N.Y. / Region Thursday, December 16, 2010
Hunt Is On for Serial Killer in Long Island Deaths
By AL BAKER
The theory that the deaths of four people whose bodies were found in recent days on a Long Island beach are victims of a serial killer gained momentum on Wednesday when the authorities determined that all of them were women.
The arduous work to find that killer continues. The authorities are looking for links in the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the women, who were found in brush about 500 feet apart from one another off a highway in Gilgo Beach and who have not yet been identified.
In tracking a serial killer, investigators hunt for a so-called signature — missing jewelry, a tear in some clothing or how a body is positioned — gruesome markers that can showcase a killer’s fantasies.
Gary Ridgway was known as the Green River Killer because he buried his victims, only slightly, near the river of that name in Washington State. In Kansas, Denis L. Rader’s telltale methods were embodied in his B.T.K. moniker — bind, torture and kill. Jack the Ripper not only slashed London prostitutes, but also methodically ripped their bodies.
“It’s a calling card,” said Vernon J. Geberth, a former Bronx homicide commander who has analyzed more than 300 serial killings. “They involve themselves in some type of action with the victim. And it’s always very specific.”
A signature might not emerge immediately. The bulk of the early work will focus on the unidentified remains that the police have found, according to former investigators. Early questions are rudimentary: What was the cause of death? Who are the victims? What did they do for a living? Whom did they know?
In the Long Island case, not only are the victims’ identities unknown, but the causes of death have also yet to be determined. Also, the bodies could have been left over a two-year period.
Earlier in the week, the police said the bodies were found in Oak Beach, a few miles east of Gilgo Beach, on the same long, narrow island along the Atlantic Ocean.
The Suffolk County police have called in experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and sought assistance from forensic pathologists in New York City’s medical examiner’s office.
The police will examine any other physical evidence at the scene, like clothing, footwear, papers or materials the bodies were wrapped in. Each clue can build on another.
“You kind of work backwards on something like this,” said Clint Van Zandt, a former profiler in the F.B.I.’s behavioral science unit, in Quantico, Va. “There is a lot law enforcement can do, scientifically, and of course, they will have to burn a lot of shoe leather.”
Human tissue still on the bodies may reveal tattoos or scars. It can be examined for signs of a sexual attack or mutilation. Some killers carve their initials into a victim’s skin. Others might take a piece of the body, say an ear or finger, as a macabre trophy.
Scott A. Bonn, a professor of sociology at Drew University in Madison, N.J., who lectures on criminology and serial killers, warned that finding clues could hinge on the state of decomposition of the bodies.
“If the bodies are too far decomposed,” he said, “you would not have that evidence.”
Ellen S. Borakove, a spokeswoman for the city’s medical examiner’s office, said the forensic pathologists sent to Suffolk County were evaluating the remains.
“There are things you can tell,” she said, “gunshot wounds they would see, knife wounds.”
Dental remains might uncover fillings or a false front tooth, which could help identify the victim, Mr. Van Zandt said. Investigators can tell if a skull has been crushed by a rock or if throat bones show signs of being crushed. All of that can be matched against existing missing-persons records — there are some 875,000 people reported missing in the United States each year — and run through a federal database, he said.
Already, two cases of missing women are being studied in connection with the Long Island case. One is the disappearance in May of Shannan Gilbert, 24, a prostitute from Jersey City. She was last seen not far from where the remains were found.
The other involves Megan Waterman, 22, of Scarborough, Me., who was last seen on June 6 leaving a hotel in Hauppauge, N.Y., several miles northeast of where the bodies were found, after she had been coaxed into doing escorting, with meetings arranged on Craigslist, said Cynthia Caron, who runs a nonprofit group that helps families of missing people.
Ms. Waterman’s mother, Lorraine Ela, said she provided a cheek swab to be used in DNA matching on Wednesday. But she said a detective told her it could take weeks to get any result.
“This has been the roughest part, waiting to hear identities,” Ms. Ela said.
If the victims can be identified, investigators can work to find links between them — what Mr. Geberth called victimology — whether, for instance, they all worked as prostitutes or advertised on Craigslist or came from the same area. That is where the behavioral science of developing a profile for a victim can narrow down the universe of suspects, Mr. Van Zandt said.
Mr. Geberth said that if the victims communicated with the killer via the killer’s computer, it would be only a matter of time before the police were “knocking on his door.”
On Long Island, the spot where the bodies were found means that the killer “has a graveyard — he has established a burial ground,” said Eric W. Hickey, the dean of the California School of Forensic Studies.
To Mr. Geberth, the location means the killer is working on familiar ground. He said detectives should review traffic tickets issued just after the victims disappeared, or when their bodies were dumped. A parking ticket search led the police to David Berkowitz, the serial killer known as Son of Sam in 1977.
“He’s local, he has a reason to be there,” Mr. Geberth said of the killer. “The biggest thing on his mind now is whether or not he’s going to be linked to this.”
Mr. Van Zandt said the Long Island case should be compared with the unsolved killings of four prostitutes whose bodies were found near each other near Atlantic City in 2006. “We have four dead women in two different places,” he said. “That’s enough to start with.”
Karen Zraick contributed reporting.