Authorities have finally identified the Gilgo Beach murder victim previously known as “Jane Doe No. 7” as Karen Vergata, a sex worker who was 34 when she vanished on Long Island in New York in 1996.
Vergata’s remains, consisting of just legs and feet, were found that same year on the bayside shore of Fire Island, with investigators later using DNA technology to link the remains to a skull found in 2011 nearly 30 miles away at Tobay Beach.
Last August, Gilgo Beach task force investigators were able to develop a DNA profile, Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney said at a press conference Friday. In September, the FBI performed a genetic genealogy review that positively identified Vergata using a buccal swab from a relative.
Two months later, Vergata’s father, Raymond, died at the age of 87. His obituary did not specify a cause of death.
Tierney said Vergata lived in Manhattan and is believed to have worked as an escort. He said no missing persons report was filed when she disappeared on Valentine’s Day in 1996.
In 1987, five years before his death, Raymond Vergata filed a petition in New York State Surrogate’s Court to have his daughter legally declared dead in order to collect on a pair of life insurance policies in her name. It said Vergata had been living on West 45th Street, in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, and that she had last spoken to her dad on Valentine’s Day 1996, also his birthday. He had enlisted the help of a private investigator, been in touch with police, and spoke with those who knew Karen, all to no avail, according to the petition. In short, it stated bluntly, “Her absence cannot be satisfactorily explained.”
A high school classmate of Vergata’s told The Daily Beast she was stunned on Friday by the news that “Fire Island Jane Doe” was her long-lost friend.
“Karen was a fabulous young woman with issues that arose during high school and manifested after graduation,” said the classmate, who asked not to be identified publicly. “I’m numb at the moment.”
Kerry Breen, Vergata’s stepbrother, declined to comment in a brief phone call on Friday with The Daily Beast. Her biological brother, Victor, did not respond to interview requests. Reached by phone on Friday afternoon, Vergata’s stepmom, Virginia, hung up immediately. However, she told a local reporter that she had not been informed Vergata would be identified by authorities at Friday’s press conference, and that she was deeply upset about it.
In an interview with the New York Post, Vergata’s stepsister said the family hadn’t heard from her in 20 years and “just assumed” she was dead.
“We wondered what happened to her,” Brenda Breen said. “But she had a habit of just not being in contact.”
Breen said she was already grown and living on her own in 1983 when her mom married Vergata’s dad, so she didn’t know her stepsister all that well. Dominic Vergata didn’t talk much about his missing daughter, but Breen recalled him once giving a DNA sample during his failed bid to track her down.
“I’m glad that she’s found, at least most of her,” Breen said.
Police have not charged anyone in relation to Vergata’s death and declined to speak about potential suspects.
A total of 11 bodies have been found in the Gilgo Beach investigations. Among them is the still-unidentified “Jane Doe No. 3,” commonly referred to as “Peaches” because of her distinctive tattoo, whose remains were found on the same day as Vergata’s.
New York City architect Rex Heuermann was arrested last month and charged in three of the four murders often referred to as the “Gilgo Four.” He is the prime suspect in the fourth. The four—Melissa Barthelemy, Amber Costello, Megan Waterman and Maureen Brainard-Barnes—were all sex workers whose bodies were discovered strangled and wrapped in burlap in the Gilgo Beach area in 2010.
Prosecutors say Heuermann used burner phones and email accounts to regularly meet up with sex workers, and to “compulsively” search the internet for photos of his victims as well as updates on the Gilgo Beach investigations, and sadistic and underage pornography.
He lived a “very, very bizarre” double life, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison told News 12 recently. “Two types of lives where he was a family man, architect, but when his wife would go out of town, some of the things that he participated in was very, very dangerous for our community.”
Heuermann’s wife, who is not implicated in the crimes and has since filed for divorce, was away when the three murders occurred. Nevertheless, prosecutors say her hair was found on three victims, presumably left behind by her husband. Another hair found on one victim was allegedly matched to Heuermann’s DNA when cops tested a pizza crust he tossed in the trash.
Tierney told Long Island outlet Newsday in a recent interview that a belt with the initials “WH” or “HM” was one of three used to tie Brainard-Barnes’ feet, ankles, and legs together.
—with additional reporting by Dan Ladden-Hall