Her body was found in a wooded area south of the Long Island Expressway in North Shirley, N.Y., about 17 miles east of where she had last been seen, entering a small blue car outside the Blue Dawn Diner in Islandia. She was Colleen McNamee, 20, and she had been strangled and brutally beaten.
Two months earlier, in November 1993, another young woman, Rita Tangredi, 31, who, like Ms. McNamee, was believed to have been a prostitute, had been killed nearby, her nude body posed the same way as Ms. McNamee’s.
Twenty years before sections of Long Island beachfront brush became a dumping ground for prostitutes’ bodies, these two unsolved murders staggered the victims’ family and friends, leaving a trail of devastation that friends say included the suicide of Ms. McNamee’s boyfriend.
Now, forensic work by the Suffolk County Police Department, combined with changes to DNA collection procedures, has brought some long-delayed relief to family and friends: John Bittrolff, 48, a carpenter and married father of two from nearby Manorville, was arrested last month on charges of murdering Ms. McNamee and Ms. Tangredi.
He is being held without bail after pleading not guilty last week. Investigators are also examining whether Mr. Bittrolff could have been involved in the death of a third woman on Long Island, 28-year-old Sandra Costilla, whose body was found in North Sea in November 1993.
“It was the miracle of DNA which allowed us to arrest him and then prosecute him,” Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota said.
At both murder scenes, the killer had left clues. The same item of clothing was missing from both areas, and their nude bodies were posed identically. Near the bodies were wood shavings. And both Ms. McNamee and Ms. Tangredi had been beaten so badly that brain tissue was exposed.
Mr. Bittrolff’s arrest, prosecutors say, could be traced to his brother Timothy’s conviction last year on criminal contempt charges for violating an order of protection.
Acting on a 2012 New York state law that allows law enforcement to take DNA samples from anyone convicted of a crime, authorities collected Timothy’s Bittrolff’s genetic material, which proved a partial match to the DNA in semen found on Ms. McNamee’s and Ms. Tangredi’s bodies.
Detectives began examining relatives of Timothy Bittrolff. They extracted DNA from a cigarette butt thrown out a window by a third Bittrolff brother, but the results did not match, Mr. Spota said. Then, when John Bittrolff was being questioned by authorities, he took a sip of water. Bits of saliva taken from the glass, Mr. Spota said, linked him to the decades-old murders.
Mr. Bittrolff’s lawyer, William Keahon, defended his client in court last week, saying “the indictment is proof of nothing.” Mr. Keaton added, “He’s kind, generous, the best neighbor you could have.”
The arrest briefly allayed the pain of people who had quietly mourned the two women for decades, even as residents became transfixed by a new string of murders of women, some of them prostitutes, in and around Gilgo Beach. (Mr. Spota has made clear that there is no known connection between the two sets of killings.)
For some, though, relief gave way to a familiar kind of heartache, as statements by prosecutors about the victims’ work as prostitutes dredged up memories of the way the women were overlooked at the time of their death.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for this case to break, and I’m just thankful now that it has,” said Lawrence McNamee, Colleen McNamee’s father. “But in its breaking, it’s opened up a lot of memories that took a long time to put aside.”
Before her death, Ms. McNamee had been receiving outpatient treatment for drug addiction in an effort to escape the fate that had claimed so many young people in her neighborhood, friends say. She was known as a bubbly peacemaker in Sachem High School on Long Island, dressing impeccably. She could be heard in hallways imploring friends in a squeaky voice to stop fighting or sleeping in class.
But Ms. McNamee fell into the wrong crowd, said a friend, Stacey Ann, 36, and her name was pulled through the muck by police and newspapers when her body was found in January 1994. Ms. Ann said her friend’s death was disregarded because of assumptions police made about her line of work.
“They labeled her as a prostitute,” Ms. Ann said. “They’re gone, both her and Rita. Stop calling her that.”
Rita Tangredi’s son, Anthony Tangredi, who told reporters after Mr. Bittrolff’s arraignment that he felt relieved, did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking additional comment.
Ms. McNamee’s friends gathered Sunday night with a few of Rita Tangredi’s relatives for a candlelight vigil to remember the two women on the windswept Smith Point Park in Mastic Beach.
On her way home from the vigil, Jenifer Kauff, 41, a friend of Ms. McNamee, had no choice but to drive by the exit off the William Floyd Parkway where her friend’s body had been found. She had avoided the site for the last 20 years.
“It felt like a scab being ripped off all the time,” Ms. Kauff said, “a wound that never completely healed for all of us.”United States - North America - New York