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Editorial: On Gilgo case, spat can't help

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer, left, and

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer, left, and District Attorney Thomas Spota, right. Credit: James Carbone (left, right); Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

It must be terribly unsettling for the families of the victims in the Gilgo Beach homicides to learn from the media not only that there's a new theory of the case, but also that Suffolk County's two main law enforcement officers disagree totally about it. This is yet another low moment in the history of Suffolk criminal investigations.

Early in the case, Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said a serial killer could be responsible. Then, in May, District Attorney Thomas Spota and Dormer stood side by side as Spota said: "As distasteful and disturbing as that is, there is no evidence that all of these remains are the work of a single killer." Before he made that statement, Spota's office led in personally notifying the families. Dormer acknowledges being there, but says the multiple-killer theory was all Spota's.

Then, at the end of November, Dormer said that his theory was that there was a single serial killer. He repeated that last Thursday at a meeting of the county legislature's public safety committee, the final one he'll attend as commissioner. Minutes later, Spota told the committee that he disagreed completely with Dormer, and that there was zero forensic evidence to back up the single-killer theory.

Understandably, one family called this public conflict "shocking" and "mind-boggling." We'll go one adjective further: comforting -- to the defense attorneys who eventually have to defend the person or persons accused of these crimes. The job of defense lawyers is to raise doubts in the minds of jurors, and conflicting theories of the crimes would be perfect grist for inducing doubt.

At the beginning of the new year, Dormer will be gone, and Edward Webber, the choice of County Executive-elect Steve Bellone to serve as acting commissioner during the search for Dormer's permanent successor, will inherit this incredibly difficult case. We hope Webber, now the department's chief of support services, will be circumspect in his comments on the case. The goal is to get convictions. So police-prosecutor cooperation, not dueling theories, is what we need.

Bellone also plans to appoint a new chief of department, James Burke, who is Spota's chief investigator. Bellone's staff has notified the current chief of department -- along with Dormer, his deputy, and three other key officials -- that their services won't be required. It's appropriate for Bellone to shake up the top echelon of an organization that is considered top-heavy. Given the budget crisis facing him, if he eliminates some of those positions, that would be understandable.

But Bellone appears to have overstepped in appointing a new chief of department now, months before a new permanent commissioner is expected to be chosen. The commissioner should pick the chief of department, in consultation with the county executive. The current executive, Steve Levy, has been accused of micromanaging the department, and Bellone needs to avoid the appearance of doing the same.

This confluence of police-related events is a stark reminder of what's in store for Bellone. Clearing the Gilgo case has to be a top priority -- and restoring morale in the police department. In the weeks ahead, let's hear less of theories and more of actual results.


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