Gilbert vanishing reaches one-year mark

Jennifer Pottinger, who was the foster mother of Jennifer Pottinger, who was the foster mother of Shannan Gilbert in the early 2000s, holds a 2003 New Paltz High School graduation photo of Gilbert in her New Paltz, N.Y. home. Gilbert, who is still missing, is the genesis of a search that has uncovered at least 10 other remains along a stretch of beach areas along Nassau and Suffolk counties' South shore. (April 13, 2011) Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

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Shannan Gilbert stood on a clamorous street in midtown Manhattan, ready for work.

It was April 30, 2010, a seasonably warm spring Friday night. Clad in tight dark jeans, black strappy sandals, a low-cut blouse, and a brown leather jacket, she wore her blond hair loose over silver hoop earrings.

Gilbert, then 23 and working as a prostitute, police say, had come from Jersey City to set up appointments with men responding to her Craigslist ad.

At the corner of 32nd Street and 6th Avenue, she pulled out her cellphone and called her driver, Michael Pak, he said. It was 10:02 p.m.

Her mood was calm, Pak would later recall. "She sounded normal," he said. "Everything was OK. Inside Pak's SUV, Gilbert changed into dark leather boots and posted an ad on Craigslist, he said. By midnight, she was at her first appointment, a man in a nearby apartment, Pak said.

Over the next six hours, Gilbert's work would unexpectedly take her from the city to a secluded community on Long Island's South Shore, and by early the next morning, she had vanished.

 

Her disappearance one year ago Sunday sparked what would become one of the largest police investigations in Suffolk County history, uncover as many as 10 sets of human remains in the Gilgo and Oak Beach areas, and generate widespread fear of a serial killer on Long Island.

Yet Gilbert's whereabouts remain a mystery, a puzzle that cops have tried to piece together through the scant clues she left, including phone records, and interviews with those who last saw her on Oak Beach, and family and others who knew her. Suffolk police have interviewed Pak and the man they say was her last known client, Joseph Brewer, 46, of Oak Beach. Neither man, nor anyone else, has been identified as a suspect, police say, and both men say they have taken lie detector tests.

This account of the hours before Gilbert disappeared is based on interviews with the last people who saw her, Gilbert's cellphone records, which Newsday obtained from her family, and police at various points in the investigation. Portions of some accounts by witnesses have been corroborated by sources familiar with the probe, while others could not be independently confirmed.

 

'Nobody could control her'

A foster child who drifted through several towns and odd jobs after high school, Gilbert had been a call girl since at least 2007, say family and police records. Pak said she began advertising online in 2009.

That year, while working for a Jersey City agency, she met Pak, who identified himself to Newsday as an escort driver. Pak, 41, had served six months in prison after pleading guilty in August 2004 to a federal charge of conspiracy to misuse a passport. He was arrested on May 11, 2004, at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport after flying from Zurich with a woman from China who had a U.S. passport in someone else's name, according to the indictment.

Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Michael Worley said Pak accepted money to bring her into the country. Pak said in an interview that he accepted money to help the woman with her English and only learned about the passport problem shortly before boarding a flight with her from Sri Lanka to Zurich. By then, he said, he felt he couldn't get out of his agreement.

Taking business to the Internet was risky but typical of Gilbert, Pak said. "Nobody could control her. She was the boss," he said.

She charged $200 an hour, and paid Pak a third of the take, he said.

Men called Gilbert on a disposable cellphone, sources familiar with the probe said. But she often talked to Pak on her personal cellphone, for which Newsday obtained records.

Pak said he normally worked well with her. But Gilbert, whose family said had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, could be mercurial. "She can be very nice and generous," Pak said. "Other times she's yelling and cursing."

 

Dreams of being a star

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By turns creative and rebellious, determined and vulnerable, Gilbert showed promise as she struggled through a tumultuous childhood in various foster homes, loved ones said.

"She was a smart girl and she was wonderful," said foster mother Jennifer Pottinger, 39, of New Paltz, who cared for Gilbert for more than a year in high school and remained in touch with her until April 2010. "I wish circumstances were different for her. I think she could have done a lot with her life."

Born in Lancaster, Pa., on Oct. 24, 1986, the oldest of four sisters, Gilbert was a toddler when her mother, Mari Gilbert, left her father and settled the family in upstate Ellenville, at the eastern base of the Catskills, according to a sister, Sherre Gilbert.

Mari briefly lost custody of all her daughters and never regained custody of Shannan, said her sister, Sarra Gilbert. The constantly changing homes apparently took a toll on Shannan.

"She didn't understand why she couldn't be with us," Sherre Gilbert said.

Early on, Shannan Gilbert developed a taste for the stage and dreamed of an acting career. In eighth grade, she played the role of Miss Hannigan in the Ellenville school production of "Annie."

At New Paltz Central High School, desperate to strike out on her own, Gilbert squeezed two years of class into one and graduated in 2003, at age 16, said Pottinger.

Beneath that determination was a fragile young woman who suffered from low self-esteem, family members said. As a teenager, she stopped taking her medication for her bipolar disorder because she believed it made her gain weight and gave her the "shakes," Sherre Gilbert said.

She refused to sit for a high school yearbook picture. "She always thought she looked ugly," Mari Gilbert said.

Once she graduated from high school, Gilbert had several homes over the next few years: her grandmother's Suffern house, a boyfriend's place in North Carolina, an apartment in Upper Saddle River, N.J. She made money as a hotel receptionist, an Applebee's hostess, a snack prepper at a senior center, family members said.

She told her family she was trying to launch a singing career. "She was a really good singer," said Alex Diaz, who said he was her boyfriend.

How Gilbert turned to prostitution is unclear. But by July 2007, she was arrested on a prostitution charge at a northern New Jersey hotel, police say. Sometime later that year, she moved to Jersey City -- closer to Manhattan singing auditions -- but continued working as a prostitute, her family said. She used pseudonyms such as Madison and Angelina, Diaz said, and adopted a "pop star" look, often wearing wigs and flashy clothes.

The money afforded her designer clothes and she treated her sisters to manicures and movies. "She had bags of presents for her sisters or for me," said her mother. Her family worried, but sister Sarra said they didn't talk to her about her work.

Shannan rented a $1,200-a-month condo in an up-and-coming section of Jersey City. Diaz, who lived with her, said she was taking online courses offered by Phoenix University.

"She wanted out of that [prostitution] business," Diaz said, adding that she would take weeks at a time off to focus on studies and auditions.

But on April 30, he said, she needed money.

At 8 that night, after watching the remake of "A Nightmare on Elm Street" at a Jersey City cinema, Gilbert left her apartment for Manhattan, Diaz said.

Sometime that evening, her mother said she sent a text message. "Be safe."

Mari Gilbert said her daughter replied: "I always am."

 

Meeting with 'lonely guy'

At 12:20 a.m., she called Pak.

He said she had finished with the Manhattan call, and needed to be picked up. According to Pak, another client soon called from Long Island. Joseph Brewer, whose house she was headed to early that morning, was in his words a "lonely guy" at the time.

An unemployed financial adviser, Brewer told Newsday last December that he had separated from his wife and lived alone in a two-story woodframe house on Fairway Drive in the beachfront community of Oak Beach, about 15 miles east of Jones Beach along Ocean Parkway.

Brewer said at the time that he had turned to Craigslist for company -- not a hooker. Contacted by Newsday last week, he declined to discuss the case further, saying police had advised him not to speak to the press.

Pak said he and Gilbert arrived in Oak Beach about 2 a.m. Gilbert went inside Brewer's house while Pak played poker on his cellphone in the SUV.

Shortly after she arrived, Gilbert and Brewer left the house in his vehicle for about 15 minutes but did not leave Oak Beach, sources familiar with the probe said.

In December, Brewer declined to elaborate on his time with Gilbert, except to say he didn't have sexual contact with her. He said he told her to leave after she demanded money. "Then she started getting all weird," Brewer said.

She went to the bathroom for some time and emerged acting erratically. "She was starting to freak out," he said.

Brewer went outside to Pak, asking for help in getting her to leave.

Inside, Pak said Gilbert was standing near the kitchen holding her cellphone, a police dispatcher on the line.

She had called 911 at 4:51 a.m. and police would be on the phone with her for 23 minutes. It was the last call recorded from that phone. She could not say where she was, and no officers arrived until nearly 6 a.m., after neighbors called 911.

Pak said he tried to calm her and told her they should leave.

Suffolk police have not released the 911 tape, but Suffolk Deputy Insp. Gerard McCarthy, commanding officer of the Special Services Bureau, said a dispatcher could hear a frantic woman and voices in the background trying to soothe her.

After Gilbert refused to leave, Pak said he sat down, exasperated. He was beginning to suspect she was acting strangely because of a bad reaction to drugs and alcohol, which he said she often did with clients. Brewer said he saw no drugs. Police say they believe Gilbert was intoxicated.

Finally, he'd had enough and walked out and got into his SUV, he said.

A short time later, Pak said she bolted from the house, phone in hand, and fell down the front steps before running away.

Down the street, Gustav Coletti, 75, was up early. An antique car buff, he said he had planned to drive to upstate Rhinebeck for a car show.

He was shaving sometime after 5 a.m. when a woman's screams and pounding on his front door gave him a shock.

"I opened the door and she jumped into the house," said Coletti, a past president of the Oak Beach Community Association.

It was Gilbert. She said her life was in danger. "I'm calling the police," Coletti recalled telling her.

Gilbert begged him not to and ran from his house, again falling down the steps, Coletti said.

A dark SUV then slowly approached, he said. Pak said he was driving around looking for Gilbert, and told Coletti they had been at a party and that the young woman who had gotten upset and left.

Coletti said he'd seen her and called police.

Pak said he resumed his search and sent Gilbert a text message. She didn't respond.

Pak looked for Gilbert along Ocean Parkway but said he gave up at 6 a.m., driving back to New York City.

By then, police had arrived in Oak Beach, but Gilbert was nowhere to be found.

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