This story was reported by Robert Brodsky, Michael O'Keeffe and Nicole Fuller. It was written by Fuller.
Suffolk County police Thursday released an image of a black leather belt believed to have been handled by a potential suspect in the Gilgo Beach killings, marking a new chapter in the decade-long investigation into the mystery behind 11 sets of human remains found along Ocean Parkway.
The belt, which is embossed with the letters "WH" or "HM," was found some nine years ago at one of the crime scenes along the parkway, Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said at a news conference at police headquarters in Yaphank.
Calling the belt "a significant piece of evidence," Hart said she was optimistic it could help bring the department closer to identifying a suspect in the case.
"The Gilgo Beach investigation is perhaps the most well-known and complex case this department has ever undertaken," said Hart, declining to say what prompted the release of an image of evidence collected by law enforcement some nine years ago. "It is important that the families of these murder victims know that we remain steadfast in our commitment to deliver justice and, in doing so, give a sense of closure."
Thursday's announcement marks the first time in several years that police officials have spoken publicly about the investigation into what authorities have described as one or more serial killers disposing of bodies along a desolate stretch of brush.
Hart also revealed Thursday that the police department has sent DNA samples from the unidentified victims to the FBI for genetic genealogy analysis, a method of identifying remains through relatives of a murder victim or suspect.
The state earlier this year gave Suffolk investigators — for the first time in New York — the green light to use the FBI to bypass state restrictions on the use of the cutting-edge technology.
Hart said the belt did not belong to any of the victims and declined to comment on the exact location of where it was discovered. "We do believe that this item was handled by the suspect and did not belong to any of the victims,” Hart said.
Police declined to also answer whether the belt had DNA on it, whether they had any suspects and whether they were making the announcement now because of the new DNA analysis techique. The commissioner added that investigators would release additional photos of the belt “when appropriate.”
The department also announced the creation of a new website — https://www.gilgonews.com/ — that will serve as a clearinghouse for tips and new information related to the murder investigation. Not long after the announcement was made, the police department's Crime Stoppers line buzzed with callers.
Hart, who before becoming police commissioner in April 2018 headed the Long Island office of the FBI, also declined to comment on past police statements about the investigation.
Authorities have previously said the death of Shannan Gilbert, whose remains led to the discovery of the other bodies, did not appear to be the work of the killer or killers. Former Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer, who is deceased, had suggested that Gilbert died by accidental drowning in a watery marsh.
But Hart appeared to distance herself from that conclusion Thursday, nothing that the medical examiner could not definitively rule Gilbert's death either homicide or an accident.
“We are not necessarily certain," Hart said in response to a question. "We don’t think she matches many of the patterns in the Gilgo Beach homicides. As you know the medical examiner has determined that it is actually undetermined. They do not know if it is natural causes or if the cause is a criminal act.”
Hart also declined to affirm past law enforcement statements on whether the killings are the work of one or more suspects. Dormer and former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, who was recently convicted on unrelated federal obstruction of justice charges, had publicly sparred over theories of how many suspects were responsible for the slayings.
"It’s important as an investigative team that we keep our mind open to all avenues and we don’t particularly marry ourselves to one theory in the investigation," said Hart. "We go where the facts lead us. So we don’t speculate or come across with a determination such as that before the facts lead us."
The discovery of human remains along Ocean Parkway began with the search for Gilbert, 24, a Jersey City woman who was reported missing in May 2010.
A K-9 police officer and his cadaver dog found the remains of another missing sex worker, Melissa Barthelemy, 24, of the Bronx, in a thicket of weeds along Ocean Parkway, just east of Jones Beach, in December 2010. Her remains and those of three other sex workers were found that month, wrapped in burlap, within a quarter-mile of each other.
Six other victims, including a toddler and an adult male, were discovered over the course of 2011. Gilbert's body was found in December of that year.
John Ray, the Long Island attorney representing the Gilbert family, on Thursday morning called on Suffolk police to release recordings and transcripts of a 911 call made when Gilbert disappeared.
In November 2018, a Suffolk judge ordered the county police department to turn over the recordings, but the department appealed the decision, arguing the evidence was part of an ongoing homicide investigation. An appellate court is scheduled to decide on the county's appeal next week, Ray said.
“We’ve come to the moment of truth finally for Suffolk County in the Long Island serial killer case," Ray said Thursday. "For years, nine years, the Suffolk County Police Department has covered up the facts in this investigation. They have done an inadequate and negligent job of trying to track down the killer or killers.”
Hart said Thursday that the department would comply with the appellate court's decision.
Ray questioned the significance of the newly disclosed evidence.
"They had this belt for nine years," he said. "Why are they releasing it now? It’s nothing but publicity pablum.”
Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini, who attended the news conference along with other high-ranking police officials including Chief of Department Stuart Cameron, First Deputy Police Commissioner James Skopek, Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante and Det. Lt. Kevin Beyrer, who heads the Homicide Squad, said law enforcement has continued to work dilligently on the case.
"The amount of work that has gone into this case is perhaps unprecedented," said Sini, adding: "We remain committed to obtaining justice in this case.”
Gilgo Beach timeline:
May 1, 2010: Shannan Gilbert, 24, a Jersey City woman who was a sex worker, disappears in Oak Beach after being summoned to a client's home.
Dec. 11, 2010: A Suffolk K-9 police officer and his dog find other remains near Ocean Parkway while searching for Gilbert. The remains would later be identified as Melissa Barthelemy, 24, of Buffalo.
Dec. 13, 2010: Police find three more bodies - Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, of Norwich, Connecticut; Megan Waterman, 22, of Scarborough, Maine; and Amber Lynn Costello, 27, of North Babylon.
March 29, 2011: Dismembered body of Jessica Taylor, 20, is found.
April 4, 2011: Three unidentified remains are found - Jane Doe No. 6, a toddler and an Asian man.
April 11, 2011: A woman's skull is discovered west of Tobay Beach, west of Gilgo Beach. Human bones also are found in a plastic bag east of Zach's Bay near Jones Beach, farther west of Gilgo.
May 9, 2011: Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota announces the remains may be the work of at least three killers.
Nov. 30, 2011: Then-Police Commissioner Richard Dormer says he believes one serial killer is responsible.
Dec. 13, 2011: Shannan Gilbert's remains are found in a marshy, mossy area in Oak Beach.
March 11, 2015: Shannan Gilbert is buried in an Amityville cemetery.
Dec. 10, 2015: Suffolk County police officials announce that the FBI had officially joined the investigation.
Jan. 16, 2020: Suffolk County police release image of a black leather belt found in the initial stages of the Gilgo Beach murder investigation, calling it a "significant piece of evidence" in the case. The department also announced the creation of a new website — https://www.gilgonews.com/ — that will serve as a clearinghouse of tips and new information related to the murder investigation.