Valerie Mack was 24 years old when she abruptly disappeared from Edwin and JoAnn Mack’s lives around October 2000.
Her adoptive parents and other relatives futilely searched for her for years, fearing something terrible had happened to the young mother they said had been trying to turn her life around.
In February 2020, their worst fears became a reality: Suffolk County detectives called to tell them Valerie was dead and had been identified as a victim in the Gilgo Beach serial killings.
Until then, she had been anonymous, known to investigators simply as Jane Doe No. 6. Some of her remains had been found in Manorville in 2000 and 11 years later near Gilgo Beach.
“We were in shock for several days,” Edwin Mack told Newsday.
“Finding out that not only was she gone but also how she’d been found was like stepping into a nightmare,” sister Danielle Wade said.
'Finding out that not only was she gone but also how she’d been found was like stepping into a nightmare.'
-Danielle Wade, Valerie Mack's sister
Wade is pictured with Valerie, right, and sister Angela, left, in one of the last family photos taken before Valerie disappeared.
Credit: Mack family
The Gilgo case broke in late 2010 with the discovery by police of human remains along a desolate stretch of the Ocean Parkway near Gilgo Beach. A year later, a total of 10 sets of remains had been found, mostly of young women laboring as sex workers, but also a toddler and an Asian male.
More than a decade later, what have become known as the Gilgo Beach killings remain among the most publicized unsolved serial murder cases in the United States.
On New Year's Eve day, incoming Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison said he would bring "a fresh set of eyes" to the investigation. Since then, he has released video images of Gilgo Beach homicide victim Megan Waterman in a Hauppauge hotel just before she disappeared almost 12 years ago. Most recently, he released audio of a 911 call another sex worker made to police in May 2010 before she went missing. The commissioner said he hoped the new material would help police solve the case.
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison speaks during an April 12 news conference at Oak Beach in Babylon, where photo evidence related to the Gilgo investigation was released. Credit: James Carbone
Now, for the first time, Valerie Mack's family has spoken to Newsday in hopes that a story might spark more investigative leads.
Valerie, the police said, had been earning money as a sex worker. Some of her remains had been found — like many of the 10 other victims — along that remote stretch of Ocean Parkway in the enclave of Gilgo Beach, where police had been searching for another woman, Shannan Gilbert, a sex worker from New Jersey who went missing from nearby Oak Beach in May 2010.
Two years after police and the FBI made a full identification of Valerie’s remains, her adoptive parents and several relatives who spoke to Newsday described a young woman who had an unsettled, difficult childhood and had been bouncing around foster homes before the Macks adopted her in 1985 when she was 9.
Valerie Mack's life in South Jersey
The couple described Valerie’s life with them in a small town near Atlantic City as one filled with happiness and hope. Born on June 2, 1976, as Valerie Lyn Fulton, the youngster arrived at the Mack household in what was the last stop after nearly 10 years of shuttling among seven foster homes after Patricia Fulton, her birth mother, lost custody of her. Fulton’s relatives said Valerie's mother had serious substance abuse problems, had contracted AIDS and had troubled relationships with a number of men.
Fulton had four other children before Valerie was born and had gone through a contentious separation and divorce, which court records showed stretched from 1972 until 1985. Her children all were placed in foster care.
It turned out that Edwin and Joann Mack were looking to adopt another child and learned of Valerie’s availability through a couple at their church.
“We liked her and she liked us,” said Edwin Mack, 80, a retired engineer. “What we saw we really liked … there was a sweetness about her.”
“She was a wonderful girl, a quick sense of humor, vivacious,” remembered JoAnn Mack, 78, a retired pharmacy technician.
“She was a good sister, too,” added Wade, 32, Valerie’s sister, whom the Macks adopted after Valerie. “The thing I remember about her the most was how fiercely protective and nurturing she was toward those she cared about. I looked up to her and she was the coolest person on the planet to my little kid mind.”
As a youngster, Valerie lived with the Macks in a spacious ranch-style home off a tree-lined rural street on a piece of property very close to pristine marshland and the New Jersey pine barrens. In the spring, hummingbirds could sip nectar the family put out in special feeders, the parents said.
Her parents said Valerie seemed to thrive, participating in youth plays at the Greentree Church in Egg Harbor, a congregation affiliated with the Sovereign Grace Churches of the Christian denomination. She was doing well in school; one of her prize possessions was an upright piano that still graces the Mack home.
Her early struggles
But Valerie 's life seemed to start to unravel when she was in the ninth grade, at age 14, JoAnne Mack said.
Valerie Mack when she was a young high schooler. Credit: Courtesy Mack family
She began to run away, started hanging out with the wrong group of youths, doing drugs and skipping school, her parents said. Eventually, the family sought counseling at a New Jersey crisis center specializing in children.
But nothing worked, and when Valerie turned 17, the state social service system determined she should be treated as an adult who could make her own decisions. “She had become pretty rebellious, so they figured she was old enough to live on her own,” JoAnn Mack said.
In the early 1990s, Valerie moved in with her half-sister, the late Dierdre Gimmillaro, who lived in the seaside town of Wildwood, New Jersey. In 1994, Valerie gave birth to a son, Benjamin, and began living with the child’s father, the Macks said. But Valerie didn't stay long and eventually left Benjamin with his dad and took off, the parents said, adding that she kept going back and forth between Philadelphia and New Jersey.
Valerie Mack with late sister Deidre Gimmillaro. Credit: Mack family
“She was afraid she couldn’t be a good mother,” JoAnn Mack said, recalling conversations with Valerie.
In Philadelphia, she was arrested three times for prostitution, drugs and loitering, Suffolk County investigators said. She used the alias “Melissa Taylor.”
The Macks said Valerie's involvement in sex work deeply troubled them. They said they feared for her safety.
Those fears abated somewhat in fall 1999, when Valerie was diagnosed with pericarditis, an inflammation of the outer lining of the heart, her parents said. She moved back to the Mack home as soon as she left the hospital.
Her life slowly started to turn around, the parents said. Valerie got a job at a local Dollar Tree discount store in Egg Harbor Township.
“They really liked her,” Ed Mack recalled about the retail job. “They were going to start her for an evening manager spot.”
Valerie Mack loses contact with her family
But the interval didn’t last, the Macks said. Valerie seemed to have a feeling that something dreadful was going to happen to her.
“Everything is going great, but something bad is going to happen,” Edwin Mack recalled.
Valerie left home again in October 2000, to visit her son and half-sister in Wildwood, the Macks said.
“It was at that point that I heard of Valerie going to New York — I never heard of her mention New York at any time [previously],” remembered JoAnn Mack. “When she left that day from her sister’s house, she said she was going to New York, she was with a guy.”
Until you know for sure, there is always that little speck of hope.
-JoAnn Mack, Valerie Mack's adoptive mother
When the Macks didn’t hear from Valerie in fall 2000, they said they went to a local police department to file a missing-person report. But the police said since Valerie was over 21 and had a history of running away, she probably didn’t want to be home and didn’t take a report, JoAnn Mack said.
Years passed with no contact from Valerie, and the Macks said they sensed the worst had happened. But they said they didn’t want to give up hope.
“Until you know for sure, there is always that little speck of hope,” JoAnn Mack said.
Edwin Mack took to praying: “Lord, give us a sign where Valerie is.”
Police turn to genetic profiling
That sign arrived in February 2020 after investigators had turned to the innovative forensic technique of genetic genealogy.
Suffolk homicide detectives working with the FBI submitted Valerie’s genetic profile for analysis between 2019 and 2020, as they tried to identify four of the 10 victims of the suspected Gilgo serial killer or killers. With the involvement of an FBI special agent who was a trained genealogist, Valerie’s profile was uploaded into public genetic databases, the kind often used by people to trace lost relatives.
Unknown to law enforcement, a male cousin of Valerie living in Georgia had earlier received a commercial DNA testing kit as a gift, which allowed him to submit a DNA sample to trace family members.
Using genetic genealogy, law enforcement agencies including the FBI are able to upload unknown DNA samples — in this case Valerie's — to special genetic sites like GEDmatch in the hope that there may be a significant match to someone who already has been seeking relatives through commercial DNA firms. Tracing family relations, officials learned that a living relative of both Valerie and her cousin was an aunt in New Jersey.
The aunt, Ellen Munnings, recalled in an interview with Newsday how FBI agents and Suffolk police detectives visited her at her home in south Jersey.
Worried that someone in her family was in trouble, Munnings told how the investigators reassured her that was not that case. Instead, Munnings recalled, the investigators wanted to know if she had any relatives with a daughter. Munnings told them she could account for most of her nieces, but also told them she didn’t know about all the daughters of her sister, Patricia Fulton, who by then had been dead for nearly 18 years.
Her body had been found in a Chicago boat basin in September 2002, a death caused by drowning, according to autopsy reports.
Munnings consented to give a DNA sample to the Gilgo Beach investigators. About two weeks later, she learned she was a close match genetically with Valerie. Investigators then interviewed Tricia Hazen, another daughter of Patricia Fulton who was living in New Jersey and who said in a 2020 interview with Newsday she also was asked to give her DNA sample, which showed she and Valerie shared the same mother and were naturally half-sisters.
A break in the case
A positive identification through construction of a family tree using genealogy was getting closer.
Investigators then approached the Macks, who told them about their missing daughter’s son, Benjamin. He agreed to provide his DNA sample, which confirmed that he was the son of Jane Doe No. 6 — Valerie Mack.
The mystery of her identity had been solved. In May 2020, then-Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart announced the findings.
The Macks already knew of the discovery. Edwin Mack said he and his wife got a call from Suffolk police in February 2020 that their daughter had been identified as being among the Gilgo Beach victims.
In one sense, Edwin Mack said, the discovery came as a relief in that the family finally knew what had happened to Valerie. But there was also the terrible realization that Valerie had been killed.
The news stunned Hazen and sister Danielle Wade.
'My heart aches because of ... not just her death, but the life we will never have together as sisters.'
-Tricia Hazen, Valerie Mack's half-sister
“My heart aches because of the whole thing,” Hazen said in an email. "Not just her death, but the life we will never have together as sisters. … But I do hope that the cases of all of the girls will be solved."
Wade said she is still reeling from the news two years later.
“I am still struggling to process it,” Wade told Newsday in an email.
The Macks said a new team of Gilgo investigators has visited them twice since then in the effort to energize the Gilgo case, which Harrison and Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney said they are committed to solving.
A loving memorial and a final resting place
Last summer, the Macks received Valerie’s remains for cremation. They keep some of the ashes in their home in a small vial next to a photo of Valerie. The bulk of the ashes went to Benjamin, JoAnn Mack said. The remainder were sprinkled near a tree on the grounds of the Greentree Church in Egg Harbor Township.
The family held a memorial to celebrate Valerie’s life in July. A highlight of the service was a commemorative video of Valerie at different points in her life. Some of the scenes were happy ones, showing Valerie as a fun-loving, warm and precocious child. But in the final scenes, taken during a baby shower before giving birth to Benjamin, Valerie seemed pensive and unhappy, Edwin Mack recalled.
When the memorial was over, guests released balloons into the summer sky.
A memorial card showing Valerie Mack. At right, Joanne Mack displays a black onyx ring retrieved from Valerie's body and given to her mother by Suffolk County police. Credit: Courtesy the Mack family
There is one special memento JoAnn Mack has from her lost daughter. After Valerie was identified, Suffolk detectives gave her a ring with a dark, heart-shaped Onyx stone, noting it was found with the body. She had given one to Valerie and one to Danielle Wade, Valerie's sister, decades ago.
“This was the ring Valerie was wearing when she died,” JoAnn Mack said, fighting back tears.
It will stay on the finger of the woman who adopted her for the rest of her days, she said.
Anyone with information related to the Gilgo Beach homicides case can call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-220-TIPS
The Suffolk County Police Department also maintains a website: www.gilgonews.com