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Suffolk County police commissioner Geraldine Hart, holds up

Suffolk County police commissioner Geraldine Hart, holds up a picture of a belt that investigators believe belonged to the serial killer, during a press conference at police headquarters in Yaphank on Thursday. Credit: James Carbone

The letters on the belt are creepy, even haunting, with a certain Gothic allure. 

Embossed on black leather, they seem worn with age, their curves suggesting something sinister. They look like part of a taut Hollywood whodunit.

Barring a discovery that they actually are ancient symbols used in some dark arts ritual, the letters appear to be WH. Or, perhaps, HM. It depends on how you look at them, from up or down.

The same is true of the Gilgo Beach killings in general. Suffolk County police showed an image last week of the belt, which they believe was handled by someone who might be a suspect in their investigation of the 11 sets of human remains found scattered along Ocean Parkway in 2010 and 2011. The mystery of what happened to those 11 souls, a mystery as thick as the brambles that line that stretch of road, has gripped Long Island ever since.

Even the authorities have had different perspectives. Looking up in May 2011, then-Suffolk District Attorney Thoma Spota said at least three killers were responsible for the deaths. Looking down six months later, then-Police Commissioner Richard Dormer pinned the blame on a single serial killer.

And there the mystery sat.

Suffolk police said they found the belt in the early stages of their probe, at one of those many crime scenes. They called it a significant piece of evidence. It might even have DNA on it. But they only chose to release the image now. One wonders what might have happened had the photo been publicized earlier. It's been nine years, long enough to have taken a toll on someone who might have recognized the initials or found meaning in those letters. Whose memory has faded or been lost in those nine years? Who has moved away from Long Island and might never see the photo? Who has died and taken an answer with them?

The mind wanders. We've all been there. As 7-year-olds, Stevie Flynn and I walked home from grammar school day after day in the autumn of 1963 solving the conspiracy of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

As a contemporary thriller, Gilgo Beach has a lot going for it. A possible serial killer on the loose. The prevalence of prostitutes among the identified victims. An iconic and moody Long Island location, the wind-swept heath hemmed in by a remote roadway and a roiling ocean. A law enforcement system long operating at a deficit of trust among some Long Islanders.

We all like to play armchair detective when we're engaged in a crisp page-turner. But when you do that in real life, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that there are real people at the heart of the mystery. Somebody's daughter didn't come home that night. Someone's colleague didn't show up for work the next day. Somebody's sister never picked up the phone to talk. And their killer or killers still walk free.

As we again sort through rumors and facts and form our theories, let's remember that as many as 11 families have been in pain for a long time, waiting for answers that still have not come. Some of those families, the ones related to the remains not yet identified, don't even know that it's their loved ones who were dumped beside that lonely road.

In real life, the unknown can seem like fiction. But it's not.

In a fictional whodunit, the hero typically finds the culprit and some measure of justice is served.

Let's hope the rules of fiction hold in this Long Island mystery that is all too real.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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