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Fresh Hell

Waiting for Something to Happen at the Gilgo Beach Murder Suspect’s House

A hot day's work on Long Island for a handful of local news reporters.

(Hell Gate)|

Chris Sheridan (center, blue shirt), stepson of alleged serial killer Rex Heuermann, carries a dog bed into Heuermann’s home.

By 3:00 p.m. on Thursday, most of the people occupying the police-approved press area had stopped sweating; it was 90 degrees and humid in Massapequa Park, but the strip of sidewalk where reporters were corralled across the street from alleged serial killer Rex Heuermann's house was shady, thank God. 

That doesn't mean that we were comfortable behind the flimsy strip of crime scene tape, courtesy of the Nassau County Police Department, that marked the boundary between us and the squat, red building. The fluctuating cast of a dozen or so reporters, mostly local news veterans, was antsy and bored, feelings exacerbated by the blanket of July heat. We were all waiting for the same thing—a story, ideally an exclusive story—and after an hour and a half on the corner of First Avenue and Michigan Avenue, it felt increasingly clear that most of us would head home disappointed.

Outside of Heuermann's house, before we were banished across the street. (Hell Gate)

I trekked out to the murder house from my air-conditioned apartment in the hope of finding and speaking to true crime enthusiasts, moved to make a little pilgrimage to gawk at the home of the man arrested for a string of killings widely known as the Gilgo Beach murders. The New York Times talked to some of those murder tourists; so did the New York Post. It was a zoomed-out, jokey way to cover a serial killer story without dipping too far into the "What does it mean to want to know a lot of stuff about some horrible murders, for fun?" that all quasi-literary, self-aware true crime coverage usually gestures at.

But by the time I got there—exactly two weeks after Heuermann's arrest on July 13—those people had been driven away, at least for the moment. Local authorities, afraid of allowing another morbid attraction just a few miles from Amityville, brought the hammer down with threats of fines for loitering, jaywalking, and blocking traffic, and quickly erected a series of street signs designating brand new "No Standing, No Parking" zones along the blocks of green-lawned cookie cutter suburbia that surround Heuermann's property. 

The crowd of onlookers I ended up joining were harder to shake; like me, they were press—professional gawkers. But unlike me, the other reporters had been drawn to the house after news spread that Heuermann's estranged wife, adult daughter and stepson, and their smiley black dog had returned to the home for the first time since his arrest. After chatting (and, honestly, eavesdropping) for a few minutes, I found out that only a few lucky outlets—Fox News, the Daily Mail, and the Post—made it to the scene in time to catch the family as they shuffled inside, in time to snag video clips and photos of the trio of tired, defeated-looking people. One video from the Post, taken before I made it out to Massapequa Park, shows Asa Ellerup, Heuermann's wife, yelling in response to a reporter's question as she paced around her front lawn: "Please, leave me alone, that's none of your business!" before she flips off the camera with both hands.

Watching Sheridan walk his dog. (Hell Gate)

The Gilgo Beach murders are an ugly story. The profile of the victims discovered initially in 2010—sex workers, some of whom had a history of substance use issues—colored both the initial police investigation and the initial press coverage, according to the victims' family members. Mari Gilbert, the woman whose search for her daughter sparked the 2010 discovery of the victims known as the Gilgo Beach Four, ended up being brutally killed by another daughter years before Heuermann was arrested. Even the way the cold case was finally cracked is grotesque—cops allegedly pulled the man's DNA from a discarded pizza crust and matched it up to material found on one of the victims.

Sitting outside of Heuermann's house, debating when and how we might get access to the people inside it, the ugliness drew on. Two Nassau County police vehicles parked at the scene—an SUV in front of the house, and an ancient-looking cruiser in front of our press zone—and four police officers from the same department eyed us from across the street to make sure cameras and bodies stayed behind the yellow tape. But those obstacles aside, even from across the street, it felt like we were on top of Heuermann's house in a way that staking out an apartment on a crowded city block couldn't, even if we were the same distance away. We could see everything happening from the front of the house, sift through it and try to determine if there was anything—a revelation, a quote that wasn't telling us to fuck off and stop asking questions—that we could jam into the canon around the Long Island Serial Killer, the latest American monster, being created in real-time.

But there was barely anything to see. The only moments of activity came when we rushed to capture footage of or hurl questions at the sole member of Heuermann's family I saw during my three hours outside of his home: his stepson, Chris Sheridan, who left the house a few times to run errands and walk the family dog and put the same wall up against his mother while reporters swarmed him: "Only pictures, thank you! I'm not talking! Nope!" 

Sheridan heads inside. (Hell Gate)

Otherwise, we waited. We checked Slack or shot off emails, we jockeyed for a better view, we speculated and strategized about how to wring a story out of this morbid, mundane scene—barely a spectacle—in real time. Some of the assembled reporters were smart enough to bring their own tailgate-style folding chairs, and were quick to offer seats to each other; some plopped down on the curb or on patches of grass; one photographer set up his own stepladder to snag a better vantage point.

As the afternoon wore on, I started to pick up on the same air of camaraderie I feel in the city when I find myself in any inescapable, vaguely shitty situation—stuck on a laggy train, waiting on an obscene takeout line, entering or exiting a park bathroom—and I make eye contact or exchange a quick gripe with a stranger. But the camaraderie wasn't thick enough to convince any of the reporters who cover Long Island on a regular basis, or who make their living chasing scenes like this one, to speak with me on the record about their work on the unfolding story. And, fair enough—who knows more reasons not to talk to press than members of the press themselves? 

As I resigned myself to going home, I was finally able to speak with a Brazilian freelance journalist named Luciana Rosa, reporting in Portuguese for a Brazilian news channel called RecordTV. Rosa was the only reporter I saw shoot her own stand-up on a phone and tripod. "I think serial killer stories are always interesting internationally around the world, especially here in America—it's a thing," she said.  Like me, she had arrived at the scene on the day of the family's return by coincidence, but unlike the rest of the crowd, it wasn't the highlight of her workday. "This kind of thing happens when you come to the scene of the news, the story, no?" she asked.

"I don't need to be here and get everything, every detail of the story," she explained. "Brazilians, they have no idea, no clue about this story, so I came here to zoom out on the whole case." 

For her purposes—and, really, for the world at large—the day's events were irrelevant.

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