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N.Y. / Region   Monday, April 10, 2011



With Shovels and Shears, Police Plod Through a Hiding Place for Bodies


JONES BEACH ISLAND, N.Y. — Thickets of bayberries, reeds and a type of vine called sea tomatoes crisscross the dunes off the northern edge of Ocean Parkway. Sowed early in the last century to accompany the Robert Moses -inspired roadway, the plants have grown into a greenish wall to shroud this barrier island and its mysteries.

In this vegetative landscape, much has vanished or found refuge: decades’ worth of boating detritus; the scurrying breeds of rare species, like the piping plover; and as demonstrated in recent weeks, the bodies of eight human beings so decomposed that they suggest that the coastal terrain has served as a secret burial ground for years.

As police officers in a low-flying helicopter filmed the area from the sky last week, in a continuing search for victims, the tangle of brambles and branches completely camouflaged their colleagues guiding a cadaver dog below. A police commander had to use a radio to communicate with the officers, though they were just feet from where he stood on the parkway’s shoulder.

“They just disappear once they are in there,” Inspector Stuart K. Cameron, the commander of the Suffolk police force’s special patrol bureau, said of those canine unit officers.

“That is how thick it is.”

It is easy to imagine how a killer or killers could see the topography as an ideal hiding spot for the dead. Indeed, it was by luck that the seemingly impenetrable terrain yielded any clues at all.

Of the eight sets of remains, the first was found on Dec. 11, by a Suffolk County police officer, Joseph Mallia, and his German shepherd, a few miles from the coastal community where a missing woman had last been seen in May. The remains were not of that woman, Shannan Gilbert.

The discovery led to a wider search. Within days, the police found the remains of three more women: all prostitutes in their 20s, like the first, who had advertised their services Craigslist.

The Search intensified.

From the start, the challenges of carrying out a police investigation in such difficult territory became clear. As weeks passed, and as four more sets of remains were discovered in March and April, questions lingered about what effects the habitat would have on future searches, and on the condition of any evidence.

“Any bodies left out of doors are subject to post-mortem artifact, from animal feeding to insect infestation to environmental conditions such as wind, rain, salt air, all of which increase the decomposition factors,” Vernon J. Geberth, a former Bronx homicide commander who has analyzed serial killings, said.

Dr. Michael Baden, the chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police, also noted that the salty air can slightly accelerate the rate at which human remains decompose.

“Salt itself would have a little bit of a destructive effect,” Dr. Baden said, “but it would be less important than the temperature around the bodies, what insect activity there is, and what part of the bodies were exposed to the environment.”

Jones Beach Island has always been somewhat of an isolated geographic outpost.

It is a narrow barrier island that is unforgiving and vulnerable, having suffered coastal erosion that has exposed the mainland to flooding. Capped on both sides by state parks — Jones Beach on the west and Captree on the east — it buffers Long Island’s mainland from the Atlantic Ocean, which pounds its southern shore and draws beachgoers in summertime. On its northern side, the vegetation gives way to marshland, tiny islands and small bays that lead to the Great South Bay. That area is marked by coves, where people can moor boats. In narrower places, pathways lead to the beach.

Navigating the island was difficult before the Ocean Parkway was conceived. Much of it was completed by 1929, and the roadway was extended to Babylon in the mid-1930s. These days, car trips average 14,000 to 16,000 a day along the highway, according to the state’s Department of Transportation.

The area’s desolation is a paradox, many said. At times, particularly in winter and at night, it seems a lonely moonscape.

“I’ve driven up that parkway a hundred times in my life, and if you asked me to stop in the same place two nights in a row, I don’t think I could do it,” said Neail Behringer, 72, a longtime boater and fisherman who grew up in Oak Beach and who believes the killer knew the area well.

“You can’t see the ocean or the bay at night, unless it’s a moonlit night,” he said.

At the same time, said Gilbert W. Hanse, emergency preparedness director for the town of Babylon, the area is “so close to the metropolitan area, you can see the Empire State Building on a clear day from Gilgo Beach.”

Roughly 400 houses have risen in the half-dozen communities that have cropped up over the years, though about half the residents leave for winter, Mr. Hanse said. Most structures are single-family, and they include beach cottages and contemporary, three-story homes with vinyl siding, said Barbara McGinn, a real estate agent who works there.

She would often describe Oak Beach, nestled along a Fire Island inlet, as Long Island’s “best-kept secret.” But as the grisly specter of a serial killer emerged, the unwelcome glare of a news media spotlight erased any notion of the area as out of the way.

“We’ve been put on the map,” Ms. McGinn said.

That was true in more ways than one: the police physically mapped the area to help them navigate. They broke down the search area, running west from the Robert Moses Causeway to the Nassau County line, with eight four-foot sections of maps they kept on hand in a mobile command center. They painted bright orange arrows away from the road, aiming north into the shrubs at places where the remains were found, and stuck fluorescent orange flags into the earth to mark it off.

“You had to keep track, where you were searching,” Inspector Cameron said.

The searching continued into December. But the snow that fell between Christmastime and spring froze the ground, halting those efforts. It resumed after the thaw, sometimes in cold or rain whipped by offshore winds. The officers charged with the task wore protective coveralls, gardener’s gloves and boots. They used shovels and pruning shears. Their reward: poison ivy and a horde of ticks.

Forensic anthropologists from the city medical examiner’s office were on hand to quickly distinguish the bones of raccoons, dogs and deer from human ones, and “kept the search moving,” Inspector Cameron said. Volunteer firefighters stretched bucket ladders over the brush so the area could be scanned from above by officers with binoculars. Divers searched underwater.

When the remains were found, the first four sets were wrapped in burlap bags, and the surrounding reeds and roots of cedar swamps or vines were cut away, in something Mr. Geberth referred to as “taking the scene to the ground,” which helps in unearthing evidence.

Dominick Varrone, chief of detectives of the Suffolk police, said that the remains of the first four victims were mostly skeletal and that the remains discovered this spring appeared to be “at least as old if not predating some of the four that we have already found.” He said that in the cases of the first four women, “we believe that they were killed shortly after they were reported missing.”

On Thursday, the Suffolk County police commissioner, Richard Dormer, held a news conference to say the “exhaustive” search was moving next to Nassau. He acknowledged that the “rugged terrain” might have kept things hidden, and predicted they would be back.

But the window seems short. As dense as the brush is now, it will soon be worse, and the hot weather is around the corner.