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 investigators with a description of who he believed to be the killer.
More importantly, Schaller told them about his truck.
The man they were looking for was a towering, “blank-eyed” Frankenstein-like figure who drove a first-generation Chrysler Avalanche, Schaller recalled to investigators. The man’s size was noticeable, as was his unusual pickup truck, which he had used to escape from the home that Schaller shared with Amber Costello.
That night, Schaller said he got home and found the stranger threatening Costello, a casual prostitute who had locked herself in the bathroom. A fight ensued between the two men, and the hulking intruder eventually disappeared into the truck.
According to prosecutors, Costello was last seen alive on September 2, 2010, when she left her home to meet the same client. Shortly after leaving, a witness again saw a dark-colored truck driving past the house.
“When they told me she was dead, he was the first person that came to mind,” Schaller told The Associated Press. “I’ve been imagining his face for 13 years.”
On July 14, police arrested Rex Heuermann on charges of killing Costello and two other women, Melissa Barthelemy and Megan Waterman. He is the prime suspect in the death of a fourth woman, Maureen Brainard-Barnes. Heuermann, an architect working in Manhattan, pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The arrest marked a stunning breakthrough in the hunt for a elusive serial killer whose crimes have been on the minds of Long Islanders ever since the bodies of four women — all sex workers — were found wrapped in burlap near Gilgo Beach.
Within months, the remains of six other bodies, including an infant, were discovered elsewhere along the same beach road. Heuermann was not charged in any of these cases. Police believe the deaths may have resulted from multiple killers.
The arrest has brought some relief to the families of the victims, at a time when no trace appeared to exist. But as new details emerge about how police eventually caught the alleged killer, they also raise questions about whether investigators have adequately followed up on a key lead – Schaller’s description of the stranger and his truck – that may have helped speed up the case.
“That was critical 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 Department until 2013. “You’ve made some serious mistakes here.”
Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney, who took over the investigation when he took office in 2022, said key to solving the case was the description of the truck, which a state investigator uncovered after a new task force was installed to conduct a new review of the evidence.
When they searched a database of vehicle details, one result was a hit: A man who owned a Chevy Avalanche lived in a neighborhood that investigators had already identified as the suspect’s likely whereabouts based on sophisticated analysis of cellphone location data and call logs. Heuermann also matched Schaller’s physical description: he was 193 centimeters tall and weighed 109 kilograms.
Tierney told the AP he doesn’t know why the police didn’t conduct a search sooner, but suggested the information may have “got lost in a sea of other tips and information.”
He stressed that there were other elements that ultimately helped investigators apprehend Heuermann, including new technology that helped match DNA samples to the suspect.
“This case was resolved by bringing together and working together many dedicated investigators, analysts and attorneys from a range of agencies,” he said.
But for Schaller, the relief at the arrest was soon overshadowed by anger and confusion.
For the first time since the arrest, he spoke up and said he had met with homicide detectives on numerous occasions during the early years of the investigation.
At one of their last meetings, about two years after the women’s disappearance, he said he chose the model of the truck from a set of photographs provided by investigators.
“I gave them the exact description of the truck and the guy,” he said. “I mean, come on, why didn’t they use that?”
The question has also angered some law enforcement officials. Two senior officials who worked closely on the case and attended briefings between 2011 and 2013 said they had never heard of a witness statement describing the suspect and his vehicle.
The police officers spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to reveal any information about the investigation.
According to a vehicle history report, Heuermann bought the pickup — a dark green first-generation edition — from a Chevrolet dealership on Long Island in 2002 and transferred ownership to his brother Craig in South Carolina in 2012.
Authorities confiscated the vehicle last week. In a search warrant, they said they searched the vehicle or the brothers’ property in Chester County, South Carolina for additional clues, including DNA, liquids, fingerprints, phones and possible “trophies” that may have belonged to the victims — clothing, jewelry, Bibles or photos.
Investigators said they were also looking for electronic devices, video recordings and writings related to the killings. burlap; Duct tape; weapons and ammunition; cutting tools; and a specific type of paper towel from the Bounty Modern Print Collection.
While it’s not clear if investigators followed up on the lead to the vehicle prior to last year, those involved in the case pointed to fierce disagreements between different law enforcement agencies, as well as overlapping scandals in Suffolk County, that could provide a possible explanation for a key lead falling through the cracks.
Shortly after taking over the Suffolk County Police Department in 2012, James Burke quit working with the FBI amid federal investigations into his own wrongdoing.
Four years later, Burke was sentenced to 46 months in prison after it was found that he had conspired to cover up the beating of a man who discovered sex toys and pornography in his car.
The federal investigation would also result in prison terms for Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, who oversaw the early years of the Gilgo Beach case, and the county’s chief anti-corruption attorney, Christopher McPartland.
“It was a dark cloud over the community,” recalled Tim Sini, who succeeded Burke as police commissioner and later became the county’s district attorney. “When the police and prosecutors block the FBI, it doesn’t inspire confidence in law enforcement.”
Sini said he inherited an investigation that was “in disarray” because investigators were prevented from working not only with federal investigators but also with the neighboring Nassau County Police Department, where Heuermann lived.
He declined to say if he knew the description of a suspect and his vehicle, but noted that his office has invested heavily in technology that allows investigators to track cell tower data used by the suspect’s burner phone.
The arrest, Sini said, was the result of painstaking detective work spanning multiple administrations and drawing on a multitude of evidence. But he added: “I wouldn’t call it a huge success. The case should have been solved sooner.
Associated Press journalists Michael R. Sisak, Robert Bumsted, and Julie Walker contributed to this report.