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New charges against suspected Gilgo Beach serial killer shed light on another man's murder conviction

By JAKE OFFENHARTZ – Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — For years, prosecutors saw a connection between the murders of three young women who disappeared in the winter of 1993 and 1994. Their naked bodies were found strangled, beaten and in similar poses in the bushland of Long Island.

In new charges announced Thursday, prosecutors say Rex Heuermann – the man already accused of a string of deaths known as the Gilgo Beach serial killings – is responsible for the death of one of the women, Sanda Costilla. The findings, authorities say, indicate Heuermann began hunting victims more than a decade earlier than previously thought.

This, in turn, raises questions about the conviction of another man, John Bittrolff, who is incarcerated for the murder of the other two women – Rita Tangredi and Colleen McNamee – and who prosecutors once considered a suspect in Costilla's death.

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Bittrolff's lawyers have long accused prosecutors of relying on dubious forensic tests to convict him. They say the new charges against Heuermann cast further doubt on the case against their client, who has maintained his innocence since being sentenced to 50 years to life in prison in 2017.

“Three women were killed during the same time period and displayed in the same manner, and now one of them is accused of being killed by Rex Heuermann,” said attorney Lisa Marcoccia of the Legal Aid Society, which is handling the appeal. “The evidence points to a killer, and the new indictment supports John Bittrolff's claim of innocence.”

The three murders occurred about 16 years before the remains of 10 people – mostly prostitutes – were discovered along a highway near Gilgo Beach on Long Island's south shore. Architect Heuermann has pleaded not guilty to five counts and is a suspect in a sixth case in addition to Costilla's death.

In the new indictment, prosecutors said forensic testing of hair found on Costilla's body showed it was likely Heuermann's hair. The murder occurred shortly after Heuermann's mother and another person moved out of his home, giving him “unlimited time to carry out his plans,” prosecutors said.

Like the Gilgo Beach murders, the early 1990s killings puzzled investigators for years. Then, in 2014, authorities had a chance: A DNA sample from Bittrolff's brother revealed a partial genetic match to semen found on the bodies of Tangredi and McNamee.

That's how they found Bittrolff, a carpenter and father of two who lived in Manorville, Long Island. His DNA was a complete match.

Shortly after the arrest, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota publicly speculated that Bittrolff might also be responsible for the death of Costilla, who disappeared weeks after Tangredi and two months before McNamee.

Although Bittrolff's DNA was not found on Costilla, all three victims were exhibited in the same sexual manner and were missing a single shoe, prosecutors said, and wood shavings were found at all three crime scenes. Both Tangredi and McNamee were known sex workers, while Costilla “lived a similar lifestyle,” Spota said.

At the 2017 trial, Bittrolff's lawyer admitted that his client may have had sex with the two women, but said that did not mean he killed them. Several sperm samples were found on both women.

The prosecution relied on the testimony of Suffolk County Coroner Dr. Michael Caplan, who said he analyzed the density of the sperm and concluded that Bittrolff had sexual intercourse with them shortly before their deaths.

The defense did not call an expert to refute this. However, in an appeal, they cited DNA analyst and molecular biologist Dr. Karl Reich, who had called sperm density analysis “pure junk science.”

“Dr. Caplan's statement regarding a time period since intercourse has no scientific basis whatsoever,” Reich wrote in an affidavit, adding that there is “no precedent in forensic DNA practice” for such methods.

The jury deliberated for seven days and repeatedly told the judge they could not agree before finally convicting Bittrolff. One of the jurors later said Caplan's testimony was key in convincing the undecided jurors, according to trial attorney Jonathan Manley.

Spota attributed Bittrolff’s capture and conviction to the “miracle of DNA evidence.”

Less than six months after the conviction, Spota was arrested for obstructing an investigation into the chief of the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department, who was accused of beating a prisoner. Both men were eventually convicted and sentenced to prison.

As with the Gilgo Beach investigation, the Bittrolff case was marked by allegations of errors and misconduct by police and prosecutors. During the trial, Suffolk County police admitted to accidentally destroying wood chips found near one of the women's bodies. They also admitted to finding wood chips in a car belonging to a police sergeant who was a potential suspect.

The police were also accused of prematurely destroying the sergeant's investigation file. In their appeal, defense lawyers said prosecutors failed to release another internal file in which another officer's wife claimed her husband killed one of the women. Prosecutors insist they released that document, but a judge has yet to rule on it.

John Ray, an attorney who has represented the families of some of the Gilgo Beach victims, said he had concerns about the case against Bittrolff from the beginning.

“There were major deficiencies in the presentation of witness testimony, there was the question of incompetent counsel and the handling of the evidence was scandalous,” he said. “In light of what is now known, prosecutors have an ethical duty to re-examine and investigate the Bittrolff case.”

Suffolk County Rep. Rob Trotta, a former detective with the FBI's violent crime task force, agreed. “It's worth a second look,” he said. “Nothing would surprise me in this county.”

A spokesman for the prosecutor's office did not respond to a request for comment. Outside court, Heuermann's lawyer Michael Brown said Thursday that his client was “obviously in a bad position with regard to the new charges.”

In the months before his arrest, court records show, Heuermann may have had an interest in the man whose murder charges preceded him. Among the hundreds of online searches prosecutors found on his computer was one containing “John Bitroff.”

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