The top two law enforcement officials in Suffolk County clashed openly Thursday over whether it was likely a single or multiple killers who dumped the remains of 10 victims near Gilgo Beach and other places along Ocean Parkway.
Minutes after Police Commissioner Richard Dormer reiterated his recent single-killer theory in testimony at a county legislative hearing, District Attorney Thomas Spota took the witness chair and contradicted him.
"I very, very much disagree with that theory," Spota said.
The split between Dormer and Spota over one of the biggest and most baffling serial murder investigations in Suffolk history surprised lawmakers at the hearing. Public Safety Committee chairman Jack Eddington (I-Medford) said he was "blown away" by the dispute.
It also upset family members who marked the first anniversary this week of the discovery of the first four Gilgo victims.
Hours later, County Executive-elect Steve Bellone announced a shake-up of top police brass, naming veteran police official Edward Webber as interim commissioner, effective Jan. 1.
Regina Calcaterra, co-director of Bellone's transition team, said, "As soon as Steve takes office, we're going to aggressively push forward a comprehensive investigation to make sure that family members get closure and justice is served for the victim."
Dormer said, "We still believe it's one killer at this point, unless we get information that would change that."
Dormer left before Spota took his turn. The DA stood by the theory he first unveiled at a May news conference with Dormer standing beside him: that there were at least three killers who used the brush off Ocean Parkway on Long Island's South Shore as a dumping ground.
"The commissioner and I went through this in May," he said.
The DA said he was surprised last month to learn of Dormer's current view.
"To this date, from the day he [Dormer] made that announcement, he has never ever mentioned it to me," Spota told the legislators. Spota said that some of Dormer's own homicide detectives disagreed privately with the commissioner's single-killer pronouncement.
To Dormer's assertion that all of the victims appear linked to the sex trade, Spota noted five of the victims remain unidentified. "We don't even know who these people are," he said.
Dormer refused to answer questions as he was leaving the hearing. Later, the Suffolk police public information office issued an email saying there would be no comment on Spota's remarks.
The unsolved homicides date to 1996, but the first of the remains strewn near Gilgo were uncovered Dec. 11, 2010, while police conducting a training exercise and searching for Shannan Gilbert, a New Jersey woman working as a prostitute who disappeared after seeing a client in nearby Oak Beach in May 2010. In the following months, the remains of 10 people were found -- eight women, one man and a female toddler.
After a renewed search of Oak Beach in the past week, investigators found human remains Tuesday in a marshy area that they believe will be identified as Gilbert, although the medical examiner has not yet made a finding. Police believe Gilbert died from an accident and was unconnected to the Gilgo slayings.
Dormer told the legislators that he believed there was a single killer because several were prostitutes, DNA from a toddler was linked to a female victim found 7 miles away, the Asian male victim was wearing women's clothing, and "the Asian male looked like he was connected to the sex business."
Spota said he believed there was more than one killer because no effort was made to hide the identities of four female victims found near each other last December. In contrast, two female victims whose other body parts were found in Manorville years earlier indicated the killer was trying to make identification difficult.
A third killer is suggested by the method used to murder the Asian male, which was unlike that of the other slayings, he said.
"The manner in which he died, the cause of death, are absolutely different from all the others," he said.
Dormer said different methods didn't necessarily mean different killers.
"It looks like the killer may have evolved," he said. Dormer added that "it's not unusual with killers to change the way they dispose of bodies."
The meeting of the Public Safety Committee had been billed as a routine update on the investigation for legislators. Eddington said later that he had not realized Dormer and Spota were at odds.
"But now it really seems like he [Dormer] hasn't been open and communicating with the DA," Eddington said. ". . . I thought he was being open, when in reality he's not communicating with the other important person in our criminal justice system."
The county legislature's presiding officer, William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), said after the hearing that he had known about private disagreements over the years between Dormer and Spota, "but it's been pretty covered up.
"This is becoming very open," he added.