What began as a search for one missing woman led to multiple bodies and the capture of a man police say is a serial killer.
May 1, 2010: Shannan Gilbert disappears
Shannan Gilbert, 23, was working as an escort. In the early morning hours of May 1, 2010, Gilbert made a frantic phone call to 911. She had been at a client’s home on Long Island, and said she believed someone was after her. She took off running and told the 911 operator there were people trying to kill her. Then, Gilbert vanished.
Police would do an exhaustive search for Gilbert. Months passed without a sign of the missing woman and then, in December 2010, near Gilgo Beach, a police officer and his K-9, Blue, found human remains. But it wasn’t Gilbert. Instead, they found the bodies of four women.
December 2010: The Gilgo Four
Police found the bodies of four women near Gilgo Beach on New York’s Long Island. The women became known as the Gilgo Four and were identified as Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Amber Costello, Megan Waterman and Melissa Barthelemy. Police say all of the women were petite and three of them were wrapped in burlap. Police began their hunt to find a serial killer.
The killer had a type
Dominick Varrone, who was Suffolk County chief of detectives at the time, said there were striking similarities among the Gilgo Four. “Very petite. 5 foot or under, 100 pounds,” Varrone said. The women were also all in their 20s and were all working as online escorts.
July 6, 2007: Maureen Brainard-Barnes’ final weekend
Maureen Brainard-Barnes is often referred to as the first of the Gilgo Four. She went missing in July 2007. Brainard-Barnes was a single mother of two living in Norwich, Connecticut. She had begun working as an escort, posting ads on Craigslist and other websites to meet clients. On July 6, 2007, her cellphone was contacted by a burner cellphone — a prepaid phone that anyone can buy and use anonymously. Between July 6 and July 9, there were 16 interactions between the caller using a burner phone and Brainard-Barnes’ cellphone.
July 8, 2007: Missy Cann’s last call with her sister
Maureen Brainard-Barnes’ sister, Missy Cann, received a call from Maureen late at night from Penn Station in midtown Manhattan. In an interview in 2020, Cann told “48 Hours” Maureen said she was going to take the train at midnight. Cann never saw or heard from Maureen again.
July 2009: The disappearance of Melissa Barthelemy
Melissa Barthelemy, 24, moved from Buffalo, New York, to New York City to work as a hairdresser. At some point, she also began working as an escort. In July 2009, nearly two years to the day that Brainard-Barnes went missing, Barthelemy disappeared.
July 17, 2009: Taunting phone calls begin
In the weeks following Barthelemy’s disappearance, police say her then 15-year-old sister, Amanda, received a series of phone calls from a man calling from Melissa’s cellphone. The first of these calls came on July 17, 2009 at approximately 12:40 p.m. A number of calls followed in the coming weeks. In one, the caller told Amanda he had killed Melissa.
June 5, 2010: Megan Waterman
Megan Waterman, 22, a mother from Scarborough, Maine, was also working as an escort. On June 5, 2010, she was contacted by a burner phone which had just been activated that same day.
June 6, 2010: Megan Waterman vanishes
At 1:31 a.m., Waterman’s phone was again contacted by the same burner phone as the day before. Security video showed Waterman leaving a Holiday Inn Express in Hauppauge, Long Island, around the same time. This was the last time she was seen alive.
“I can’t bring her back”
Liliana Waterman was just 3 years old when her mother disappeared. In her first television interview in 2020, Liliana (pictured with Megan Waterman) told “48 Hours” that if she could talk to her mom, she would tell her how much she loves her. “I never got to really say those words,” Liliana told correspondent Erin Moriarty. She said she misses her mom every day.
Sept. 2, 2010: Amber Costello disappears
Amber Costello, a 27-year-old escort living on Long Island, was contacted by someone using a burner phone. The next day, she left her house to meet a client and never returned.
After Costello’s disappearance, police say her roommate Dave Schaller told them about her clients. He described one of them as looking like an “ogre” and having “a first-generation Chevrolet Avalanche.” On the night she went missing, Schaller says, a client offered Cistello $1,500 for the night – six times her hourly rate.
In 2011, Schaller spoke to Moriarty. “This guy was so relentless,” Schaller said. “He called several times. He was on the phone with her for quite a while each time.” He says the client got Costello, an experienced escort, to do something she never did: leave home without her purse or cellphone and meet him in his car. At nearly midnight, Schaller says Costello left the house, walked down the street, and he never saw her again.
Dec. 16, 2010: Still no Shannan
Throughout the spring of 2011, investigators continued a wide-ranging search for Shannan Gilbert.
May 2011: Six more sets of remains discovered
By May 2011, police had discovered six more sets of remains in the area, bringing the total to 10 — including the Gilgo Four. Investigators were not sure the same killer was responsible for all the murders.
Victim No. 5, Jessica Taylor, is an escort who went missing in 2003.Another set of remains police called “Jane #6” has now been identified as Valerie Mack, who also worked as an escort and went missing in 2000.Number 7, to investigators’ surprise they found a toddler girl.Number 8 was an Asian male dressed in women’s clothing.Number 9 was a female skull belonging to Karen Vergata, an escort who disappeared in 1996. Number 10, female remains, from a victim cops nicknamed “Peaches” because of a tattoo on her torso. Although her remains were found 6 miles away, police say DNA has confirmed that “Peaches” is the mother of that toddler.
Dec. 13, 2011: Shannan Gilbert is found
In December 2011, a year-and-a-half after she went missing, and a year after the Gilgo Four were found, investigators found Gilbert’s remains. But they don’t believe she was murdered.
Years later, the Suffolk County Police Department released the full audio of Shannan’s 21-minute 911 call on May 1, 2010, the morning she disappeared. Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison said in an interview with Erin Moriarty, Gilberts’s death was likely not a murder. “It’s an unfortunate incident, but right now we believe that she just ran into the marsh and unfortunately drowned,” Harrison said.
February 2022: A fresh look at the case
For nearly a decade after the discovery of the Gilgo Four, the investigation stalled. Until, in February 2022, a new task force was formed by Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison and Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney. In an interview withMoriarty, DA Tierney said, “… a mere six weeks later … Rex Heuermann was identified for the first time.”
A tip from the past
How did investigators get a suspect in six weeks? It turns out that in the original case files were a number of critical clues that the new task force was finally able to connect. Costello’s roommate Dave Schaller had previously described one of Costello’s clients and the type of vehicle he drove to investigators. The vehicle was a first-generation Chevrolet Avalanche.
With a description of an”ogre-like” man, and the make and model of his truck, police took a closer look at Costello’s phone records from 2010. Schaller had told them that before Costello disappeared, there was one client that called her incessantly.
The burner phone clue
Police back then knew the client was using a burner phone. And they knew that the Brainard-Barnes, Barthelemy, Costello and Waterman had all been in contact with burner numbers right before they disappeared.
In 2012, with the help of the FBI, police determined that most of those calls connected to cell towers inside a small area of Massapequa Park, Long Island. They called this area “the box.” According to DA Tierney, “the box” consisted of a couple of blocks within Massapequa Park.
A suspect in sight
Armed with their small radius of “the box” and the description of an “ogre-like” man that drove a Chevrolet Avalanche, the task force now had a prime suspect. Police identified an architect named Rex Heuermann as the man they believed may have been responsible for the murders.
And when they looked at Heuermann’s personal cellphone records, they say that his phone was in the same area as those burner phones when they were used to contact victims. They also say that when the burner phones contacted victims, they were often in Massapequa Park, where Heuermann lived, or midtown Manhattan, where his architectural firm was located. In 2023, they noticed Heuermann going into a phone store to make a payment on a burner phone.
A DNA hit
Police began to tail Heuermann. When he threw out a pizza box into a trash can in midtown Manhattan, investigators found that Heuermann’s DNA on the pizza crust was consistent with a DNA profile found on a male hair discovered with Megan Waterman’s body. With DNA evidence, along with the cellphone records linking Heuermann to the burner phones, officers made an arrest.
July 14, 2023: A suspect in custody
Rex Heuermann, of Massapequa Park, Long Island, wascharged with multiple counts of murderin the deaths of Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman and Amber Costello. Heuermann is currently the prime suspect for the murder of Maureen Brainard-Barnes, but he has not been charged with her death.
When asked about Heuermann’s innocence at a press conference, Heuerman’s attorney Michael Brown said, “What has my client told me? He told me he didn’t do this.”
Digging for evidence
Police spent 12 days looking through Heuermann’s house, pulling guns out of the basement, and digging in the backyard. Another important piece of evidence taken into possession was a first-generation Chevrolet Avalanche registered to Heuermann at the time of the murders. It was sitting on property he owns in South Carolina when they recovered it.
An opportunity to kill?
A married man, Heuermann has a daughter and stepson with his second wife, Asa Ellerup. Ellerup, who was born in Iceland, would take the children to see her family there in the summers. It was during these trips and others, police believe, that Heuermann killed the women.
Heuermann pleaded not guilty
Heuermann was arraigned in Suffolk County Court in Riverhead, New York. He pleaded not guilty to the murders of Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman and Amber Costello. The judge ordered that he be held without bail in a Suffolk County jail where he is currently awaiting trial.
Remembering Amber, Melissa and Megan
Investigators hope that the arrest can give victims’ families a sense of peace. Police Commissioner Harrison told Erin Moriarty, “He took away somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister, not just one person, multiple individuals.”
Investigations spread to South Carolina and Las Vegas where Heuermann owns property, with detectives there taking a fresh look at cases of missing women. Heuermann has not been charged in any additional investigations.
As for the other bodies found near Gilgo Beach – Jessica Taylor, Valerie Mack, Karen Vergata, “Peaches”, the toddler girl, and the Asian male – none of them have been linked to Heuermann.