Pine Barrens where Robert Durst allegedly buried his wife is one of 'the most haunted places in US'

The Barrens became notorious as the dumping ground for mobsters looking to get rid of bodies of their victims


                            Pine Barrens where Robert Durst allegedly buried his wife is one of 'the most haunted places in US'
New York real estate scion Robert Durst (Getty Images)

Prosecutors at Robert Durst's latest murder trial alleged how he buried his wife, ­Kathie, in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, “Sopranos”-style.

The real-estate heir from Manhattan is on trial in Los Angeles for the 2000 murder of Susan Berman, his best friend, whose body was found at her residence with a gunshot wound to the back of the head. Deputy District Attorney John Lewin stunned jurors on Wednesday as he began his opening arguments. He gave them not only the police photos of Berman's body, but also furnished some clues as to what happened to Kathie's body that was never found.

Real Estate Heir Robert Durst appears in the Airport Branch of the Los Angeles County Superior Court during a preliminary hearing on December 21, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)

Lewin told jurors he would offer phone records and other supporting evidence to show Durst buried her in the Pine Barrens after she vanished in January 1982.

“For any of you who’ve ever watched ‘The Sopranos,’ the Pine Barrens were famous . . . the soil at the Pine Barrens is sand,” he said. “It doesn’t freeze, so if you kill somebody in the middle of winter, you need to have sand you can dig into. This is a notorious Mafia burial ground."

But what's so notorious about Pine Barrens? Let's find out. Southern New Jersey was washed by ocean waves millions of years ago, and the sand they deposited played an instrumental role in shaping the culture of the 18th and 19th centuries. Now, the inland shore is marked by remains of human industry, especially those that carry myths and legends of the past -- so much that the area has come to be known as one of "the most haunted places in America."

Originally inhabited by the indigenous people of the Lenni Lenape tribe, the Pine Barrens were later invaded by Dutch and Swedish colonizers to use the plentiful cedar and oakwood trees for shipbuilding purposes. The area also became instrumental in producing ammunition after the first iron furnace opened during the War of 1812 and the American Revolution.

Map of the New Jersey Pinelands. (Wikimedia Commons)

Fast forward to the 1960s, the Barrens became notorious as the dumping ground for mobsters looking to get rid of bodies of their victims. On March 25, 1967, the front-page headline in the Asbury Park Press read, "Victims Dumped In Ocean Woods".

The article delved into the history of Ocean County, noting that "Since 1962, one body a year has been found deep in the woods in sparsely settled areas." The same day the Press published that article, renowned FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called in a news conference in Washington to announce the results of a two-year probe into mob activities in New York and New Jersey, branding the Barrens as a “Cosa Nostra cemetery."

On February 5, 1973, the New York Times published an article titled "Mob Favors Pinelands for Burials," reporting how FBI agents were not surprised to find the body of mob associate Emanuel Gambino in Colts Neck Township. Emanuel was the nephew of reputed mafia boss Carlo Gambino, and his grave was just a few miles north of the Jersey Pinelands, which the paper called a "favorite mob burial ground."

One policeman at the scene even speculated how the killers "must have gotten lost" after finding the body in Ocean County, where the pinelands start. “They stopped too soon," he observed.

A dense "Atlantic White Cedar swamp" in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. (Wikimedia Commons)

Having said that, Pine Barrens became the go-to dumping ground for not only gangsters, but killers of all stripes from the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. Many of them were lured by the miles of uninhabited woodland and therefore chose the area to dispose of the bodies of their victims.

The notoriety of Pine Barrens is well-positioned in pop culture. In the 37th episode of critically-acclaimed mob drama 'The Sopranos', Paulie and Christopher get lost in the Barrens after attempting to bury Russian mobster Valery in the area, and Tony is forced to rescue them. 

Almost half of the close to 50 murder cases in Ocean County (reported since 1966) connect the Pine Barrens to victims, their killers, or both from out of town. But only 10 of those cases are listed as unsolved -- with seven of them involving the pinelands, and three of those linked to the underworld. The most talked-about case in the region occurred in 1967, when the late Hoover announced that a Cosa Nostra burial farm had been found in the rural Jackson township.

Buried under a former chicken coop in the backyard of a farmhouse, federal agents found the body of a man later identified as Angelo Sonnessa, a well-known Mafioso of New York. Nearby, they found the remains of another man in a 55-gallon oil drum filled with hydrochloric acid. And while he was never positively identified, the discovery prompted state police to help the agents search the farm for weeks, uncovering several bodies that were previously deemed missing in the process.

Vitali Baganov, Michael Imperioli, and Tony Sirico in The Sopranos (1999) (IMDb)

The search purportedly helped authorities connect the dots all the way to the first of the string of Pineland bodies, namely Anthony Scanella Jr., an armed robbery suspect from Trenton who had agreed to testify against his suspected accomplice David Guy Baldwin in 1964.

Baldwin was subsequently tied to the crime and convicted of murder. Three months after agents found Sonnessa's body, Brick Mayor-elect John McGuckin was in the midst of planning his new administration when he claimed to have received a threatening phone call from a member of "the family."

The caller, who was never publicly identified, told the mayor there would be "trouble" if he was thinking about making any new appointments to the Planning Board. Two days later, McGuckin told the Asbury Park Press that "the family" probably meant the Cosa Nostra, before revealing how the caller said they had “plenty of money invested in Brick Township” and that the current Planning Board was favorable to their interests.

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