A serial killer working in real time: Deborah Norville on Gilgo Beach murders and what happens next

Journalist Deborah Norville shares how the cold case led to an arrest and the film inspired by one victim's mother

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 21, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Gilgo Beach Murders Suspect Rex Heuermann (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Gilgo Beach Murders Suspect Rex Heuermann (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

"I wouldn't have put a big bet that it would ever have been solved," Deborah Norville admits. It's just a few weeks after architectural consultant Rex Heuermann was arrested in Manhattan and charged in connection with one of the most chilling murder cases in this century, the Gilgo Beach killings. The "Inside Edition" host has been following the story closely since the first set of bodies was uncovered on Long Island 13 years ago, both on her nightly news magazine and as executive producer of the Lifetime movie "The Gilgo Beach Killer." "This case was ongoing," she recalled during a recent "Salon Talks" episode, "but wasn't getting anywhere." 

Norville talked to me about the "mom with a mission" whose determination led to the discovery of the first set of bodies back in 2010, the corruption in Suffolk County that slowed the investigation and why she wasn't surprised when she learned the details about the suspect.

Watch the "Salon Talks" episode with Deborah Norville here to hear the Emmy Award-winning journalist talk more about the case and why covering the sometimes bleak crime beat never gets her down. "I've been doing this forever," she told me, "and I'm still just as jazzed about it." 

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

This story has been going on for 13 years now. When the first bodies were found, you had been covering true crime for so long. When did you realize this was a story that you wanted to follow and chase after?

It's interesting. It was definitely a story that we were covering at "Inside Edition" because it was compelling. First it was just the four bodies, that we now call the Gilgo Four, found on Gilgo Beach. Then more bodies were found, and ultimately 11 bodies were found, clearly the work of a serial killer, or killers — plural. But no one knew. For all these years, the crimes went unsolved. We were covering the story from our base here in New York City, but it was really a national story just because of the enormity of it; we don't have a whole lot of serial killings that we know about as they're happening. 

This case was ongoing but wasn't getting anywhere, and that's what made it so interesting. You had 11 dead bodies. You've got the Suffolk County Police Department, which is a huge entity, and they couldn't get anywhere. Ancillary to their investigation of these murders, there was all kinds of fraud and corruption going on in the Suffolk County Police Department. Fast-forward to a year ago in February of 2022, there's a new sheriff in town, literally a new guy in charge of the Suffolk County Police Department. He did something that they'd never done before: He put the police agencies together.

They formed a task force with the Suffolk County PD, with the FBI, with the New York State Police, and within six weeks, they had developed enough information that led to the break in the case that happened just a couple of weeks ago. That was the arrest of Rex Heuermann as the suspect in three of the Gilgo Beach murders, and believed to be linked to a fourth. 

This is a story that wasn't getting traction, because it doesn't start with those Gilgo Four. It starts with someone who may not even be part of this story. It's her story, and it's her mother's story, that really are the catalyst for all of this.

Absolutely. She's ground zero, if you will. Her name is Mari Gilbert. I like to call her a mom on a mission. She's the protagonist of the film we have on Lifetime. Mari's daughter, Shannan, occasionally worked as an escort, as a sex worker, and she had a date and she didn't come back. 

"A mom on a mission is unstoppable, and this lady, Mari Gilbert, was a mom on a mission."

After about five or six days, Mari starts to get understandably concerned, and she goes to the Suffolk County Police. She knew where her daughter's date was. It was in Suffolk County. She'd come all the way from New Jersey to go to this end of Long Island. She goes to the cops and she said, "My daughter hasn't come back," and that begins the story. It was really this one woman pressing the cops. "You got to investigate. You got to investigate." She wouldn't take no for an answer.

That, to me, as a storyteller, was such a compelling way to tell this story. Personally, I believe a mom on a mission is unstoppable, and this lady, Mari Gilbert, was a mom on a mission. What we do in the Lifetime movie is we tell her story. We show how she was hitting roadblock after roadblock and just refusing: "No, it's my daughter. I've got to find the answers."

Before they found Shannan Gilbert's body, they started finding the other bodies first. These four women who were wrapped in camouflage burlap — and what's interesting is we only now know that the burlap was camouflage colored. They never released that one fact in the beginning when these bodies were first found in 2010. Now that the case is moving forward in the prosecutorial realm, we're learning more that they've known for a very long time but [which] is only now coming out in public.

This case feels like a turning point in how we process and absorb these stories. This is the first time I can think of where the focus really did turn to the victims and their families, and this cipher, this boogeyman, became less of a player in it. It has been so much about these women who were marginalized for so long and their stories.

That's a really good point. These women were throwaways. They were sex workers. The investigators at the time that these bodies turned up actually said in press conferences, "The people of Long Island can take comfort in the fact that these women were prostitutes." Help me understand, as a woman, why that's supposed to make me feel good? At the time this was being said, it was obviously well before #MeToo, but there was the beginning of a change in attitude. [It] was like, "No, we're not going down that road anymore."

Now we do have a suspect. Since you heard about the arrest and you heard about the suspect, Rex Heuermann, has anything that has come out that has surprised you?

No, not at all. They've released only the smallest amount of evidence to make their case for the arrest, to achieve the indictment. They did it very quickly because the investigators had reason to believe that he was onto them, that he knew that something imminent was going to happen, so they had to move him pretty quickly.

 Rex Heuermann

In this handout provided by the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office, Rex Heuermann poses for his booking photo on July 14, 2023. (Photo by Suffolk County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images)Rex Heuermann is a big, hulking guy. He's 6'4", 6'5", and he's a big, stout fellow. There was an eyewitness who saw a big, hulking person. That eyewitness account was basically buried under pages and pages and pages of documentation in this thing. There was a vehicle in which this big, hulking person was seen, a particular type of Chevrolet truck, a new model truck at that time. Rex Heuermann owned that kind of truck. He actually deeded it over to his brother who lives in South Carolina.

"Ultimately 11 bodies were found, clearly the work of a serial killer or killers — plural. But no one knew."

Rex Heuermann, they now know, had access to ultimate burner phones, and that's one of the things we'll have in the Lifetime movie. We really wanted to [show], here's Mari Gilbert's story, and you're going to watch all that happen. Then after the film, we're going to walk the viewer [in] broad strokes [through] what happened to lead to the arrest of Rex Heuermann. 

Imagine how many people travel every day from Long Island, New York, here into Manhattan to work. Yet they were able to, out of the thousands and thousands and thousands of people who do that every day, parse it down to one individual using telephone technology to triangulate the burner phones and his locations. 

After using new DNA technology, there was some DNA evidence degraded on the victims, but two pieces of evidence in particular really nailed this case. There were female hairs found — not belonging to the victims — on some of the victims. That hair belonged to Rex Heuermann's wife. Transfer evidence, off of his person onto the victims. In the burlap bag in which one of the victims was found was a single male hair.

Now, at the time, DNA technology did not allow them to do a deep dive, if you will, on what that DNA evidence said. Newer technology that's been developed in the last 13 years enabled them to make a precise link. Using that information from this new technology, they got pizza crusts from a pizza box that Heuermann had thrown out as his office in New York City where he worked as an architect, matched the two up and bing, bing, bing. We've got our guy. Obviously, this goes to court. It has to be proven, but this is what the evidence indicates.

Did you think an arrest would ever come? This case went so cold for so long and it was mired in corruption and incompetence for so long. 

I wouldn't have put a big bet that it would ever have been solved. I'm one of these people: The glass [is] always half full. That's just the way I am. So I'm always hopeful that this would be a case that would be solved. 

"Four families appear to now have those answers, but there's still six or seven families that don't."

There were a couple of things, though, that led one to think that maybe there could be. There had been no evidence for over a decade, and then about two years ago, there was this belt buckle that was revealed at a press conference out in Suffolk County. It was either "HW" or "HM," depending on which, and who knows what that means. That may have no bearing on the case whatsoever, but that was the first evidence in years.

Then the formation of the task force — [that] was like, well, OK. It's about time. Let's see if political pressure — because by that point, people were going, "Wait a minute. You've got this corrupt entity. You've thrown these people in jail from the Suffolk County Police Department. You've cleaned house, you say. How about looking at some of your cold cases?" I think there was reason on the part of the victim's families to hope that maybe they would get some answers. Four families appear to now have those answers, but there's still six or seven families that don't.

There are still a lot of open questions, and more families, because we don't know if this suspect may be tied to other crimes.

And they're investigating that. Because of his connection to his brother in South Carolina, they're actually looking in that state and in a couple of other locations for any possible unsolved crimes.

I want to take a moment now to talk about you and how you're doing, because doing this kind of work for as long as you've done it, covering the kind of stories you've done, takes a toll.

Oh, no. It doesn't take a toll at all. Are you kidding? It is so interesting.

I attribute my entire career to my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Eddings. I was that obnoxious child constantly raising her hand: "How come? How come?" Finally, Mrs. Edings couldn't take it anymore. She said, "You know what, Debbie? That's a really good question." She sent me to the library. She said, "Why don't you look it up, do a report, and come back and tell the whole class so we'll all know the answer." It took me about three or four reports for me to realize if I would just shut up, she was going to get there in her presentation.

Later I realized Mrs. Eddings gave me the tools for my career. As a journalist, I wonder, how come? And I get to go ask those questions and find out and do a report for the whole country. How great is that? I mean, sometimes you have an assignment that lasts crazy long and your kids don't get to see you or whatever, but no, it's so great. Look, I've been doing this forever and I'm still just as jazzed about it.

The last few years have changed the way that we look at true crime. For those of us who are following these stories, it can take a toll. It can make you worried. It can make you scared.


How do you think we can create these boundaries? 

How do we not go through life fearful when we know there are serial killers who can pick you up?

Especially as women.

It's funny. My older son says, "Mom, I was the boy in the bubble." I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "Mom, everything I ever wanted to do, you guys had done a story at 'Inside Edition' about why it was dangerous." You can't have Heelys. I forget why. You couldn't wear Crocs, because those got caught in the escalators and you would lose your foot. Every single thing he wanted to do ... I wrote a book about not doing video games, like that's going to give you bad dreams.

"As a journalist, I wonder how come? And I get to go ask those questions and find out and do a report for the whole country."

So yes, you can absolutely grow up fearful and cowering at the prospect of everything. I prefer: Knowledge is power. When you know these things exist, when you know and you follow these cases, you learn how these women ended up in these situations. For instance, if you were working as a call girl, you would know the things not to do because of the bad experiences that other people have had. I think [the reason] a lot of people gravitate toward true crime just as something that they like to listen to in podcasts or watch the movies on Lifetime or wherever, is we all want to try to figure it out.

If the story is told well, they're dropping those little breadcrumbs, and if you pick up the right breadcrumbs, maybe you can solve the crime. I think people get excited for that reason. But also, as a reporter on "Inside Edition," one of the things that we very consciously try to do is share information on how you can not be a victim. For instance, you've probably never talked to anybody who, in one of the many interviews you've done here on Salon, told you that if you are a kidnap victim and you get thrown in the trunk of the car, what you need to try to do. Whatever way they've got your body in the car: Pull the brake light wires. Because eventually, those brake light wires are going to mean that the lights are not working and the car may be pulled over. That is one way to help save yourself if you were a kidnap victim. Did you know that?

I didn't. I know about trying to kick out the tail light.

See? Kick out the tail light. And newer cars — but my luck is if I were to get kidnapped, I wouldn't have a kidnapper with a new car — the new cars have a thing that you can pull. It lights up in the dark, you can pull it, and it pops the trunk open. But I don't think I'll be lucky to have that kind of a kidnapper.

Deborah, I like that you aspire to a higher class of kidnapper.

Give me the kidnapper with the new model car.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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