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He came face to face with an alleged serial killer. 12 years later, his tip helped to solve the case

NEW YORK (AP) — 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’s shoreline, Dave Schaller gave detectives a description of the person he believed to be the killer.

More importantly, Schaller told them about his truck.

The man they were looking for was a towering, Frankenstein-esque figure with a “blank stare” who drove a first-generation Chrysler Avalanche, Schaller reminded investigators. The man’s size was striking, as was his unusual pickup truck, which he used to flee the house Schaller shared with Amber Costello.

That night, Schaller said he came home to find the stranger threatening Costello, an occasional sex worker, who had locked himself in the bathroom. The two men came to blows, with the hulking intruder eventually leaving in the truck.

Prosecutors say Costello was last seen alive on September 2, 2010, when she left her home to meet that same client. Shortly after her departure, a witness saw a dark-colored truck drive past the house.

“When they told me she was dead, he was the first person that popped into my head,” Schaller told The Associated Press. “I’ve been imagining his face for 13 years.”

On July 14, police arrested Rex Heuermann on charges of murdering 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 who worked in Manhattan, pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The arrest marked a stunning breakthrough in the hunt for a serial killer who had eluded investigators and whose crimes have gripped Long Islanders 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 a toddler, were discovered elsewhere along the same beach road. Heuermann has not been charged in any of those cases. Police have said the deaths may be the work of multiple killers.

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The arrest has brought some relief to the families of the victims at a time when the trail appeared to be dead. But as new details emerge about how police finally caught the alleged killer, they’ve also raised questions about whether investigators adequately pursued a key clue — Schaller’s description of the stranger and his truck — that may have helped solve the case more quickly.

“This was critical information and I don’t know why they didn’t share it,” said Rob Trotta, a county legislator who served as a detective for the Suffolk County Police Department until 2013. “They’ve made some serious blunders here.”

Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney, who inherited the investigation when he took office in 2022, said the key to unraveling the case was the description of the truck, discovered by a state investigator following the launch of a new task force set up to review the evidence.

When they ran it through a database of vehicle records, one of the results turned up a hit: A man who owned a Chevy Avalanche lived in a neighborhood that investigators already had in mind as the likely location of the suspect due to an advanced analysis of cell phone location data and call records. Heuermann also fit Schaller’s physical description: He was 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 250 pounds.

Tierney told the AP he didn’t know why police hadn’t searched sooner, but suggested the piece of information may have been “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.

“What solved this case was that many dedicated researchers, analysts and attorneys from a number of agencies came together and worked together,” he said.

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But for Schaller, any feelings of relief about the arrest were soon overshadowed by anger and confusion.

He spoke out for the first time since the arrest, saying he had met with homicide detectives several times during the early years of the investigation.

In one of their last meetings, about two years after the women went missing, he said he selected the model of the truck from a series of photos provided by the detectives.

“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 vexed 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 any testimony describing the suspect and his vehicle.

Law enforcement officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information about the investigation.

According to a vehicle history report, Heuermann bought the pickup—a first-generation dark green edition—in 2002 from a Long Island Chevrolet dealership and transferred ownership to his brother, Craig, in South Carolina in 2012.

Police seized the car last week. In a search warrant, they said they were looking for other clues in the vehicle or on property belonging to the brothers in Chester County, South Carolina, such as DNA, fluids, fingerprints, phones and what they described as possible “trophies” that may have belonged to the victims — clothing, jewelry, bibles or photographs.

Investigators said they were also looking for electronics, video recordings and writings related to the murders; jute; duct tape; guns and ammunition; cutting tools; and a specific type of paper towel from the Bounty Modern Print Collection.

While it’s not clear whether investigators pursued the tip about the vehicle prior to last year, those involved in the case pointed to fierce divisions between the various law enforcement agencies — as well as overlapping scandals that swept Suffolk County — as a possible explanation for a key lead slipping through the cracks.

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Shortly after taking over the Suffolk County Police Department in 2012, James Burke decided to end cooperation with the FBI due to federal investigations into his own wrongdoing.

Four years later, Burke was sentenced to 46 months in prison after he was found to have conspired to cover up his assault on a man who discovered sex toys and pornography in his car.

The federal investigation would also lead to jail terms for Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, who oversaw the early years of the Gilgo Beach case, as well as top anti-corruption prosecutor Christopher McPartland.

“This was a dark cloud over the community,” recalled Tim Sini, who succeeded Burke as police commissioner and later became the county’s district attorney. “If the police and prosecutor’s office block the FBI, it doesn’t inspire confidence in law enforcement.”

Sini said he inherited an investigation that was “confused,” not only barring detectives from cooperating with federal investigators, but also with the neighboring Nassau County police station, where Heuermann lived.

He declined to say if he was aware of a suspect’s description and his vehicle, but noted that his office had invested heavily in technology that would allow investigators to track data from cell phone towers used by the suspect’s burner phone.

The arrest, Sini said, was the result of painstaking detective work that spanned multiple records and relied on a wide range of evidence. But, he added, ‘I wouldn’t call it a great success. The matter should have been resolved earlier.”


Associated Press journalists Michael R. Sisak, Robert Bumsted, and Julie Walker contributed to this report.

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