By Alexandra Whitbeck
“Sex Work After Gilgo” is a three-part investigative audio series examining the relationship between vulnerable populations and law enforcement. In this series, The Long Island Advocate’s Alexandra Whitbeck looks at the unsolved Gilgo Murders by the Long Island Serial Killer to better understand how sex workers are policed on the Island and in New York State. The series discusses the legal, political and social questions faced by sex workers after the murders, which left many fearing for their lives.
2021 marked a decade since the remains of 10 bodies were found along Ocean Parkway on Gilgo Beach, in Suffolk County. Seven were later confirmed to be sex workers. In this podcast, Whitbeck speaks with sex workers and sex worker advocates, past and present members of the Suffolk County Police Department, an attorney representing a victim, a crime reporter who covered the case as it unfolded and the victim of a civil rights violation committed by the SCPD.
“Sex Work After Gilgo” was Whitbeck’s master’s thesis for Hofstra University’s Graduate Journalism Program, which passed with distinction in December. The series was also named a finalist in the Society of Professional Journalists 2021 Mark of Excellence Awards and featured on 88.7FM WRHU’s “The Morning Show” and on Hofstra social media.
“Sex Work After Gilgo” first aired on April 4, 2022, on 88.7FM WRHU and The Long Island Advocate.
FULL SCRIPT, PART II
Music: Midnight Stroll by AK
PENELOPE SAUNDERS: “I think about these cases on Gilgo Beach and I do wonder what was the engagement of the police here. Whether they stood by and let one do this because they didn’t care, because it was sex workers and immigrants and a young black mother, or were they involved….”
TANIA LOPEZ: So, there was all sorts of violations in terms of the law there and the fact that burke had the audacity to actually cross all those legal lines, unethical it was all unethical, was beyond. It had to be told.
ROB TROTTA: I mean if Christopher Loeb didn’t break into that car, he might still be the chief.
CHRISTOPHER LOEB: I knew the cop lived in the neighborhood, but that was fucking Burke. I didn’t know it was, I didn’t know. It was Chief Burke that is.
GERALDINE HART: I think there’s a saying that culture eats policy for breakfast.
JOHN RAY: Those corruptions are real. They are real everywhere, time
Immemorial, but here they they’ve managed to find their way deep into the grain of the police society.
PENELOPE SAUNDERS: It’s not the case of a few bad apples, it’s the system working as it was designed to.
Music: Midnight stroll by ak
Music: Bankruptcy by a.k.
In 2010 and 2011, the remains of 10 adults were found on Gilgo Beach in Suffolk County.
Seven of the bodies were identified as sex workers on and around Long Island.
Melissa Barthelemy, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Megan Waterman, and Amber Lynn Costello were found in December 2010.
Jessica Taylor and Valerie Mack were found March and April of 2011.
Shannan Gilbert, who is not officially linked to the others, was found in December 2011.
The remains of these women were all found within close proximity to each other along Ocean Parkway on Gilgo Beach in a similar nature.
Their discovery led to one of the most controversial criminal investigations in long island’s history, one that to this day is still not solved.
Allegations of police corruption, stigmas against sex workers and the culture of a powerful county has kept justice from the 10 victims found on Gilgo Beach.
Music transition: bankruptcy by a.k.
Welcome to part two of Sex Work After Gilgo: I’m Alexandra Whitbeck.
In our first episode, we talked about the victims of the Gilgo Beach murders, and some of the dynamics of the case.
We looked at who the victims were and how important information was withheld from legal advisors by the Suffolk County police department
In this second episode, we’re looking at the role of the Suffolk County Police Department. Specifically, the allegations of corruption that were brought to light throughout the case.
We’ll discuss the story of Christopher Loeb who explains how being victim to a civil rights violation at the hand of the Suffolk County PD exposed political and police corruption and unexpectedly links him to the Gilgo murders.
We’ll hear from John Ray, an attorney representing one of the victims, talk about the larger implication of the letter he received from Suffolk County Detective Vincent Stephan.
Geraldine Hart, a former FBI agent, who served as commissioner of the Suffolk County police department for 2 years speak on her experience with the murders and the actions of prior police administrations.
We will discuss key figures in the case how they both hindered and helped the investigation
And question the relationship between sex workers and law enforcement.
Please note that this series contains depictions of violence that some people may find disturbing.
Music: Bankruptcy by AK
Suffolk County is home to nearly a million and a half people, making it the fourth largest county in New York State by population.
The Suffolk County police department is one of the largest in the country with 2500 sworn officers apart of seven precincts covering 10 towns.
In 2009 there were even initiatives by Suffolk lawmakers to turn the county into its own state.
Many Long Islanders look at Suffolk County as this big, impenetrable entity out east where police and politics move together.
Farah Stockman writes for The New York Times; “It’s sometimes said that the county doesn’t run the police; the police run the county.”
The 2012 scandal involving the former disgraced police chief James Burke that we’ll discuss later in this episode made Suffolk County the star of national headlines.
A decade later, Suffolk County police corruption is still a topic of coverage in local and national media.
Years ago, Suffolk County wasn’t known for allegations of police corruption and conspiracy charges, nor was it populated enough to even be considered its own state.
Long island attorney John Ray describes Suffolk County in the 1950s as a vacation land, a suburb of queens and a backwater place from the city that later grew into what we see it as today.
Before he began practicing law on Long Island, John Ray was in the complex world of Suffolk County politics.
JOHN RAY: So, I had a sense of politics. Uh, here when Suffolk County was becoming a booming residential community, uh, from all the spill off from the city and from Nassau County. You know, it was entirely a different, more active, uh, place, you know, with, with all of the, uh, perhaps, you know, all of the sins and, and so forth that came out of city life, shall we say?
According to John Ray, in 1970 the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association became involved with the newly formed conservative party.
JOHN RAY: The police did a peculiar thing that peculiar to New York in politics that made them powerful and therefore also susceptible to corruption.
John Ray explains how in 1970, a conservative party branched off from the republican party in Suffolk County.
JOHN RAY: 1970, a conservative party was formed in New York. A third-party right-wing break off from the republican party.
When I first came here in that month Europe, they were the key party with. With Watergate in the Vietnam debacle, the republicans were losing ground.
So, the conservative party was becoming that much more powerful. And so, although they never were a major party in this, you know, I’d like to republicans and democrats are republican, could not get elected any longer in Suffolk County after Vietnam and, and, uh, Watergate without the support of the conservative party.
So, um, it was important to get that control. What does that all have to do with what we’re talking about?
Music: Mystic River by AK
JOHN RAY: By 1978, from 60 to 76 78, the police union became very cleverly astutely aware that the conservative party being a third party was what we call a paper party. If you go to the republican party, back in my day and the democrat party, back in my day, there were 212, uh, voting districts just in Brookhaven, alone, biggest township in Long Island.
…each voting district from each party gets two committee people. Those committee people’s job is to go out and bring out the vote and basically represent their party in their community, in their one little district. Right?
…the conservative party…they didn’t have any real committee people. They had some but tiny little group. It’s all on paper. It’s all fake. And so, anybody could take over the conservative party if you went out and just simply registered as a conservative and then became a committee, person said, I’m a committee person. There’s nobody else.
They find you’re a committee person. And that’s what they did. Who did that? The police PBA. So, the police department took over the conservative party. That’s what really happened here.
Music: Mystic River By AK
Geraldine Hart is currently the Director of Public Safety at Hofstra University. Prior to being appointed to her university position, she was a former FBI supervisor and commissioner of the Suffolk County police department.
When joining the SCPD as commissioner, Hart noticed this connection between the police and politics.
GERALDINE HART: I am not a political person at all. And, uh, I was quite shocked at the politics and Suffolk. I’d heard about them then, but to a degree, I think I wasn’t prepared for it because. It just doesn’t happen in the FBI that way. And, um, I thought I’m a law enforcement executive, and that’s my role. And that’s what I do.
I don’t comment on legislation or politics. It doesn’t interest me, but the reality is you’re just, you’re thrown into it.
Suffolk County police officers, much like some Suffolk County politicians, are born and raised on Long Island.
The roads they patrol as officers are the same roads, they rode their bikes on as kids.
JAMES MURPHY: I remember, uh, sidewalk streets, riding my bike for hours on end through the day, going to the local park with my friends. Um, being out of the house for seven or eight hours having to be home. So, it was like a very suburban sort of like family-friendly area.
That was detective sergeant James Murphy of the Suffolk County police department’s anti-human trafficking initiative.
James Murphy grew up around policing as the son of retired chief, Tom Murphy. Murphy and both of his siblings all found careers in law enforcement.
JAMES MURPHY: It’s all I knew growing up. And my father was very open about the job he was doing and what he was seeing. He didn’t hide anything from us. So, at the dinner table we ordered, we heard all the stories.
Good, bad, and ugly. Um, that’s, that’s really all I knew, and I didn’t think I would actually do anything else. That that was just the job I was going to have. I didn’t even look at any other direction.
Being a police officer is a generational occupation in Suffolk County.
This family nature murphy speaks of may be one of the reasons the SCPD is so interwound in county politics and even industry.
Current Suffolk County legislator, Rob Trotta worked as a Suffolk County police officer for 25 years.
During this time, he was assigned to the FBI violent crimes task force for over 10 years and in 2013, he retired with the rank of detective.
In his current position as a legislator, he is dedicated to eradicating corruption in Suffolk County that he first noticed when he was on the police force.
ROB TROTTA: You get in there and you think you’re invincible, I guess.
Trotta says he witnessed first-hand how police officers in Suffolk County would take advantage of their position of authority during his time serving.
ROB TROTTA: And then you start doing things and then you can’t get in trouble because you’re the police.
In October 2021, Trotta held a press conference criticizing Suffolk County legislators for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions made by the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association.
He accused the PBA of allocating member fees to campaigns despite New York state electoral law requiring union members to specifically approve this spending.
Suffolk County PBA spokesman Tim Sini, who at the time was District Attorney, denied Trotta’s claims alongside current county executive Steve Bellone.
Trotta is not the only one in Suffolk County witnessing and speaking out against police corruption.
Music: Midnight Stroll by AK
CHRISTOPHER LOEB: I started getting in trouble and, um, yeah, started, I was doing drugs. And then to support my habit, I was selling drugs. Um, and that was my life. It was an international, it was jail and trouble. And, um, the cops did what the hell they wanted, man. They fucking shook you down. They planted the drugs on you. They have sex with the informants. Um, they would treat you.
Crimes in order to get certain arrests, they would allow other dealers that will push their drugs, certain informants for federal informants, so that we never get in trouble with the cops. Y’all it was just that lifestyle was just crazy, and they just did what the fuck they want. Suffolk county is bad, bro. It’s worse. It’s worse than the city, man. It’s just, it’s there they’re their own entity. They’ve just, they’ve been getting away with it.”
That’s Christopher Loeb, a Smithtown man who was the victim of a civil rights violation at the hands of Suffolk County police in December 2012.
Specifically, Loeb was beaten by former chief of police James Burke while in custody.
This is the part of the story that inherently links Loeb to the murders on Gilgo Beach.
What led to this violation was the theft of a duffle bag.
Music: Midnight Stroll by AK
After seeing countless front-page stories about the remains of the women found on Gilgo Beach, Loeb felt drawn to the case.
CHRISTOPHER LOEB: It was on the front page, and I grabbed it. I saw the newspaper, I saw the faces and I was just immediately connected, like my spirit, my intuition. I was just connecting to the girls and. I opened the paper and I start reading it.
And um, I’m like, yo cops. This, I know, I know cops did this. Like, so I went to my mother in the kitchen. I’m like, oh mom, I’m like, I know cop said this. She’s like, how do you know Christopher? I’m like, I just know. I said, and I said to him, like, I’m going to be the ones who exposed this three days before I broke into his truck, which is crazy.
This premonition led him to the Smithtown home of former police chief James Burke who served from 2012 to 2016. Here, Loeb stole the duffle bag from Burke’s vehicle.
According to Loeb, he was informed of a cop living in his hometown of Smithtown that was involved in nefarious activities like he mentioned before.
CHRISTOPHER LOEB: I knew a cop slipped in the navy part. I knew the cop lived in the neighborhood, but that was fucking Burke. I didn’t know it was, I didn’t know it was Chief Burke that is.
What Loeb found inside this bag raises questions of Burke’s involvement in the Gilgo murders.
We’ll discuss who James Burke is and how he conducted the investigation as police chief in a bit, but it is important to first understand Loeb’s role in this case.
Loeb claimed the duffle bag he stole from Burke’s car had pornographic videos and sex toys inside.
CHRISTOPHER LOEB: I went back to my house and then, um, I put the, there was DVDs in the bag, whatever it was five days. DVDs. Most of them are blank. Obviously, I’m going to put the blank one in, because I don’t put the blank one in because, um, it’s blank and it’s not, it’s not telling me anything. So, on that DVD, I played my co-defendant was there. He saw it. So, he got scared.
He told me to bring this stuff back to the shock. I didn’t, I recorded it. I recorded it on a cell phone.
WHITBECK: What was happening?
LOEB: A girl was being tortured. She had a chance. I couldn’t see if they were handcuffed behind her back, but she was on a bed. It was a dark room, and the guy was wearing a mask.
WHITBECK: And then what happened with that recording on the cell phone?
LOEB: It’s hidden. It’s been hidden for a long time.
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Shortly after Loeb was in possession of the duffle bag, the entire force of the Suffolk County PD was in his home, including burke, who in this situation was the victim.
Former Newsday crime reporter Tania Lopez recounts this night.
TANIA LOPEZ: Not only did they go into a crime scene, this victim, because this is how they were seeing it. Not only did the victim go to the crime scene, but he went to the crime scene and took evidence. Not only did he go there but he then went to the prescient and then he goes to the squad room, clears the squad room, which is unprecedented for them to do, and proceeds to go see the suspect and physically assault him.
The ‘he’ tania is referring to is James Burke.
Burke was the victim of the duffle bag theft.
Loeb stole Burke’s bag, making burke the victim in this instance.
Burke then went to Loeb’s house, being a crime scene.
He then took the duffle bag which was the evidence.
According to reports, when Christopher Loeb was brought back to the Suffolk County police department’s fourth precinct, James Burke entered the interrogation room where Loeb was being held.
Reading from U.S. Attorney’s office press release, Loeb was quote “handcuffed and chained to an eyebolt fastened to the floor. Burke then punched and kicked Loeb in the head and body,” end quote.
TANIA LOPEZ: So, there was all sorts of violations in terms of the law there and the fact that burke had the audacity to actually cross all those legal lines, unethical it was all unethical, was beyond. It had to be told. Imagine, you’re a reporter and you’re getting this information from a really good source, and you trust this source, how do you prove it? How do you go about proving it?
TANIA LOPEZ: you’re going to get blocked a lot. But the first thing I did, and what any reporter should do is just call the family directly. Call the mom. Luckily Mrs. Loeb told me everything that went down, and I was able then to find the records, you know court documents, obviously shows that Loeb’s in custody. Then you look at his bail, half a million dollars?! How do you get a half a million-dollar bail for a smash and grab? So, you start digging and digging and digging and that’s how the Loeb story came to light.”
Here is an excerpt from Tania Lopez’s June 2013 article for Newsday:
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One of the men accused of taking Suffolk Police chief of department James Burke’s gun belt, ammunition and handcuffs from a department-issued SUV last year has told his family that the Suffolk top cop punched him while they were alone at the fourth precinct, the suspect’s mother said.
Christopher Loeb, 26, said the incident occurred in the precinct’s squad room on dec. 14, 2012, hours after Loeb had been apprehended, according to his mother, Jane Loeb. Burke Tuesday said he did nothing wrong.
From his Suffolk jail cell, Loeb wrote his mother earlier this year that he was “beat up” both in his home and then “even worse at the precinct.” then, during a conversation in the Suffolk County jail, she said Loeb, who was convicted in April 2012 of grand larceny, told her that burke was the person who punched him.
Loeb told her that burke punched him in the stomach and said, “
That’s what you get for taking somebody’s property,” Jane Loeb said.
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Burke stepped down from his position as police chief in October 2015 and in 2016, four years after Loeb was detained, James Burke was sentenced to 46 months in prison.
He pled guilty to a civil rights violation and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
However, Burke was not alone in covering up the beating of Loeb, nor was he alone in a slew of other incidents that questioned his creditability as law enforcement.
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Former district attorney Thomas Spota was convicted in 2019 to 5 years in prison for witness tampering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy in effort to help Burke hide his crimes against Loeb.
Not only do the actions of these individuals speak to police corruption in Suffolk County but the deep connection between politics and policing.
In Suffolk County, politics and policing have a mutually beneficial relationship.
Like many counties in New York, the Suffolk County police department financially supports political candidates whose views align with those of the SCPD through the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association.
The Suffolk PBA endorses federal, state, and local candidates that, according to their website, support “law and order in our communities.”
Campaign contributions are made by the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association to the politicians who will work in ordinance with their views.
This is not an unusual practice for police benevolent associations because all they really are is a labor union representing law enforcement.
In March 2021, Newsday reported that 450 thousand dollars were donated by the Suffolk County PBA to candidates and political parties since 2010.
Again, a labor union making donations to a campaign or political party is not uncommon. But it shows how policing and politics work together.
Politicians get large sums of money donated to their campaign by a police benevolent association and in return, these politicians support legislative initiatives that benefit law enforcement.
Recently, current Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone heavily supported a deal made between the county and the Suffolk PBA that asked SCPD officers to wear body cameras in return for a $3,000 stipend.
In 2019, the long island law enforcement foundation, a super PAC run by police unions spent $830,000 on Bellone’s campaign according to campaign finance records.
This relationship between police and politics is not exclusive to the eastern end of Long Island, but many people in Suffolk County feel that the relationship has grown to be toxic.
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Some link the mentor like relationship disgraced former district attorney Thomas Spota had with James Burke to long before Burke entered law enforcement.
As a teenager, Burke was a key witness in the 1979 murder of 13-year-old John Pius in Smithtown, New York.
Pius was found with six rocks jammed down his throat and burke was a witness. The prosecutor for this case was none other than Thomas Spota.
Later in 2011, James Burke allegedly paid for sex at an Oak Beach party.
The sex worker he paid for services provided an affidavit about that night five years later in 2016 to John Ray, the attorney representing Shannan Gilbert and family.
Ray then publicly made the connection between this supposedly drug fueled night and Burke’s involvement with the Gilgo murders explaining how Oak Beach is the same gated community Shannan Gilbert was last seen the night she disappeared.
Ray explained at the press conference that this is the first connection between Burke, Oak Beach and sex work as reported by The Long Island Press. News clip
According to Trotta, and SCPD officer’s claims in news 12 reports, in the 1990’s an internal affairs investigation began after Burke was caught having sex with a sex worker in his patrol car while in uniform.
Once again Rob Trotta.
ROB TROTTA: That was the big scandal, with burke. He was shockingly, on the cover of Newsday for having sex with prostitutes in his police car, when he was a sergeant, lieutenant, whatever, and they kept him. The moral dilemma is how does the county executive keep a guy whose been on the cover of Newsday for having sex with prostitutes in a police car, in a marked unit and keep him as the chief of police, what kind of message does that sending the rank-and-file cops. Not a very good one I don’t think.
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Burke was appointed to Suffolk County Police Chief in 2012. Roughly a year after the remains of the 10 bodies were found on Gilgo Beach.
Tania Lopez reported on the case for Newsday as it unfolded and recounts the odd manner Burke stepped into his position as chief.
TANIA LOPEZ: How it works normally is, you basically appoint the commissioner first, and then all the other ranks that are lower, they get appointed afterwards. But you know, they were doing things differently.
Burke took over the position of chief shortly after Spota, who was serving as district attorney, and the late Police Commissioner Richard Dormer had a public disagreement in 2011.
News 12: Well look, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that four bodies were found in this area. Certainly, we’re looking that we may have a serial killer.
That was the voice of police commissioner Richard Dormer. Dormer served the Suffolk County police department from 2004 until his retirement in 2011. He died in 2019.
In this clip, he was speaking at a press conference discussing the bodies found on Gilgo Beach.
In November 2011, he talked to Tania Lopez.
TANIA LOPEZ: He didn’t really grant too many interviews to discuss this case, because it was, it still is a very sensitive case, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed but they do keep stuff very close to the vest to this day, and when they do release something, everyone clamors for the information.
TANIA LOPEZ: And that’s when he told me that he believed that it was one serial killer that maybe was responsible for the dumping of the ten remains along ocean parkway. Now, I mean that’s up for scrutiny, but the fact that he actually said that, again all the information at that time was incredibly tight, in fact if I remember correctly, the former district attorney Tom Spota, he held a joint press conference with dormer to announce details of the remains that were found in the spring. He announced that the dumping’s may be the result of at least 3 killers. Now this was on May 9th of 2011. Now Dormer had this interview with me and says that he believes it’s one. That’s a huge deal to contradict what the former district attorney was saying. So, there was something amiss there, at the time I took the interview with dormer and I didn’t realize that that was going to cause a huge stir, I mean literally.
The thought of one killer being responsible for the 10 murders at Gilgo Beach was a shocking and new theory.
At the time, Dormer’s theory went against the claim of former district attorney Thomas Spota that multiple killers were involved like Tania stated.
Spota was one of the first to dismiss Dormer’s idea of one killer being responsible.
Shortly after his interview with Tania Lopez of Newsday, Dormer faced backlash from Spota.
TANIA LOPEZ: November 30th, 2011. That’s when we actually got an interview on the front page. It wasn’t until December 15th that Thomas Spota when before the members of, I believe it was a public safety committee with the county, and he basically blasted dormer for saying the theory that he believed it was one.”
TANIA LOPEZ: So that caused some kind of riff, and of course Dormer retires at the end of December, a new administration comes in, and right as the new administration took over, they announced these guidelines that they will not release any information on the Gilgo case, unless it’s something new or something that adds to the case. And that was like the standard line for a very long time. It was shut down after that. They didn’t really talk to give any info on the case after that.
This new administration Tania is talking about is the Suffolk County Police Department under Burke.
When Burke took over the SCPD and therefore the Gilgo case, all information was kept extremely close to the vest and key detectives were removed from the investigation.
TANIA LOPEZ: I think that this new administration that came in they were not taking any information or guidance from the previous people. Dormer and the commissioner and the chief of detectives were forced to retire, and what happened was they didn’t take any of his notes, they never talked to him about the case, and he’s widely talked about this, and it’s public knowledge.
Before Suffolk County legislator Rob Trotta retired in 2013, he witnessed some of Burke’s unusual changes to the department and its affiliates.
ROB TROTTA: You know I was in the FBI at the time, assigned there for about 10 years, and he took us out. There was an opiate epidemic he took 5 guys out of the DEA. There was a gang, huge MS-13 problem he took three guys out of the gang taskforce, there was a gun problem, he took two guys out of the ATF. It defies logic what he did.
Attorney John Ray saw similar events take place that Tania reported on.
JOHN RAY: Dormer, uh, was made to, uh, resigned because of this situation with Shannan and the, and the Gilgo case and his chief of police, uh, investigator on the case, Dominic Varone was also driven out. And so, there was an opening, there was a gap, right?
Spota had a public disagreement with commissioner Dormer in late 2011 immediately before he retires.
In 2012, Burke is appointed to police chief in an unusual manner.
JOHN RAY: So who fills in the gap only a few days later, Burke gets appointed as the chief of police of Suffolk County.
The laundry list of Burke’s questionable actions doesn’t end here.
In part one, John Ray mentioned a letter he received after holding a press conference in 2012 urging law enforcement to look further into Shannan Gilbert’s case and bring the FBI into the investigation.
JOHN RAY: The police did a very odd thing, which to this day is in explicable, the police, uh, uh, treasurer, I believe he was a vice president of the detectives association that basically the police detectives union writes me a letter a few days after that press conference, his name was Vincent Stephan.
The Detectives Association is similar to the Police Benevolent Association, except it is a union that represents detectives exclusively.
And at the time, Vincent Stephan was secretary treasurer of the Detectives Association and formerly a Suffolk County detective. Stephen also worked on the Gilgo investigation for three months.
Ray explains how this letter written by Stephen denied the actuality of the contents heard in Shannan Gilbert’s 911 call made the night of her disappearance.
JOHN RAY: And he writes this letter to me saying that, um, uh, I was all wet in my press conference and I had no idea what I was talking about. And it was odd. It was that first of all, he, he was one of the detectives who investigated Shannan’s case. And he said, so he wrote me a two-page single space. To tell me what I just said.
A few days after ray received that letter written on Suffolk County Police Detective stationary, the letter was released to Newsday.
According to the letter published by Newsday in 2012, Stephen writes:
“Her demeanor on the tape was calm. You can hear male voices on the tape, and they were calm. At no time during this call was she desperate. From what I heard on the call, Gilbert was not speaking as if she were in danger.”
JOHN RAY: And in it, he actually revealed what he said was on the tape that the nine 11 tapes of Shannan Gilbert. And he claimed that she was all at all times calm. He claimed that there was never any threat of murder. He claimed that, um, everybody was calm, uh, that there was absolutely no reason for this to have happened.
And he claimed a few other things as well. And so, uh, he claimed personal knowledge. He heard the tapes and off you went, he writes this letter to me on the stationary of the Suffolk County Detectives Association, not on county, uh, Suffolk County Police stationery, which was odd. And you might wonder what that means.
Well, it has significance later on. All right. It has to do with Burke, Chief Police Burke.”
At the time, Ray didn’t link Burke to this letter as his focus was accessing the 911 call made by Gilbert like we discussed in part one.
JOHN RAY: I didn’t really pay attention to Burke. I had no idea that this letter had some connection to burke, but later on many years later, um, when I came to know for sure that the police story of Shannan’s disappearance was a thread of, uh, maybe more than a thread, but, um, a knitted, a coat of lies, willful deliberate, outright lie.
They weren’t just mistakes or questions where reasonable people can differ.
For example, you say, well, I heard the tape and he, maybe this guy was right. They weren’t that excited. And I say, no, I heard the tape. And they work sighted. Um, you know, you could debate that. That’s not what happened here. Okay.
There are outright lies told by Detective Stephan in that letter made public in news day. I didn’t make it public. Why? And the answer goes back, I think to Burke. Um, I can’t prove it, but I don’t need to prove it. I’m not suing him. But what I do need to know is the truth.
Ray began to learn who detective Vincent Stephen was and concluded that he would not have sent a letter containing sensitive information about the Gilgo case without being told to.
JOHN RAY: He’s not a guy to go and put in writing evidence in an, in an ongoing case, display it to the public like that as he did on as to the nine 11 tapes. That was extremely unlikely for these to take that upon himself to do that.
And why would he, who’s a very rigid, bureaucratic guy. Write a letter on police stationary instead of unofficial stationary. Why did he step out of bounds like that? Somebody told them to do that. Somebody urged him to do that.
Ray questioned why this letter claiming the exact opposite of what he heard on the tapes themselves was written on Suffolk County Detective Association stationary rather than on Suffolk County Police stationary.
He then made the connection to police chief James Burke. This letter was sent to ray and Newsday the same month, January 2012, as Burke was appointed to be chief of police.
JOHN RAY: How did that happen? Well, that’s one question, but it happened and I believe it’s pretty clear to me that Burke comes in, right? When that letter was written that letter was put out there through the guy who’s in charge of the detectives association, de facto James Burke. Okay. He spun this story now. So that matters.
Doesn’t it? Because if you put it out officially, if, if the police put it on official stationery of, of the Suffolk County police department, they’re responsible for what has said, aren’t they, but if they let a detective put it out personally through the detectives association, they’re not. That’s the theory.
So, this is somebody very cleverly is maneuvering all of this in the background. Why else would they do this?
So, yeah, I see Burke behind that. So why is he telling a willfully false story?
Ray speculates that this letter that denies Shannan’s distress on the 911 call the night she disappeared, was on detective association stationary so the Suffolk County police department could avoid accountability.
The letter published by Newsday clearly states the author as Vincent Stephen of the detective association and makes no mention of the Suffolk County PD’s views on the 911 call.
Music by AK
To recap from episode one, John Ray fought relentlessly to have the tapes of Shannan’s 911 call released to him, and he was fought by the county every step of the way.
The Suffolk County police department has not officially elaborated what was on the tapes.
Except for in this one letter…
Sent directly to John Ray once he held a press conference calling out the discrepancies made by police in the case…
Written on detective association stationary by one specific individual as if to take the responsibility off of the police department…
The same month James Burke was appointed as chief of police.
JOHN RAY: And you might ask yourself at this point….the police have never once said why they want the tapes never once in any of their papers, why in god’s name, are they still holding back on this? When they claim that Shannan Gilbert was not murdered, uh, or that they don’t know if she was or not, and that she’s not connected to the other Gilgo people, how in god’s name, can they then still insist upon holding back these tapes?
There isn’t a single good reason for that at all. So why there is another reason and it’s a good one, except we don’t know it.
Music by AK
Geraldine Hart grew up on long island, and before she left the FBI to serve as the commissioner of the Suffolk County PS in 2018, she was a part of the decision on what to do about James Burke’s method of investigation.
GERALDINE HART: He was, uh, emboldened. He had taken his, uh, task force officers off of our gang task force. Uh, and it’s really just trying to navigate this where we are on this and knowing that it’s not over, um, we were able to move the case to long island and then have these district, uh, re-examined reopened the case again.
Um, and really just talking to my higher ups because our assistant director who runs the New York office, came out with me to sit and talk about our relationship with Suffolk. And basically, you know, to say to him, we cannot engage with this individual at the helm. And our only, our only response to this should be an indictment.
It shouldn’t be any sort of, you know, handshaking or, you know, so they understood that to their credit and it really was no relationship at all. Um, professionally. Was a big deal because our office actually sat in Suffolk. Um, we had no, no task force officers on the, on the task force. And, um, and just to really work cases in a county where you’re, you’re basically not welcome is, is different.”
When Hart stepped into the position of police commissioner in 2018, Burke had been out of the department for two years and she remembers how people felt with his absence.
GERALDINE HART: I will say for the most part, um, it was a huge wave of almost relief when he was gone. Yeah. It was almost palpable. Uh, the idea that, and we would hear the stories of how he just, his entire focus was not on fighting crime, but I’m just building this empire and humiliating people.
Uh, he would hold meetings and just, um, not, not to develop strategies, but to just embarrass other people. And it was to hear the stories was, and people would actually come into a meeting with me in the conference room where he did this and they would kind of just have almost PTSD of just like, this is, this was a horrible place before you came.
Why would Burke act in ways that hindered the investigation of this case? Removing key detectives like Lopez, Trotta and Ray stated as well as creating an uneasy environment for officers as hart said.
Why did he react the way he did over Loeb stealing the duffle bag?
Why would Burke not want to find justice for Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Jessica Taylor, Valerie Mack, Shannan Gilbert, Amber Lynn Costello and the three other unidentified remains?
Music: Midnight Stroll by AK
TANIA LOPEZ: The whole reason this story even came to the light of day because a source, contacted me and told me that they were absolutely floored because unlocked, and it was department issued and made out with a bag. Took it home, and the chief then within hours showed up to this perp’s house to retrieve a bag that had, rumored to have dildos and pornos. God knows what kind of pornos they were.
ROB TROTTA: It’s very ironic that a drug addict took down the chief of police. If Christopher Loeb didn’t break into that car, he might still be the chief.
ROB TROTTA: Burke was out of his mind.
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The actions of law enforcement in the investigation of the Gilgo case are representative of a much larger issue. One that puts sex worker’s lives are at risk.
Penelope Saunders of The Best Practices Policy Project says the alleged corruption present in the Suffolk County police department is representative of the policing system across the country.
PENELOPE SAUNDERS: It’s not the case of a few bad apples, it’s the system working as it was designed to.
PENELOPE SAUNDERS: So, there’s a whole uncovered story here about how police do in fact murder sex workers. And it’s very difficult to talk about people people’s lives at risk.
And this is not the first case of sex workers being murdered on Long Island.
From 1989-1993, infamous serial killer Joel Rifkin targeted sex workers and was convicted for the murder of nine women.
More recently in 2014, John Bittrolff was convicted of the murders of Rita Tangredi and Colleen McNamee. Two sex workers working on the island.
John Hopkins University found in a 2019 study that the more violent interactions sex workers have with police leads to a higher risk that they will have a similar violent experience with a client.
Murderers like Bittrolff and Rifkin target sex workers because they know that sex workers will be unlikely to turn to the police in fear of facing repercussions themselves.
They know that sex workers experience difficulty accessing health and social services.
They know sex workers are susceptible to stigmas that make them seem less worthy of receiving help.
In Part Three of Sex Work After Gilgo, we’ll look more at the legal and social restraints on sex workers that threaten their safety.
We’ll look at the history of sex work in New York through labor laws that have developed in the past decade as well as recent efforts toward decriminalization.
You’ll be hearing more from Penelope Saunders from The Best Practices Policy Project as well as, Molly, a chapter representative from SWOP Brooklyn.
We’ll also discuss where the Gilgo case currently stands, and how recent elections might impact a future investigation.
Again, I’m Alexandra Whitbeck and thank you for listening to Part Two of Sex Work After Gilgo.
Music: Midnight Stroll by AK