On Friday morning, news broke that a suspect had finally been placed in police custody for the infamous LISK murders, the deaths of four sex workers whose remains had been found in burlap sacks on Long Island’s Gilgo Beach more than a decade ago. Though one of the highest-profile cases of the past few decades, the crime had gone unsolved for years, until authorities announced that they had IDed a suspect: Rex Heuermann, a 59-year-old architect and architectural consultant in Massapequa, Long Island.

Heuermann is charged with three counts of both first- and second-degree murder in connections with the deaths of three out of four of the women: Melissa Barthelemy, Amber Costello, and Megan Waterman. Heuermann has pleaded not guilty to the murders.

News of Heuermann’s arrest comes of great relief to the victims’ families, who have spent years advocating for movement on the case. It also comes as a great relief to author Robert Kolker, whose 2013 book on the case, Lost Girls, was a bestseller and the inspiration for a Netflix film of the same name. Unlike most true crime books, Lost Girls is a nuanced and sensitive accounting of the case that primarily centers on the lives and families of the LISK victims, and is brimming with indignation toward those who failed to take the case seriously due to the women’s professions.

At the time he started researching the book, “some people on the force showed contempt” for the victims and their families, Kolker says when I call him on Monday. At the press conference about the arrest on Friday, however, victims’ family members were on stage with police and lauded for their courage. “It was really something for me to see just how they were going out of their way now to show these people respect,” he says.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you hear they’d arrested a suspect, and what was your initial reaction?

It was early Friday morning, and I was walking my dog. And I looked at my phone. My wife sent a news alert about an arrest and pinged it over to me. And I gasped for air and came back home and sat down in front of my computer and didn’t get up for the rest of the day. I learned later, various family members had been tipped off and you could see them actually standing there at the press conference. So they knew, and John Ray, who is the lawyer for the Shannan Gilbert [a woman who disappeared in the Gilgo Beach area in 2010 whose disappearance triggered investigators recovering the Gilgo Four’s bodies] family, told me that he had heard some sort of rumor a week ago that seemed pretty credible to him, but no details, no information about who it was, or when the arrests would happen. It was all news to me, and I guess that’s to the credit of the police, who were obviously really trying to keep a lid on things because the guy was still at large.

Have you been in touch with the victims’ family members since an arrest was made?

It’s only been a little bit of texting. So I don’t really have a real good read on them. But it was heartening to see so many of them on stage at the announcement. And it was also heartening to see the police going out of their way to praise the families and the commissioner even gave them hugs. That’s a very different thing from when I first was reporting on the case.

How was it different?

Back then, Suffolk County Police leadership had a really uncomfortable relationship with the case, and with the idea of the victims being escorts, and they had a very uncomfortable relationship with the families. They tried to keep them at a distance. And sometimes, some people on the force showed contempt for the families. So it was really something for me to see just how they were going out of their way now to show these people respect.

When you say they show contempt for the families, and when you say they had an uncomfortable relationship with the case because they were sex workers, how did both of those things manifest themselves?

In Lost Girls, I talk about how the chief of detectives at the time went to a public safety meeting and they basically said that everyone in the community could relax, that the killer was just targeting sex workers. That showed contempt, I think, for for them. It just made it abundantly clear that if these murder victims had been like the Son of Sam’s victims, if they had just been people on dates with more traditional jobs and more traditional lives, then suddenly there would be a horror movie happening in Long Island. But they were insisting that there was no horror movie, that it was all business as usual. That was blatantly strange at the time, just hearing them say that. Also, when I met with the Suffolk County leadership, there’s a chapter in Lost Girls where I’m talking to them and they had a little chuckle about Shannan Gilbert’s mother, Mari. They talked about how the fact that she was talking to reporters and challenging them on the case was her being a press hog, her being drunk on media attention, as opposed to actually her having anything of use to say about the job they were doing.

Do you think that contempt for the victims and their families is representative of law enforcement anywhere? Or do you think it’s specific to the region where these murders took place?

Misogyny is everywhere. I don’t want to say it’s specific to Suffolk County. This particular police force, it was a very highly paid police force and a pretty large police force. But they were not equipped for a huge case like this. And they were not equipped for the kind of media attention the case got. At least initially, that led to a sort of bunker mentality where they weren’t going to say a thing and they weren’t going to invite anyone in to be a part of the solution or include the victims families. Even when they did outreach to sex workers in Long Island, they did it almost like they were holding their noses and reaching out with a 10 foot pole. I also don’t want to single out the police. I went to a press event out in Oak Beach, where where there are all these media trucks, and somebody working one of the media trucks said under his breath, “I can’t believe they’re doing all this for a whore.” At least back then, it was everywhere. There is a slight shift in sensibility now — the media doesn’t say “prostitutes murdered,” they say “five victims in in serial killing,” and when they talk about them, they say they made money through sex work, or escort work. The terminology has changed, and I think that’s progress. But obviously, you don’t need me to tell you that misogyny still exists.

That’s the biggest question a lot of people have about this case, because it seems from the publicly available documents, that there was quite a bit known about this guy — his physical description, the car he was driving, the area where he lives, the fact that he commuted to Manhattan. It seems like it would be fairly easy to find a 6’4″ guy who ticks all these boxes. So why did it take so long?

I suppose there’s going to be a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking. I suppose there are going to be people who say, “Well, why didn’t they have their eye immediately on the creepy guy from Massapequa who had 92 gun permits? Why didn’t they decide to look into him earlier?” And I think perhaps that’s a reasonable question. I want to try to be fair to them — in the documents that they’ve released, it does seem like there were some innovations they took advantage of a new generation of DNA analysis and outside labs, that were offering analysis of hair follicles that were found in evidence. That is something that perhaps they had to wait for. But it’s also very true that the case was hindered by corruption there. There was a corrupt chief of detectives who took over in the department and was there for many years [James Burke, who in 2016 was sentenced to 16 months in prison for conspiring to obstruct justice and depriving a person of civil rights]. It seems clear now he kept the FBI away, and slow-walked the case in general because he knew that the Feds were watching him, because he was corrupt himself. And that kind of kneecapped the entire thing for many years. So it took years for them to climb out of that and to really start coordinating and engaging in the sort of teamwork that led to an arrest.

Is that why it took so long for them to establish a task force in the first place? Why did it take the task force eight weeks to ID a suspect after a nearly decade-long investigation?

I think there were baby steps toward collaboration before this taskforce. The way I characterize it is, they’ve been climbing out of a paralysis for a while now. And then things really picked up speed last year. The one thing I really don’t understand and that I hope to learn more about is the amount of regulatory red tape that’s involved in DNA analysis and genealogical DNA. It is as far from CSI as you can possibly imagine — the police can’t just call up a lab and say, “Can you analyze this?” Not only are there privacy and civil rights issues, but there are civil liberties issues and money issues and other stuff too. It’s a mess. So that’s something I’m interested in learning more about, as this case unfolds.

Regarding the suspect specifically, was there anything you have learned about him that surprises you?

I’m surprised he has such a public-facing career. I’m surprised he has a job where he has established corporate clients and well-known people. I always assumed he’d be more of a loner. I guess there are Ted Bundys out there who are very social and manipulate people around them and are charming. But I never thought that this killer was like that. I thought this killer would be more like Joel Rifkin, another Long Island serial killer who drove around by himself all the time with his gardening equipment. But [Heuermann] certainly fits the profile in other ways. He lives in Massapequa and commutes to Midtown, and those are the locations that make a lot of sense. He’s a Long Island native, so he’s very aware of the spots to do stuff without being noticed. That all fits, as far as I’m concerned.

Are you surprised that he’s not a cop, as law enforcement long alleged?

No, I think the thing that always bugged me about the profilers was the way that they would seem to suggest that they knew more about this case than they really did. They would say things like, “He obviously has an intimate knowledge of police techniques, and he knows how to cover his tracks, and perhaps that means he’s retired law enforcement.” We all watch true crime shows. We all know what a burner phone is. It’s not like the guy was some sort of super-powered Hannibal Lecter monster. I think that profilers, when they talk to the media, they often are feeding into that trope. And I think it’s kind of gross. One of the whole points of the approach I took in Lost Girls was to try to bring it back to Earth and talk about the police as a human institution with lots of serious faults, and and to talk about this case not like a procedural, but as a very, very difficult situation for everyone.

Do you think he is responsible for the other bodies found on Gilgo Beach [such as an unidentified Asian male and a woman and her toddler]?

This is just me spitballing. I’m no profiler. But it seems strange to me that he would have quit, ever. So I’m really, really interested in learning what they found that his house when they raided it, what was on his computer when they raided it. I’m very curious to learn if there’s evidence of other killings. [I did feel] real confusion [during the press conference] about how exactly this guy was first on their radar, what first brought them to him to their attention. Because if it’s true that it was the Chevy Avalanche and the truck ownership, that would mean that they would have to have been zeroing in on this guy 10 years ago, which is not the case. They said they first walked in on him a year ago. It leaves me with many, many questions about how exactly they first started to think about Rex Heuermann as a suspect, but that’s all I have right now is questions. And so I’m looking forward to learning more.

Was it surprising to you that police found evidence of him searching for child pornography on his computer?

No, it didn’t surprise me at all. It’s further evidence that he’s not some sort of diabolical super criminal. He’s just a creepy guy who tried to cover his tracks, and succeeded for a while until he got caught.

Having followed this case for so long, what is it like for you to come to this point? Does it feel like closure of sorts? Or does it raise more questions than answers?


I have a cousin who works as an oncology nurse. And she put it really well to me: she said that she thinks a lot about this, because she’s dealing with tragic circumstances all the time, and she doesn’t like to think about closure. She likes to think about it in terms of grieving and ways to process grief. So I think that if there’s a hopeful aspect of what’s happened here, it’s that the people who have lost loved ones can grieve differently now, that it can help them in in their grief, and hopefully have some comfort to them. But I am not inclined to call it closure, because it suggests that it’s all tied up in a bow and you’re happy afterwards. And I don’t think that that happens when we lose people under any circumstances. The hurt never goes away.

Correction July 17, 2023, 6:34 p.m. A previous version of this article stated that Lost Girls was published in 2011. It was published in 2013.