One of Suffolk County’s most shameful episodes stands for sure to be the 10 Gilgo serial murder victims. More than a decade has passed since their bodies were left over a period of time along Ocean Parkway, in the vicinity of Gilgo Beach and Oak Beach, Long Island. Many, if not all of them, were sex workers who advertised on Craigslist. And the Suffolk County Police have concluded that they were the victims of a single serial killer.
Much has been published about these unsolved crimes. At least one book – a compelling one – has been written by Robert Kolkor, entitled “Lost Girls.” Then there’s Billy Jensen’s TV series about the murders, “Unraveled: The Long Island Serial Killer.” The podcast, “Unraveled,” delves into these women’s terrible fate as well. (Listen.)
There lingers, however, a parallel mystery about Suffolk law enforcement’s investigation of these murders, especially in its early stages. This mystery centers around the conduct of some of Suffolk’s officials. One state senator has become so concerned about this that he has publicly called for a state investigation of Suffolk’s investigation. More on that in a moment.
For now, consider some background: The Gilgo Beach killer, as investigators have dubbed him, is believed to have murdered between 10 to 16 people over the last 20 years. Their remains were found over a period of months during 2010-2011.
The disappearance of Shannan Gilbert, last seen running and screaming through the area, prompted a search by the Suffolk Police. While combing the area, police recovered four victims’ remains (the “Gilgo 4”) in December 2010, within a quarter-mile of each other. Six more were found during March and April of 2011.
A year after the discovery of the “Gilgo 4,” the body of Shannan Gilbert was located. Accidental drowning caused her death, as the police tell it. An independent autopsy, however, determined “possible strangulation.”
Then, in June 2011, Suffolk Police offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in these cases. On Nov. 29, 2011, they announced their conclusion that one person, “almost certainly from Long Island,” was responsible for all 10 murders.
At some point when this serial killer investigation got underway, the FBI joined the case, as well they should have. But while the FBI agents, and their experts, were knee-deep in their work, figuratively and literally, the new Suffolk Police Chief of Department, James Burke, inexplicably booted them out, according to reporting by the New York Post. Such a turn of events in this unsolved, notorious case was not known to the public, but it was well known within the department, and to its civilian “oversight.”
It did gain brief mention in Newsday, ever so shy about delving into the antics of Suffolk’s current power elite, but not till years later. That a police chief can remove the FBI from a murder investigation in itself boggles the mind. It’s something to do with “initial jurisdiction” and other bureaucratic gibberish, and who calls the shots. Why would he do this — and why did his civilian superiors allow it?
Burke’s booting the FBI happened in his heyday. At the top of his sordid game, he was as close as ever with his mentors, then-Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, himself recently convicted, and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who appointed Burke chief of the department. It is well known that DA Spota and certain police union bosses, urged Bellone to appoint Burke chief, while diverse sources, including other police, warned against it.*
During what many describe as Burke’s “reign of terror” as chief, he was in touch with Bellone almost daily. He boasted to other top county officials of driving the county executive around in a police vehicle during night shifts to “inspect” police performance. They were as tight as a drum.
Burke and the Suffolk PBA, to whom Bellone is answerable, gave the OK for Bellone to bring in current D.A. Timothy Sini as Suffolk’s deputy police commissioner. He was later made commissioner.
This prodigious foursome, Bellone, Spota, Sini and Burke (add Spota’s chief assistant, Christopher McPartland, convicted along with Spota, to make it five) ran Suffolk law enforcement as their personal fiefdom, oiled with huge —really huge — bundles of Suffolk PBA PAC cash, regularly and involuntarily collected from rank-and-file police officers’ paychecks.
These rank-and-file officers were intimidated by Burke’s strong-arm tactics, including illegal surveillance of police officers whom Burke disliked. Did Sini, Spota and Bellone know this was going on? Considering the way things worked in Suffolk law enforcement, it’s hard to believe they didn’t. As the Spota corruption trial brought out, along with over a thousand pages of documents collected by federal prosecutors that the trial judge released, most Suffolk police officers were pawns to these self-assured, self-absorbed power brokers. (See prior column: Documents in ex-Suffolk DA’s corruption trial reveal county politics at their sordid worst. ” May 16, 2021),
When it came to the disruption of the FBI’s role in the spectacular case of then-recent Gilgo serial murders, you can bet that Spota, Bellone and Sini knew about it when Burke did it. How could they not?
But then Burke got caught up in another one of his excesses — beating a handcuffed prisoner suspected of stealing his personal duffel bag. That’s where things started to hit the fan. Spota was implicated (and later convicted) in covering up the episode and obstructing a federal investigation. As for Burke, he resigned in October 2015, as he was sure to face charges.
Suddenly, Sini and Bellone found themselves in damage-control mode. They had to time things very carefully. So while Burke was out, they waited till they were sure he was out for good. That came with Burke’s indictment on federal conspiracy and civil rights charges, handed down by a grand jury on Dec. 9, 2015.
The very next day, Sini, still Bellone’s police commissioner, already angling in the shadows with the PBA to be Spota’s replacement as DA, holds a news conference. In a cynical move, he proclaims that investigating the Gilgo serial murder case was a “priority.” To prove this, he proudly announces that he was “bringing the FBI into the case.” Thus he creates a new narrative — never a word about the FBI’s earlier involvement in the investigation and how Burke removed them from the case during Sini’s watch. Note that Sini was both PD deputy commissioner and commissioner for 18 months of Burke’s ignoble tenure.
And no one says a word.
This new narrative avoids discomforting questions: Why were the feds at first helping with the probe of a horrible crime, then shown the door? Who else was in on this decision? What was really behind it? How cold has the evidence, and the case, consequently become? And as for Spota’s and Burke’s downfall, have things really changed in Suffolk?
Enter State Sen. Phil Boyle of Bay Shore. At a June 28 news conference with the Gilgo-Oak Beach area as a backdrop, he publicly called for the NYS Attorney General to probe the Suffolk PD’s Gilgo investigation, especially its initial stages, when the FBI was in, then out.
Sen. Boyle lodged a written request to the NY AG to focus on what exactly happened to Suffolk’s Gilgo investigation, from the time Bellone was elected county executive on Nov. 5, 2011, to Dec. 10, 2015, when the FBI “rejoined,” (as Boyle accurately put it) the probe. Stating that there were “far too many questions,” Boyle posed a simple one for AG Letitia James: Did the Suffolk PD, at that time, do everything that could be done to get justice for these victims and their families?
AG James, for her part, has all these months sat on the senator’s request, giving no official response at all. Is this surprising? She really has no interest in rocking the boat in her party by slapping subpoenas on Suffolk officials and their records, especially while Sini seeks re-election as Suffolk DA this November.
Even on the day of Sen. Boyle’s news conference, AG James told Newsday, through a spokesman, that she simply cannot get involved. Catch the clever shell game in the her statement: “In order for us to step in as a prosecutor to review the case, we’d need a referral from the Suffolk DA or Executive Office.” Really?
Is there a way to reverse this sad state of county affairs? Could there be some path toward accountability?
Whatever role they had in letting the Gilgo case turn cold, Bellone and Sini could do a great public service by asking for a special prosecutor for the entire matter of the Gilgo case and how it has been handled. The county legislature should join. It means standing up to special interests, but the time is so right. Taking this path would go a long way to earning the deepest gratitude, and restored faith, of the people.
No matter who they were — no matter what their past — no one deserves to die as these victims did. No family should suffer this cruel mortification all these years without closure. And no county government — either through their elected or appointed officials — should carry on like this. Let them welcome the AG probe, and pledge their cooperation. Better yet, let them and our county legislators join in call for a special prosecutor, to assure justice for those who perished so horribly.
The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.