In the hierarchy of New York City contractors, especially among those who work on historic properties in Brooklyn costing many millions of dollars, Robert Taffera is one of the most sought after and exacting. A Taffera renovation — and the graphically appealing sign that goes up on a building’s facade — has become a preeminent status marker, something you want in part so you can say that you got it. Over the years, as it happened, Taffera’s work brought him into repeated contact with Rex Heuermann, the 59-year-old charged in the Gilgo Beach serial murders and hulk of an architect, whose practice included advising co-op boards on building issues.
In his dealings with him, Taffera consistently encountered an obstructionist, he told me recently, a wall of no. These exchanges were unsettling enough that when Taffera heard the latest news, he was dumbstruck, but briefly. “I thought, ‘OK,’” he said, “’I’m not shocked.’”
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He recalled a relatively simple bathroom renovation, in an exclusive building, for which Heuermann insisted on multiple unnecessary meetings on site. The plans were expertly laid out; everything was in line to proceed without incident. “The architect was great,” Taffera said. “The super was great.” But Heuermann blustered and nitpicked in a way that went “far above and beyond” the goal of maintaining a structurally sound building.
“It was a control issue,” he said. “It was ridiculous. If ‘sadistic’ is watching people go through hoops over and over without much reason, then it’s sadistic.”
In most days, Heuermann made the culturally cosmic leap from his home in Massapequa Park to his Manhattan office on Fifth Avenue, where he was able to leverage an idiosyncratic power over people who might spend more money renovating their kitchens than it would cost to buy the ranch he lived in, now in such obvious repair. It is a kind of distinct power to life in New York, where the challenges of modernizing prewar apartments require time, money and typically the approval of a board entrusted with ensuring that plans to install a steam room, for example, will not cause the building to collapse or flood the apartment downstairs.
In his role as a consultant, Heuermann was often the person brought in to make these kinds of determinations. Through his long relationship with a management company, AMS, he was well known within the insular universe of Brooklyn Heights co-ops, finding himself in the apartments of investment bankers and lawyers, entertainment people and real-estate developers.
Like so many professions, architecture can be punishingly stratified, and Heuermann, who by all accounts was extremely knowledgeable about the city’s labyrinthine building codes, did not fall on the visionary side of the spectrum. But as a journeyman who held bureaucratic authority, he could veto the plans of architects with degrees from Yale and projects in Nantucket, Massachusetts, who were retained by clients not accustomed to their ideas getting sidelined.
Last week a friend called to say that someone had been apprehended in the Gilgo Beach murders and that, however astonishingly, we both knew him. Heuermann had been in her apartment — deeply aggravating in the moment and intensely creepy in retrospect — and had been rude and dismissive when her architect called him out on a miscalculation he made. I also lived in a building that had used Heuermann and eventually severed the relationship, but it struck me that I could not remember anything about a person accused of such baroque violence, beyond my initial, shallow observation that he did not look like an architect.
A former board president, Kelly Parisi, who moved across the country several years ago, filled in the gaps about Heuermann’s time with the building when I reached out to her. During her own renovation, she said, workers discovered some rotting beams between her apartment and the one above, a problem that Heuermann said needed to be remedied with drawings for the replacements, which he would produce. This struck the team working on her project as a kind of cheap hustle, given that the new beams could be installed without the sketches that would simply cost the building more money.
“We were tired of this shell game of ‘now this, now this, now this,’” she said. Every time he worked on a project with a shareholder — he also took on issues involving the building as a whole — their architects and contractors complained, he said.
Heuermann’s weekdays were spent in a world that had few points of intersection with the place he came from, beyond regarding it with a disdainful fascination. Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, Long Island’s suburb of the South Shore became known for a succession of lurid and notorious crimes. If Connecticut was the “land of steady habits,” as the saying goes, of so much quiet, privileged dissatisfaction, Long Island was detonating with psychopathic resentment and rage.
It was during this period that the country met Amy Fisher, the 17-year-old who knocked on the door of her married lover’s house in Massapequa and shot his wife. In Valley Stream, a young body builder named Robert Golub mutilated and killed a middle-school girl. A few years later came the kidnapping of a 9-year-old who was kept in a basement dungeon in Bay Shore, by a contractor her family befriended. Joel Rifkin, a landscaper, murdered the first of his nine female victims in her house in East Meadow before dismembering her body, putting her head in a paint can and driving it to a golf course in New Jersey.
In an essay titled “The Devil in Long Island” that appeared in The New York Times Magazine 30 years ago, writer Ron Rosenbaum, a native son, tried to come up with a unified theory to explain all the madness and bloodshed. Playing on the notion of historian Arthur O. Lovejoy’s “Great Chain of Being,” he landed on the idea that “the South Shore of Long Island is a Great Chain of Wanna-Being, a series of communities linked together by longing to be something else, something more.”
How Heuermann became a person charged with murdering three young women and a prime suspect in a fourth case, of wrapping bodies in burlap and dumping them in brambles along the Atlantic Ocean, is not yet understood and may never be.
But if he has distinguished himself from this earlier generation of unhinged people living east of Brooklyn and west of Amagansett it is not only because he is a married father, who commuted to work in suits, but also because his expressions of deviance seem so perversely 21st century in their variance, in their capacity to operate on multiple tracks. Although hoarding firearms is not typically part of the serial-killer profile, Heuermann kept hundreds of guns in his tiny house, the police discovered after his arrest, as if he were waiting for the black helicopters to arrive.
Perhaps more tellingly, given his displays of imperiousness around the wealthy, he also filed at least four personal injury lawsuits against drivers in the past decade, collectively seeking about $20 million in damages. Last week the boyfriend of one of those accused told The New York Post that he believed Heuermann had “staged” the accident and exaggerated the extent to which he had been hurt when his girlfriend’s car “just tapped him” as he passed by.
A collector of semi-automatic weapons, accused in the grisly deaths of several young women, Heuermann also appeared to be running a more mundane con, trying to get his hands on the kind of money so many other people around him seemed to have. Maybe at some point, just getting one over on rich people wasn’t enough.
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