Gilbert family: We're closer to the truth

Mari Gilbert, mother of missing woman Shannan Gilbert,

Mari Gilbert, mother of missing woman Shannan Gilbert, pictured in the A&E program, "The Long Island Serial Killer," which aired Dec. 5, 2011. (Credit: Nick Kiehl)

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ELLENVILLE, N.Y. - Mari Gilbert looked at what Suffolk police brought from Oak Beach and recognized the property of her missing daughter, Shannan, a family member said.

The recovery of Gilbert's personal effects has brought fresh anguish to a family that for 19 months pressed police to find her. As long as no body has been found, they have clung to hope she could be alive.

The finds in searches this week of a pocketbook positively identified as Gilbert's, and her ID, a cellphone and ballet-style shoes believed to be hers, were a breakthrough for the investigation. But closure still eludes the Gilberts.

"This gets us closer to finding out the truth about what happened that night," Shannan Gilbert's sister, Sarra, 22, said Thursday at her upstate Ellenville home. "I hope her body's not found. I'd rather her be alive somewhere."

Searchers discovered the belongings Tuesday and Wednesday. Officers traveled to Ellenville Wednesday night to the home of Mari Gilbert, Sarra Gilbert said. "She looked at the stuff and saw that it was Shannan's," Sarra Gilbert said.

Police declined to comment on any contact with the family.

Mari Gilbert is devastated, her boyfriend, Elroy Schulterbrandt, said Thursday.

"She's OK but it's painful. It's different now that they found personal items. . . . It's a sense of reality. It's more real than before," he said.

Gilbert spent part of her childhood in Ellenville, a town of 4,000 at the eastern base of the Catskills. After high school, she set out in pursuit of show-business dreams but ended up in prostitution.

Gilbert, 24, of Jersey City, N.J., was last seen in the Oak Beach area in May 2010 after she ran from the home of a client, police and family have said. A search for her last December led to the discovery of as many as 10 other sets of remains, including several prostitutes who police believe were the victims of a serial killer.

Investigators don't believe Gilbert was one of those murder victims. Instead, their theory is she may have drowned. But Mari Gilbert said Wednesday she thinks that whatever happened to her daughter, "it was no accident."

The family has kept close watch on the case. Mari Gilbert and several relatives came to Long Island on May 1 -- the first anniversary of her disappearance -- to retrace Shannan's steps. They knocked on doors, stood on the beach, held hands and prayed.

In Ellenville Thursday, Gilbert's relatives remained on edge, their minds always on Shannan. In simple script, her name is tattooed onto Sarra Gilbert's right wrist, a permanent reminder of her big sister.

Sarra Gilbert's 2-year-old son, Hayden, is too young to remember his aunt but knows her from his mother's stories.

"Shannan, Shannan," Hayden said Thursday, pointing to a newscast on television.

Sarra Gilbert scooped up the toddler. "No matter how many bodies or items are found, we just want the answer," she said.

With Tania Lopez and Zachary R. Dowdy

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