The sobbing woman was begging 911 dispatchers to rescue her, yelling into the phone from the seaside community of Oak Beach. She banged on the door of resident Gustav Coletti, who let her in and then called 911 himself.
"She said, 'Help me! Help me!' " Coletti, 75, recalled Wednesday. He said he told the 911 dispatcher: "I don't know what it's all about but she's screaming for help."
When Suffolk police arrived at the scene, the woman, Shannan Gilbert, 24, was gone. Gilbert, a Jersey City prostitute who came to Oak Beach to meet a client, has not been seen since that May 1 morning, police and her family members have said. Her disappearance prompted a missing-person probe by her frantic family, who now worry that she may be one of the four skeletal remains recently found in thick brush off Ocean Parkway near Oak Beach.
Just when Suffolk authorities arrived at the scene remains in dispute as police continued their probe of Gilbert's disappearance. Late in the afternoon, police visited the Oak Beach house of Joseph Brewer, who told Newsday he summoned Gilbert for a "date" after contacting her through Craigslist.
While Gilbert's family members await DNA testing of the bones, they say they believe that Suffolk police did not respond quickly to Gilbert's 911 call. Suffolk Dep. Insp. Gerard McCarthy, commanding officer of the Special Services Bureau, said in an interview that the response to the 911 calls was not "immediate." He said Gilbert was "incoherent" and gave a vague location of "near Jones Beach" while talking to 911 dispatchers, making it difficult to get to her quickly. He could not provide the time officers arrived on the scene.
Coletti said an officer from the police marine unit arrived about 30 minutes after he called 911. If true, Gilbert's family said that would mean authorities didn't arrive until 40 to 45 minutes after her 4:51 a.m. 911 call. They have that time from Gilbert's cell phone records, which they say show she was on the phone to 911 operators for 23 minutes.
"If somebody had gotten there within 10 or 15 minutes, my niece, most likely, would be alive," said Gilbert's aunt, Lori Grove, 51, of Williamsburg, Pa. "She was on the phone with police for more than 20 minutes. Why did no one get there?"
Family members say they received so little official information from Jersey City police - to whom they first reported Gilbert missing - and Suffolk police that they launched their own probe, going so far as to knock on doors in Oak Beach, contacting Brewer and the man who says he drove her to Oak Beach.
Suffolk and Jersey City police defended their probe. McCarthy said Suffolk sent units to Oak Beach twice on May 1 and later sent canine units to canvass a wide area of the barrier beach. Brewer and Gilbert's driver have told Newsday they were extensively questioned by Suffolk detectives and took lie detector tests administered by police. Police have not confirmed the use of lie detector tests.
"It's certainly true that families don't get updates on their cases, breaking leads," McCarthy said. "The difficulty we run into is if we give out pieces of information that could compromise a case."
Stan Eason, a spokesman for Jersey City police, said the department initiated the missing-person case in May and worked diligently. "Our efforts and commitment to this case led to the initial and follow-up searches that are still ongoing," he said.
Sometime in early summer, Suffolk police said they stopped searching the underbrush and marshy areas along Ocean Parkway. It wasn't until Saturday when a canine officer and his dog working farther west along the road found the remains.
Suffolk police described the 911 call Gilbert made, though they did not release it. Talking to a Suffolk dispatcher, Gilbert "intimates that she's being threatened," McCarthy said. Voices in the background tell her to calm down, he said.
"She's drifting in and out, intoxicated, I would say," McCarthy said.
Gilbert's sister, Sherre, said Gilbert had a history of mental illness and drug abuse that often manifested itself as irrational behavior.
Early in the call, Gilbert was transferred to a dispatcher for New York State Police, McCarthy said. State Police spokesman Frank Bandiero did not return multiple phone messages Wednesday.
With a phone in hand, Gilbert ran from the house while talking to the dispatcher. Coletti said he opened his front door and she ran inside. He then called 911 and Gilbert ran off, McCarthy said.
A marine bureau sergeant who came in later in the morning sent more manpower to do a more thorough search of the area and authorized a helicopter search, McCarthy said.
A couple of weeks later, her sisters, Sarra and Sherre Gilbert, traveled from upstate Ellenville to Oak Beach. They spoke to neighbors, walked along the roads, and spoke with Brewer. Just before leaving, Sarra said she reached down on the ground and found an earring that had fallen from her sister's ear.
With Paul LaRocco, Matthew Chayes, Sophia Chang
and Jennifer Smith