The Dirty Cop and the Hunt for the Long Island Serial Killer of Prostitutes
The Discovery+ documentary “Unraveled” examines the Long Island serial killer who preyed on prostitutes in the 2010s, and the corrupt police chief who torpedoed the investigation.
The Long Island serial killer case has now confounded the Suffolk County Police Department for more than a decade, and it’s disappointing—if not altogether surprising—that Unraveled: The Long Island Serial Killer doesn’t definitively answer who committed the slayings in the ritzy gated community of Oak Bech, Long Island. Nonetheless, as a documentary companion piece to Billy Jensen (I’ll Be Gone in the Dark) and Alexis Linkletter’s seven-part true crime podcast of the same name, the new two-hour Discovery+ special (premiering March 9) does forward a good deal of intriguing speculation about one possible suspect, who’s all the more notable for being the area’s former chief of police.
Unraveled’s story begins on May 1, 2010, when 23-year-old sex worker Shannan Gilbert was hired via Craigslist to spend time at the private Oak Beach residence of Joseph Brewer, only to flee the house and call 911, claiming someone was trying to kill her—before disappearing. Brewer and Gilbert’s driver Michael Pak were cleared of any wrongdoing, and police initiated a comprehensive search of the wealthy enclave, which in December 2010 resulted in the discovery of four bodies alongside Ocean Parkway near Gilgo Beach. In March and April of 2011, the remains of six additional women were found, and in December 2011, Gilbert was also located a short distance away. Though law enforcement couldn’t quite decide whether they were after a single perpetrator or multiple fiends—or whether Gilbert had fallen prey to the individual who’d murdered the others—it was clear to most that a serial killer was on the loose.
Unlike Lost Girls, Liz Garbus’ excellent 2020 Netflix drama (starring Amy Ryan), which pointed the finger at Oak Beach resident Dr. Peter Hackett—who suspiciously gave Gilbert medication on the night she vanished—Unraveled fixates its gaze on Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke. According to various pieces of evidence unearthed and/or highlighted by Jensen and Linkletter, Burke was a disreputable character from the moment he joined the force.
In the early days of his career, he was caught having a sexual relationship with a prostitute who wound up in possession of his service revolver, and he was well-known to have a penchant not only for frequenting sex workers but for indulging in drugs. Nonetheless, his bad behavior did nothing to derail his upward trajectory in the department, thanks in part to his close relationship with crooked District Attorney Thomas Spota, in whose office he worked before being promoted to chief of police.
Unraveled interviews a number of Burke associates both on camera and over the phone, some of them choosing to have their faces obscured and voices altered to hide their identities for fear of reprisal. The brutally unflattering portrait they paint is of a man who liked transactional sex, treated women like dirt, had a voracious appetite for narcotics, and thought himself an untouchable king who could do and say as he pleased. One speaker recalls Burke laughing while officers watched an actual snuff film (for work purposes), and another woman recounts fooling around with Burke at an Oak Beach sex party (a couple of miles from where some of the victims were discovered!), only to have the encounter end with him throwing cash at her and belittling her with epithets. As legislator and former cop Rob Trotta puts it, “He was a psychopath.”
Journalist Jesse Kornbluth is even blunter, deeming Burke “an uncivilized animal.”
The ace up Unraveled’s sleeve is the participation of Linkletter’s childhood friend Christopher Loeb, who appears on camera to discuss the incident that brought Burke down—and further enhanced his status as a prime suspect. On Dec. 23, 2012, Loeb sought to fund his heroin addiction by breaking into Burke’s car to steal the confiscated drugs that the chief always left unattended in his vehicle. He was successful in this endeavor, but in a duffel bag also taken from the car, Loeb says he found various sex toys and a DVD of a bound-and-gagged woman being tortured. Loeb was soon in custody, chained to a floor where he claims he was beaten and mocked by Burke and his cronies. He was up that infamously pungent creek without a paddle, except that in a fortuitous turn of events, his subsequent claims against Burke were corroborated by other officers, eventually leading to Burke’s ouster, conviction, and imprisonment.
Burke and Spota tried to cover up this scandal, thus earning the DA his own federal indictment. Worse, their misconduct came at the end of a Burke tenure that saw him stymie any FBI attempts to aid the serial killer investigation. Unraveled and many of its interviewees surmise that Burke did this because he was the killer or, more likely, he had close ties to the rich and powerful Oak Beach folks who were responsible. It’s a theory of conspiracy, and while there isn’t any conclusive proof that Burke is guilty, there’s quite a lot of smoke engulfing the disgraced law enforcement bigwig—including gangster-style threats, as Jensen is told by Burke’s lawyer during a routine request for an interview, “Be careful what you do.”
Unraveled’s suppositions about Burke aren’t totally convincing—as Lost Girls confirms, there are other intriguing people of interest—but they can’t be easily dismissed either. Jensen and Linkletter make a persuasive argument that Burke and his cohorts might have wanted to impede the investigation because they would have been implicated themselves. The duo’s desire for the police to release key pieces of evidence to the public don’t always seem warranted (since one can imagine reasons for certain items remaining under wraps). Nonetheless, their larger calls for transparency ring true, especially in light of the Suffolk County Police Department’s dodgy conduct from the start.
It’s too bad that Unraveled’s form is subpar; Jensen and Linkletter narrate the action as they would a podcast, their comments running over an unadventurous mix of archival material, on-the-scene footage, and unnecessary shots of them working in their Long Island office. Even if the proceedings’ style is functional at best, however, the journalists’ documentary special proves a valuable contribution to the ongoing quest to solve this notorious case, which 11 years on, still appears to be a long way from over.