The Gilgo Beach case has been Long Island's biggest unsolved mystery for more than four months now, and people can't stop talking about it.
It's "on everybody's lips," said Theresa Borgesano, 41, a waitress at Oconee East Diner on Islip's Main Street.
"Everybody's freaked out -- the customers, all my friends," Borgesano said. "It could be someone we waited on, someone we see regularly now."
Carl Scarantino hears it all without having to step away from behind the barbershop chair where he cuts hair at Five Barbers in Melville.
"Did he kill them here? Is he taking a break? Were they dumped from somewhere else?" said Scarantino, 68. "Guys who come here figure they've got the case solved."
Abuzz with talk of murder
The case has grabbed Long Islanders' attention like the murders committed by serial killer Joel Rifkin nearly two decades ago. It's talked about at work, in cafes, nail salons, bars and online message boards -- anywhere where people gather.
Many are following news on the investigation into 10 sets of remains found on a barrier island in the Gilgo vicinity -- including four prostitutes who advertised through Craigslist. Some who discuss the case online seem bent on finding the clue that will lead police to the killer.
"There is a morbid fascination that we have that is no different than slowing down to see a car accident," Meller said. "When we see things that are scary to us, and it doesn't affect us directly, we gain a sense of mastery in finding out more about it. . . . It's a way of coping."
Rifkin, Gilgo parallel seen
Barbara R. Kirwin, a forensic psychologist who was a defense witness for Rifkin, said there was a parallel between the two cases -- police and prosecutors know the public is anxious to get the crimes solved.
"The serial killer is the personification of evil," she said, "and we always hope that they get caught and justice is done."
The local nature of the crimes makes the matter more urgent, Meller said. Though the sites where the bodies were found are remote and isolated, Long Islanders know the surrounding area from Oak Beach to Jones Beach well.
"I'm from the Town of Babylon -- that's my beach from growing up as a little girl," said Borgesano, the Islip waitress. "We used to go there late at nights sometimes when we shouldn't be there, use the bathrooms, run across the dunes."
Dave Bennett, 26, a Gap sales associate from Merrick, said he visits Jones Beach a few times each summer. When the investigation moved to the Jones vicinity, it "made me nervous because it's closer to home."
Tom Philbin, a Centerport resident who is the author of crime novels and a trivia book called the "Killer Book of Serial Killers," understands the public's sustained interest.
"It's like watching a horror movie, which scares you, but you almost can't stop watching," Philbin said. "People are afraid of it, so they want to know what's going on."
Capitalizing on case
There have been a handful of attempts to capitalize on the case's notoriety.
A "Long Island Serial Killer" website was briefly selling a killer-themed T-shirt to fund its operation but later closed its online store.
Barbara Gallo, who is day manager at the Forum Diner in Bay Shore, said all the talk about Gilgo has her doing a double take on strangers. The diner is only a 15-minute drive from Gilgo.
"I open up the place, I'm on my own and the first few customers, if it's not my regulars, I'm looking at them funny," said Gallo, 64. "It's a little nerve-racking."
"Most Long Islanders are well aware of what's going on," said Pagano, 41. "But it's almost a helpless feeling, because police are doing what they can, but they can't catch the killer."
With Patrick Whittle,
and Denise Bonilla