They are murder victims -- not prostitutes who deserved to die. Family members repeated that message over and over as they gathered on a bleak strip of barrier island yesterday to remember three of the women whose remains were found in the Gilgo Beach area last year.
"We want the girls remembered as who they were, not what they did," said Lorraine Ela, the mother of Megan Waterman, whose remains were uncovered in December along with those of Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy and Amber Costello.
Six more sets of remains have been found this year on the barrier island.
"It doesn't matter what they did for a profession. They were victims and this guy needs to be brought to justice before he hurts another family," said Lynn Barthelemy, Melissa's mother.
Ela planned the vigil, held in Oak Beach a few miles from where the remains of four women were found in December, and was joined by relatives of Brainard-Barnes and Barthelemy. The vigil was designed to show solidarity and to keep up pressure to have the crimes solved, she said.
Waterman, 22, was last seen alive June 6, 2010; Barthelemy, 24, disappeared in June 2009, Brainard-Barnes, 25, in 2007, and Costello, 27, in September of last year. All four worked as prostitutes, police have said.
The family of another woman, Shannan Gilbert, 24, also appeared at the vigil. It was during a search for Gilbert, who is still missing, that the remains of Barthelemy, Waterman, Brainard-Barnes and Costello were found.
"People look at these girls like they were castaways, forgotten about and that's not true," said Melissa Cann, the sister of Brainard-Barnes. "They weren't faceless people."
Long Island native Patricia Becker, a Brooklyn attorney, said she attended the vigil because she wanted to show support for the women.
"I read how one of the victims' families felt Long Island was just a place of professionals . . . who don't care about these women," said Becker, who grew up in Mineola. "I grew up here . . . these girls have families who love them just like we do."
Penelope Saunders of the Sex Workers Outreach Project's New York City chapter said she was impressed by the families' struggle for justice for their loved ones.
"Whatever you feel about people in sex work, human rights abuses and violence are not acceptable and all of us in the community need to take a stand against that," she said.
During the vigil, the relatives spoke about their loved ones before releasing balloons and laying flowers at the sites where the bodies were found.
They said they have developed a strong bond.
"We may have lost, but we have gained an extended family," said Mari Gilbert, Shannan's mother.
Melissa Barthelemy's grandfather Elmer Barthelemy placed a cross he'd made with her name on it at the site where her remains where found.
"I remember baby-sitting her, how she loved to have Oreo cookies for breakfast . . .," the 64-year-old maintenance worker said. "The best thing is to remember how great she was."