Victims of the Gilgo Beach killings were found along a stretch of Ocean Parkway on a windswept barrier island at suburbia’s end. NewsdayTV's Drew Scott reports.    Credit: Newsday/Kendall Rodriguez, John Paraskevas

From the thicket’s edge, it's easier to see the water towers on Long Island’s South Shore, some 2½ miles to the north, than it is to see the well-kept homes of Gilgo Beach, half a mile west up Ocean Parkway. 

The trees along the parkway are Japanese black pine, the thicket itself a hip-high mess of beach plum, sumac and poison ivy that crowds an upland strip before the land dives down to the marsh and the Great South Bay.

It was here, nearly 13 years ago on a windswept barrier island at suburbia’s end, that authorities started finding the victims: one, then three more, then six more farther east over the course of nearly a year.

After the Dec. 13, 2010, discovery of the three — all women, wrapped in burlap in a stretch of a little more than a tenth of a mile — police said they could be hunting a serial killer. On July 13 of this year, they said they had caught him: Rex A. Heuermann, a 59-year-old Massapequa Park man charged with murdering Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman and Amber Costello, and identified as the “prime suspect” in the killing of Maureen Brainard-Barnes, whose body was found nearby. Heuermann has pleaded not guilty. Police in Atlantic City and Las Vegas have said they are looking for connections to unsolved cases there.  

    WHAT TO KNOW

  • The area where authorities found the remains of 10 victims beginning in December 2010 is north of Ocean Parkway, east of Jones Beach on a roughly 18-mile barrier island off Long Island’s South Shore.
  • The area remains almost impenetrable because of dense undergrowth, but a recently built bike and walking path allows for more daytime visitors.
  • While much attention has been focused on the victims and the Massapequa Park man accused of killing some of them, life has gone on for the residents of six nearby barrier island communities and visitors to the area parks.

Why was this area used as a dumping ground?

Perhaps because it was relatively isolated and inaccessible to passersby, and overgrown. Another hypothesis, made by a former NYPD cold case investigator, is that it was simply convenient: “I would say he’s from close by," Joseph Pollini, a former New York City police cold case investigator, told Newsday in 2011, describing the profile of a suspect whose identity was then still unknown. “He knows the area, he feels comfortable in the area, he keeps coming back to dump bodies there."

The most direct driving route from Heuermann's Massapequa Park home to Gilgo is less than 20 miles, a half-hour trip down the Wantagh State Parkway.

Residences not far from dumping ground

Jones Beach Island is roughly 18 miles long. Police found most of the remains along a 2.65-mile stretch east of Jones Beach, near Gilgo Beach, one of six residential communities in the area that are part of Babylon Town. Under a long-standing agreement rooted in centuries-old harvest of the area's marsh grass for livestock fodder, the town owns the land in those communities; residents hold land leases with the town but own their houses and associated improvements. Much of the land north of the parkway, where the bodies were found, is state-owned.

Of the 2,234 acres in those communities, just 149 acres contained residential and commercial uses, according to a 1994 environmental study commissioned by the town. There are now 407 houses, about half of which are vacant in the winter.

Gilgo Beach State Park drew 188,761 people in 2022, but some of that park's biggest draws, like a stretch of beach where four-wheel driving is permitted, are on the ocean side, separated from the thicket by a massive dune and by the parkway. 

Construction of the 10-mile long section of the shared-use path along the north side of the parkway from Tobay Beach to Captree State Park did not start until after 2019. The first remains were found Dec. 11, 2010.

Investigators search a marshy area along Ocean Parkway on Dec. 13,...

Investigators search a marshy area along Ocean Parkway on Dec. 13, 2011.  Credit: Charles Eckert

“It’s not an inviting area,” said Brian Zitani, Babylon Town’s waterways management supervisor, referring to the thickets where bodies were found. “The only reason I venture close to those areas is because I’m paid. Nobody goes in there on their own.”

Zitani advised police on terrain during the early searches for bodies and evidence. The distance from the mowed roadside swale to the place where the remains of the three women were found was less than 30 feet, Zitani said. “You go just a couple feet into there, it’s just a mess," he said. 

There is no roadside lighting along that section of the parkway now. Zitani said the lights started to disappear in the 1990s, knocked down when vehicles crashed into them. They were not replaced.

New York State Department of Transportation spokesman Stephen Canzoneri wrote in an email that “the lighting on Ocean Parkway was installed during the mid-20th century and was removed as it fell into disrepair.”

Offseason, aside from the residents, visits drop sharply: “There’s really no recreational purpose for going out there with the exception of a handful of fishermen,” Zitani said. 

“If it was 2 in the morning and you pulled over and turned your lights off, nobody most likely would notice,” he said. 

Killings mar 'environmental wonderland' of Gilgo

News accounts of the stretch where the 10 victims were found often describe it as “desolate,” a word that might make one wonder why anyone would want to visit the barrier beach, let alone live there. 

But those who know the place say the description is incomplete. Dorian Dale, director of sustainability for Suffolk County and a full-time West Gilgo resident since 1998, said that nearby Hemlock Cove “has always been a destination for folks from the South Shore with boats,” and that the shore breaks on the ocean side attract surfers. Moreover, he said, full-time residents of Gilgo and West Gilgo “drive that road all the time.” Those communities had 185 residents in 2020, according to the Census, which did not specify full- or part-time residence. 

Wayne Horsley, the former general manager of the Long Island State Parks Commission, knows the area well. He called it “an environmental wonderland.” The Babylon Town report documented at least 180 species of birds on the islands, with 28 species of shellfish and crustaceans in the Great South Bay and 29 species of finfish spawning in the island shallows.

“It’s diverse, it’s beautiful, it’s quiet and it’s a shame that the Gilgo name was marred,” he said.

People have lived in the Gilgo Beach area since at least the 19th century, when the only access was by boat, said Mary Cascone, Babylon Town historian. The families of men who worked lifesaving stations built at intervals along the beach were among the first residents, she said. According to the Babylon Town environmental report, Gilgo Beach likely developed around that time as a summer community for residents from the Amityville area.

Starting in the 1930s, construction of three bridges connecting to the mainland, along with the parkway — a pet project of Robert Moses — made it easier to reach most of the beach communities. According to Robert Caro's biography of the powerful planner, Moses had envisioned a continuous road from the Rockaways to Montauk, selling the public and business interests with the promise of beach access and ballooning land values. When two sisters who were major Fire Island landowners refused to go along, he settled for an alternative that linked the parkway to the Southern State Parkway via the causeway at Captree that now bears his name.

Today, many of the barrier island summer cottages have been replaced with newer, grander homes. According to real estate site Zillow.com, four area homes are for sale: three for under $800,000 and one, on Captree Island, for $2.4 million. 

Homeowners pay property taxes and, under the town lease, $4,000 a year in rent, a sum that will increase every five years through 2065. 

Homeowners include Long Islanders, New York City residents and even New Englanders. “Some of the families have three, four generations out there,” Cascone said. “There are people who went there as children with their grandparents and they bring their own children.” 

But the area lacks some of the conveniences of mainland life. Residents complained for years about spotty Internet service and aging copper landlines and 911 calls with so much background noise it was sometimes hard to hear. The land is a special flood hazard zone devastated intermittently by major storms, and the property lots are just 50 by 150 feet.

“This is not the Hamptons,” said Paul McDuffie, a teacher who sits on the executive board of the local civic association and co-owns the Gilgo Beach Inn, a popular restaurant and bar that is one of the area’s few businesses. “It’s rooted in people that enjoy the outdoors and what the environment gives us.”

McDuffie, who started visiting the barrier beach as a child in the 1970s, said the relative isolation meant “a bit of a frontiersman vibe”: taking stock of supplies before driving to the mainland, watching the weather. “When winter rolls around, you put the boat away, put the summer things away, tie things down … If it’s breezy on the mainland, it’s honking here.” 

Morgan Berk, an event producer, moved out from Brooklyn in 2020 for the surfing. Her home is surrounded by white sandy beaches and marshland, sea turtles and “birds galore.” She has come to appreciate a “tight-knit” community and its sensible customs: “If someone needs something from the store, we get it if we’re going in the same direction.” 

A makeshift memorial for a victim in the Gilgo Beach...

A makeshift memorial for a victim in the Gilgo Beach killings stands along Ocean Parkway in April 2013. (Newsday/ Thomas A. Ferrara) Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Police found seven other sets of remains near those linked to Heuermann, but some law enforcement sources have said they could be the work of another killer because they were disposed of in a haphazard fashion over a wider range of territory. 

Over the years, Dale said the killings had become a go-to topic for conversation, with people offering theories as soon as they learned he lived in Gilgo Beach. 

He never minded it, he said. But Berk, who has had to shoo photographers away from her house, said many of her neighbors were “genuinely happy" an arrest was made.

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