Eye on Fire Island: Fire Island Jane Doe Identified After 3 Decades

Karen Vargata. That’s what authorities recently announced was the name of the 34-year-old mother of two and Glen Head native who had been known for years only as Fire Island Jane Doe. The long-awaited revelation came three weeks after investigators arrested a suspect in the Gilgo Beach serial killer case. But who brutally murdered Vergata? That remains a mystery.

“I think it’s important that we remember and honor not only Ms. Vergata but all the victims on Gilgo Beach,” Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney told reporters during an Aug. 4 news conference.

Vergata is the eighth of 11 victims to be identified after their remains were found in the brush along Ocean Parkway between Jones Beach and Oak Beach amid what is known as the Long Island Serial Killer case. Each of those identified had been sex workers at the time of their death, including Vergata, authorities said.

Police had been searching for Shannan Gilbert of New Jersey, who was reported missing from Oak Beach in May 2010, when a canine unit officer and his dog Blue found four dead bodies in Gilgo Beach in December of that year, triggering the serial killer probe. Authorities found another six sets of remains along the same barrier island months later – plus Gilbert, who is suspected of accidentally drowning, although her family believes she was murdered.

Among those remains was a skull found near Tobay Beach on April 12, 2011 dubbed Jane Doe #7. Later that year, investigators matched the skull with an unidentified woman’s pair of severed legs that washed up 23 miles away near Blue Point Beach, a secluded private residential neighborhood of 10 homes about a half mile west of Davis Park, 15 years prior on April 20, 1996. With that development, she got the moniker Fire Island Jane Doe.

Her torso was never found and a composite sketch based on her skull was released in 2011 to no avail. Her case is the oldest of the unsolved murder victims tied to Ocean Parkway. She was an unidentified murder victim for 26 years, nearly as long as she’d been alive.

The Gilgo Beach Homicide Investigation Task Force identified Vergata nearly a year ago, but waited to go public with the new lead until after last month’s arrest of 59-year-old Massapequa Park architect Rex Heuermann on charges of murdering three of the original Gilgo victims – he’s a prime suspect in the fourth. He pleaded not guilty, has not been charged with Vergata’s murder and Tierney did not take questions following the briefing.

Vergata’s father Dominic last heard from her when she called him on his birthday, February 14, 1996 – Valentine’s Day, two months before her legs were found. At the time of her disappearance, she had lived on West 45th Street in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. There was no missing persons complaint filed at the time of that disappearance, authorities said.

In August 2022, the Gilgo task force investigators developed a DNA profile suitable for genealogical comparison from Vergata’s remains. A month later, the FBI used genetic genealogy to identify Vergata, and then confirmed her identity in October using a buccal swab from one of her relatives.

She had a troubled life before it was tragically cut short. Her mother died when she was 16. The last call Vergata made to her father was from prison. Scars that were among the few clues authorities shared from the discovery of her legs are now believed to have been the result of a vehicle crash she was in while pregnant.

She had not been in contact with her sons since they went into foster care in 1992. Her father hired a private investigator to try to find her, but he struggled to get police to let him report her missing since she often fell out of touch with her family and he later asked a court to declare her dead so he could collect her life insurance policy. 

“As the year began to progress, and no one in the family had heard from Karen, nor had been able to make contact with her, I became increasingly worried,” Dominic said in court documents.

Investigators finally gave Dominic closure two months before he died in December. But authorities only alerted Karen’s immediate family. Her younger son learned his biological mother’s fate after it made the news.

“He just thought [his mother] was missing,” his girlfriend told the New York Post.

Vergata’s older son  – now the same age as his mother when she died and living in a group home for adults with special needs – reportedly remains unaware of her murder.

Meanwhile, Tirney said Vergata’s murder remains an ongoing investigation. And with her identification marking the biggest break in the case in years, there is renewed hope that authorities may close this cold case once and for all.