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Reflections on Lost Girls & The Long Island Serial Killer Case
This case gripped me more than any other. It formed a key part of a course in forensic psychology I taught in 2014. The arrest of a suspect has made everything fresh again in my mind.
The seemingly out-of-nowhere arrest of Rex Rex Heuermann on July 14th for the murders of three women, Amber Lynn Costello, Megan Waterman, Melissa Barthelemy who comprised part of the “Gilgo 4” in the Long Island Serial Killer case (Heurmann is suspected to have murdered the fourth victim, Maureen Brainard-Barnes) was a surreal moment for me. I wanted to devote a post to both actively reflect on the case for my own sake as well as briefly share with readers why this case has been so meaningful for me, impacting me both personally and from an academic professional perspective.
Like many who came of age during the time of the Silence of the Lambs and the rise of professional and public interest in the art of criminal profiling—popularized by several mainstream television series, including the short-lived, yet highly engaging MillenniuM (itself created by Chris Carter of X-Files fame and based directly on content from former FBI criminal profilers), I became interested in the ‘psychology of serial killers’ and more generally what lead people astray on the life path to engage in antisocial behavior. I read all the popular books at the time, such as Mind Hunter and Journey into Darkness by former FBI profiler John Douglas, as well as lesser known works from the true crime genre, such as the Misbegotten Son by Jack Olsen, which chronicled in depth the life history of serial killer Arthur Shawcross, the notorious Genesee River Killer in Rochester, New York.
To make a rather long personal odyssey story short, this dramatically shaped my academic pursuits and substantive research interests, including my interest Attachment Theory. Following my B.A. in both psychology and criminal justice, I completed a then-novel research-based M.A. in forensic psychology (itself with a dedicated course in criminal profiling), and finally completed my Ph.D. in developmental psychology, with a substantive interest in developmental psychopathology.
I first became aware of the Long Island serial killer (LISK) case when I watched the original documentary on the case featured on the A&E network. In my view, it is still the most compelling, superbly produced, and informative of the original media coverage and subsequent documentaries on the case. Following my viewing of the documentary, I joined a Facebook group created by the victims’ families, read Bob Kolker’s 2013 book on the case, Lost Girls, and kept abreast of additional reporting and documentaries on the case, including the notable 8-episode documentary The Killing Season (which also aired on the A&E network). Media interest in the case eventually trailed off by mid-2015 as little investigatory process had been made. The exception was the Netflix movie “Lost Girls” which was released in 2020 and was an adaptation of Kolker’s 2013 book.
As it turned out, during the course of my post-graduate academic trajectory, I was afforded an opportunity to teach a course in forensic psychology in 2014. As I wanted to shape the course according to both its required content as well as my own related substantive research interests in developmental psychopathology, integrating the case, and more specifically the life courses of Amber, Meghan, Maureen, and Melissa, seemed like a personal and innovative way to connect with students. The original A&E documentary on the case, as well as Bob’s 2013 book were the perfect resources to utilize. I had the good fortune as well to have Bob provide a live Skype session with the students discussing the book during one of our classes which was well-received and by all accounts related to me afterwards both in person and via course evaluations impacted students in ways that went well beyond what I had even anticipated. It emotionally resonated with them it seemed.
And so we arrive back to present day, with the arrest of Rex Heuermann. I strongly believe, based on my own independent training and thinking, as well as the opinions of others, that he is indeed the man responsible for the murders of Megan, Maureen, Amber, and Melissa at minimum and possibly others: both those found on Gilgo Beach, as well as four women found murdered in 2006 in Atlantic City. The arrest also gives me a feeling—whether justified or not—that my integration of the case into my course has some sort of heightened, transcendental value; students who have continued to follow developments in the case, or who may be momentarily pulled back into attending to it, can reflect on the course—what was shared, learned, and discussed within our time together. Hopefully, some of what was learned sticks a bit stronger in their minds.
On a personal level, the arrest in the case has also made me reflect even more deeply on perhaps the most incredible element of case: the disappearance of Shannan Marie Gilbert, whose body was later found not far from where the others had been found, is almost certainly unrelated, yet it was what set everything in motion for the discovery of the others. Moreover, it was Shannon’s mother, Mari Gilbert, whose tireless advocacy called attention to the case, to the plight of sex workers more generally, and who was a main impetus for the Netflix adaptation of Bob’s book. Academy Award nominee Amy Ryan plays the role of Mari in the film. Like Meghan, Maureen, Amber, and Melissa, the tragic deaths of both Shannon, and later Mari herself, highlight the intersection of mental health, developmental psychopathology, victimology, and predatory psychopathic behavior that characterize many other similar cases throughout human history. It is this intersection where my research science is centered. I remain hopeful, despite the current state of the Academy, to have the opportunity to advance my work through research and teaching in the future.
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