nuclear DNA technology that is likely to be the subject of a legal battle in Rex Heuermann’s prosecution, that energy drink can was later used to link her father to the death of one of four women — part of the DNA evidence that Suffolk County prosecutors have said will prove Heuermann killed the women and dumped their bodies near Gilgo Beach.

“Nuclear DNA is sort of like the gold standard,” said Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney, who is part of a team of prosecutors trying the case against Heuermann. “Nuclear DNA existed in the hair since they were first recovered [from the remains] in 2010. And now, the science has caught up.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Investigators surveilling alleged Gilgo Beach serial killer Rex A. Heuermann's daughter extracted DNA from a discarded energy drink can she tossed in the trash to send to the lab as they sought to tie her father to the killing of one of the victims, court papers show.
  • The DNA was collected last spring after Victoria Heuermann rode the LIRR and discarded an energy drink container in Massapequa Park, court papers show. Investigators say she is not a suspect in the case.
  • Rex A. Heuermann is facing multiple murder charges in connection with the killings of four women whose remains were found near Gilgo Beach in 2010. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Investigators extracted DNA from an energy drink can discarded in May...

Investigators extracted DNA from an energy drink can discarded in May by Victoria Heuermann, the daughter of suspected Gilgo Beach killer Rex A. Heuermann. Credit: Suffolk County Prosecutor's Office

Heuermann, 60, a Massapequa Park architect with an office in Manhattan, has pleaded not guilty to first- and second-degree murder in the killings of Megan Waterman, Amber Costello and Melissa Barthelemy, and second-degree murder in the slaying of Maureen Brainard-Barnes, collectively known as the “Gilgo Four.” The victims, whose remains were discovered in 2010, were sex workers.

The new DNA analysis, which was developed by a California-based company specializing in resurrecting old DNA, is able to develop genetic markers from shed hairs — material once considered too small or degraded to provide useful profiles. The method develops so-called SNP markers, or single nucleotide polymorphisms, which can exist in greater numbers than traditional STR markers, or short tandem repeat regions, used by law enforcement to identify suspects. Previously, nuclear DNA was extracted only from hair with tissue attached at the root.

“This is very strong evidence,” said forensic scientist Bruce Budowle, who years ago helped the FBI develop its DNA database, known as CODIS. “This technology with a large set of markers can provide very powerful statistical support far exceeding anything we see with STR.”

The hair evidence found with the Gilgo Beach victims’ remains could initially only be analyzed for mitochondrial DNA, which contains about 12,500 genetic pairs, Tierney said. The more definitive nuclear DNA analysis — with about 3 billion base pairs — only recently became available in the Heuermann case, Tierney said, and the results solidify the likelihood that Heuermann, his estranged wife, Asa Ellerup, or daughter was the source of the hairs found with the victims’ remains — strong circumstantial evidence for the prosecution. 

A photograph included in court papers shows Victoria Heuermann riding...

A photograph included in court papers shows Victoria Heuermann riding the LIRR in May when she was under surveillance. Credit: Suffolk County Prosecutor's Office

Prosecutors repeatedly have ruled out any notion that Ellerup or her children could have been involved in the killings, saying there is evidence they were outside New York State during the period when the killings likely took place. The presence of hair that could be Ellerup’s or Victoria Heuermann’s with the victims’ remains could be attributable to an inadvertent transfer onto Rex Heuermann’s clothing due to the close contact the women would have had with Rex Heuermann by living in the same house.

“Notably, at the time of Ms. Amber Costello’s disappearance and murder, Victoria Heuermann would have been almost one-month shy of her 14th birthday,” prosecutors said in a bail letter following Rex Heuermann’s indictment in Brainard-Barnes’ killing, further ruling out the possibility that the then-child could have any connection.

The attorney for Victoria Heuermann, who also represents her brother, reiterated what authorities have made clear: Rex Heuermann's now-adult children are not suspects in the killings.

“The superseding indictment — conclusively, in absolute black-and-white terms, unequivocally — states that neither of my clients had anything to do with the allegations,” said Vess Mitev. “It was determined conclusively that they're not suspects or suspected. Any suggestion to the contrary is defamatory or slanderous.”

Heuermann’s attorney, Michael J. Brown, balked at the prosecution’s use of the new DNA methods and questioned the reliability of the analysis.

“All along, we have been told that the evidence is unsuitable for nuclear DNA testing,” Brown said last month. “This morning was the first time — and this is 13-plus years — that miraculously, nuclear DNA testing and results have come forward. There has been testimony, there has been lab reports that consistently say it was incapable of having nuclear DNA testing. And we have mitochondrial DNA, and those statistics were quite frankly not very convincing.”

Brown added: “We are certainly gonna look into the lab reports, the lab testing and the transfer of evidence because that’s somewhat disturbing to learn for the first time after 13 years that we now have nuclear DNA testing.”

Single nucleotide polymorphisms in a DNA profile can be useful because they are more plentiful, particularly in cases where DNA may be degraded, said Colleen Fitzpatrick, a genetic genealogist with Identifinders International in California. Technology has advanced in the past few years to extract nuclear DNA from hair and secure SNP pairs, something that is a game-changer, Fitzpatrick said.

“The ability to use SNPs has raised probabilities [of identification] into the stratosphere,” Fitzpatrick said. “SNP is powerful evidence.”

The new DNA results also were significant because they allowed prosecutors to separate evidence allegedly linking Ellerup and Victoria Heuermann because as mother and daughter, they had identical mitochondrial genetic profiles, Tierney said.

“And the good thing about it is it’s allowed us to differentiate between those Victoria Heuermann and Asa Ellerup hairs, so that’s important,” said Tierney, who said DNA analysis in the case was performed by scientists at the Suffolk County Crime Laboratory and two other labs, which have not been publicly identified.

There were five unidentified hairs found with the remains of the four initial Gilgo Beach homicide victims’ remains when they were discovered in 2010. Suffolk prosecutors said their latest DNA analysis links them to either Heuermann himself, or his wife and daughter, both of whom he lived with in a dilapidated home in Massapequa Park.

Fred Klein, a visiting assistant professor of law at Hofstra University in Hempstead and the former chief of the major offense bureau of the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, said Heuermann's defense will almost certainly seek to have the DNA evidence excluded from a trial.

“In this case, for sure they're going to challenge it because it seems to be a central part of the case against the defendant,” Klein said.

When new scientific evidence is presented in New York, the court needs to conduct a pretrial hearing, where experts will testify and the court will be tasked with determining if this new science is generally accepted in the field.

Klein said of the new DNA analysis: “The novelty of it is obviously an issue, and that’s why you need a judge to review the science and at least make a determination whether it’s reliable.”

Three of the five hairs documented as evidence in the case were found with the remains of Waterman. A male hair found at the bottom of the burlap covering over Waterman’s body could not be excluded as belonging to Rex Heuermann, although 99.96% of North America’s population could be excluded, prosecutors said.

Brown, Heuermann’s attorney, has derided those results as meaningless, saying the mitochondrial pairing could be the same for thousands of other people. But the new nuclear DNA analysis, according to prosecutors, presents an even greater likelihood that it’s Rex Heuermann’s hair, finding that it is 1.408 times 10 to the 169th power more likely to come from an individual with the identical genetic profile of Rex Heuermann, prosecutors said.

The statistical probability that the hair came from Rex Heuermann was as high as a number so large that if written out with its 169 zeros, it would take up nearly two lines of this story.

Two other female hairs found with Waterman’s body are linked to Ellerup using the nuclear DNA analysis, while the earlier mitochondrial DNA results on one of the hairs linked both Ellerup and Victoria Heuermann, prosecutors said.

Another female hair found on tape in the head area of Costello’s remains likely came from Victoria Heuermann, prosecutors said, after the initial testing linked it to both her and her mother.

And the female hair found on the belt buckle used to restrain the lower body of Brainard-Barnes likely came from Ellerup, prosecutors said.

Heuermann was linked to the first three women's killings when he was charged through DNA, cellphone site data and burner phones, prosecutors have said.

A cheek swab, obtained from Heuermann by court order since he’s been in custody, matched a mitochondrial DNA profile that authorities who were surveilling Heuermann developed from a pizza crust and used napkin that allegedly were discarded by Heuermann in Manhattan, prosecutors have said.

Investigators surveilling Rex Heuermann and his family for about a year before his July 13 arrest took multiple so-called abandonment samples — the Monster Java can from Victoria Heuermann and the discarded pizza crust and used napkin from Rex Heuermann, among others — that later matched buccal swabs taken from the family after his arrest.

Courts are slowly accepting single nucleotide polymorphisms analysis as evidence, but experts expect a fight over whether a jury deciding Heuermann's fate — should the case go to trial — is able to consider the nuclear DNA results as evidence. Heuermann's defense team likely will seek to suppress the evidence.

“This SNP process is cutting edge,” Tierney said. “There are a couple of cases around the country where it’s being used. … It is scientifically accepted by both the medical and forensic community. So the science is certainly extremely solid.”

Earlier this week, prosecutors disclosed the prosecution had turned over nearly 3,000 police tips in the case to the defense team. Heuermann is expected back in court on April 17.

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