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Our Fascination With the Serial Killer Next Door

7 minute read
Michallon is the author of The Quiet Tenant and a journalist at The Independent, where her essays and features have covered true-crime, celebrity culture, and literature.

Rex Heuermann, the man arrested and charged with three Long Island murders that had gone unsolved for 13 years, is a familiar figure. He is a 59-year-old man who worked as an architect in New York City. In a professional photo that now appears to have been removed from his firm’s website, but which has appeared in plenty of news articles, he is a white, middle-aged man in a suit and tie, hands crossed in an understated display of professionalism. According to early media reports, he is married and has two children. If convicted of the charges against him, Heuermann—who has pleaded not guilty—will also be accurately described as a serial killer.

Statistically, this is a rare story; serial murderers do not commit the vast majority of violent crimes in the U.S. According to a 2005 FBI symposium on serial murder, serial killers accounted for “less than one percent of all murders committed in any given year,” and the number of active serial killers is estimated to have decreased since. But it is also a familiar story. It’s the same story we’ve seen unfold since Ted Bundy was first arrested in 1975, when the nice law student who had made early forays into politics and built a multi-year relationship with his live-in partner Elizabeth Kloepfer turned out to have murdered at least 30 women and girls across seven states.

It’s the same story we revisited when Joseph DeAngelo, a veteran, former police officer, and retired truck mechanic, was arrested and revealed to have been the Golden State Killer, who in 2020 admitted to murdering 13 victims and raping 50 between the 1970s and 80s. DeAngelo had a family, too. After his arrest, his eldest daughter told the court in a letter: “I could never tell you all the things my father did for me … there are far too many. He made my bed, my daughter’s bed, cleaned, cooked, and did [our] laundry up until the day of his arrest at age 72. He is the best father I could have had.”

It happened again, when, in 2012, police officers in Lufkin, Texas, pulled over a man called Israel Keyes, who was wanted in connection with the recent disappearance of 18-year-old barista Samantha Koenig in Anchorage, Alaska, where Keyes resided. Within days, the FBI got involved: Keyes, it turned out, had murdered Koenig and multiple other people throughout his life, including a couple whose disappearance the previous year from Vermont had stumped investigators.

There is a chasm in the way we think of serial killers and many violent criminals: we like to describe them as inhuman monsters, almost a separate species, cunning and unfeeling and incapable of accessing the same emotions the rest of us do. And that may be true for many. Yet, we’re never as fascinated as when they have lived a double life, one side of which looked a lot like ours. Bundy, DeAngelo, Keyes, and others are oddly suited canvases on which to project our ideas of normality—and what it looks like when that concept of normality is utterly betrayed.

I say “project” because DeAngelo et al only adhered to this normative ideal to a degree. After Keyes was arrested, a coworker told the true-crime channel Oxygen that he’d been just a regular guy, “a loving dad, a doting father” who would “come in to work and brag about” his child. But listen, for example, to the True Crime Bullsh** podcast, and you’ll encounter moments when Keyes did or said some off-color thing—innocuous enough to write off prior to his arrest, but that much more sinister in hindsight. After Heuermann’s arrest, a neighbor told CBS News: “We’ve been here for about 30 years, and the guy’s been quiet, never really bothers anybody. We were kind of shocked, to tell you the truth.” Yet, another neighbor told The New York Times he “wasn’t surprised at all—because of all the creepiness.” His house, according to the newspaper, was not a popular stop on the trick-or-treating route on Halloween.

Despite those insights, Heuermann has overwhelmingly been perceived as—in the words of his former high school classmate actor Billy Baldwin—an “average guy… quiet, family man.” Perhaps that is because the familiar elements of Heuermann’s life (the house in Massapequa Park, the family) stand out so starkly against the allegations he is now facing. Beyond that, stories like those prompt us to reflect on the limits of humanity. The monster next door is not a monster—he is, as difficult as it might be to wrap our brains around the idea, a person like us. We look to those markers of normality and see shades of ourselves in them.

It is almost impossible to hold in our brains the idea of Keyes, the regular coworker who would come into work and talk about his kid, and that of a person who would kill multiple people. (The exact number of Keyes’s victims is unknown; three have been confirmed, and authorities have linked him to eight to 11 murders in total). It is a similarly maddening mental exercise to reconcile the idea of Heuermann, a familiar neighbor, and that of the infamous string of crimes he now stands accused of.

This is something I came up against when working on my novel The Quiet Tenant, the story of a seemingly perfect man who is a serial killer, told through three female voices: a captive victim, his teenage daughter, and a love interest who doesn’t know about his crimes. The killer in my story, much like the serial killers of our real lives, is the guy next door, but he also displays a kind of cruelty that eludes most of us. He isn’t a flamboyantly imagined killer like Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter in his—truly excellent—The Silence of the Lambs. He is the guy next door, and he murders women. I couldn’t make sense of the Bundys of the world, the DeAngelos, the Keyeses. The book was an attempt to capture that entire picture in my mind. For the book to be successful, I had to think of serial killers in all the ways they inhabit the world: the lives they take, the loved ones they dupe, the jobs they hold, and the reputations they acquire.

Because the monster next door is a neighbor, so are his victims. In Rex Heuermann’s case, those alleged victims are Megan Waterman, Melissa Barthelemy, and Amber Costello. Heuermann is considered a prime suspect in the death of a fourth woman, Maureen Brainard-Barnes. Together, Waterman, Barthelemy, Costello, and Brainard-Barnes are known as the Gilgo Four. Barthelemy and Costello, like their alleged killer, were from New York State; Waterman had traveled from Maine.

If a killer is the man next door, then the people he is killing are the friends next door, the mothers next door, the daughters next door. Of course, I can’t help but think of Rex Heuermann, and try to make sense of the “life of chaos and control” (as one New York Times headline put it) he seems to have lived. But in my heart, I hold the Gilgo Four.

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