EAST HARLEM, Manhattan (PIX11) — Felicita Figueroa spent more than 30 years believing her aunt might have been a victim of serial killer Joel Rifkin, until an architect from Massapequa Park was arrested on July 13 as the accused Gilgo Beach killer.
“There are too many similarities,” Figueroa said, noting her 29-year-old aunt, Carmen Vargas, was dumped on the side of the Meadowbrook Parkway in the summer of 1989. The location is roughly 8 miles from the house where Rex Heuermann, the accused Gilgo killer, was raised and where his family still lives.
“She was really little,” Figueroa said of her petite aunt. “She walked the streets.”
The “Gilgo Four” murder victims who Heuermann has been tied to were also petite and worked as sex workers.
Figueroa told PIX11 News she was the last person to see her aunt alive in 1989 after an evening at the Central Park pool. Figueroa said Vargas brought her back to the family’s building, located at 106th Street and Lexington Avenue in East Harlem, before telling the girl to go upstairs.
“She got into a dark car,” Figueroa recalled. “I was only, like, 12 years old, so I couldn’t really see. But I could tell it was a white man with glasses.”
On Sept. 11, 1989, an unidentified woman was discovered dead on the side of the Meadowbrook Parkway in Freeport, south of Merrick Road. The victim wouldn’t be identified for three years.
“I remember my mother going to the 23rd Precinct every day [in Harlem] to look at pictures,” Figueroa remembered. “She used to go to the morgue constantly to identify bodies that weren’t hers.”
After the family saw a Crime Stoppers report in 1992, they called Nassau County detectives who came to their home to see another relative.
“She had the dental records ready, and it was her,” Figueroa said.
Figueroa showed PIX11 News the image of her aunt’s skull, which was missing some teeth. She asked the detective about it.
“He said ‘whatever happened that night, she fought,'” Figueroa said. “Because three of her teeth were knocked out.”
Figueroa also said that a portion of her aunt’s hyoid bone was missing in her neck.
In 1993, when Long Island serial killer Joel Rifkin was arrested, the family learned detectives pumped him for information about the Vargas case. Rifkin, who confessed to killing 17 women, would not take responsibility for the Vargas murder.
“Joel Rifkin said, ‘That’s not me. That’s not my work.’ But we thought it was him, so we let it die,” Figueroa said.
Now in her mid-40s, Figueroa was reading the work of the online researcher and writer who publishes “Murder, Incorporated,” using a pseudonym. The author has been researching dozens of unsolved murder cases on Long Island and in Brooklyn during the 13-year Gilgo Beach investigation.
“Murder, Incorporated” was struck by Vargas being left in Freeport and learned Heuermann, now 59, had ties there in the 1980s. The Meadowbrook Parkway southbound also leads to Jones Beach, where Heuermann had a job for several years as a seasonal worker in the 1980s.
“Always for me, location is the most important factor,” the “Murder, Incorporated” publisher told PIX11 News during an interview. “It’s far more important than M.O. A serial killer can change the way they do things. There’s no rule that serial killers have to do things the same way every time. They can change it up.”
PIX11 News reached out to a law enforcement official in Nassau County, who said his office would check on the Vargas case. During a press conference Tuesday, PIX11 also asked Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney if his team had received any tips about women left on the side of roadways, in the aftermath of Heuermann’s arrest.
“We receive tips on all cases, at all times,” Tierney said. “But we maintain the confidentiality of the investigation.”
Figueroa is now hoping she will get the answers her entire family longs for.
“I have a gut feeling that it’s really him,” Figueroa said Heuermann, who has pleaded not guilty to three murders.
Figueroa said the murder took a terrible toll on her own mother, who was the sister of Vargas.
“My mother died with this!” Figueroa cried. “My mother was my everything. She was heartbroken and depressed. She went into using drugs.”
Vargas’ niece said she’s now spending hours a night on the computer doing research.
“It’s bothering me,” Figueroa said. “I don’t eat.”