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Humanizing the Victims in the Gilgo Beach Murders

Posted: August 4, 2023

On July 13th, 2023, Rex Heuermann, 59, was arrested and charged with the murders of three women – Amber Lynn Costello, 27; Melissa Barthelemy, 24; and Megan Waterman, 22 – whose bodies were found in Gilgo Beach, New York between 2010 and 2011.  Heuermann is believed to have also killed a fourth woman, Maureen Brainard-Barns, 25; however, he has not yet been charged with her murder.

There are several other victims whose bodies were discovered in the Gilgo Beach Area at the time, including Shannan Gilbert, 23, whose disappearance and her family’s subsequent quest to find her jump-started the Gilgo Beach investigation that led to the discovery of all known victims.  Rather than focus on the humanity of the individual victims, the media and police directed national attention to the fact that they were people in prostitution.  This choice to case the victims in this light minimized their humanity, instead defining them by their final, tragic moments.

On July 11th, 2023, a blog post co-authored by CSE Institute externs, Abby Kelley (CWSL ‘24) and Collin Sykes (CWSL ‘23), entitled The Language of Exploitation, was published by the Villanova Law Review on its Tolle Lege blog.  The post was written after a seven-month study conducted by the CSE Institute about problematic media practices, particularly in connection to articles about commercial sexual exploitation and prostitution.  The piece highlights particularly problematic language many media outlets use, including the use of terms such as “prostitute” and “hooker,” as well as how media outlets often deemphasize the harm suffered by individuals who have been exploited while glorifying the conduct of the individual buying sex.

The murders Hueremann allegedly committed have been largely characterized in the media as the work of a serial killer.  Long before Heuermann was ever arrested and charged, the media termed him the “Long Island Serial Killer,” or “LISK,” spawning a popular podcast about the murders, as well as a Netflix movie dramatization, several documentaries, and a book.  As with most serial killings – and crimes against feminized bodies – media coverage of Heuermann has elevated his profile while also dehumanizing the victims.

In this case, the police and media focused solely on the victims’ connection to prostitution.  Early in the investigation, Dominick Varrone, the then-Chief of Detectives of the Suffolk County Police Department, implied that only those who were engaged in prostitution via Craigslist really had anything to fear from the killer.  Varrone stated, “[t]he other consolation is he’s not selecting citizens at large, he’s selecting from a pool.”  As Robert Kolker, author of Lost Girls, a book about the Gilgo Beach murders stated in a recent New York Times article, “The subtext was clear: If the victims had been successful and well-educated, like the victims of David Berkowitz, the serial killer known as Son of Sam, all of Long Island might need to be in a panic.”  However, because the victims in this case all were people in prostitution – the public did not care.

Further, many media outlets – including the popular podcast Lisk:  Long Island Serial Killer – described the victims as “sex workers” who worked in a legitimate, viable industry.  At the same time, many of the podcast episodes end with the following statement:  “If you suspect human trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.”  This statement was relegated to the end of the podcast without any of the necessary context to describe what sex trafficking is.  Despite over twenty hours of content, no explanation was provided about the overlap between prostitution and sex trafficking.  It would seem that if the producers of LISK actually believed that “sex work” was a viable industry, there would be no need to include the contact information of the trafficking hotline.

Similarly, in other news reports about the case, there are many articles describing the victims in a thoroughly dehumanizing way.  For example, an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer describes the victims as “the bodies now attributed to Heuermann.”  In addition, in many of the articles, the victims are reduced to the “Gilgo Four,” rather than individuals whose lives were lost.  Most concerning are articles in which the victims are only discussed in terms of their time in prostitution.

This dehumanization is highlighted by a line in the movie Lost Girls, in which the actress who plays Mari Gilbert, Shannan Gilbert’s mother, states, “Have you watched the news? . . . It’s all ‘him,’ ‘him,’ ‘him.’  What about our girls?  Who’s talking about them?  And when they do, it’s ‘prostitute,’ ‘hooker,’ ‘sex worker,’ ‘escort.’  Never ‘friend,’ ‘sister,’ ‘mother,’ ‘daughter.’  They don’t care.  They blame them.  And it’s our job, as mothers, and sisters, to make sure these girls are not forgotten.”

Except it is not just their job.  As Kolker emphasized in his New York Times article, the victims “were only ‘lost’ insofar as we – the police, the media, the social safety net – elected to lose them, by deciding they were worth discarding.”  It is up to all of us to work to ensure that victims everywhere are given the respect and attention they deserve.

The CSE Institute knows the victims found on Gilgo Beach are human beings who were loved and cherished by their families and deserving of respect.  The CSE Institute extends its most sincere condolences to all victims and their families who have experienced this kind of treatment by the police and the news media.  But the CSE Institute especially extends its condolences to the families of the victims found on Gilgo Beach:  Shannan Gilbert, Amber Lynn Costello, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Tina Elizabeth Foglia, Jacqueline Ashley Smith, Andre Jamal Isaac, Jane Diane Seymour, Tanya Rush, and the remaining unidentified victims.

The CSE Institute will continue to provide updates on this matter as they become available.

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.

Category: News

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