Scandal-plagued former Gilgo Beach police chief arrested for soliciting sex from undercover officer in park

Ex-police chief is accused of exposing himself to a Suffolk County park ranger

Rachel Sharp
Wednesday 23 August 2023 19:46 BST
Suffolk County District Attorney gives statement on Gilgo Beach murders

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Louise Thomas

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The scandal-plagued former police chief accused of botching the investigation into the Gilgo Beach serial killings has now been arrested for allegedly soliciting sex from an undercover officer in a park in Long Island, it has been revealed.

James Burke, who worked as Suffolk County police chief from 2012 to 2015 before resigning in disgrace and being jailed for corruption, was arrested at around 10.15am ET on Tuesday at the Suffolk County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park in Farmingville.

Burke is accused of exposing himself to a Suffolk County park ranger and telling him that he was interested in oral sex, according to an arrest report.

When the ranger went to arrest him, the 58-year-old allegedly sought to use his status as a former police chief to get out of the situation.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked the officer.

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Suffolk County Park Rangers Chief Stephen Laton said that the arresting officer did not know who Burke was before his arrest.

“The ranger who made the arrest of Mr Burke did not know he was [James Burke]... not at first, not until he identified himself and said who he was and said, ‘Do you know who I am?’” he said.

Burke is said to have also told the ranger that an arrest would be “a public humiliation for him”.

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison – who now heads up the department that Burke once led and who secured an arrest in the Gilgo Beach case last month – said at the briefing that the ranger was at the park as part of an undercover operation.

Officials had been receiving “numerous complaints” about people soliciting sex at the park, prompting a sting operation, he said.

Burke, 58, was the only suspect arrested in the sting.

He was charged with multiple counts including offering a sex act, public lewdness, indecent exposure and criminal solicitation.

He was booked into the Sixth Precinct and was released later on Tuesday after being issued a desk appearance ticket.

He is due to appear in court on the charges on 11 September.

Former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke, second from right, is escorted to a vehicle by FBI personnel after his arrest in 2015
Former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke, second from right, is escorted to a vehicle by FBI personnel after his arrest in 2015 (Steve Pfost)

Commissioner Harrison said that Burke could be hit with further charges over the incident.

Burke’s name has become notorious in connection to the Gilgo Beach serial killer case which has rocked Long Island for more than a decade.

He took the helm of Suffolk County Police in late 2011 just a few months after the last of 11 victims was discovered along Gilgo Beach, sparking fears of one or more serial killers preying on victims in the area.

But almost immediately after being appointed chief of police, Burke removed the FBI from the investigation and all other major investigations in Suffolk County – a move that has been widely condemned and blamed for stalling progress in the high-profile case.

Just over three years later in 2015, Burke resigned in shame as he was arrested for beating up a man he suspected of stealing porn and sex toys from his patrol car.

The following year, the disgraced police chief was convicted and sentenced to 46 months in federal prison.

When handing down his sentence, the judge slammed Burke, saying he had “corrupted a system” for years – not only carrying out the attack in 2011 but staging a cover-up at the department and lying to federal investigators.

His victim Christopher Loeb told Burke: “Your abuse of power and the public’s trust is appalling. You told me no one would believe me.”

Burke was released in 2014 after serving 40 months in prison.

Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and the chief of Spota’s anti-corruption bureau Christopher McPartland were also convicted as part of the sprawling cover-up.

This came after Burke had a rapid rise to the top of the force despite being plagued by scandals in his early days as a police officer.

Long Island investigators search the shores in 2011
Long Island investigators search the shores in 2011 (AP)

Back in 1995, an internal review found that Burke had engaged in sex acts in his police car while on duty with a woman who had been repeatedly arrested by the department for engaging in prostitution and drug dealing.

Burke’s handling of the Gilgo Beach serial killer case has long been criticised by law enforcement – with accusations that he deliberately pushed out the FBI because it was investigating him for corruption at the time.

The case began in May 2010 when Shannan Gilbert, who was working as a sex worker, disappeared after visiting a client near Gilgo Beach.

Gilbert made a final chilling 911 call saying she feared for her life.

During a search for Gilbert in a dense thicket close to the beach, police discovered human remains.

By spring 2011, the remains of a total of 10 victims had been found including eight women, a man, and a toddler. Gilbert’s body was then found in December 2011.

Her cause of death is widely contested with authorities long claiming that it is not connected to the serial killer or killers but that she died from accidental drowning as she fled from the client’s home. However, an independent autopsy commissioned by her family ruled that she died by strangulation and her mother believes she was murdered.

For the last 13 years, no arrests were made in the case.

Then, in January 2022, Commissioner Harrison took the helm of the department and announced a new task force to crack the unsolved case.

On 13 July, an arrest was finally made.

Rex Heuermann, a 59-year-old married father-of-two and architect, was taken into custody as he left his office in Manhattan.

He was charged with the murders of Megan Waterman, Melissa Barthelemy and Amber Costello and is also the prime suspect in the murder of Maureen Brainard-Barnes.

Rex Heuermann appears in court
Rex Heuermann appears in court (jtc)

All four women, known as the “Gilgo Four”, worked as sex workers and disappeared between 2007 and 2010 after going to meet a client.

They were all found in December 2010 within one-quarter mile of each other, bound by belts or tape and some wrapped in burlap.

Court records show that Mr Heuermann was linked to the “Gilgo Four” murders through a tip about his pickup truck, a stash of burner phones, “sadistic” online searches, phone calls taunting victims’ families, his wife’s hair found on the victims’ bodies – and a pizza crust.

The first piece of the puzzle came when a witness in the Amber Costello case revealed details about a vehicle that a client was driving when she was last seen alive.

Costello, who worked as a sex worker, was seen alive on the evening of 2 September 2010 when she left her home in West Babylon. A witness said she had gone to meet a client who was driving a first-generation Chevrolet Avalanche.

Last year, a registration search showed that local man Mr Heuermann owned a first-generation model of the truck at the time of Costello’s disappearance. He also matched the witness’ description of the man believed to be the killer: a large, white “ogre”-like male in his mid-40s, around 6’4’ to 6’6” tall, with “dark bushy hair,” and “big oval style 1970’s type eyeglasses”.

The discovery of the car led investigators to hone in on Mr Heuermann including executing 300 subpoenas, search warrants and other legal processes to obtain evidence to determine his potential involvement in the killings.

Among this was Mr Heuermann’s alleged use of burner phones, with prosecutors saying that he used burner phones to contact the three women and arrange to meet them at the time when they went missing.

He also allegedly took two of the victims’ cellphones – and used one to make taunting phone calls to one of their families where he boasted about her murder, court documents state.

Mr Heuermann’s DNA was found on one of the victims, while his wife’s hair was found on three of the four women he is connected to.

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