WEST SENECA, N.Y. - Melissa Barthelemy was remembered Monday night as a smiling young woman whose life came to an incomprehensible end.
More than 18 months after the 24-year-old Buffalo hairdresser disappeared from her Bronx apartment, those who knew her best gathered for the first time in her native Western New York to say their tearful goodbyes.
"She loved the fast life, drinking, partying, her friends. She loved her friends," cousin Ashley Martina, 20, said lovingly, following a memorial service at Life Church in the Buffalo suburb of West Seneca, where more than 200 friends and family paid their respects.
During the ceremony, the Rev. Craig McLeod told those who knew her: "I cannot imagine a greater tragedy."
Barthelemy's body was among those of four women whose remains were found near Gilgo Beach in December, possibly at the hands of a serial killer who is still at large, police said.
All of the women had advertised as escorts in the New York City area on Craigslist and other websites, police said.
The family's attorney, Steven Cohen, said, "Melissa's death was avoidable and the grief shared here should save lives in the future if people are smart enough to learn from it."
The Rev. Patricia Guinn, a friend of her grandfather Elmer Barthelemy, spoke at length near an urn containing Barthelemy's ashes.
"Parents and grandparents do not ever want to bury a child or grandchild. It's supposed to be the other way around," she said.
Barthelemy was last seen alive July 12, 2009, around the time her regular calls to family members abruptly ceased.
Guinn acknowledged "rage" among family members at the nature of her death and urged them to "channel that energy into helping other women who are walking in Melissa's shoes."
The remains of three other women - Amber Lynn Costello, 27, of North Babylon, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, of Norwich, Conn., and Megan Waterman, 22, of Scarborough, Maine - were discovered within less than a mile of one another.
Barthelemy had worked as a hairdresser in Buffalo before moving to New York City in 2007, where she rented a basement apartment in the Bronx for $700 a month. She later advertised her services as an escort.
Also in attendance were NYPD detectives William McGroarty and Anthony Siuiglia, who have been involved in the case since Barthelemy's disappearance.
"I'm the kind of guy who takes things personally sometimes," McGroarty said with a tear in his eye.
"I would talk to the family every two weeks for almost two years. You develop a relationship," he said. "We wanted to make sure they know we're not going to give up on the case."
Andre Funderburgh, who identified himself as the father of Melissa's younger sister Amanda, left the service overcome by emotion as pictures of Melissa posing with siblings, dressed up for Halloween or smiling on Christmas were displayed.
"She really cared about other people," he said.