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26 July 2023

America’s real-life crime thriller

Also this week: why journalists should back Hollywood’s strikes.

By Tina Brown

For bipartisan recreation in a raucously divided America, the safest topic is the summer’s latest crime. In an age when social media makes us think we know everything about everybody, secret lives become strangely bonding.

Four Augusts ago I remember choking on my coffee as I dawdled over the Saturday papers at Beth’s Café, the village breakfast hangout at Quogue on Long Island (my weekend refuge since 1984), when a cellphone alert told me that the filthy(-rich) sex fiend Jeffrey Epstein had killed himself in his Manhattan cell. It became an instant dinner party obsession.

In the summer of 2015 a raunchy jailbreak from an upstate “Supermax” by two particularly creative murderers – Richard Matt and David Sweat – was the seasonal favourite. After cutting through a steam pipe in their cell with tools embedded in hamburgers smuggled in by a besotted female guard, they tunnelled out through the sewage system, leaving behind a note that read, “Have a nice day.” The $23m manhunt riveted our tabloid hearts for three steamy weeks.

Crime of the season

Now comes the crime blockbuster of the summer of ’23. Just when cable hysteria over Donald Trump’s latest indictment had begun to blur into brain-fried oblivion, a man suspected of being the Gilgo Beach serial killer – accused of at least three, and probably four, murders of escort workers dumped in burlap sacks on a desolate strip of a Long Island beach – was arrested on 13 July. The news bomb detonated every other topic of conversation in the days after.

The man charged with three of the murders is Rex Heuermann, a lumbering 59-year-old architect who has a perfectly functioning Manhattan consultancy business and lives with his wife and two children. In 2022 he was featured on Bonjour Realty, a YouTube show, touting his expertise in obtaining city planning permission. There is nothing obviously sinister about Heuermann; the truth is you would be more likely to pick the French interviewer with the glinting glasses and weird laugh as the serial killer than the bonhomous man-mountain “tawking” in a Long Island accent about how the best thing about his job is that it helps you understand people. But for an apparent DNA match from a pizza crust tossed into a midtown Manhattan garbage can outside his office, any connection with these sadistic abominations would be impossible to believe.

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[See also: Why Elon Musk killed the Twitter bird]

Follow the story

As editor of the Daily Beast in 2011 when the Gilgo Beach murders were first crossing the headlines, I assigned a now-haunting piece by Christine Pelisek about the disregarded victims. It is startling to see how so many clues were nailed in her reporting but missed by an incompetent police inquiry. One of the missing escorts’ pimps, Terry, told Pelisek that the cops had asked him “about the john on Long Island”. They asked if he could pick out the house. “I said if they come to get me I would go. They didn’t come.”

It is more evidence of the neglect by police of crimes against sex workers. And it’s a chastening reminder that while the Hamptons are transfixed by the news, there’s a nearby community where the hearts of the bereaved are being ripped open all over again.

The billionaire backlash

One thing’s for sure, the current writers’ and actors’ strikes in the US will make sure the Gilgo story will not become a blockbuster series any time soon. What’s different and epic about this union action is that solidarity with the strikers, demanding better pay and protections against AI, is as strong in media and publishing as it is in entertainment. In late July Penguin Random House laid off or bought out a raft of its most respected editors, and ranks of serious reporters have been extinguished from local news outlets.

Journalism now realises it was asleep at the switch in the early 2000s when Facebook et al moved in and decimated its business model. How naive it was to be fobbed off with empty-calorie traffic spikes that never yielded enough from advertisers, and instead enriched the tech platforms on the backs of writers, editors and photographers.

Not this time! Fran Drescher, star of the 1990s CBS sitcom The Nanny, has become, as president of the SAG-AFTRA union, La Pasionaria saying Basta! on behalf of not just the entertainment world but the entire cratering media business. Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney who earned $45.9m in 2021, found his usual hagiography turning to a hail of rotten eggs in the coverage after he pronounced at the recent Sun Valley billionaires’ conference that writers and actors were not being “realistic”. Aux Barricades! Say NO to any attempts to use AI to write the story of the Gilgo Beach murders!

[See also: The elephant under the table]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special