Original police chief on Gilgo serial killer case returns to scene, 9 years after 1st body found

Long Island
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GILGO BEACH, NY — Nine years after a young woman’s body was discovered in the bramble off Ocean Parkway in Gilgo Beach — on December 10, 2010— the retired chief of detectives in Suffolk County, Dominic Varrone, said there are still misconceptions about the case that turned into a serial killer investigation.

“I don’t think the killer would reside in Oak Beach and dispose of bodies so close,” Varrone told PIX11, when he traveled with us to Gilgo, as the ninth anniversary of the initial find approached.

The investigation that began on that December night ultimately grew, with officers finding 10 sets of remains in the vicinity of Gilgo/Oak/Jones beaches.

Melissa Barthelemy, a sex worker who had vanished from the Bronx in July 2009, was the first victim discovered.

Within several days that week in 2010, the bodies of three more women would turn up in the brush off Ocean Parkway, roughly 35 miles east of New York City.

It was another escort who advertised on Craigslist, and then disappeared, who spawned the massive police search.

As far as misconceptions go?

“I think one of the biggest ones is the belief that Shannan Gilbert was killed by the serial killer,” Varrone told PIX11.

Gilbert’s late mother and family attorney, John Ray, very much believe that Gilbert was being targeted by the serial killer, when she started banging on doors in Oak Beach in the early hours of May 1, 2010.

“They’re trying to kill me,” she’s heard screaming in a 911 call that was never released.

John Ray, who has spent years studying the case, observed to PIX11 in 2017 of the unsolved murders, “It appears to be a constellation of people” involved.

But retired Chief Varrone said the circumstances surrounding Shannan Gilbert’s hire by a client in Oak Beach don’t match what happened with the other victims.

“It was totally different, the way she was contacted,” Varrone told PIX11.

Varrone said Gilbert’s Oak Beach client made no attempt to disguise his cell phone number and the records back up their appointment time.

Gilbert became agitated and started screaming, running door to door, during those early hours of May 1, 2010.

Police think she ran into a marsh in Oak Beach and eventually became exhausted, succumbing to the elements.

Her body was found in a marsh, one year after the first Gilgo Beach body was discovered

Varrone said the other women were dealing with someone who was cagey and covering his tracks.

“Throw away telephones,” Varrone said.

Varrone said he believes the killer used the Robert Moses Causeway to get to the barrier island from Long Island, traveling west to dispose of the bodies.

The former chief reminded us that when Melissa Barthelemy first disappeared in 2009, the suspected killer used her cell phone multiple times to call Barthelemy’s little sister upstate.

He taunted the 16-year-old girl with nasty words about Barthelemy’s profession, something the family wasn’t aware of.

At least one of his calls was made from the Penn Station area in Manhattan.

The case was being investigated by the NYPD, because Barthelemy had vanished from her Bronx apartment.

But it was Suffolk County Detective John Malia, along with his K-9 dog, who found Barthelemy in the brush at Gilgo on Dec. 10, 2010.

At least two of the first four women discovered were wrapped in burlap.

Four months after the initial finds, police discovered skulls and limbs related to other victims in the spring of 2011.

Torsos tied to two of these new Gilgo victims had been dumped in Manorville, 40 miles to the east, years before.

A man who remains a person of interest in the Gilgo case—Manorville carpenter John Bittrolff—was convicted of killing two sex workers in the early 1990s.

Their bodies were discovered in the Manorville area in sexual poses, with their left shoes missing.

Bittrolff’s wife doesn’t believe he killed anyone, even though his DNA was found on the two victims he was convicted of murdering.

Bittrolff wasn’t arrested until 2014, after his brother’s familial DNA tied him to the unsolved cases from the early 1990s.

Another person whose name keeps getting dragged into the Gilgo Beach investigation is former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke.

Burke was arrested in 2015, accused of beating a shackled, drug-addicted suspect who had stolen sex toys and porn tapes from Burke’s official police vehicle.

Burke had been investigated in the 1990s by Internal Affairs for his association with prostitutes.

Years later, an escort on Long Island was put before the cameras by John Ray, the woman claiming Burke abused her in a bathroom on Oak Beach and demanded sex during a party there.

But retired Chief Varrone, who was forced out of his position by Burke in late 2011—two days after Shannan Gilbert’s body was found—doesn’t think Burke is involved in the Gilgo women’s disappearances.

“I don’t believe so, I really don’t,” Varrone said. “Nor do I believe it was a resident of Oak Beach.”

“This is a dumping area,” he said of Gilgo Beach.

PIX11 noticed orange construction cones all along the shoulder of Ocean Parkway when we visited the area with Varrone.

The shoulder has been widened, and we couldn’t find the white crosses that paid tribute to the victims, at the spots where they were found.

Varrone also refuted claims that the FBI had been shut out of the case from the beginning.

“That’s absolutely not true,” Varrone said. “We immediately came in contact with the FBI, the Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico. The whole unit actually flew up. We had a round table discussion.”

Varrone said there was a battle for control—and media attention–between the late Suffolk County Police Commissioner, Richard Doermer, and former District Attorney, Tom Spota.

Spota is now on trial, accused of trying to cover up former Chief Burke’s beating of the prisoner.

Varrone said the Gilgo investigation was negatively impacted when James Burke forced him out of his position.

“There was a little bit of a dropping of the baton,” Varrone said.

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