Nineteen months after she vanished, Suffolk police Tuesday found what they believe to be the skeletal remains of Shannan Gilbert, whose disappearance led to the discovery of a serial killing dumping ground around Gilgo Beach.
Homicide detectives riding an amphibious machine located the remains on the surface of a dense wetland thicket less than a mile from the Oak Beach community where Gilbert, 24, who had worked as a prostitute, was last seen alive May 1, 2010, during a visit to a client.
"We have . . . at approximately 9:14 a.m. located a set of skeletal remains we believe at this time to belong to the missing Shannan Gilbert," Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said. "Of course we will not know for sure if it's Shannan until the medical examiner confirms whether the remains belong to her."
Gilbert -- who was behaving irrationally, according to police and witnesses -- appears to have stumbled up to three-fourths of a mile on foot into the thick, treacherous bramble and never made it out.
"The brambles and thick brush, the terrain, would have made it impossible to get" through, Dormer said Tuesday at a news conference in Oak Beach.
The Suffolk County medical examiner's office will conduct an autopsy to positively identify the remains and determine the cause of death, a police spokesman said.
Police have been operating under a theory that she drowned. The area where the remains were found Tuesday had been drained recently.
The dramatic discovery was the latest chapter in a case that has prompted one of the largest police investigations in Suffolk County history.
The hunt for Gilbert, of Jersey City, N.J., led to the discovery of 10 other sets of remains in the Gilgo and Oak Beach vicinity since last December. Police believe the eight women, one man and a female toddler were the victims of a serial killer on Long Island who targets sex workers and remains at large.
But police have said they do not believe Gilbert was a homicide victim. Dormer took note that four of the women were discovered almost exactly one year ago. "It was coincidental, and certainly I don't know if that's a signal that maybe we will get a break in the other cases," Dormer said.
Chief of Detectives Dominick Varrone said investigators would return to the area Wednesday to examine the scene.
Near other items found
The remains thought to be Gilbert's were a quarter-mile northeast of where police last week found her pocketbook, along with a cellphone, tattered jeans, shoes and lip gloss they believe belonged to her.
The location of the remains are "indicative of her trying to make it to the causeway," Dormer said. "It's possible that she could see the lights and was attempting to get there."
Investigators had to cut away the brush in the dense-growth area and remove water from a nearby marsh to locate the remains. Dormer described the area as a "very, very tough, desolate, tangled mess" and said "there is no way Shannan Gilbert could have made it through that mess to get to the parkway."
Varrone said investigators believe Gilbert entered the brush somewhere along Anchor Way and The Bayou -- two roads inside the gated Oak Beach community -- and tried to run through the marsh.
Varrone, pointing out how daunting the terrain is, said, "That's how she lost her shoes, probably lost her pants."
He said the theory is that Gilbert continued to the point of exhaustion, then collapsed.
"Once she got to the edge of the bramble there's at least 75 yards of thick, thick bramble between the marsh and the road. There is no way she could get through there," Dormer said.
Reactions: relief, doubt
Asked why the remains eluded previous searchers, Dormer said, "That area was not searched as thoroughly as we searched it [this time] with the machines that we had in there, cutting down the brambles and the brush."
"As one of the last people to see her, I have always held out hope that she would be found alive," Brewer said in a statement.
Michael Pak, the driver who took Gilbert to Brewer's home that night, said he was "relieved" police apparently located her remains.
"Finally -- they found her," Pak said. "It's not their [the police department's] fault. It was muddy or watery out there."
Both Brewer and Pak were interviewed by police after Gilbert's disappearance. Neither has been called a suspect, and both men said they have passed lie detector tests.
Lori Grove, Gilbert's aunt, said she could not understand why police did not find her body earlier -- if it is her -- and thinks she ran into the marsh because her life was in danger and she was being chased.
"I can't imagine anybody in the dark voluntarily wandering off into a place where they obviously couldn't wade through it," she said. "I believe she was taken there."
With Jennifer Barrios,
John Valenti, Robert Lewis and Kathleen Kerr
THE NIGHT SHE VANISHED
About 1 a.m. on May 1, 2010, Shannan Gilbert left Manhattan after a midnight liaison with a client for another appointment in Oak Beach. Here is a timeline of her movements, according to witnesses, phone records, police or sources with knowledge of the probe:
2 a.m.: Gilbert arrives at the home of her client, Joseph Brewer, who answered her ad on Craigslist. Her driver, Michael Pak, waits outside. More than two hours later, Brewer asks her to leave. According to Brewer, she demanded money "and started getting all weird."
4:51 a.m.: Gilbert calls 911. During the 20-minute call, she "seemed disoriented, confused" and "did not seem rational," said Suffolk Chief of Detectives Dominick Varrone.
After 5 a.m.: Gilbert runs out of Brewer's house to the home of a neighbor, Gustav Coletti. She told him her life was in danger, but bolted and ran when he said he would call police.
The last reported sighting of Gilbert was closer to the inlet near the home of another neighbor, Barbara Brennan, who called police at 5:22 a.m. Police came within 10 minutes of the call, but could not find her, Varrone said.