After Rex Heuermann was arrested in July and accused of slaughtering women found bound in burlap and buried along a desolate stretch of Gilgo Beach, his family was left reeling and destitute.
With their dilapidated Massapequa Park ranch house turned inside out by investigators, Mr. Heuermann’s wife, Asa Ellerup, and their two grown children were left to sleep on mats and cook on a grill in the front yard in full view of news crews and true-crime gawkers. Things got so bad that the daughter of a West Coast serial killer created an online fund-raiser.
But where some saw evil, depravity and tragedy, media companies saw pay dirt, swooping in with lucrative bids to turn the whole thing into content.
Peacock, the streaming service owned by NBCUniversal, is paying the family to participate in a documentary series covering the family through Mr. Heuermann’s trial, which is likely to begin next year.
The intense bidding for Ms. Ellerup’s story and the payment caused an outcry from relatives of women whose remains were found in the Gilgo Beach area, including those of Shannan Gilbert, whose disappearance several miles from Gilgo in 2010 led to the recovery of the other victims.
“Disappointed, disgusted, flabbergasted, frustrated are a few words that come to mind right now,” her sister Sherre Gilbert wrote in a social media post. “The way that the media will buy stories to further re-victimize, re-traumatize, and exploit the families & victims of serial killers is evil!”
Peacock officials declined to comment on the planned documentary or disclose how much they were paying Ms. Ellerup. As long as none of the money flows to Mr. Heuermann, the arrangement would skirt New York laws that prohibit defendants from selling their stories to the media.
As Ms. Ellerup’s financial fortunes have lifted, so has her profile. Recent weeks have seen her visiting Mr. Heuermann in jail for the first time and making her debut appearance at a court hearing with a Peacock film crew in tow, as it has been at her home. Ms. Ellerup herself appears more composed than the figure she cut upon returning to the house that overnight had become a notorious landmark.
Prosecutors say Mr. Heuermann, 60, a Manhattan architect and suburban father, killed three women he hired as escorts and wrapped them in burlap for burial at Gilgo Beach on Long Island’s South Shore more than a dozen years ago. The grisly details shocked the public and reopened wounds for relatives of 11 people whose remains were found along the same stretch of oceanfront.
Ms. Ellerup, 59, had filed for divorce days after the arrest and distanced herself from Mr. Heuermann, avoiding his pretrial hearings and declining to visit him in jail.
She was not charged and investigators have said she was away on trips when the killings happened. Her lawyer, Robert Macedonio, said she knew nothing about the killings and that “the only thing she knows about the charges is what’s been reported by the media.”
“She wants to believe that the spouse she’s been married to for 27 years wasn’t capable of these crimes,” he said. “She wants to see and hear the evidence as it plays out in the courtroom.”
Many people do. In recent years, true crime has emerged as a booming category of entertainment that encompasses documentaries, scripted series and audio. The genre makes up 24 percent of the nation’s most popular podcasts, according to the Pew Research Center.
Serial killers constitute a popular subgenre of their own. The Gilgo Beach case alone has already inspired numerous television shows. “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” a scripted series, surpassed a billion hours in viewing time and became one of the most watched series on Netflix last year. With a ravenous market to satisfy, huge payouts for exclusive interview deals have become common.
“It’s driven by demand,” said Ed Hersh, a former television executive and current industry consultant on true crime programming. “Streaming is all about building buzz and keeping subscribers paying from one month to the next,” he added, “and since viewers are always looking for some details that move this story forward, a service like Peacock can potentially really promote this.”
While the Peacock deal helps Ms. Ellerup’s finances, it poses some complications.
The commercialization of such a depraved case, combined with Ms. Ellerup’s payday and her decision to tempt legal fate by going on camera before the trial, has rankled victims’ families and law enforcement officials.
Rodney Harrison, Suffolk County’s outgoing police commissioner — who upon Mr. Heuermann’s arrest called him “a demon that walks among us” — said in an interview that the deal was “a smack at the family members who lost a loved one.”
Prosecutors say Mr. Heuermann went to lengths to hide his activity from both his wife and the authorities by using disposable burner phones to contact escorts and access brutal pornography.
He has pleaded not guilty and is being held without bail at a Suffolk County jail, with his next pretrial court date in February. His lawyer did not return a request for comment.
Prosecutors continue to seek more evidence and investigate him as the prime suspect in the death of a fourth woman and possibly others found buried in the Gilgo area and elsewhere.
Ms. Ellerup, who could be called to testify in his trial, could play a crucial role in the case.
Last month, the police said, detectives interviewed a woman who claimed to have met Mr. Heuermann and Ms. Ellerup while visiting their Massapequa Park house in 1996 for a sex party along with a woman named Karen Vergata, who was working as an escort and disappeared around that time. Ms. Vergata’s skull was found near Gilgo Beach in April 2011.
Investigators say that strands of Ms. Ellerup’s hair, perhaps transferred inadvertently from their home, helped link her husband to the bodies in his case.
The Suffolk County district attorney, Ray Tierney, said in an interview that Ms. Ellerup’s involvement with the documentary was “going to affect her credibility.”
“She’s trying to capitalize on her husband’s notoriety and make herself marketable,” he said. “But the truth isn’t always marketable and the money itself could be a motivation to lie.”
For Ms. Ellerup to speak about Mr. Heuermann to a film crew carries the inherent risk that “what she says can be used against her criminally,” said John Ray, a lawyer who represents relatives of Ms. Gilbert and of Jessica Taylor, whose remains were found in the Gilgo area.
“They are all walking on extremely thin legal ice,” said Mr. Ray, who called it implausible that Ms. Ellerup knew nothing about her husband’s deeds and said that she “should be considered a suspect and investigated accordingly.”
“She’s still within the circle of suspicion in this case, and so are the children,” he said. “Anything she says is very dangerous.”
Mr. Ray said the deal was a crass commercialization of a case in which coverage has fixated on the accused man and largely ignored the humanity of the victims, partly because they were working as escorts.
Ms. Ellerup’s personality seems ripe for the camera. Like Mr. Heuermann, she grew up mostly in Massapequa Park, a working-class suburb, and can hold her own against pushy reporters and other interlopers. When she returned home two weeks after her husband’s arrest, she greeted photographers with a lewd gesture and then settled into bantering from afar with reporters but ignoring substantive questions.
The size of Ms. Ellerup’s payment for participating is unconfirmed. The NewsNation network reported that she would receive $1 million. It said Mr. Macedonio was getting $400,000 and a lawyer for the children, Vess Mitev, was getting $200,000. Neither would comment on the amounts.
Mr. Macedonio said the Peacock project would be developed partly by the rapper 50 Cent’s production company, G-Unit, but declined to speak further about the deal.
Ultimately, Mr. Tierney said, the Peacock series would most likely be irrelevant to the case, partly because it was unlikely that Ms. Ellerup knew, or at least would divulge to cameras, culpable information about Mr. Heuermann.
“The decision will be made by the jury based on the facts of the case as presented in court, not on a documentary,” he said.