The witness recalls telling detectives more than a decade ago about a tall Frankenstein-like figure with a “blank stare” and, most importantly, about his truck.
NEW YORK. In the winter of 2010, shortly after police discovered the remains of his roommate and three other women buried on a remote stretch of Long Island shoreline, Dave Schaller provided detectives with a description of the man he believed to be the killer.
More importantly, Schaller told them about his truck.
The man they were looking for was a tall, Frankenstein-like man with a “blank stare” who drove a first-generation Chevrolet Avalanche, Schaller told investigators. The size of the man was conspicuous, as was his unusual pickup truck, in which he escaped from the house that Schaller shared with Amber Costello.
That night, Schaller said he came home to find a stranger threatening Costello, a random prostitute who had locked herself in the bathroom. The two men got into a fight, and the bumbling attacker eventually left in a truck.
Prosecutors say Costello was last seen alive on September 2, 2010, when she left her home to meet with the same client. The witness saw the dark truck drive past the house again shortly after she left.
“When they told me she was dead, he was the first person that came to my mind,” Schaller told The Associated Press. “I imagined his face for 13 years.”
On July 14, police arrested Rex Hoyerman on charges of murdering Costello and two other women, Melissa Barthelemy and Megan Waterman. He is the prime suspect in the death of the fourth woman, Maureen Brainard-Barnes. Heuermann, an architect who worked in Manhattan, pleaded not guilty to the charges.
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The arrest marked a stunning breakthrough in the search for a serial killer who eluded investigators and whose crimes have gripped Long Islanders as the bodies of four women – all sex workers – were found wrapped in burlap near Gilgo Beach.
Within months, the remains of six more bodies, including a toddler, were discovered elsewhere along the same beach highway. Heuermann was never charged in any of these cases. Police said the death could be the work of multiple killers.
The arrest brought some relief to the families of the victims at a time when the trail seemed to have gone cold. But as more details emerged about how the police finally caught the alleged killer, they also raised questions about whether investigators properly tracked down a key lead – Schaller’s description of the stranger and his truck – which may have helped solve the case faster.
“It was important information and I don’t know why they didn’t share it,” said Rob Trotta, a county legislator who worked as a detective with the Suffolk County Police until 2013. “Here they made some serious mistakes.”
Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney, who inherited the investigation when he took office in 2022, said the key to solving the case was a description of the truck discovered by a state investigator after launching a new task force formed to take a fresh look at the evidence.
When they checked it through a database of vehicle records, one of the results was a hit: The man who owned the Chevy Avalanche lived in an area that investigators had already identified as the suspect’s likely location through sophisticated analysis of mobile phone location data and call recordings. Heuermann also matched Schaller’s physical description of being 6’4″ and weighing 240 pounds.
Tierney told the AP he didn’t know why police didn’t search earlier, but suggested that some of the information may have been “lost in a sea of other advice and information.”
He stressed that there were other elements that eventually helped investigators arrest Hoyerman, including new technology that helped match DNA samples to the suspect.
“What resolved this case was that a host of dedicated investigators, analysts and attorneys from multiple agencies came together and collaborated,” he said.
But for Schaller, any sense of relief at the arrest soon turned to anger and confusion.
Speaking for the first time since his arrest, he said he met with homicide detectives on numerous occasions in the early years of the investigation.
During one of their last meetings, about two years after the women disappeared, he said that he had selected a truck model from a series of photographs supplied by the detectives.
“I gave them an exact description of the truck and the dude,” he said. “I mean why didn’t they use it?”
This question caused discontent and some law enforcement officers. Two senior officials who worked closely on the case and attended briefings between 2011 and 2013 said they had never heard of witness statements describing the suspect and his car.
Law enforcement officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to disclose information about the investigation.
According to a vehicle history report, Heuermann bought the pickup — a dark green version of the first generation — from a Long Island Chevrolet dealer in 2002 and transferred ownership to his brother Craig in South Carolina in 2012.
Authorities confiscated the car last week. In the search warrant, they said they were looking for other evidence in the brothers’ car or property in Chester County, South Carolina, such as DNA, fluids, fingerprints, phones, and what they called possible “trophies” that could have belonged to the victims – clothing, jewelry, Bibles, or photographs.
Investigators said they were also looking for any electronics, videos, and recordings related to the murders; sackcloth; Scotch; weapons and ammunition; cutting tools; and a special type of paper towels from the Bounty Modern Print collection.
While it’s unclear if investigators followed up on the vehicle tip until last year, those involved in the case cited bitter disagreements between various law enforcement agencies, as well as overlapping scandals engulfing Suffolk County, as a potential explanation for a key piece of evidence slipping through the cracks.
Shortly after taking over the Suffolk County Police Department in 2012, James Burke decided to end his cooperation with the FBI amid a federal investigation into his own misconduct.
Four years later, Burke was sentenced to 46 months in prison after it was found that he conspired to cover up beating a man who found sex toys and pornography in his car.
The federal investigation will also result in the imprisonment of Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, who oversaw the early years of the Gilgo Beach case, as well as the county’s chief anti-corruption attorney, Christopher McPartland.
“It was a black cloud over society,” recalled Tim Cini, who succeeded Burke as police commissioner and later became the county’s district attorney. “When you have the police department and the district attorney’s office blocking the FBI, it doesn’t inspire confidence in law enforcement.”
Sini said he inherited an investigation that was “in disarray” when detectives were barred from cooperating not only with federal investigators but also with the nearby police department in Nassau County, where Heuermann lived.
He declined to say if he knew a description of the suspect and his car, but said his office had invested heavily in technology that allowed investigators to track data from cell towers used by the suspect’s disposable phone.
Sini said the arrest was the result of painstaking detective work involving multiple administrations and relying on a wide range of evidence. But, he added, “I wouldn’t call it a big success. The case should have been solved sooner.”
Associated Press journalists Michael R. Sisak, Robert Bumstead, and Julie Walker contributed to this report.