SHANNAN Gilbert was the big sister with the golden voice, an in-vogue style and the guts to leave her impoverished upstate home for a chance to make it big in New York City.
But Gilbert's dream of becoming a rhythm and blues singer never took off. Instead, her family and authorities say, she turned to prostitution.
"Her lifestyle always scared me," said her sister Sherre Gilbert, 23. "I don't know how she dealt with danger like that."
Now, Gilbert's family is left to wonder whether the 24-year-old's life on the edge finally caught up with her on May 1, when she vanished in Oak Beach after meeting a client, authorities say. Suffolk police were investigating her disappearance last weekend when they discovered the remains of four unidentified people in the brush off Ocean Parkway.
"I have dreams about her every single night," said Sherre Gilbert, who still holds out hope her sister is alive somewhere. "I just don't know what to think."
Shannan Marie Gilbert had a scattered, sometimes traumatic upbringing that may have led to her career path, her family said in interviews Tuesday. Born in Lancaster, Pa., Gilbert was diagnosed as bipolar at a young age and quickly became a ward of New York State, shuffling among several foster homes in Rockland and Ulster counties, family said. She graduated from New Paltz High School at age 16.
Soon, Gilbert had moved in with a boyfriend in northern New Jersey, where she was arrested with several other women and charged with prostitution in 2007, police say. The outcome of that case was not known Tuesday.
That year, she moved to Jersey City and began her first attempts to extract herself from a life of paid sex and hard drugs, her sister said. She auditioned for singing roles, pursued an online degree in communications and drank up Manhattan's fashion scene, wearing skinny jeans, oversized sunglasses and a variety of wigs while carrying large designer purses.
"She always told me she was going in for an audition," said her live-in boyfriend, Alex Diaz, 28, of Jersey City.
But a need for cash, said her younger sister Sarra, 21, lured her back into prostitution. She worked for at least two escort services before deciding this year to become independent, advertising her services on Craigslist and hiring her own driver, friends and family said.
Her family knew about her job but, Sarra said, "we knew it was more or less for survival."
With Sophia Chang