Fire Island Jane Doe Eyed After Gilgo Beach Serial Killer Suspect’s Arrest

Nearly three decades ago this spring, a passersby strolling the shores near secluded Blue Point Beach on Fire Island made a grisly discovery: A pair of severed legs wrapped in a plastic bag.

Suffolk County police responded to the scene on the bay side about a mile west of Davis Park on April 20, 1996, gathered the evidence and, with few leads for homicide squad detectives to pursue, the victim remained unidentified and the case went cold. That is, until 15 years later, when Nassau County police found a skull near Tobay Beach just east of Jones Beach on April 12, 2011, amid a search prompted by the discovery of four women found dead in Gilgo Beach in December 2010. The skull was dubbed Jane Doe #7 – she was among 10 sets of remains found along Ocean Parkway – until investigators matched her DNA with the legs and she became known as Fire Island Jane Doe.

Now that a suspect has been arrested for allegedly killing the three women whose bodies were found in Gilgo Beach in 2010 and authorities have identified him as the prime suspect in killing a fourth, the unsolved murder of Fire Island Jane Doe is getting another look. Authorities are investigating whether evidence may also connect the alleged Gilgo Beach serial killer, 59-year-old architect Rex Heuermann of Massapequa Park, to the six other sets of remains found along the same stretch of road – Fire Island Jane Doe’s skull among them. He’s also being eyed in other cases.

“This case is not over, it’s only the beginning,” Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney told reporters during a July 14 news conference after Heuermann pleaded not guilty to murder.

The Ocean Parkway cases together are considered the largest murder investigation in Suffolk history. Heuermann is the first alleged serial killer apprehended on Long Island since Robert Shulman, who was taken into custody days before Fire Island Jane Doe’s legs were found 27 years ago.

Suffolk police were searching for Shannan Gilbert, a New Jersey woman who was reported missing from Oak Beach in May 2010, when investigators made the Gilgo Beach discoveries months later. The expanded search of the surrounding communities on the Jones Beach barrier island turned up the other half dozen sets of remains. Gilbert was found dead in December 2011, but investigators have suggested she may have drowned – although her family believes she was killed, based on her 911 call in which she stated that believed someone was after her.

Of the remains found along Ocean Parkway, Fire Island Jane Doe’s case dates back the longest. She is among four other victims whose partial remains found along Ocean Parkway were similarly scattered elsewhere. One unidentified woman’s torso had been found in Hempstead Lake State Park in 1997 and her extremities were found near Jones Beach in 2011. The other two were Valerie Mack, who was found in Manorville in 2000, and Jessica Taylor, who had been found nearby in 2003. Both women had been decapitated, with their skulls found near Cedar Beach, east of Gilgo, in 2011. Taylor has been identified by her tattoo after her initial discovery but Mack wasn’t identified until 2020 with the help of DNA evidence.

Besides the passage of time, what makes Fire Island Jane Doe’s case challenging is that her torso and limbs are still missing. The only details police could share from the legs are that she was white, had red nail polish on her toes and suffered some scars. Her right lower leg has a 3-1/2-inch scar on the lateral mid leg area, a 1-inch linear scar on the lateral mid to lower leg and a 1/2-inch scar on the medial ankle, according to investigators. The left leg had a 2-inch surgical scar with adjacent suture scars on the medial left ankle, authorities added.

While the discovery of her skull allowed investigators to release in 2011 a composite sketch of what she may have looked like, investigators estimate that she could have been anywhere from 18 to 50 years old. It’s been 12 years since that sketch was released, but her true identity remains a mystery.

As of this story, police had been scouring Heuermann’s home for nearly two weeks, searching his storage units and digging up his backyard – in addition to probing his properties in South Carolina and Las Vegas. Only time will tell if authorities will link him to additional cases, and if they do, when those details will be released. Many theorize that there is likely more than one killer who dumped bodies along Ocean Parkway, so it’s possible that if the Gilgo suspect is eventually charged with killing any others, Fire Island Jane Doe may not be among them.

Which begs the question, when will Fire Island Jane Doe finally get justice?

Editor’s Note: Twenty-seven years after the discovery of the remains washing ashore on Fire Island, Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney announced that Jane Doe had been identified as Karen Vergata, who was 34-years old at the time of her disappearance. The press conference was held on the morning of August 4, 2023 – the same day this this article was originally published in our print edition.