In December 2010, law enforcement found four bodies along a scrub-covered stretch of highway on the south coast of Long Island. The following spring, six more sets of human remains were found in the same area. Six of the victims have been identified as young women who were sex workers. Four, including a toddler and a person with male anatomy remain unidentified. In late 2011, authorities announced they were looking for one murderer responsible for all of the deaths. A decade later, the mystery, which became known as the Long Island serial killer case, remains unsolved.
A new podcast looks at why. Hosted by crime podcast veterans Billy Jensen (The Murder Squad) and Alexis Linkletter (The First Degree), Unraveled: Long Island Serial Killer — and its accompanying TV special premiering March 9th on Discovery+ — examines how corruption in the Suffolk County Police Department may have stymied the investigation of one of the biggest homicide cases in Long Island history and questions what police were trying to hide.
The series centers on the scandal-ridden former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke, who infamously kicked the FBI off the case soon after he stepped into the position in 2012. Linkletter and Jensen interview people who knew Burke, including former cops who worked with him and a sex worker who says she had a disturbing encounter with him. (The hosts reached out to Burke’s lawyer, and their request for an interview was denied. They also knocked on the door of Burke’s last known address, but were told he no longer lived there.)
In Episode One, listeners hear from Christopher Loeb, a childhood friend of Linkletter’s, who tells the full story of his encounter with Burke for the first time. The same year Burke became police chief, Loeb, who was then using heroin, was arrested for stealing a duffel bag from Burke’s car. The bag, Loeb said, contained sex toys and pornography, and what he claims appeared to be a snuff film. (Rolling Stone reached out to Burke’s lawyer but did not immediately hear back.) After the theft, Loeb was quickly apprehended and taken in. While Loeb was in custody and shackled to the floor of an interrogation room, Burke violently beat and threatened him. “When Chris started calling me back in 2013, his story was pretty out there, even just the broad strokes of his claims that he was beaten by the chief of police,” Linkletter says. “But over time, he became more and more credible because his case ultimately went in front of a federal judge and Burke pled guilty.” In 2016 Burke was sentenced to 46 months in prison for violating Loeb’s civil rights and for pressuring police witnesses to help him cover up the assault. Loeb got a three-year sentence for the theft of the duffel bag.
The series also probes Burke’s close ties with former District Attorney Thomas Spota, who was convicted in 2019 for participating in the coverup of the Loeb assault. Linkletter says Loeb was afraid to speak out earlier because he feared retribution. “As soon as Burke went down and now that Spota, the D.A., is awaiting sentencing, a lot of people have become a lot more emboldened to speak their truth about what they experienced under that law enforcement regime,” she says. “I think he feels free to share details he was at first too afraid to say.”
The hosts hope the podcast puts heat on Suffolk County law enforcement to make progress on the decade-old case. They also want listeners to better understand the damage corrupt leadership can wreak in situations like this. “The project is really a study of power,” Linkletter says. “Political partnerships and allyships that are formed go beyond budgets and votes and elections. It’s a tangible demonstration of what corruption can do. Lives are lost, cases aren’t solved. The Suffolk County Police Department is a microcosm for what goes on larger scales.”
What does this case mean to you both as people who grew up on Long Island?
Linkletter: The Long Island serial killer case really does loom over Long Island. It’s a tarnishing that needs to be fixed. For me, the importance of it is kind of layered because I mean, I went to high school with Chris Loeb, and I had no idea there were any issues with corruption, especially police corruption, when I was growing up there. I really thought it was this idyllic, beautiful place. It’s important to expose the corruption of past police regimes and help explain why this case hasn’t been solved.
Jensen: Having grown up on Long Island and starting my career on Long Island as a true crime journalist, I was working on this case even before it was the Long Island serial killer case. I was working on the story of the woman whose torso was found in Hempstead Lake State Park, recreating her tattoo, trying to see if anybody could identify her.
Tell me more about coming at this case from the angle of corruption in the Suffolk County Police Department. Why was that approach important now?
Linkletter: I actually didn’t start by digging into the Long Island serial killer case; I set out really just to tell Chris’s story. But as soon as I pulled on that thread and realized who was responsible for Chris’s beating, it just sort of led us there.
Jensen: As Alexis was uncovering more and more of this information, my jaw was dropping. I had never seen anything like this before. You know, the chief of police is engaging in nefarious activities and kicking the FBI — the most sophisticated crime solving unit in the history of the world — out of the investigation of the Long Island serial killer case. Why is he doing that? And the police are being so tight-lipped with so much of the information. They’ve held back so much. Why were they holding it back in the beginning? Why are they holding it back now? We felt that the victims’ families and the public at large needs to know why this case hasn’t been solved, and it’s because the people that were initially in charge of the investigation were setting up a lot of roadblocks.
So what did you find when you started digging around? And how did people connected to the police department react when you started asking questions?
Jensen: The people that would go on the record talked about how, if you got on Burke’s bad side or if he saw you as a threat, he’d come down on you. He was running Suffolk County Police Department like he was the prince of Suffolk County. If you ever wanted to have a place where you would be able to set up a little fiefdom, it would be in Suffolk County because it’s rich, it’s the 11th biggest police department in the country, and Long Island is a dead end. You don’t drive through Suffolk County to go someplace else. So if you kick out the feds, it’s not like a fed is going to come wandering in there unless they’re really called in there. I just can’t help but think about the cases that didn’t get solved underneath him, on top of the serial killer case, because he didn’t want anybody poking around into his business.
Linkletter: We also talked to several people who talked about Burke’s sexual proclivities, and almost every time, with him, sex intertwined with violence. We heard he broke a sex worker’s arm, we heard he strangled a stripper in a club. Every time we learned of a sexual encounter, there was violence involved. Take that for what it is. But if you have this man in charge of a police department, it’s just a recipe for total chaos as far as enforcing the law is concerned, because, like Billy said, his whole reason for kicking the feds out was so he could protect his wrongdoings, and whether that’s as extreme as murder or just roughing up sex workers, it plays into why the case hasn’t been solved.
Jensen: If the chief of police treats a lot of women the way that he does, how are we supposed to think that he cares at all about solving this case? And he didn’t.
Do you think there’s a bigger role that citizen detectives could be playing in this case?
Jensen: I think with this case, citizen detectives are really only going to be as good as the information that is delivered. So, you know, having not released anything other than some jewelry, a belt — and they haven’t even released the whole belt. You know, if they would have released that belt right after it happened or even the six months after it happened, after it was discovered [rather than in 2020], you would have had people trying to find who might have made belts like that at the time. The further you get away from it, the harder and harder it is. There’s a lot of different things there that citizen detectives could do crowdsourcing on. They just don’t have the information because the police haven’t released it.
How do you see this case being solved?
Jensen: From talking to them, I don’t think they’re close. I think it’s going to be solved with utilizing the public and putting those details out there. Like, we know that [at least six of the victims] were all petite women that were sex workers, and all went missing during summer months. And if law enforcement would have been really clear about the days those people went missing and put that out there on the front page of the paper — who was acting weird on those days? It’s those kinds of things that you have to have to really jog people’s memories. There’s still a chance that somebody might remember it. We are behind the eight ball, being 10 years out, but this is definitely a solvable case. There’s enough there.
Linkletter: I do think geography plays a role, too. The bodies were found in such specific locations. We were told when we were conducting the interviews, District Attorney Tim Sini is leaning pretty heavily on the cell phone data dumps that they’re doing, and they’re using this new technology to analyze various cell phone data from the area. I guess it’s software that is going through all of that and looking for patterns that could help point to somebody.
What are you hoping that the podcast and TV special will achieve?
Linkletter: I just think accountability. To hold Suffolk County Police Department’s feet to the fire about why they’re not releasing evidence 10 years later. Time is running out to solve this case. This corruption has been going on since the 1970s, there have been several internal reports that have been made public. I love Long Island. I love Suffolk County. And my hope is this will give them a new trajectory to try to step up, be accountable, and just do better for the community.
Jensen: Also just explaining to listeners that the police don’t always have the victims’ best interests at heart. The murders of sex workers have always been shuffled to the back of the pile. And if it wasn’t for podcasts like this and for people making movies about it, keeping this story in the mainstream, I don’t think they would put the resources behind it. I really don’t. So you have to keep their feet to the fire. You just have to.