Until December, their communities were quiet, isolated stretches of beachfront homes where surfboards leaned casually against wooden decks and gardens were dotted with seashells and miniature lighthouses.
But now, residents in Oak Beach and Gilgo Beach are living under the shadow of a murder investigation that has so far uncovered the remains of five people within a few miles of their peaceful enclaves. The police searches that began in December and resumed last week are scheduled to continue Monday from Oak Beach to the Nassau County line. Police said the purpose of the search is to look for the remains of Shannan Gilbert, 24, a Jersey City woman who vanished after running from an Oak Beach home last May. Gilbert, like the others whose bodies have been identified, had worked as a prostitute. Investigators are working to identify the fifth body.
Residents in Oak Beach -- a tight-knit community with about 150 homes -- said they fear the hunt for a serial killer taints the image of their unassuming community.
"It kind of puts us on the map for something I'd honestly prefer it not be on a map for," said Jennifer Cantin, 43, who has lived in the community for 12 years. Cantin said the first entries on a Google search of Oak Beach are always related to the murders. "It's unfortunate that the first thing people find out about Oak Beach is this."
Oak Beach resident Eileen Perry, 53, said that while the investigation may have affected outsiders' views, little has changed for residents, other than the inconvenience of police checkpoints during searches.
"I don't feel I'm any more nervous, but I am more aware of my surroundings," she said.
She said fear about the unknown killer has caused one neighbor to halt her 4 a.m. running routine. "She never gave it a thought before, but now she feels a little unsettled," Perry said.
Cantin, who said she also stopped running for a time, said most upsetting is having her 9-year-old son hear graphic rumors about the bodies from classmates. "It's something you don't want to have to talk to your young child about," she said.
Tim Turri, 48, said his 24-year-old niece who lives with him now leaves a light on outside. But most residents, he said, probably aren't fazed by all the hubbub. "For the people I know, it's not even a thought," he said.
Gilgo Beach residents echoed this sentiment. "It's a little too close to home but I don't think any of us have anything to worry about," said Tim Baker, 25.
"The people I've spoken to barely even talk about it," said Andy Schupak, 58. "I don't think this is at the level of the Boston Strangler or Jack the Ripper, and I don't think people here look at it that way."
But serial killer gossip still consumes outsiders, residents said. Bob LaRosa, 73, was on vacation in Arizona and had people stare at him slack-jawed when he said he was from Oak Beach. "I think it does tarnish our image," he said.
When Cantin visited the post office recently, a worker saw her Oak Beach address and commented on the serial killer investigation, Cantin said. "Then she said, 'Don't feel bad, I know what it's like. I'm from Amityville,' " Cantin said with a laugh, referring to the "Amityville Horror" legend that has plagued residents for decades. "So other people have gone through this, too."
With Andrew Strickler