The Long Island Serial Killer
In May of 2010, escort Shannan Gilbert ran from a home in Long Island, claiming that her client and driver were trying to kill her. Seven months later, police - in an effort to track down Shannan - stumbled upon the bodies of other prostitutes, finding upwards of ten bodies. They have identified some, but struggled to answer the most difficult question: who killed all of these victims?
Part One: Shannan Gilbert
November 6th, 2016 Micheal Whelan
Oak Beach is a small gated community that exists as its own little oasis. It's just a speck along the Ocean Parkway, a thin, stretched-out four-lane highway that travels along the southern expanse of New York's Long Island.
For many, this is a vacation getaway among many. New Yorkers often flee to Long Island in the summer to take a break from their fast-paced, busy lives. But for some, Oak Beach is home.
Gus Coletti lives in Oak Beach, and he has for over thirty years. Gus is a former insurance fraud investigator, a man who made a living by locating inconsistencies - no matter how small. Now, at 75 years of age, Gus is retired and enjoying his retirement with a comfortable home here.
Gus busies himself with hobbies these days, mainly taking care of the 35 pigeons he houses on his property. He also has a few parrots, but that's neither here nor there.
This morning, Gus is up pretty early. He has a car show to see in Rhinebeck, a nearly-three hour drive away. It's somewhere between four and five AM when Gus, who is in the bathroom shaving, hears the first sounds of trouble.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
He hears the sound of someone's fist banging against his front door. This would alarm anyone at anytime of the day or night, but this early in the morning means that it's nothing good.
Alarmed and slightly-panicked, Gus approaches his front door with trepidation. He undoubtedly peers through a window to see who stands on the other side of the door: it's a young woman, short and thin, wearing a light-colored tank top.
Gus Coletti lets her inside, and she immediately begins to plead with him.
"Help me, help me," she demands, her own voice replacing his panic with fear. Gus urgently wants to help this young woman, who can't be a day over twenty-five years old, so he guides her to a nearby chair and calls 9-1-1 from his landline telephone.
"They're going to kill me," she screams.
As Gus urges this young woman to tell him what's wrong, she just stares at him. Her panicked pleas cease, and she bolts for the still-open door when he tells her that he's calling for emergency services.
While the phone dials, Gus is now helpless. Within a moment, this alarmed young woman has entered his life - demanding help - and is now running away from it, as if she was being chased.
Gus Coletti finishes his call to 9-1-1, informing them of what's happened. It is then that he steps outside, onto his second-story porch that the young woman just descended. He sees a black SUV traveling down the road, stopping-and-going as if it were searching for someone.
This is when Gus sees the young woman again. Now she is ducked under his boat, hiding from the SUV in a crouched position in his driveway. The black SUV is coming closer, obviously searching for the young woman, and as it does, Gus gets a closer look at the person behind the wheel: it's an Asian man, who is scanning the neighborhood.
The driver of the SUV slows as he approaches Gus Coletti's house, and asks out an open window if he's seen a young woman who left a house party. Gus tells the man that he called 9-1-1, and the driver's response sends chills down his spine. "You shouldn't have done that," he says. "She's going to get in a lot of trouble."
The young woman runs off into the dark, down the gated neighborhood called the Fairway. She passes by houses that have their lights off, and heads towards the dark intersection of Sandy Drive.
Barbara Brennan lives here, and the front of her house is known for a lighted vigil she has kept for about a decade now: in remembrance for her husband, lost in the September 11th attacks. The young woman begins pounding on Barbara's door, but isn't greeted by any response.
Barbara places two phone calls: one to the police at approximately 5:22 AM, and an immediate followup to her neighbor, Tom Canning.
Tom Canning, a big guy and retired landscaper, gets dressed and heads over to Barbara's house immediately with his dog, a large hunting breed.
But by that time, the young woman is gone. She would never be seen alive again, but her dramatic actions that night would begin to peel back the layers of a mystery decades in the making: a decade that has since gone on to define the area of Gilgo Beach.
Oak Beach, the setting of the story in the introduction, is just a section of the area known as Gilgo Beach. Connected to Jones Beach, the area makes up one of the long, thin islands on the southern tip of Long Island. Oak Beach is just the area closest to Oak Island, one of the many specks of land between Gilgo Beach and Long Island itself.
As I said, it's primarily a vacation spot for New Yorkers and other East Coasters during the summer. There are permanent residences, but by-and-large, it's an area that doesn't see a lot of traffic in the cold months of the year.
The area is known for its beautiful-looking beaches, but also for its haunted landscapes that truly come alive at night. The brambled bushes that cover the island give it a definitive look during the day, but hold unspeakable terrors during the night: terrors both imaginative and real. I really encourage you to look up pictures of the Gilgo Beach brush, if you haven't seen it already, just to get the picture in your mind of this unusual environment. It's a landscape that is equal parts dream and nightmare.
This entire strip of land is referred to as Jones Beach Island, which is itself technically a part of the Town of Babylon, New York. The land is leased to the residences there by the Town of Babylon, and is accessible by the Ocean Parkway, that four-lane road that runs through it. This strip of land is a part of Suffolk County, but is just a close as you can get to being on the outskirts as possible.
It is due to it being so far from the rest of Suffolk County that on the night in question, May 1st, 2010, it took police nearly an hour to get to Oak Beach. And they weren't just responding to Gus Coletti or Barbara Brennan's 9-1-1 calls; many more neighbors had been awoken by the screaming woman outside their house, who was pounding on doors and pleading for someone to help her.
Gus Coletti, that retiree that had been up early for a car show, waited at the gatehouse for over 45 minutes until the police showed up. But by then, the young woman, known as Shannan Gilbert, had disappeared forever.
Shannan Maria Gilbert was born on October 24th, 1986, in Ellenville, New York. She was the oldest of four sisters, and had a - for lack of a better term - tumultuous relationship with her mother, Mari Gilbert.
Shannan suffered some childhood abuse - both physical and emotional - and spent a fair amount of time in the foster care system from the age of seven.
As a teenager, Shannan began to dabble in drugs and alcohol, but maintained a pretty great grade point average. She had dreams of fame and fashion and becoming a singer/songwriter while also pursuing a career of being a writer. Her brains helped her graduate from New Paltz Central High School a year ahead-of-schedule, but the early graduation just gave Shannan a surge of independence.
Immediately following her high school graduation, Shannan died her trademark brown hair blonde, and in the next year or two, drastically changed her life. For a time she worked regular day jobs, including being a snack prepper for a senior center, a hostess for Applebees, and a front desk manager at a hotel. But it wasn't enough for Shannan, who was dreaming bigger.
She moved away from New York to New Jersey, and began to work for Lace Party Girls, a prostitution ring.
In 2007, Shannan fell into some trouble. She was nabbed as part of a sting against Lace Party Girls, and had to suffer through some legal woes. She was also arrested again at some point, for soliciting as a prostitute.
But through Lace Party Girls, she met Alex Diaz, who would become her boyfriend. Diaz was a driver for the company, and the two began to date.
Their relationship was good for a time, and money was becoming effortless for the pair. Both Diaz and Shannan's family recount how generous she was with her earnings, giving them money when needed and buying them lavish gifts of clothing, gadgets, and jewelry.
But when Lace Party Girls was shut down, the cash flow was cut off. Things began to get rocky between Shannan and Diaz, especially after Shannan had a couple of abortions to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and her occasional drug use had already transitioned to being a regular thing. She had begun doing drugs like cocaine and ecstasy with clients, but both of those joined alcohol into her normal repertoire and was beginning to become a problem.
Shannan moved in with Diaz to his father's home in Jersey City, and Shannan began looking to other agencies for work. Things continued to deteriorate between the two, and fights were becoming more common.
Alex Diaz recalls one fight that became physical. When Shannan returned home one night, intoxicated, a fight broke out, which ended with Diaz punching Shannon in the jaw. The hit required surgery on Shannan's part, and she needed to get a metal part inserted to help repair her fractured jaw.
It is also worth noting, at this point, that in her early adulthood, Shannan had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, while the means of that diagnosis remain unknown, it appears that her bipolar disorder had gone untreated. And the fact that she was a frequent drug user does nothing to help cure that mental disorder, but may have worked in conjecture to explain some of her dramatic mood swings.
By 2010, Shannan had begun working independently. She wasn't working for a prostitution agency any more, but was booking her own appointments through websites like Backpage and Craigslist. She worked with a driver - now known as Michael Pak - who would drive her to appointments and help provide a level of security. Shannan and Michael had met at her last agency, where he had also worked as a driver, and the two decided that they could make more money without the middleman of the agency.
Shannan had dreams of moving on from prostitution in the very near-future. She had begun taking online college courses in communications, and had even started going to singing auditions in Manhattan. She was trying to make her dreams come true.
On April 30th, 2010, Shannan and Alex Diaz went to a scary movie. They had snuck in Taco Bell food to the theater, Diaz recalled, but she was going to be working that night.
Hours later, She would leave their apartment, where they had moved just months beforehand, with a noticeable thud. And just like that, Alex Diaz would never see his girlfriend again.
Michael Pak, Shannan's driver, had been working with her for just a few months.
Michael Pak is somewhat of an anomaly in this story. He was a 41-year old Asian American from Queens, whose personal story is a complete mystery. The only thing really known about him is that he used to enjoy posting videos of his cats on Youtube, and that he started working with Shannan sometime in 2009.
To say that he was just a driver is a little bit of an understatement. These "drivers," as they're called, essentially work as pimps for the women they transport; they act as security, they do drive, they fetch items while the women are with clients, but they also collect a cut of the money made that night. It's not far-fetched to say that they collect up to half of the total money earned, if not more.
After going on the Taco Bell/movie date with Diaz, Shannan left with her driver, Michael. The two were taking the hour-and-a-half drive out to Oak Beach, to meet up with a client. She normally didn't travel that far for clients, but sometimes the money was just too good to pass up.
Joseph Brewer was a 47-year old bachelor that lived alone in his house on Oak Beach. He was an out-of-work financial adviser that had recently separated from his wife, and apparently had been enjoying himself a bit too much since.
Joseph Brewer was known to have a bit of an appetite for paid sex, at least according to one of his neighbors, who also said that his house had become a bit of a party pad since his wife had left. It wasn't unusual, then, that the SUV carrying Michael Pak and Shannan Gilbert arrived at around two o'clock that morning, in the wee hours of May 1st.
While Shannan went inside to meet with Brewer, her client, Michael Pak remained outside in the SUV.
Phone records show six short calls made between Shannan and Michael, along with a call to a nearby CVS, located in West Islip, at around 2:55 AM. Shannan wanted Michael to go pick up some lube and a deck of playing cards for her, but Michael said that he didn't know the area, so he wouldn't.
What happens over the next couple of hours is anyone's guess. But sometime that morning, something happened that would change the lives of all three individuals forever.
Sometime between 4:30 and 5:00 AM, Joseph Brewer tried to get Michael's attention.
Shannan was inside his house, and he wanted her to leave. Or so he says.
He had tried to grab Shannan from behind and force her out of his house, but had failed. So now he was summoning Michael, Shannan's driver, to come and do it for him.
Shannan had taken cover behind one of Brewer's couches, and had her cell phone in-hand. She had already dialed 9-1-1, and started to tell them ominous words: "they're trying to kill me."
Shannan's phone call was placed at 4:51 AM. Right at that time, she ran out of Brewer's house, away from both the client and Michael Pak, claiming that they - either Brewer, Pak, or someone else - were trying to kill her.
According to his own statement, Brewer went upstairs in his house and had nothing to do with Shannan beyond that incident. He would claim that the two never had sex, and that he hadn't even paid her for sex. In fact, he said that the reason for their sudden altercation, despite being in the same house for over two hours, was because he thought she was a man, and didn't want to have sex with her. It's a bit of a stretch, on his part.
With Brewer presumably still in his house, Michael Pak hopped into his SUV to try and track down Shannan. In his words, he thought that this was a trick on her part, to avoid paying him "his cut," so he was annoyed and probably a little angry when setting out to find her.
I told you a good amount of the story in the introduction to this episode. Shannan knocked on doors, cried out for help, screamed that an unknown "they" were trying to kill her, and actually stayed on the line with her 9-1-1 call for over twenty-three minutes.
Because of the odd jurisdiction of Oak Beach, being located so close to a state park and technically belonging to a city ten minutes away, her emergency call was forwarded to the state police. It also didn't help that she couldn't quite state where she was; she apparently told the dispatchers on the other end of the line that she was in Jones Beach, which was close but still miles away.
Michael Pak claims that he was searching for her until six o'clock in the morning. In his words, "from pitch black to sunny dawn." Until, at which point, he left the area altogether, claiming to never see the police arrive. If he had stayed and spoken to police, Shannan might have been found that morning. Maybe alive.
Instead, Shannan Gilbert wasn't reported missing for nearly two days.
Alex Diaz, Shannan's boyfriend whom she shared a tumultuous relationship with, noticed something was up after Shannan hadn't returned home the day after her appointment with Brewer. The following day, he would get in touch with Michael Pak, Shannan's driver.
Michael told Alex what had happened: Shannan meeting with the client, going nuts after a few hours, and then running off into the night in a drug-fueled craze.
Alex took steps to get in-touch with Joseph Brewer, the client. From there, Diaz tried to re-trace Shannan's footsteps, even hesitantly travelling out to Oak Beach with a gun to meet with Brewer. Brewer was apparently as straightforward and honest as possible, both recall, and even went with Diaz to the police department to try and report Shannan missing.
The officers at that Suffolk County police precinct basically just laughed at the entire situation. They told Diaz to go home, as that was the most likely place to find Shannan Gilbert. Then, they said, that if she wasn't home, to file a missing persons report there, in Jersey City.
So, he did. But a day later, Shannan was still nowhere to be seen and the police didn't seem very interested at all in trying to look for a missing prostitute. Alex Diaz decided to make another trip out to Oak Beach, and met someone willing to help look for his lost girlfriend.
This is where the story takes a very weird turn.
Two days after Shannan's disappearance, on May 3rd, her mother, Mari Gilbert, would receive a call from a stranger.
"Hello," said the voice on the other end. It was the voice of an older male, who gave his name freely. "My name is Dr. Peter Hackett. I'm calling to see if your daughter Shannan is there."
Mari is immediately alerted to... something. She's just not sure of what.
"No. Why? Who are you?" she asks.
The voice on the other end, Dr. Peter Hackett, explains that he runs a house for wayward girls. He further explains that Shannan had been with him two days beforehand, right when she went missing, and that he had taken her in off of the street after she began knocking on his door. He would also claim that he had given her something - by that I mean a drug - to calm down and collect herself. Apparently, at that point, she went missing, leaving with her driver and not returning.
Mari asks how this stranger got her number, to which Hackett explains that all of the people that stay with him - at his alleged halfway house - have to give an emergency contact.
This further confounds Mari, who knows that none of her family would give out her phone number to anyone. Also, she hasn't heard anything about Shannan going missing.
Shannan's family filed a missing persons report for her in Jersey City, where she lived. They had found out about Shannan meeting up with a client on Oak Beach through Alex Diaz, Shannan's boyfriend, but the police wouldn't make the connection between this missing persons report and the multiple 9-1-1 calls made on Oak Beach for over a month.
Roughly a week later, on Mother's Day - May 9th, 2010 - Mari Gilbert and the rest of Shannan's family would travel to Oak Beach to put up fliers and ask the neighborhood if they had seen anything.
Dr. Peter Hackett would later detail this as the first time he had ever spoken to the Gilbert family. He immediately denied ever calling Mari Gilbert, and claimed that he had never seen Shannan Gilbert before in his life.
The Gilbert family reported this strange phone call to the New Jersey police squad that took their missing persons report. Unfortunately, this police squad was located miles away, where Shannan Gilbert actually lived.
They were not in contact with anyone from Suffolk County, where Shannan had actually gone missing.
Even with all of this unfolding out on Oak Beach, no one would come by to look for Shannan for over a month.
Dr. Peter Hackett was a former physician, who had worked for Suffolk County as a police surgeon. He was married, with children of his own and was, by my guess at this point in-time, well into his fifties or early sixties.
When one looks at Dr. Hackett, they don't see a serial killer or a notorious liar. But beyond the surface, there's definitely something fishy going on with him.
Hackett was known by many in Suffolk County to be a bit of a nuisance. Many claimed that he was a serial exaggerator, who liked to put his nose where it shouldn't belong.
In 1996, TWA Flight 800 took off from JFK International Airport, headed for Rome, but exploded somewhere above New York. 230 passengers were killed aboard that flight, and many of their bodies were scattered throughout New York, particularly the Suffolk County area. Hackett embarrassed his coworkers by embellishing his role as an investigator in that incident, and from that point forward, had a figurative target placed on his back.
Years later, he would be fired for misusing a work cell phone and for claiming to be at work when he was actually absent.
Over the years, rumors would circulate that he used his expertise as a doctor to illegally prescribe pharmaceuticals - particularly opiates, which he allegedly consumes on his own. Two of his neighbors would sign affidavits claiming to have been witness to him acting as a doctor out of his own kitchen, trying to mend injuries or prescribe some kind of medication.
Peter Hackett's place in this story - the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert - is entirely fascinating to me. He doesn't have a direct tie to either Shannan, Michael Pak, or his neighbor from down the street, Joseph Brewer. He claims to have never met any of them. He was married to his longtime wife, had a son and a daughter living at home with him, and had both college and high school graduation trips in his near-future.
However, no one can deny that Dr. Peter Hackett went out of his way to insert himself into this story. The blame for that lies solely on him, because the truth about Mari Gilbert's claims would soon come to light.
Dr. Peter Hackett was not running a halfway home, nor a home for wayward girls. That much is certain. Whatever possibility there was of that was eliminated the moment that Hackett denied ever speaking to Mari Gilbert.
However, it is possible that Hackett did tell that to Mari Gilbert over the phone. Because phone records show that Hackett DID call Mari Gilbert from his wife's cell phone, sometime in the early afternoon of May 3rd. How exactly he got Mari Gilbert's phone number is anyone's guess, because Shannan would not be reported missing until that day, and her phone number hadn't been released by anyone. In fact, police hadn't come to ask questions yet; and wouldn't, for over a month.
Both him and Alex Diaz, Shannan's boyfriend, recall meeting on May 4th, when Diaz made his second trip out to Oak Beach. But this would be a day after the phone call in question, and bring about the question of how Dr. Hackett knew what he did.
So, in someway and somehow, Peter Hackett learned of Shannan Gilbert's disappearance and also discovered a phone number to her mother.
Also, what's more concerning: records show that the phone call wasn't made from Oak Beach. The cell phone Hackett was using was close enough to Mari Gilbert's home in New Jersey to warrant suspicion. That's right: Hackett traveled to New Jersey to make that call to Mari Gilbert, and phone records show that he immediately lied about it.
He would also call Shannan Gilbert's boyfriend, Alex Diaz, on May 6th, along with another call to Mari Gilbert. Hackett would recall making these phone calls, claiming that he was wishing them well in the search for Shannan. However, this again goes against his prior statements; he claims to have met the Gilberts and their associates on May 9th, three days after this second batch of calls was placed.
Even if he wasn't involved in the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert, something fishy was going on with Dr. Peter Hackett. In the week after Shannan's disappearance, Hackett shows off behavior that is alarming, or at the very least, deeply concerning.
Due to the troubled start to the investigation, Suffolk County detectives didn't come out to Oak Beach to investigate Shannan Gilbert's disappearance for over a month. They finally got around to interviewing the neighborhood - including Gus Coletti, Barbara Brennan, and Shannan's client, Joe Brewer.
Unfortunately, they really uncovered nothing. The detectives and police officers involved took some statements and did a little poking around, but to them, this was just a missing hooker. Nothing more.
Detectives spoke to Michael Pak, Shannan's driver, who told them that Shannan had been hesitant to pay him "his cut," and had likely run away. He claimed to have taken a polygraph test, something we all know is in no way a sure thing to prove innocence or guilt, and passed it, clearing him of any guilt.
Joe Brewer claimed that he had had Shannan over that night, but that the two had not had sex, despite her being in his house for nearly three hours.
Dr. Peter Hackett denied having any involvement in Shannan's disappearance, and stuck to his statements about never knowing her or any of the Gilberts.
All three were cleared as suspects in Shannan's disappearance before she was even located. And what's worse is the knowledge that police COULD have taken the time to try and find her quite easily, but chose not to. Whether this was due to miscommunication between the Jersey City police department where her family filed the missing persons report and Oak Beach, where she disappeared, or simply due to discrimination of her profession as a prostitute, is anyone's guess.
The gated community had several security cameras pointed at spots throughout the neighborhood, cameras which might not have offered any definitive proof but at least helped point detectives in the direction of where Shannan had gone that fateful morning. These cameras was useless by the time that Suffolk County police showed up, their memories overwritten a dozen times over.
It was only by happenstance that any progress was made in the case. Sadly, "progress" means that one of the most horrifying discoveries in Long Island history was about to take place.
John Mallia was a thirty-one-year veteran of the Suffolk County Police Department. A former-private-investigator-turned-officer, Mallia was an expert at finding people, dead or living.
Mallia was also a canine officer, whose partner-in-law enforcement, Blue, had been with him for over seven years at this point in 2010.
A little over a month after Shannan Gilbert had gone missing, it was Mallia that was given the task to look around the Oak Beach area where she had disappeared from. With his German Shepherd partner Blue in-tow, fifty-nine-year old Mallia headed out to the small, coastal neighborhood and began searching for the missing woman.
The two searched around the Oak Beach area for months, without finding so much as a trace of Shannan's tracks. The two scoped neighborhood and coastline, hoping to find at least something resembling Shannan Gilbert's belongings, but came away with nothing.
Months continued to pass, with no headway in the case happening. Mari Gilbert kept checking in with the Jersey City police to see if her daughter missing persons file had been updated, but there was nothing. The three men surrounding her absence had been cleared by police of any wrongdoing, and Officer John Mallia continued to make occasional trips to the area where Shannan Gilbert had last been seen.
All of those trips were unsuccessful. At least, until the morning of December 10th.
December 10th, 2010. Shannan Gilbert had been missing for over six months now, just another missing prostitute in an area full of them. The only ones that gave notice to her prolonged absence were her family members, who had been given the cold shoulder by investigators for months due to Shannan's profession.
Officer John Mallia drove out to Oak Beach with Blue, in the hopes of at least giving the dog a little bit of tracking training. It was brisk and cold outside, just a hair above freezing, when Mallia pulled over on the side of the highway.
It was here, on the side of the four-lane Ocean Parkway, that Mallia hoped to find some trace of Shannan. He had remembered reading something from the FBI that showed how most bodies, when left by a killer, were dumped within thirty feet of the road.
Right around three in the afternoon, after walking through the prickly brush for a short amount of time, Blue began to wag his tail and make some adjustments with his head. Officer Mallia immediately recognized this as a sign of him picking up something; a sign of something being found.
Mallia followed Blue into the marshy undergrowth, with the thick nettles surrounding them. The Officer followed his canine companion deeper into the muck, before stumbling upon an object of note roughly fifty feet away from the Ocean Parkway.
It was a disintegrated burlap sack. Inside, Mallia discovered, was the skeletonized remains of a human being.
Sadly, it wasn't the body of Shannan Gilbert. But it was the first of nearly eleven bodies that would be uncovered over the next year, and the first sign that a serial killer had been using the area as a personal dumping ground for years.
Part Two: Lost Girls
Noveber 13th, 2016 Micheal Whelan
Saturday, April 20th, 1996 - Fire Island lies along the southern tip of Long Island, a strip of land roughly thirty-one miles long. The island only has a few hundred permanent residences, but it features a thriving vacation population that surges in the spring and summer months.
Of those thousands of tourists that visit, a few were walking the beach of Davis Park.
This is normally a very quiet, lonely stretch of shoreline that doesn't get much foot traffic outside of the summer months.
Just a few months beforehand, in January of 1996, one of the most damaging blizzards in American history had ravaged the east coast. It had introduced incredibly low temperatures and extremely high winds in a dangerous combination that damaged multiple properties and even led to the deaths of 150 people.
But in that storm, many things from Long Island had come adrift: some properties, many people's belongings, etc.
So when this group of walkers, taking a stroll alongside this isolated stretch of beach, saw something flapping in the wind, they decided to move closer to take a look.
Much to their horror, it was a plastic bag. And inside that bag was a set of legs, belonging to a woman. The toenails on the feet had recently been painted red, they recalled.
Whether these legs, wrapped together in a plastic bag, had been placed on that specific beach or simply washed up in the months beforehand is unknown. However, they were the first sign of a killer, found fifteen years before other pieces of the puzzle would be uncovered, just miles away. .
Officer Mallia had been using the Oak Beach area that prostitute Shannan Gilbert disappeared from to help train his veteran canine officer, Blue. He had begun these tracking exercises in the summer months shortly after Shannan's disappearance, with no luck finding her tracks whatsoever.
However, in December of that year, nearly seven months after Shannan had disappeared into the night, screaming and begging for help from a supposed group of killers, Mallia followed the tracking nose of his German Shepherd companion.
Parked alongside the Ocean Parkway, which stretches across multiple islands off the southern coast of Long Island, Mallia and Blue traveled roughly fifty feet away from the highway into the thick bristle of brush. There, hidden in a marshy swamp-like area, Mallia discovered the source of Blue's speculative nose: a burlap sack, half hidden in the mud and the muck. As Mallia got close enough to look inside the burlap, which was already disintegrating due to the elements, he saw the skeletonized remains of a human being.
Two days later, Mallia would return to the scene with investigators and detectives, who had started collecting evidence of the area. Blue remained in the car temporarily, as Mallia helped clue in the detectives as to where he had discovered the remains and in what condition they had been in.
About five-hundred feet from those original remains, Officer Mallia stumbled upon another of those dilapidated burlap sacks. Inside, the remains of another human.
More police and investigators were called, as the scene began to look like something out of CSI. Ocean Parkway, the road I oft-mention that serves as the main thruway through Jones Beach Island and Fire Island, was nearly shut down due to the amount of vehicles brought in.
Even out here, in the gripping cold of a December along the New York coastline, Officers Mallia and Blue continued the search. By the end of the day, they had personally uncovered two more burlap sacks containing human remains, bringing the grand total to four so far.
While the bodies were sent off to the Suffolk County medical examiner for testing, the realization that Long Island had a serial killer on their hands was beginning to surface.
The breaking news that four bodies had been discovered just off of the Ocean Parkway, in the small and vacation-friendly hot-spot of Gilgo Beach, was terrifying.
In the hours and days before the bodies were identified, many speculated that Shannan Gilbert would be one of those four. All of the bodies were found to be smaller in stature, roughly the same height as Shannan, and they all four appeared to be women.
However, once the testing came back, it was found that none of the four were Shannan Gilbert. Instead, they were four other women that had been prostitutes who advertised their services on Craigslist and Backpage; four other women that had gone missing in the years prior, who ended up being asphyxiated and then their remains stuffed into burlap sacks.
Similar to Shannan Gilbert, they had all led tragic-yet-hopeful lives, and met a similar type of unknown ending.
Maureen Brainard-Barnes was born on June 14th, 1982. She was the daughter of a wandering soul, Bob Senecal, and a hardworking maid, Marie Ducharme.
While she spent most of her life with her mother, Marie, Maureen more closely resembled her father, Bob. She was a dreamer, who never really took things too seriously. She wanted the best for herself, but she didn't want to work herself to the bone to get it.
Maureen was the oldest of her family's children, and many would consider her to surprisingly be the least mature of them all. Maureen was constantly finding herself stuck in a book, at least until she started to become a teenager and attract the attention of boys. At which point, any hope of her studying or succeeding in school became a lost cause.
At sixteen years old, Maureen had fallen in puppy love with her high school boyfriend, Jason Brainard-Barnes. Maureen left school to deliver her first child, a baby girl named Caitlin, and Mauren and Jason were soon married in a quickie wedding in their hometown of Groton, Connecticut.
Not too long after that, Maureen moved in with Jason and his grandparents in Pawtucket, where they stayed until he enlisted in the army, leading them out-of-state.
Two years later, they returned to the Connecticut area, but would divorce amicably. They separated without a messy divorce, both agreeing that their daughter Caitlin would stay with Jason and enjoy the benefit of a quality school system.
Maureen moved in with her younger sister, Missy, and began looking for work as a now-twenty something with no high school degree. She began to jump from job-to-job, mostly minimum wage jobs with no permanent goal; jobs that failed to capture her imagination in any way, shape, or form.
She had been a poet for some time, and remained dead-set on the idea of becoming a rapper. She was constantly writing lyrics to songs, which she would collaborate on with Jay DaBrule, a guy that lived down the hall from Missy's apartment. The two entered a friendship, which included - but was not limited to - sex.
Maureen would treat Jay's apartment like a refuge, where she could go and let her young daughter, Caitlin, play with Jay's daughter, who was just a year older. She would use his computer to tweak her Myspace page, where she would try and spread her music. It so happens to be at Jay's apartment where she clicked on a message from a modeling agency that wanted to take some photos of her.
She took some photos - nothing risque, just facial and body shots - which soon opened her up to the wide world of modeling. She posted those photos on her Myspace page, where she began to receive multiple offers. Unfortunately, almost all of the offers she received were for nude modeling or escort services.
But, Maureen thought, why should she have to split the profits with the escort services? She could cut out that middleman, promote herself on Craigslist, and make a 100% profit.
She continued to look for odd jobs, and eventually moved out with a roommate. It was allegedly during this time period, roughly around her twenty-fifth birthday, that Maureen began to dabble in drugs, particularly ecstasy and cocaine. She had also started to post Craigslist ads, advertising sexual services for men in her local area, before she realized that the money wasn't enough to justify it, and the odds of encountering people she knew were rising every day.
She would shortly start dating someone else, a guy named Steve, whom she would have a son with: a baby named Aidan. However, despite the love for her new child, the relationship with Steve did not last for long, and now Maureen had to juggle custody of her children with two different fathers while struggling to pay for her rent and working odd, dead-end jobs. She began another job at a call center, before being let go and striking out on her own as a full-time escort in Manhattan.
Maureen Brainard-Barnes would travel to New York City for a weekend in July of 2007, hoping to earn enough money to fight off her pending eviction. She had a hearing that Tuesday, and her custody of Aiden was likely hanging in the process. Steve, her ex-boyfriend, had been looking for any excuse to claim sole custody, and eviction would definitely solidify as a reason.
She was last seen nearby Penn Station in Manhattan, having rented a hotel room in Times Square.
The day that she was due in court, her family noticed that she was missing. Jason Brainard-Barnes, her ex-husband, called her sister, Missy, and had been trying to locate her.
Missy, short for Melissa, reported Maureen missing to the Norwich, Connecticut police in their hometown. From there, she would end up logging into Maureen's emails and social media accounts to try and find out where she was. This is how she discovered her sister was a prostitute, a discussion they could have another time... once Maureen was found.
Unfortunately, Maureen would be one of the bodies discovered in that marshy swamp just off of the Ocean Parkway. She was the first one missing out of the four bodies discovered there, having been missing for over three years.
The only break that the police ever had in the search for Maureen Brainard-Barnes was a clue that broke a few weeks after her disappearance, in 2007.
Apparently, at that point, Maureen's cell phone had been turned on, and pinged somewhere close to Fire Island. If you recall from the intro, Fire Island is the large, thin island located just slightly northeast of where the bodies would be discovered years later. It is also the place that the first evidence of the supposed Long Island Serial Killer - the pair of women's legs - would be found way back in 1996.
Melissa Barthelemy was born on April 14th, 1985, in Buffalo New York. She was born to a single mother hellbent on raising her without marrying her high school boyfriend.
Melissa's mother, Lynn, would spend a large part of Melissa's life working to support them, so Melissa would spend her time with her grandparents. Or, as she got older, supervising herself to make sure she stayed out of trouble.
Unfortunately, she up grew in an era where many of Buffalo's jobs were being outsourced to other areas, increasing the crime rate and poverty level during Melissa's youth.
When Melissa was a child, roughly eight or nine, her mother Lynn fell in love with another man, a black man named Andre Funderberg. The two moved out with Andre, and Lynn soon brought another daughter into the fold: Amanda. She was nine years younger than Melissa, but the two got along great and funnily seemed like exact opposites: Melissa was white but had always wanted to be black, whereas Amanda would be half-white-and-half-black but always felt like a white girl.
As Melissa grew older, she began to misbehave more and more. She would stay out longer than anticipated, hang out with unsavory characters, and even began slacking off in school. Her mother, Lynn, tried to intervene multiple times, but her methods seemed to always be ineffective. When Melissa started to date a local drug dealer, Jordan, Lynn believed there to be nothing else to do, so she sent Melissa down south to live with her biological father, Mark, in Texas.
She was down there for two-and-a-half years, until she was nearly eighteen, when her trip culminated in her stealing her father's work van and driving around without a license. She was sent back to Buffalo, where she would finish out her senior year. When she returned, she was surprised to see that her family had moved from their inner-city neighborhood to essentially the farmland, away from her old friends.
Melissa decided to move out on her own, which meant she would need to find a job and pay for her living expenses as she finished up her high school degree. She had dreams of going to beauty school and becoming a hairstylist, perhaps opening up a salon of her own one day. She found a job at a pizzeria, which lasted for a time, at least until she graduated. Then she began working at a Supercuts, which was unfortunately the only job matching her criteria that she could find at the time.
She would eventually start seeing her old ex-boyfriend, Jordan, the drug dealer. Everyone in her family urged her to cut off the relationship; even Andre, her mother's ex-boyfriend and the closest thing to a father that Melissa had.
On a trip to New York that Melissa took with Jordan, she met a man named Johnny Terry, whom allegedly offered Melissa a job cutting hair.
Unfortunately, Johnny Terry was his legal name. His street name was Blaze, and he was a pimp that worked in a less-than-stellar area of the Bronx.
Within a short time of heading to New York City, Melissa discovered that the hairstylist job Johnny offered wasn't real. Her and Jordan weren't long together, and she soon fell in with Blaze, and began working as one of his prostitutes. Before long, she was renting a basement apartment which was used to house her many cats, many of which she had taken in as strays.
She ended up getting a tattoo on her lower back, emboldened text with her pimp's name, "Blaze."
Melissa Barthelemy ended up getting arrested once, dated September 12th, 2008, for soliciting prostitution. She plead guilty, but received no jail-time or fines, just a five-day stint of community service.
Every now and then, her younger sister Amanda, now a teenager, would come and visit. Amanda recalls her sister leaving for work at night and coming back early in the morning, something that she now knows as her older sister going "on dates."
When things between Melissa and her boyfriend/pimp Blaze began to hit the skids, she began utilizing Craigslist to advertise her services. Just like Maureen Brainard-Barnes, she had decided to cut out the middleman and pocket all of the cash. Unfortunately, Blaze soon discovered this, and had a group of his other prostitutes attack Melissa and steal her money one night.
Melissa was beginning to hit rock bottom. She had dabbled with drugs like cocaine during her "dates," but was beginning to develop a bit of a problem with alcohol. Now, after the beating, things were looking more dire for her in New York. Her family pleaded with her to move back to Buffalo, and to live with them and take a job at a friendly-owned cosmetologist.
"Soon," she promised.
On July 11th, 2009, Melissa sent her younger sister, Amanda, a text message. She wanted Amanda to come out and visit again. Later in the day, on July 12th, she deposited a thousand dollars into her bank account, profits from a night spent with a client.
Melissa Barthelemy was last seen outside of her apartment, sitting on the curb and likely waiting for a ride. Her phone would dial out once that evening, a call to her ex-boyfriend/pimp Johnny Terry, aka "Blaze," but he wouldn't answer.
Blaze alleges that she had another appointment that night, a thousand-dollar spender that he personally knew of. However, since he and Melissa weren't working together anymore, he wanted nothing to do with her and avoided her call.
Melissa's family immediately noticed her absence, especially since they were now planning on having Amanda go out and visit her older sister again. Melissa's landlady noticed her absence, too, due to the endless purring of her countless cats.
Melissa's family checked with local hospitals to try and find her, and then tried to report her missing. The police essentially waved them away, saying that Melissa was an adult with no history of mental illness. Also, she was a prostitute, immediately making her expendable in their minds.
It took nearly two weeks for the police to file the proper paperwork to make Melissa an official missing person. By then, though, Melissa had disappeared, and would never be seen alive again.
Four days after Melissa's disappearance, things took an incredibly dark turn.
Her sister Amanda, nine years her junior and now just thirteen years old or so, received a phone call. On the caller ID, it appeared to be coming from Melissa's own cell phone.
"Hello?" she asked, excited to hear from the sister that had been missing for days. With a future trip to visit pending, she was undoubtedly excited to get this call from her doting older sibling.
"Is this Melissa's little sister?" asked a voice. A male voice.
The good feeling in Amanda's stomach immediately knotted and turned into fear.
"Yes," she hesitantly responded.
"Do you know what your sister is doing?" the man's voice asked. "She's a whore."
And thus began a series of phone calls that Amanda would receive, all coming from Melissa's cell phone.
It is most likely these phone calls, which began just days after Melissa's disappearance, that finally kicked police into gear to consider her a missing person. They wouldn't file the necessary paperwork until ten days after she was last seen, and at that point, they pulled up her phone records to see what had been going on.
Apparently, on the night of her disappearance, Melissa's phone had dialed her voicemail. This had allegedly occurred in the town of, forgive my pronunciation, Massapequa. This town lies just north of Jones and Gilgo Beach, where the bodies would be discovered, on the other side of Oyster Bay in mainland Long Island.
Police immediately suspected Johnny Terry, Melissa's pimp and ex-boyfriend, who also went by the name of Blaze. He claimed to have had nothing to do with Melissa's disappearance, having an alibi in New York.
Over the following months, Amanda would continue to receive the terrifying phone calls. The man, who would only speak to her in his quiet, low voice, continued to torment and haunt her. He said that he knew where she lived, he called her a "half-breed," in reference to the dark skin given to her by her father. He seemed to know details about her own life, details he wouldn't have known unless he had been after Melissa for quite some time.
In their last phone call before the story went public, he even told Amanda: "I'm watching your sister's body rot."
Johnny Terry also claims to have gotten these phone calls, by someone that knew details of him: his tattoos, his travelling habits, his work, etc. He claims the man on the other end of the phone sounded older and white, but also drunk, at least during the calls. Police followed through with this information, and discovered that Terry did receive calls from a disposable phone, which was registered to the name "Mickey Mouse."
Terry's claims seem to be corroborated by what Amanda recalls: that the man on the other end of the line sounded white, and at least middle-aged.
However, perhaps most troubling of all, is that the calls to Amanda would all be traced back to busy areas of Times Square, in New York City. Whoever it was that possessed her phone, would only turn it on when he was safely anonymous in a crowd, and make the calls from there. Attempts to trace the caller and find his location failed, multiple times.
When a local TV station aired the information about the phone calls in an August 2009 piece, trying to find Melissa Barthelemy, the phone calls immediately ceased. The trail to find Melissa would go completely cold until December of the next year.
Megan Waterman was born on January 18th, 1988, to a troubled home in Portland, Maine. Her mother, Lorraine, had been a lifelong troubled alcoholic that was living with her ex-boyfriend, Greg, and his current girlfriend, Karen. Lorraine and Greg had already had a kid together, a boy also named Greg, when Lorraine gave birth.
The house itself was chaos, even outside of the relationship scenario. There were rumors of abuse, neglect, Lorraine's alcoholism becoming an issue, and so much more.
When Megan was just a baby, her grandmother, Muriel, began making reports with child services, and filed for custody of her grandkids. She was a tough old woman, who had raised six kids of her own and had known that Lorraine was the most troubled of any of them.
Megan and Greg Jr. were taken away by child services, and the only family member fighting for custody was their Nana, Grandma Muriel. Lorraine was nowhere to be seen, but Muriel would sacrifice her weekends to petition for custody and visit the kids while they were in foster care.
Lorraine, Megan's mother, began to suspect that Muriel only wanted custody so that she could keep keep her federally subsidized-housing, but it makes no difference. Grandma Muriel was the guardian that both Megan and Greg Jr. needed, and both she and their father, Greg Cove, signed away custody.
Unfortunately, at this point, both Megan and Greg had become little hell-raisers. Both were starting fights at school, starting fights outside of school, starting fights at home, mouthing off to anyone when they didn't get their way, and struggling at school. Megan would be diagnosed with ADHD, but even after the diagnosis would get kicked out of her elementary school, and even had the cops called on her in first grade when she was caught misbehaving outside.
The words most commonly used to define Megan Waterman were: defiant, fearless, and reckless. She would pitch a fit until she got her way, and if that wasn't enough, she would battle or threaten.
As she grew up through her teenage years, she was in-and-out of trouble. She would become familiar with the local police officers, for a variety of reasons, whether they be through fights with other girls or stealing from the local Wal-Mart. She dropped out of school at seventeen, as she was in special ed classes at this time due to her behavior.
It was at this age, seventeen, that Megan became pregnant. The father was a man nearly twice her own age, a hookup she'd had in a club bathroom. Megan began to get in-touch with her mother again, as Lorraine had spent the better part of the last decade trying to get her life in order and battling alcoholism.
Megan would give birth to a baby girl in the summer of 2006, named Liliana. Things looked up for a time; Megan's issues began to ease away, and she finally seemed to calm down. She definitely loved her daughter Lili, that's for sure. But eventually that tough attitude she'd held as a teenager turned into an aggressive need to provide for her newborn daughter, and she began falling in with a rough crowd.
Enter: Akeem Cruz, also known as "Vybe." Vybe was a guy from New York that hung out with a pretty hardcore crew; he always presented himself as the level-headed member of the group, even though he was younger than most, so it was no surprise when Megan began to be drawn to his silent confidence. Unfortunately for Megan, Vybe was a manipulative wrecking ball.
Vybe had been arrested for a variety of charges, including possession of illegal narcotics and an illegal weapon as just a teenager, but rather than face charges, had begun laying low in Megan's neck of the woods: Portland, Maine. And now, as Megan began to fall into the world of drugs and prostitution, Vybe was right there to help her along the path.
Of course, Vybe was there to collect a profit, but wasn't with Megan when she ran into trouble. In October of 2009, Megan was arrested for soliciting prostitution, and would go on to be robbed twice by the Johns she was meeting up with. Vybe was absent for all of those encounters, yet he would still be there to help her post her ads online and collect a cut for himself.
Vybe was also a burgeoning drug dealer, mainly specializing in cocaine. Megan was a client of his, and would even steal bits from his stash at opportune moments, but she would also hide his drugs at her Grandmother Muriel's house when visiting.
During one of these visits to her grandmother's, after a particularly violent fight with Vybe, the police staged a raid of his hotel room; where they found Vybe hiding out with three others, and stacks of stolen goods that his clients would trade in exchange for coke. He would be able to post bail of $50,000 that day, and the charges would eventually be dropped because the police didn't have a warrant; an odd oversight for a hotel raid.
However, now Megan and Vybe needed to get some quick money. He had just had most of his stuff seized by police, and lost $50,000 for bail. Megan began to plan a trip out to Long Island, where she would be able to make up to $1500 a night.
In June of 2010, Megan checked into the Holiday Inn Express in Hauppauge, a suburb of Long Island located just 25 miles north of Gilgo Beach. At around eight o'clock, on the evening of June 5th, she would be seen leaving the hotel with her boyfriend, Vybe. However, she would come back just half an hour later, and spend a few hours in her hotel room. She made some calls, to friends and family, including one to her Grandmother Muriel, who was the constant babysitter for her daughter, Lili. She also placed one call to her mother, Lorraine, whom she had been in the process of repairing her relationship with.
The last phone call she would make, at roughly 1:20 in the morning, was to Vybe. Approximately ten minutes later, security cameras would see her leaving the hotel, and an employee would recall seeing her walking down a service road towards a nearby convenience store.
Many assumed that she was just meeting up with a client, as she had posted a Craigslist ad just an hour or so beforehand.
When Megan didn't check in the next morning, Vybe began to get nervous.
He began placing calls to her friends and family, asking if they had seen her. Finally, he took a trip to the Holiday Inn that she had been staying at, but when the hotel staff checked her room for activity, they told him that she wasn't there.
Sadly, due to Vybe's nefarious activities and the possibility of him being arrested, he didn't immediately report Megan's absence to the police. He called the police once, to report what kind of jewelry Megan had been wearing when she disappeared, but didn't want to risk seeing them in-person and being arrested himself.
Unfortunately, this kind of shady behavior made Vybe, known legally as Akeem Cruz, the main suspect in Megan Waterman's disappearance.
He was arrested about a month after Megan's disappearance, charged with criminal menacing with a dangerous weapon, for an incident unrelated to Megan. He managed to escape that arrest, but would be arrested yet again in August for possession of crack cocaine. This time, there was no bail set, so he wasn't able to escape so easily.
As Vybe sat in jail, waiting his eventual hearings and court proceedings, Megan Waterman met the same fate as the other bodies found in the Gilgo Beach swamp: strangulation, followed by a perpetual missing persons report as memories of her began to fade. And unfortunately, she was not the last to go missing.
Amber Overstreet was born in October of 1983, the second of two daughters. Her parents, Al and Margie, were the epitome of a love story: her, Margie, the woman born into an upper-middle class family, and he, Al, the boy from the "other side of the tracks" that lived a blue collar lifestyle.
Amber had an older sister, Kim, who was six years older than her. Despite the age gap, the two would become close friends throughout their lives, and remained close even when things soured later in their lives.
The four-piece family lived a pretty idyllic lifestyle, for a time. They lived in Gastonia, North Carolina, a decent-sized suburb in the Charlotte area. All of the family recall this time as being very cheery: family dinners as their father Al reconnected with his huge family, happy memories, the works.
Unfortunately, when Amber was just five years old, this happy family unit would face a terrible burden. The family lived next door to a twenty-six-year-old young man named James, who would take the two Overstreet sisters to play tennis just a few blocks away.
During one of these visits, things turned... terrible... for five-year-old Amber. The details are fuzzy, but this somehow ended with James raping Amber. What happened after that is what's unclear: Amber always thought that James went to prison, but the other family members recall Al putting his shotgun to the younger man's head and threatening to kill him. However, no police incident is on-record for whatever happened that day, suggesting that things were solved off-the-books and police weren't even called.
However, the damage had been done. One can't even imagine what kind of toll that would take on a poor five-year-old victim of such a heinous crime, but the family unit began to totally fall apart. Margie, the mother, began to suffer from a serious nervous breakdown that required hospitalization. Al, who had to continue on as the sole parent for a time, began to abuse alcohol and was arrested on more than one occasion for DUI.
The family found themselves together again when Amber was becoming a teenager, but things would never be the same. Their mother was forever scarred by what had happened to her own daughter on her watch, and their father was barely holding it together, as-is.
Kim, Amber's older sister, became the de-facto leader of the house when Al and Margie began to suffer from health issues. She was now just nineteen or so, and had begun working her way through college with two jobs, when she was also counted upon to be the nurse for her ailing parents.
It was during this time that Kim began to be drawn into the world of prostitution. It originally revealed itself to her through a college classmate, who promoted it was a type of erotic massage company, but it eventually revealed itself to be what it was: an illicit prostitution ring.
Unfortunately, Kim's behavior began to rub off on Amber. As Amber progressed through her teenage years, she began to turn tricks for neighborhood boys, which eventually led to her simply working alongside her older sister. And sadly enough, the work seemed to be fulfilling to her: Amber was always known as a sweet and innocent person, an emotional girl that would work her butt off to be accepted and loved. This was the type of world that would envelop her and spit her back out, but she openly embraced it, either due to her personal nature or her childhood trauma. She just loved to please other people, it was in her very nature.
The company that both girls were now working for, Coed Confidential, was beginning to go through some serious changes. What had started as a place for the girls to host parties was starting to become a drug dealing operation, leading to many of the young women developing drug problems of their own. Older sister Kim had begun to struggle with a cocaine addiction, while Amber had started to dabble with heroin.
Things were not looking up for either of them.
Amber would begin to find her religious faith, and seek help at a local church. The pastor, named Charles West, apparently became like a father to Amber, taking her in and helping her get clean. But when he passed away just a short time after, Amber relapsed. She got married to someone during this relapse, a man named Michael Wilhelm, but apparently the marriage wasn't long for this world: they had barely been married a month when they divorced amicably.
A short time after that, Amber would flee with her sister, Kim, to Florida for a fresh start. There, her and Kim would drift apart, while she got clean again and began to work herself into the close-knit church community of Dunedin. She would meet Don Costello, a local from there. Amber, unfortunately, wasn't able to have children, a symptom of the traumatic rape that had occurred in her youth. The two struggled through a couple of miscarriages before getting lucky with adoption a year into their marriage: a baby boy named Gabriel. The young couple would come and visit Amber's father, Al, during a Christmas holiday. That was the year that her mother, Margie, had passed away. Amber tried to convince her father to get closer to Christ, and seemed to finally have her act together.
Unfortunately, this newfound happiness didn't last long. Amber's marriage to Don disintegrated quickly, culminating in her trying to shoplift toothpaste from a Publix. She was supposed to face charges that February, in 2009, but disappeared from Florida before then.
Over the years, Kim had had a total of six children. She kept working throughout all of their lives, not being very present in their everyday raising, and had been dealing cocaine on the side of her prostitution. However, she would start to go legit: moving back to North Carolina, she had found a regular day job, and began a healthy relationship with a guy named Dave, who doted upon her like she was a princess.
Funnily enough, it was Dave Schaller, Kim's boyfriend, that tried his hardest to get Amber's life back in order. He was the one that paid for Amber to fly up to their home in North Carolina - twice, actually, when she blew the money for the first ticket on heroin - and allowed his girlfriend's sister to live with them while she tried to get her life back-in-order. He worked to get her a place in rehab, worked to find her a place at a recovery center, and was the only one that would visit her on the weekends.
It was during this stint at rehab that Amber would meet a man named Bjorn Brodsky - a rail-thin stick of a man that everyone ironically called "Bear," who stood just a few inches taller than Amanda. He was a man that had led a troubled life, leading to him being arrested for breaking-and-entering to support his drag habit. He had checked into rehab so that he could help raise his infant son, even though the relationship with the boy's mother had soured.
Amber and Bear grew close during this period of time, and he moved in with Amanda, Dave, and Kim once he was released from rehab. Dave, Kim's boyfriend, began to see himself as the guardian of the group, a guy trying to help a bunch of misfits get their lives back-in-order.
A short time after Bear would be released, though, Amber and Kim would begin to float the idea of working as escorts again. They both needed the money, and subtly proposed the idea to both Dave and Bear. Bear was okay with it, but Dave was more hesitant; he wanted to help the sisters better themselves, not help them right back onto a troubled path. He agreed to help however he could, but he wouldn't take a time from the money they made: he wanted them to get enough money to jump-start a life and then get out.
They started posting ads for their services on Craigslist, and before long, money was rolling in. Amber was making over a thousand dollars a day, but before long, most of that would be funneled right back into their drug habit. All four members of the house - even Dave, who had never had a drug habit beyond painkillers to keep his old martial arts injuries at-bay - were now using. Dave, Amber, and Bear used heroin, while Kim kept smoking crack.
Bear would be arrested in August of 2010, when a cop randomly searched him to find not only a pocketknife, but cocaine and heroin. Amber raised funds to bail him out just days later, but Bear would then drop an emotional bomb on her: he told her that he had always planned on leaving, but now he needed to do so and get clean so that he could be there for his little boy.
Bear left, and now Amber was heartbroken. She returned with Dave to his home in Babylon, New York, and carried on looking for clients through Craigslist ads.
On September 2nd, 2010, she went back-and-forth with a client for a while, bartering on price and terms. Whoever it was, he promised Amber a lot of money for a night of work: at least $1500, and he would pick her up at around 11:00 that night.
By this point, Kim had left the house already, leaving Dave for an ex-boyfriend. So that night, when Amber started walking down the street to get picked up by her client, there was no one there to recall any details. Dave was now too high to notice anything around him, and the client too smart to be seen by anyone nearby.
I wish I could tell you that there was a break in the case for Amber Costello, but unfortunately, she was not even reported missing.
What's most troubling about Amber Costello's disappearance is that she left Dave Schaller's house without a purse or even her phone. She left it all behind, implying that she trusted the client she had been speaking to. Perhaps he was a repeat customer, or someone she knew, but he had gotten her to put her guard down for the evening in exchange for a decent payday.
Her sister, Kim Overstreet, kept telling her ex-boyfriend Dave just to cool it; Amber would surface eventually. So they held off. After all, they didn't want cops sniffing around their house and find evidence of drugs or prostitution. So they just hedged their bets that Amber had run off with someone or maybe even found a way out of their crummy lives.
As days began to turn into months, no answers presented themselves. Kim began to wonder about a client she had had in the weeks before Amber's disappearance: a white guy, who drove a truck and owned a tugboat business. Apparently he had had a box of women's sexual devices, and seemed rather aggressive: at one point, when he was with Kim, he held her throat and began to slightly choke her.
Kim recalled this rough encounter after Amber's disappearance, and also recalled telling Amber about him as being an easy paycheck. She had no way of asking Amber whether she followed up on it, however.
Unfortunately, no news would break in Amber's case until the four bodies were discovered by Officer John Mallia and his German Shepherd partner Blue. Wrapped in burlap, the bodies of all four women were found nearby each other, separated by just one-tenth of a mile or so between each.
Whomever had put these women here had done so deliberately. Tests would come back and find that all four women had likely died of strangulation, and each of them disappearing in close proximity to one another meant only one thing: there was a serial killer loose on Long Island, and unfortunately for the police, there were still more bodies to dig up.
Part Three: Suffolk County
November 22nd, 2016 Micheal Whelan
Jessica Taylor was once a living, breathing person, with dreams and goals that she desired to bring to life.
Much like the four victims of the Long Island Serial Killer - Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, and Amber Costello - Jessica Taylor was brought into the world of prostitution. It was an easy way to make quick money, but it brought with it a life full of pitfalls.
Jessica soon discovered those hazards. She had grown up in New York, where she spent the better part of her early adulthood. It was there that she began to work as a prostitute, and where she had served a small stint at Rykers Island.
Shortly after her prison stint, she relocated to Washington DC. There, she got arrested again and was charged with prostitution. To avoid her charge, she moved back to New York, where she would face two more charges of prostitution: one there, and then another in Atlantic City.
She also began to dabble in drugs, which sent her desperately scrambling to her profession to help support her habit.
Her life was like so many we've seen or heard of before: a tragedy. Unfortunately, few tragedies have a happy ending, and the life of Jessica Taylor was no exception.
Jessica had tried to avoid her prostitution charges in Washington DC by travelling to New York City for work. In February of 2003, Jessica was arrested by an undercover police officer, whom she had solicited for a sum of $50. She had just gotten in trouble for driving a stolen car - a 1995 Chevy Cavalier - and was sent to Rykers Island for a couple of months.
During her arrest, she was noted as assaulting a police aid. Despite that assault charge being added to her grand theft auto and prostitution charges, she was released in April of 2003, less than two months after entering prison. She immediately went back to work, and tried to avoid Washington DC, where she had more charges pending.
Jessica was trying to solicit clients off of New York's 10th Avenue, nearby the Port Authority Bus Terminal, in July of 2003 when she was last seen alive.
When people disappear, it is often months or years before their fate is truly known. Sadly, though, Jessica's fate was known just weeks later.
On July 26th, 2003, a woman was walking her dog in Manorville, New York, just off of the Long Island Expressway. The road itself, Halsey Manor Road, was a small two-lane road that led from the Expressway to more rural areas of Manorville. It was during this walk that she discovered the headless, limbless torso of a young woman - a woman that would later be confirmed to be Jessica Taylor.
A Washington DC police officer, who was personally familiar with Jessica, stumbled upon crime scene photos of her torso, where the killer - or killers - had tried to scrape or otherwise mutilate her most recognizable mark: a tattoo of wings on her torso, which contained the words "Remy's Angel."
Whomever had killed and dumped Jessica Taylor's body had tried to keep her identity anonymous, but had failed. Unfortunately, the rest of their work - hiding her head and her limbs - would not be uncovered for almost a decade, when the Suffolk County Police would unearth the rest of her body along with other bodies in 2011.
There, the link would be established, and increase the likelihood that the Long Island Serial Killer had been active long before anyone knew he even existed. And it raised the idea that this dumping ground was just one of many, perhaps making him one of the most nefarious serial killers in United States history.
Richard Dormer was a man with one foot out of the door. His job, acting as police commissioner for Suffolk County, was likely coming to an end.
Steve Levy, the county executive who appointed Dormer to his office, was on his way out. He had attempted to run for New York governor, but flip-flopped parties at a very inopportune time, and found himself stuck between both without any real support. Instead of risking being voted out of office, while being investigated for misusing campaign funds, Levy was going to avoid running for re-election altogether.
So Dormer, an Irish immigrant as a child who had worked his way up the Suffolk County police force, was the odd man out. Any county executive that took over was likely to replace most of the appointed positions, police commissioner included.
This last year, his final year as Police Commissioner, was supposed to be a quiet one. Instead, the remains of four women had been uncovered while searching for another, all five being women that had advertised their services on Craigslist.
The bodies were discovered in December of 2010, roughly seven months after the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert. The bodies were sent off for DNA testing to confirm their identities, but the early word was that they were all females - and all prostitutes.
Megan Waterman, the missing twenty-two-year-old mother from Portland, Maine who had last been seen just twenty or so minutes north in Hauppauge, New York, was immediately rumored to be one of the skeletons discovered in burlap.
When DNA testing confirmed their identities, in January of 2011, Richard Dormer held a press conference to release the details to the public. There, he also told of his theory of who had murdered the four women: a serial killer, who had been using Gilgo Beach as his own personal dumping ground.
Unsurprisingly, the news that a serial killer had been targeting young women sent shock-waves throughout the worldwide media. The major networks were there to report the news that Dormer had told them, and every news agency had stories about the bodies that were discovered.
But, surprisingly, not everyone in Suffolk County wanted Commissioner Dormer to be as candid about his theories to the media.
Steve Levy, the county executive who appointed Dormer to his position, came down on Dormer for revealing too much information with the public. Levy, you see, was facing scrutiny for campaign funding in his unsuccessful bid for the governor's office, and didn't want the cloud of a serial killer hanging over his final months in office.
And Levy wasn't alone. District Attorney Thomas Spota hesitated to look after this as the crime of a serial killer. Spota, the prosecutor who had led the pursuit of Steve Levy's fundraising investigation, refused to name the killings the work of a serial killer until the DNA testing came back.
The results? Too conclusive to pass up. All young women, in their twenties, who had disappeared over the prior three-to-four years after advertising their services on Craigslist.
For now, as police continued to comb through the area of Gilgo Beach for more bodies, investigators had to begin looking for clues.
The bodies of the four women were too decomposed to find much forensic evidence. Any DNA that might have been recovered from their bodies had long since deteriorated, and would undoubtedly come back as being inconclusive, the harsh environment of salt water and wind eating away at any chance of that.
Instead, police began to examine the details of their disappearances.
All four women - Maureen, Melissa, Megan, and Amber - went missing between the months of June and September. This led to the first possibility: that the killer was a vacationer, who was familiar with the area itself.
Police began to run off of this, going down their list of locals who should be suspected. They made a pass at Joseph Brewer again - the client Shannan Gilbert had met on the night of her disappearance - and this is when he took his alleged successful polygraph test. Police again cleared him of any wrongdoing, along with Shannan's driver Michael Pak and the less-than-forthcoming neighbor, Dr. Peter Hackett.
Another clue, or calling card of the killer, was how he managed to get the victims to drop their guard with him.
One assumes that, since the four victims advertised their services on Craigslist, they were rather particular about their clientele. Many of the victim's families and friends recall that they rarely did out-calls, only doing so for a special payday or a client that they were familiar with.
Unfortunately, all four women anonymously left to meet up with their final client. Amber Costello, the most recent victim who had disappeared just months before her discovery, left the house she was living in without even bringing a cell phone or her purse. Megan Waterman, the victim who went missing just three months before Costello, left to meet with a client down a dark, abandoned service road.
They were either desperate enough to do whatever this client asked of them, or comfortable enough with him to avoid their regular precautions. Or, perhaps sadly, a little bit of both.
Another lead the investigators wanted to travel down was to figure out the killer's identity by working backwards through the victim's cell phones and emails.
They had already become aware of the cell phones of both Maureen Brainard-Barnes and Melissa Barthelemy being used after their disappearances. Maureen's had been turned on somewhere close to Fire Island, where it pinged off of a tower there, about a month after her disappearance. Melissa's phone, meanwhile, had been used to call and taunt her younger sister, Amanda.
Because the taunting phone calls contained personal information about Amanda - such as physical details of her and her sister - police figured that whomever took Melissa had likely been in her life for a while. Amanda would constantly make trips to visit her older sister, and police figured that the killer must have been associated with Melissa in some way before her death: perhaps as a regular client, or a stalker of some kind.
But besides the cell phone avenue, police wanted to use the victim's emails against the killer. Unfortunately, what they found were a list of throwaway email addresses that led nowhere; the Craigslist email system notoriously uses an anonymous email system, which clouds most emails. Other than that, anyone with access to a simple VPN - a virtual private network - can cloud their IP from almost anyone else.
If the police wanted to find a suspect, they needed to find more evidence. They continued to search the area until the weather ground them to a halt. In January and February, they were forced to postpone any future searches of the area, at least until the weather picked up again.
When the searches picked up again in March, they were shocked to immediately find something.
This body, the fifth to be discovered, was found just about thirty feet in from the road, and about a mile east of where the remains of the original four victims had been discovered. These remains were discovered by a police officer who had seen something suspicious and investigated further, but had no idea that he was unearthing a mystery a decade in the making.
These remains were later proven to be that of Jessica Taylor, the prostitute from the episode introduction who had disappeared in July of 2003. Her headless, arm-less torso had been discovered north of Gilgo Beach, off an abandoned road in Manorville, just a few weeks after her disappearance, but DNA would later prove these body parts to be a match.
"It is very clear that whoever killed and dismembered Ms. Taylor... was very intent on preventing her identity from being discovered - even going to great lengths to remove a tattoo from her body," said District Attorney Thomas Spota.
The search immediately continued the following week to try and find more bodies or evidence of their supposed serial killer. Already investigators were becoming overwhelmed; this story had gone from a missing prostitute to a full-blown serial killer seemingly overnight, and now police weren't sure just how many bodies there were or how far back they dated.
This was now in April of 2011, close to five months after the four bodies had been discovered in burlap.
Just five days after they found the rest of Jessica Taylor's body, they would uncover the bodies of three more victims, all of whom pointed a very grisly portrait of this killer - or killers.
The first was a woman, known by investigators as "Jane Doe #6," whose head, arms, and right foot were discovered along the Ocean Parkway. DNA testing would confirm that this woman matched remains found in Manorville on November 19th, 2000 - nearby where Jessica Taylor's torso had also been dropped. Police now had more than one case linking these bodies to discarded victims in Manorville.
Police have released a composite of this victim, whom they assume stood about five feet and two inches tall, and was somewhere in the age range between eighteen and thirty-five. She was most likely a prostitute, like the other victims.
The second body discovered on April 4th belonged, most peculiarly, to a man of Asian descent. Apparently, the body had been discovered wearing women's clothing, leading investigators to believe that this was a trans-woman who had been working as a prostitute, unbeknownst to the killer.
Police believed that this young man, who I stated was of Asian descent, had likely died from blunt force trauma, which they derived from teeth missing from the skull. He was smaller in stature, standing only around five-foot-six-inches tall, and was most likely between the age range of seventeen and twenty-three. This victim had been dead somewhere between five and ten years, according to investigators, who were puzzled at the lack of missing persons reports to link this victim to.
Sadly, there was one other victim discovered on April 4th, and this one was the most heartbreaking of all. This victim was just an infant, a little girl somewhere between eighteen and thirty-two months old. Police immediately began to assume that this was the child of a prostitute they had yet to discover, a child that had just happened to be with her mother on the night the killer decided to act.
This young victim, known as "Baby Doe" to the investigators, was found wrapped up in a blanket, wearing two unique items of jewelry: hoop earrings and a rope necklace. This child, the youngest of the victims by far, showed no signs of trauma, implying that her death had not been a violent one.
Unfortunately, police were not done discovering bodies.
A week after this grisly discovery, police made another startling find: the remains of two other bodies. These body parts would further link the Ocean Parkway dumping grounds to the Manorville dumping grounds from years prior, but also begin to splinter the investigation.
The first body was that of a woman, whose skeletal remains were wearing the same type of jewelry as Baby Doe was. They were two bracelets, one with "X-and-O" charms and the other with stones made to look like diamonds.
DNA testing would confirm that this woman had been related to the unidentified Baby Doe, and had likely been her mother. Surprisingly, though, her skeleton was found inside a plastic bag placed over seven miles away, as she was discovered just near Jones Beach State Park.
The other body discovered on this day was the most shocking of all: found near Tobay Beach, a few miles to the west of Gilgo Beach, was the skull of yet another woman. They also found a few of her teeth in the surrounding area, but DNA testing would show that this woman was the same victim from 1996, whose legs had washed up to shore in a plastic bag on Fire Island, miles away.
This would raise the biggest question of all: was there one serial killer that had been preying on prostitutes for nearly twenty years?
Richard Dormer, the lame duck Suffolk County Police Commissioner, obviously clung to the idea that this was a single killer. However, Thomas Spota, the reigning District Attorney, thought otherwise.
Spota began circulating the idea that, due to the differences in time periods and disposal methods of the multiple bodies discovered, there were multiple killers that had been using this stretch of Ocean Parkway as a dumping ground.
This wasn't odd, because there were obviously differences in the bodies discovered. The older bodies that had been discovered were unidentified, but dated back to 1996. There was a possibility that the four identified victims who had been found in burlap were connected, but they were connected solely by the location and their probable employments.
This also doesn't mention, of course, how the remains connected to Manorville would open up the investigation to other unidentified victims, whose bodies had been found in the years and months prior to the investigation began.
But this simple argument would begin to fracture the investigation as a whole: certain detectives would cling to the single killer theory, while others would follow Spota and begin to pursue the multiple killer theory.
Despite this growing fraction between different sides of the investigation, everyone involved would agree that this wouldn't have a simple solution.
During this April search for more bodies, police had started to use new and innovative ways to search the terrain.
They had begun using helicopters overhead to find places of interest to have officers look later. They would mark these on an interactive map as "places of interest," going on to pinpoint over ninety spots in the surrounding area to send searchers to.
Speaking of searchers, hundreds of officers from Suffolk County and the surrounding areas were sent to participate in the search. Unfortunately, the rough bramble kept the search from progressing quickly, meaning that police needed to find new ways to look.
They would begin sending out large pieces of equipment to trim and cut the bramble as they progressed, as it was too rough for searchers to walk without hurting or injuring themselves. They would take vehicles like fire trucks, and extend the ladders sideways with officers on top looking down at the ground below, to try and locate any signs of more bodies or clues.
As it happened months earlier, the weather was beginning to get rough for investigators once again. The weather was turning once again, and would require police to put their search on-hold until the weather cleared up. Those "ninety places of interest" would have to wait months to be looked at.
The investigation continued to split apart, with most belonging in Spota's camp of multiple killers but others clinging to Dormer's single killer theory, but police now had a few things to work with.
They had discovered that the earlier victims had been dismembered, their bodies cut up into pieces with identifying marks removed. Whomever the killer had been, he had tried to hide the features of the women involved: with the victims whose torso had been found in Manorville, he had removed the head and the hands, in a way of keeping dental records and fingerprints from being utilized. He had also tried to scrape off identifying tattoos and definitive features.
Also, when the victims had been dismembered, the killer had gone out of the way to split up the remains. Jessica Taylor and the other Manorville victim had had their body parts split up by a matter of forty miles. In the case of the woman who had been killed along with her child, the killer had split up both bodies nearly ten miles apart, even though the infant had been found within a short distance of other victims.
However, to some, this was simply a sign of the killer becoming comfortable. It's possible that the killer, if he had been a local and familiar to the area, would know that the area off of Ocean Parkway would be a safe place to dump a body: nobody would be traversing that area if they could help it, as the tough bramble would tear apart clothing and would be an issue for even the ardent explorers. Maybe after a time, when none of the bodies had been discovered for almost a decade, the killer began to get comfortable. He wouldn't have to split up the bodies anymore, and wouldn't have to make hour-long drives to dispose of the victims. He could simply drop by one area, right off of the Ocean Parkway near Gilgo Beach, which would not only make an easy dumping ground for him, but provide anonymity while also allowing him to re-experience the thrill of the crimes over and over again.
Noted author and former NYPD lieutenant commander Vernon Geberth came out in defense of Richard Dormer's single killer theory.
"I wouldn’t be so quick to be talking about multiple killers,” said Geberth. “The probability of having two serial killers using the same dumping ground is very, very remote—to the point where I don’t buy into it. I am looking at a serial killer who has basically progressed. He has become more effective at disposing of the bodies. He doesn’t have to go through all the work of decapitating his victims.”
Forensic psychologist N.G. Berrill, who had experience working for the NYPD, also agreed.
“That coincidence, in and of itself, would be remarkable,” said Berrill, addressing the multiple killer theory. To him, two killers sharing such a similar propensity of victims while also dumping the victims in the same area, would have such a minute possibility of actually happening.
The one-year anniversary of Shannan Gilbert's disappearance was approaching, and with it, her mother Mari Gilbert continued to pester the police for any information. As I stated beforehand, they had halted their search of the area due to the conditions being unsearchable, but Gilbert wanted her daughter to not go forgotten.
Gilbert began to turn the intensity up, trying to use the media as a weapon. As journalists and documentarians began to focus on the burgeoning boogeyman of the Long Island Serial Killer, Gilbert tried to turn the focus back on her missing daughter, whose disappearance had jump-started the entire investigation.
She began to make her qualms about Dr. Peter Hackett public knowledge, bombarding him at his home with a documentary crew in-tow. She confronted him about the phone calls he had made to her on May 3rd of 2010, the day that Shannan had later been reported missing. He denied having any knowledge of Shannan or her disappearance, but that didn't stop Mari Gilbert.
She started to make claims of Dr. Hackett providing prescription drugs for people in the neighborhood, aided by two neighbors who had had multiple Homeowners Association disputes with Hackett and testified to that account.
Gilbert also took question with Hackett's claims that he knew nothing of Shannan's disappearance. Gus Coletti, the retired insurance agent who opened up his door to Shannan on the night she disappeared, was often regarded as a close friend of Hackett's, who lived right next to him. What are the odds that in the days after Shannan disappeared, the two didn't talk at all about the most exciting story to hit the neighborhood in some time?
At this point, it hadn't become common knowledge that Shannan had been on the phone with 911 when she went running from door-to-door. The press began to run wild when that was brought to light, with rumors that Shannan was screaming "they're trying to kill me," and the Gilbert family began to push for the 911 call to be released to the public. However, to this day, over half-a-decade after Shannan disappeared, that call has not been released. Rumors persist to this day over why the call hasn't been released, but the most persistent of those is that she was bounced around from jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction throughout the entire twenty-three minute call.
A few months after turning up the heat in the media, Mari Gilbert began pushing for the marsh behind Dr. Hackett's house to be dredged, thus allowing investigators time to fully search it. See, Dr. Hackett lived next door to Barbara Brennan, who owned the last house to receive a knock from Shannan on the night she disappeared. Dr. Hackett originally went against these wishes, not wanting the marsh to be drained, but consented after a month or so.
When the search for bodies finally picked up again, and the police began hitting their noted "ninety places of interest," that marsh would finally be drained. And Shannan Gilbert would finally be found.
The search began again in earnest the first week of December of 2011, nearly a year after the first four bodies had been discovered. Police still had as much of an idea as to who the killer was as they did then, but were hoping to either find some more evidence that could clue them along or to find more bodies and bring closure to missing persons stories.
On December 6th, they began searching one of their many places of interest, in the dredged marsh located behind Dr. Peter Hackett's house.
On December 6th, police would finally discover some trace of Shannan. Up until that point, she had presumably just vanished into thin air, but on that morning, they discovered her purse and some belongings of hers, which included her cell phone and her pair of jeans.
Officer John Mallia, who had been the person to discover the bodies of the four victims in burlap a year beforehand, was part of the search party that was searching throughout the area.
A week later, on December 13th, the searchers would stumble upon a body, which was identifiable due to the metal plate in the jaw of the skull.
The same day that police discovered the body of Shannan Gilbert, the families of the other victims were holding a candlelight vigil. Mari Gilbert had been there on that day, and was guided by the police investigators to the back porch of Dr. Peter Hackett, which offered her the best view of the area where Shannan's body was discovered.
She, however, was less than encouraged by how long it had taken police to find her daughter.
Police had to wait for the forensic examiners to fully look over Shannan Gilbert's remains and perform an autopsy to reveal a cause of death, but the early word was that she had died of the elements.
When she had gone missing, word had gotten out that Shannan suffered from bipolar disorder. That, in conjecture with her drug use and alleged use of cocaine, led many to believe that she simply got zonked out of her mind and stumbled out into an area that overwhelmed her.
However, her body was discovered just a few hundred feet away from the Ocean Parkway. At the time of morning that she disappeared, she would have seen cars driving by and would have kept travelling towards the road if she was in a serious emergency.
Also, it is worth noting, that on the day that she disappeared, the water level was low; low to the point of being a non-threat. Experts agreed that on the day Shannan disappeared, the area that she had wandered into had a water level less than a foot deep. If she had drowned, it was highly probable that she had drowned in six-to-eight inches of water.
When her body had been discovered, she had also been found without her jeans, and lying face-up.
What's most confusing about her discovery, however, is the absence of two hyoid bones in her throat. To many, this would imply that she had been strangled, but the Suffolk County medical examiners didn't think so.
In May of 2012, two years after she had run throughout the neighborhood of Oak Beach, Shannan Gilbert's death was finally ruled as accidental. She was said to have died of "misadventure," or otherwise via mishap. This is, however, after the medical examiners tested the exterior of her remains for any trace of cocaine, and found nothing.
What's confusing about this ruling from the medical examiner's office is that it ignores some of the evidence, such as the missing hyoid bones in Shannan's throat, and only tested for cocaine on the surface of the skeleton. They could have tested Shannan's bone marrow for evidence of cocaine use - or other drugs, for that matter - but for some reason, decided not to.
However, despite all of the speculation regarding her cause of death, Shannan Gilbert still hasn't been officially tied to the investigation of the Long Island Serial Killer. Despite years of tribulations faced by her mother in trying to get her case looked at further, Shannan Gilbert's death is still ruled as accidental.
In the latter part of 2012, investigators were still trying to gain any semblance of a lead in the case for the killer. Richard Dormer, the police commissioner, had been replaced by the newly-elected county executive Steve Bellone's favored candidate, Edward Webber.
By all indications, Webber followed through with District Attorney Thomas Spota's recommendation, that there were multiple killers. The notion was, at the time, that there were at least three serial killers operating in the area and dumping the bodies of prostitutes within a ten-mile stretch of land.
This is how police continued their investigation in the coming months, and unsurprisingly, no new evidence would come to light.
In the Fall of 2012, the investigation would face a new hurdle: mother nature herself. That October, Hurricane Sandy would strike the east coast of the United States, causing irrecoverable harm to the investigation and causing over seventy-five billion dollars worth of total damage.
It's impossible to know just how much of the investigation was forever changed by Hurricane Sandy. While I know it's not wise to argue what-ifs, one has to wonder just how much evidence was washed away by the insane winds and flooding, most of which impacted the New York and New Jersey area.
After the setback of Hurricane Sandy, the future was not bright for Suffolk County investigators. They wouldn't find any more bodies the following year, in 2013, and all investigators could do was try and piece together what they knew.
Rumors would begin to crop up that some of these rash of killings had been related to those in Atlantic City, where the bodies of four women - prostitutes, also - had been discovered outside a motel. This unknown killer, known as the Eastbound Strangler, had killed four women between October and November of 2006, and all four victims had been found fully-clothed and facing east.
One has to wonder if this would help fill in the gaps? Was this area of Long Island just one of his many dumping grounds? The links to remains discovered in Manorville point to "yes."
What's more, is that one of the victims discovered in Atlantic City was Facebook friends with Amber Costello. That might be a bit of a stretch, but one has to wonder if there's a connection there, in some small way? I'm sure the circles that prostitutes run in aren't huge, but at that time, in 2006, Facebook wasn't nearly as well-known as it is now. It served as more of a networking tool.
Dave Schaller, the best friend and roommate of Amber Costello, definitely thinks that her killer was someone she knew.
"It's unclear why, but something made her trust him," recalled Schaller, who said his cellphone was used for one of their conversations and that he overheard parts of it. "It was like she knew him."
Police haven't officially connected any of the Long Island victims to the Atlantic City victims, but a possibility remains that there is a link between the two.
A possible link between the Atlantic City and Long Island victims is a man known as John Bittrolff.
John Bittrolff lived in the Manorville area of Long Island, where he was married, had two children, and worked as a carpenter. By all accounts, he was a regular guy, who had lived in the community without issue for decades.
In 2014, John's brother, Timothy, was arrested on charges of criminal contempt for violating an order of protection. Police, like always, take evidence from everyone arrested and check it in their DNA database.
Surprisingly, the DNA pinged something. Not Timothy's DNA, but someone related to him.
In the early 90s, two women in the Manorville area had been brutally strangled, beaten, and left for dead in the woods. Their bodies had been posed in such a way that the bodies were quickly linked together, and their killer evaded justice for over two decades.
That is, until Suffolk County police managed to get ahold of John Bittrolff's DNA, and it provided a clear match to those two cold cases.
Ever since then, 2014, Bittrolff has been facing trial for those two murders. He has also been tied to a third similar crime, which occurred in the same time period in November of 1993, but beyond that, no official link has been made to connect him to the victims found near Gilgo Beach.
Many view him as a prime suspect in the case, due to his close proximity to the Manorville victims, which include Jessica Taylor. He lived just miles away from where those torsos were discovered, and many find it odd that he's linked to those three cold cases but none others. Many skeptics don't believe that a serial offender would strike three times over the period of two months, and then avoid killing altogether from then on.
If we go back to the words of forensic psychologist N.G. Berrill, this is perhaps an instance of a killer who adapted. In the killings he's been charged with, Bittrolff did nothing to hide the bodies, and left crucial evidence behind. It's very possible that he continued to strike, adapting as he went along.
It is also worth nothing that one of Bittrolff's alleged victims, Rita Tangredi, had a daughter. That daughter had grown up to become best friends with Melissa Barthelemy, the first body discovered in burlap.
Police have theorized that the Long Island Serial Killer had stalked Melissa, due to the knowledge he had of her life and her sister. Even though police have supposedly cleared Bittrolff's name of any Long Island crimes, I find it hard to believe that this is all just coincidence.
Other than Bittrolff, there have been no serious leads into other suspects.
Many have suspected Akeem Cruz, also known as "Vybe," the pimp and boyfriend of Megan Waterman. In the year after her disappearance, Cruz served a 20-month sentence for drug trafficking and other prostitution-related offenses, for working as a pimp. While he was in prison, Waterman's family plead with police to keep him there until she was located, and he was then sentenced to a three-year sentence for violating the Mann Act, transporting Megan over state lines for prostitution. During his sentence, Cruz completely refused to cooperate with police, not telling them any details of the night Megan disappeared, and whether he was with her at any point during her last, fatal client meetup.
Others have tried to link convicted serial killer Joel Rifkin, who lived and operated in the Long Island area, to the crimes, but I just don't see it. The earliest victim linked to the Gilgo Beach dumping grounds was killed in 1996, two years after Rifkin began serving his life sentence. While it is possible that the killer is someone inspired by Rifkin, who also preyed upon prostitutes in the New York area, the idea of him being the killer is preposterous to me.
Many have continued to suspect the men involved in Shannan Gilbert's final night, including her driver, Michael Pak; her client, Joseph Brewer; and Brewer's neighbor, Dr. Peter Hackett. Police have come out and definitively stated that none of those three have been persons of interest in Shannan's disappearance, let alone any of the murders. Both Brewer and Hackett have moved from the area, both claiming that their lives were ruined by the suspicious allegations that embroiled them and their families.
Other than the suspects, we only have leads that police have undoubtedly followed up on.
Investigators have looked at the possibility of a police officer being the killer, but come up with nothing. This was due to the fact that whomever contacted Amanda, Melissa Barthelemy's sister, seemed to have some knowledge of police tracking techniques. He knew to get off of the phone after a couple of minutes, called from heavily populated area full of tourists, and knew how to cover his tracks. Once the story broke, no other calls were made.
Besides that connection, investigators uncovered that one of the final people to be in-contact with Maureen Brainard-Barnes was a Staten Island police officer, who was acting as a client and not a part of any police investigation.
Other than that lead, there is a strong likelihood that the killer - or killers - are decently skilled in certain technical skills. While it wouldn't require a technical genius for the killer to stay anonymous online, the fact that he managed to mask his IP address implies some knowledge of VPN's, online tools that allow users to mask their IP address with another. Again, these don't require a genius to use, but in the mid-2000s were more difficult to obtain and less widely-used.
The possibility also exists that whoever killed the victims was a frequent drug user, someone who particularly used cocaine. Kim Overstreet, the sister of Amber Costello, has urged the police and media to continue investigating this lead, as almost all of the victims were drug users that could have provided the killer with his drug-of-choice.
A much-lesser-sought-after clue was that of the burlap bags that Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, and Amber Costello's remains were found in. Many people have theorized that whomever abducted and killed the four of them had access to burlap bags aplenty, at least to the point where transporting them wouldn't seem out-of-the-ordinary. Online theorists have pointed to some of the nearby parks as being a potential place-of-employment for this person, perhaps as a park ranger; where walking through the bramble at any time of day or night and carrying burlap bags wouldn't seem too peculiar.
One thing I haven't really spoken about, throughout these episodes, is the relationship between Suffolk County and the FBI.
Early on in the investigation, the FBI had offered its assistance. The FBI often helps to assist in any search for a serial killer, since so many serial killers cross state-lines. Suffolk County, however, kept the FBI at arm's length. The FBI supplied a personality profile for the probable killer back in 2011, which detailed the likely psychological map of the killer's life.
They surmised that he was somewhere between his late-twenties and his mid-forties, that he is a white man who likely has a girlfriend or is married, that he is well-educated and works a stable job. It is possible that he had been to the hospital for poison ivy treatment, as he undoubtedly came in contact with the vine during his many travels in the Gilgo Beach brush. The FBI profilers also pointed out the easy access to burlap sacks, or figured that he may have just bought a decent supply of them at one point.
However, despite the FBI's insistence for further help, Suffolk County refused. The rationale was unknown at the time, but was exposed in 2014, when the long-serving police chief, James Burke, was arrested amidst a corruption scheme.
It would turn out that Burke had long been taking advantage of his position as police chief to get away with being a criminal. He had frequented prostitutes in his youth, had allegedly dabbled in drug dealing and minor crimes, and even confessed to driving drunk multiple times on the job, but he finally fell in hot water when he got so bold as to physically and verbally torture a prisoner who had stolen his SUV and unearthed a bag of sex toys. While this sounds like something out of a ridiculous cop show, I guarantee you that it's a true story.
Burke would plead guilty, just earlier this year in 2016, but the corruption scheme would go all the way up to District Attorney Thomas Spota. Allegations have been made that paint Spota in a very negative light, and do nothing to repair his reputation as someone that damaged the integrity of the investigation itself.
Apparently, James Burke wanted to avoid bringing in the FBI to completely avoid any of his own misdeeds from coming to light. So, even though the largest crime-fighting organization in America offered to help find this sick killer, with the best criminal profilers and forensic analysts that money can employ, Burke decided to say no because he wanted to continue being a corrupt cop.
Thankfully, Burke was eventually discovered and kicked out of office. He has since plead guilty to charges of corruption, among others, but Spota, the D.A. who pushed the idea of multiple killers, now finds himself on the ropes and facing opposition from all sides... including the FBI.
In December of 2015, the FBI announced that they were joining the investigation into the Long Island Serial Killer. It had been over five years since the original four bodies had been discovered, and likely any chance of unearthing forensic evidence from the crime scenes themselves, but finally the investigation was being handed off to a higher power.
One has to wonder just how much James Burke and Thomas Spota damaged the integrity of the investigation for the simple sake of a man's greed.
2015 was a big year not only for the investigation of finding this unknown serial killer, but also for finding out the fate of Shannan Gilbert.
Police had long since established the story: after meeting up with Joseph Brewer, Shannan had run off into the night in a drug-fueled frenzy, where she eventually fell into a bog and, ultimately drowned. However, no drugs were found in her system, and her cause of death was ruled as being inconclusive. But, again, medical examiners didn't do a scan of her bone marrow for any illicit narcotics, for some unknown reason.
Mari Gilbert, Shannan's mother, had long since argued the cause of Shannan's death as being unnatural. For years now, she had pointed some amount of blame at Dr. Peter Hackett for being involved in her death, and hired an attorney to file a suit claiming such.
As part of this pending lawsuit, Mari Gilbert and her attorney, John Ray, acquired the services of Michael Baden, who was at one point, the New York state medical examiner. He was a guy with an established professional record, whose opinion would be highly valued in any criminal investigation.
Baden was brought in to perform a second autopsy of Shannan's body, to try and find anything that might have been missed or ignored in her prior screening.
In February of 2016, Gilbert's attorney, John Ray, made those autopsy results public, along with a statement written by Michael Baden.
Baden wrote that Shannan Gilbert's death was most likely caused by strangulation, due to the absence of her larynx and the missing hyoid bones from her throat. Baden ruled that these were undoubtedly "signs of homicidal strangulation," words he wrote explicitly in his report.
This went completely at-odds with what the Suffolk County police had originally found in their own autopsy, and they had never investigated Shannan's disappearance or death as a potential homicide. Even after this report went viral, and was submitted into the public record of Mari Gilbert's pending civil suit against Dr. Peter Hackett, police chose not to say whether or not they were opening up a homicide investigation for Shannan Gilbert.
This was a huge score for the Gilbert family, but another tragedy was incoming.
Just a handful of months later, in July of 2016, Mari Gilbert would be murdered by another of her daughters, Sarra.
Over the years, it had been revealed to the Gilbert family that Sarra suffered from schizophrenia, leading to ten hospitalizations as she tried to come to grips with the disease. Her mental disorder began to manifest itself in an extreme way weeks before this tragic occurrence, due in part to her going off of her medication and going as far as killing the family dog in front of her eight-year-old son before this tragic outbreak.
Needless to say, this was yet another terrible tragedy for the Gilbert family to have to face.
I wish that I could end the podcast on some kind of high note, but unfortunately, there's not much more story to tell.
While investigators have long debated whether this is the tale of a single serial killer or multiple, the facts are still true: nearly a dozen victims - mainly women but also one man - have been killed by an unknown, unidentified terror that has escaped justice for these crimes.
In December of 2015, the bodies of two women were discovered in the woods outside of Brockton, Massachussets. FBI profilers that looked at the case viewed the killer as someone who had killed before, and would likely kill again. Both victims - one aged fifty years old and the other just twenty - were prostitutes and both known to have issues with drugs. Sound familiar?
In July of 2015, a prostitute working in Charleston, West Virginia was shocked when a client - an unassuming middle-aged man named Neal - turned violent on her. She battled for her life, eventually able to grab the man's gun, and shot and killed him. That man, now known as Neal Falls, was a potential serial killer who had a trunk full of devices and tools intended to kill and dispose of that prostitute's body - had she not fought back.
Police have been working on re-tracing the footsteps of Neal Falls, and think that he may be responsible for the deaths of multiple women across the country. His potential victims most likely all worked as prostitutes and advertised their services online.
Even if these final two stories have nothing to do with the story, they show a trend of these victims being targeted as nothing more than sport. Ever since Jack the Ripper rose to notoriety, the sadistic among us have viewed these victims as targets because of their place in society: they are poor, they are weak, and they are easily forgotten. We can only hope this changes, because these are our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, our friends, our neighbors. Given a different set of circumstances, they might be us.
To this day, the identity of the Long Island Serial Killer remains unresolved.
Sources and further reading
- "Lost Girls" by Robert Kolker
- Wikipedia: The Long Island Serial Killer
- The New York Times - "The New Prostitutes"
- PIX 11 - "Early evidence of LI serial killer appeared 20 years ago on Fire Island"
- Huffington Post - "Remains Found On Beach Tied To 1996 Homicide"
- Websleuths: Fire Island Jane Doe
- Newsday - "Gilgo Beach Murders"
- Newsday - "Gilgo victim a natural helper"
- Newday - "Did Gilgo victims let their guard down?"
- Vice - "Inside the Bizarre, Unsolved Case of the Long Island Serial Killer"
- Press Herald - "Man pleads guilty to prostitution-related charge in Waterman case"
- New York Daily News - "Multiple Killers Dumped Ocean Parkway Victims"
- New York - "A Serial Killer In Common"
- The Daily Beast - "Melissa Barthelemy: The Long Island Serial Killer Victim's Secret Life"
- Hartford Courant - "Sister Of Victim Won't Stop Tracking Case Until Serial Killer Is Caught"
- NJ.com - "Jersey City prostitute still missing after 13 months of searching"
- The New York Times - "Officer and His Dog Play Key Role in Hunt for Remains"
- The New York Times - "Growing Body Count, but Search for a Woman Goes On"
- The New York Times - "Discovery Raises Suspicion of a Serial Killer"
- CBS - "'48 Hours' uncovers missing escort Shannan Gilbert's final minutes"
- CBS - "'48 Hours' - The Long Island Serial Killer"
- Newsday - "Chilling find links LI dumping grounds"
- PIX 11 - "The hunt for a serial killer: Revisiting the Gilgo Beach murders"
- The New York Times - "Bright, Careful, and Sadistic: Profiling Long Island's Mystery Serial Killer"
- Psychology Today - "Long Island's Serial Killer, Where Are You Now?"
- The New York Times - "Identifying Another Victim, Officials Raise Possibility of a 2nd L.I. Killer"
- SI Live - "Ex-Staten Island cop was one of last people to contact prostitute killed by Long Island serial killer, source says"
- Newsday - "Dormer, Spota class over Gilgo case"
- Fox News - "Famed coroner Baden seeks to autopsy remains of Craigslist escort"
- New York - "Shannan Gilbert's Mother Sues Doctor, Claiming He Could Have Prevented Her Death"
- PIX 11 - "New Shannan Gilbert autopsy reveals 'disturbing' findings in Gilgo Beach case, medical examiner says"
- CNN - "Report: Shannan Gilbert could have been strangled"
- Huffington Post - "Long Island Serial Killer Is Seasonal Visitor, Expert Scott Bonn Contends"
- New York Post - "Two more faces of death"
- New York Daily News - "At least three killers dumped bodies at Long Island's Gilgo Beach: Suffolk County DA"
- Daily Mail - "'Craigslist Ripper' police reveal up to FOUR killers may have dumped bodies on Long Island beach as new victim is identified"
- Newsday - "Before serial murder probe, LI already had... unsolved mysteries of dumped bodies"
- PIX 11 - "From Gilgo Beach to Atlantic City: A serial killer by the sea"
- PIX 11 - "As Suffolk County DA is told to resign over allegations of criminal wrongdoing, exclusive details of alleged acts are revealed"
- NBC News - "Long Island Murder Suspect May Be Linked to Three Deaths, Say Officials"
- The New York Times - "Two Decades After Pair of Killings on Long Island, Authorities Make an Arrest"
- The New York Times - "Suffolk County District Attorney on Defensive as U.S. Inquiry Expands"
- New York Post - "Busted ex-police chief blocked FBI probe of Gilgo Beach murders"
- New York Daily News - "Mother of Shannan Gilbert, believed to be Gilgo Beach murder victim, found stabbed to death; other daughter charged in slaying"
- Newsday - "Sarra Gilbert pleads not guilty in mom Mari Gilbert's killing"
- WCVB 5 - "Brockton killer likely did it before, may do it again, experts say"
- People - "Sex Worker Who Unwittingly Killed An Alleged Serial Killer 'Saved Lives,' Say Cops"
- Village Voice - "Long Island Serial Killer Connection: Cocaine?"