EXCLUSIVE

A secret room and a jarring first date: Gilgo Beach murders suspect set off alarm bells

Rex Heuermann is accused of killing at least three women in cases that remained unsolved for more than a decade after human remains were found on Long Island.

Kelsea Petersen / NBC News
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One neighbor recalled his casual threat over a less-than-precise parking job. Another said her family had talked with him just once — even though they’d lived in the same Long Island neighborhood for years.

A former co-worker remembered the time he cared for her while she was injured — an act of kindness her parents later thanked him for.

At the center of these contradictory recollections is Rex Heuermann, the Manhattan architect who law enforcement officials believe is responsible for killing at least three women in cases that remained unsolved for more than a decade after human remains were found on Long Island’s Gilgo Beach.

The reflections on Heuermann provide a window into how a man whom authorities described as a “demon that walks amongst us” appears to have interacted with neighbors, colleagues and others who crossed paths with him.

“I wasn’t part of his dark, twisty world,” Katherine Shepherd, the interior designer whom Heuermann helped care for, told “Dateline” in her first broadcast interview about her former colleague. “He had his other face on when he was with me.”

“I just don’t understand how it can be the same person,” she said.

But to Nikkie Brass, a former escort-turned-hair stylist who had what she recalled as a chilling encounter with Heuermann eight years ago, his arrest was hardly surprising.

“I told people for years, I said: ‘I swear to God I went to dinner with the Gilgo Beach killer,’” Brass told “Dateline. “People kinda’ laughed it off like, ‘Yeah, right. OK, I’m sure you did.’”

Grim discoveries on Gilgo Beach

Heuermann, 60, was charged July 14 with first-degree murder in the killings of three sex workers — Melissa Barthelemy, 24; Megan Waterman, 22; and Amber Lynn Costello, 27.

Authorities in Suffolk County have also described Heuermann, who has two children and whose wife filed for divorce days after his arrest, as the “prime suspect” in the killing of a fourth sex worker, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, according to a bail application from the district attorney’s office.

Brainard-Barnes was last heard from July 9, 2007. Her remains were discovered the same day — Dec. 13, 2010 — as Waterman’s and Costello’s. Barthelemy was found Dec. 11.

The four women were found along Ocean Parkway, a waterfront road that spans the length of a barrier island just off Long Island’s South Shore.

Heuermann has pleaded not guilty and denied involvement in the killings.

“He’s a man who has never been arrested before,” Heuermann’s lawyer, Michael Brown, has said. “He’s maintained his innocence from the inception of this case.”

Rex A. Heuermann at Suffolk County Court in Central Islip, New York, on Aug. 1.James Carbone / Getty Images file

Heuermann has not been charged in the disappearance of a fifth sex worker, Shannan Gilbert, who vanished in 2010 in nearby Oak Beach and whose case prompted the search that led to the discovery of the other women.

Gilbert’s skeletal remains were discovered in a marsh in December 2011. Authorities believe she may have drowned, said Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison. A lawyer for Gilbert’s family, John Ray, has said an independent autopsy found she was likely strangled.

Heuermann has also not been charged in the deaths of several others found along Ocean Parkway, including Jessica Taylor and Valerie Mack, two sex workers whose partial remains were found along Ocean Parkway during the search for Gilbert.

Partial remains from both women were also found years earlier in Manorville, about 45 miles east of Gilgo Beach.

In an interview with “Dateline,” Harrison said authorities are still investigating possible links between Heuermann and the other victims.

“One thing we’re not going to do is rule out any of those bodies that were found out on Ocean Parkway,” he said.

In August, authorities in South Carolina said they were investigating a possible connection between Heuermann and a woman who vanished from Sumter County, east of Columbia, in 2017.

‘You can’t go in there’

Katherine Shepherd and Rex Heuermann at a bar in Manhattan in 2004. via Dateline

For Shepherd, who met Heuermann in 2002 when they shared office space in Manhattan, the stark descriptions of her former colleague were disorienting. She said she’d known Heuermann to be jovial, amiable and professional.

“Nothing even blipped on my radar,” she said.

Once, roughly a year and a half after Shepherd moved to New York City from California and had begun sharing an office with Heuermann, Shepherd recalled that she slipped on black ice while walking to work.

A few hours later, when Shepherd discovered she couldn’t walk, Heuermann volunteered to take her to the hospital, she said.

Shepherd couldn’t recall if they drove or took a cab, but he waited while she underwent an MRI.

“I ended up having a bulging disc, and I was in a lot of pain,” Shepherd said, adding that Heuermann then helped her back to her apartment.

“He got me up there and got me settled in my bedroom and then went to the drugstore to get my medication,” she recalled, adding: “I was thankful that he was there taking care of me.”

Nearly two years later, when Heuermann was renovating his home in Massapequa Park, a suburban enclave roughly 40 miles southeast of Manhattan, he hired Shepherd to help measure the home’s interior.

The job was unremarkable, Shepherd recalled, save one moment.

Crime laboratory officers search the home of Rex Heuermann in Massapequa Park, New York, on July 18.Yuki Iwamura / AFP via Getty Images

After completing the first floor, she recalled, they went to the basement, where there were several rooms and a couple of closets. As they worked their way through the area, Shepherd said, Heuermann stood in front of the doorway of one of the rooms.

“He just said, ‘You can’t go in there,’” Shepherd said. “I remember that because it was so unusual.”

Shepherd recalled Heuermann explaining that he had “a bunch” of guns inside and children at home, so she moved on.

Later, when Shepherd drew up Heuermann’s floor plans and shared them, she labeled the hidden area “the mystery room,” she said.

“And that was just a nudge to him because he wouldn’t let me in there,” she recalled. “I was just kind of joking, you know. And now, it’s like, pretty chilling.”

After Heuermann’s arrest, authorities recovered 279 weapons from his home, Suffolk County District Attorney Raymond Tierney told reporters. Heuermann had more than 90 gun permits, officials have said, and dozens of unregistered handguns and assault weapons, according to an October court filing from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office.

A creepy date-night conversation

Roughly a decade after Shepherd’s trip to Massapequa Park, Heuermann went on a date with Brass, the former escort, she told “Dateline.” They went to an upscale Long Island restaurant, she said, and he introduced himself as “Rex.”

He described himself as a divorcee with an interest in true crime, Brass said.

To Brass — herself a fan of the genre — Heuermann seemed most eager to discuss the series of grim discoveries that had been made along Ocean Parkway a few years before, she said.

“When he brought up the Gilgo Beach murders, he, like, sat up straighter,” Brass said. “He had a smirk on his face.”

A teenager walks to Gilgo Beach in Babylon, New York, on July 18.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Heuermann asked Brass if she believed Gilbert was linked to the other deaths, she recalled, and he wanted her theory on how the bodies had been disposed of so quietly. Brass recalled telling him that she’d never been to Gilgo Beach and had no clue.

Heuermann described the area as dark and desolate, Brass recalled, and said they could have been dragged there in the camouflage burlap sacks some of the remains were found in. (Authorities have said the remains of Barthelemy, Waterman, Costello and Brainard-Barnes were bound at the head, midsection and legs with camouflage burlap.)

To Brass, the conversation was alarming.

“His body language, the way he spoke about it — it wasn’t a true crime buff,” she said. “It was somebody who was there. There’s a big difference. You can just see it. You can tell. Like, his entire demeanor changed.”

Brass was so alarmed that she did something she’d never before done in her former trade, she said: She asked a friend to meet her in the restaurant parking lot.

When Heuermann told her that he lived close to Gilgo Beach — Massapequa Park is a 15-mile drive — and invited her to his home, she demurred, saying it was getting dark and she didn’t feel comfortable driving at night. She planned on ending the date there, she recalled telling him.

When Heuermann insisted and said he could drive, Brass recalled, she told him she had a friend outside waiting to ensure she made it safely to her car. He appeared agitated, Brass said, but she left and didn’t see Heuermann again until years later, after he’d been identified in the Gilgo Beach killings.

In an alternate universe, Brass said, she would have agreed to Heuermann’s invitation. And she might have never made it home.

A lawyer for Heuermann did not respond to questions about Brass’ account.

A confrontation with a neighbor 

A few months before Heuermann’s July arrest, he was walking through his tree-lined neighborhood when he paused at the end of a neighbor’s driveway, according to the neighbor, Jimmy Mack, who spoke to “Dateline” in his first broadcast interview.

At the time, Mack was on his porch smoking a cigarette. He couldn’t see Heuermann yet — bushes hide his porch — but Mack said he heard him: “Oh, this house again,” Mack recalled Heuermann saying. “Those girls, and this dude again.”   

After half a minute, Mack said, Heuermann — whose name he didn’t yet know — was still standing there, talking. So Mack said he popped up.

“We kind of both startled each other,” Mack recalled. “And he was literally at the end of my walkway, where the walkway meets the street, talking to my house.”

“I said, ‘Are you talking to my house, bro?’” Mack said. “And he said, ‘Is this your car?’”

Mack recalled that the truck was parked halfway into the sidewalk.

“He didn’t like that,” Mack said. “So he said, ‘Oh, I told you guys before. Now I’m gonna slash the tires on that truck.’”

Heuermann allegedly made the threat calmly and said he’d return in 15 minutes, Mack said. The truck belonged to the son of Mack’s wife, Mack said, adding that he ran inside and asked the son if he’d previously had a confrontation with Heuermann. He said he hadn’t, Mack recalled.

More 'Dateline' cases

Moments later, Heuermann was a few houses away and Mack had given chase, Mack said. Mack said he cut off Heuermann, and — fearful of Heuermann’s apparent comfort with threatening a neighbor and worried he may come back with a gun — told him to stay put. (Mack did not say if Heuermann mentioned that he would return with a firearm.)

It was roughly 10 at night, Mack said, and the scene was drawing attention. Mack said he tried to take Heuermann’s photo — in case he came back  — but a neighbor who’d seen the confrontation tried calling him, preventing his camera from working.

So Mack said he challenged Heuermann to settle things then and there.

“I said, ‘If you wanna handle our business, let’s get it over with now, or I never see you again on this block,’” Mack said he told Heuermann. “At that point, I was so heated. And he said, ‘No, no, no. We’re good.’”

Mack said he tried to follow Heuermann in his car, but by then he’d disappeared. Mack later alerted his neighbors to the confrontation — in case “anything ever happens,” he recalled thinking at the time.

Then came Heuermann’s arrest. When Mack’s wife shared a photo with him of the accused, Mack said, “I almost jumped out of my shoes.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I said, ‘That’s the guy.’”

A lawyer for Heuermann did not respond to questions about Mack’s account.