Icy snow fell on Suffolk County Police investigators as they searched the dense brush surrounding Gilgo Beach 10 years ago this month, looking for a missing woman who had been employed as a sex worker.
As an officer and a cadaver dog conducted what police termed a "routine exercise," they found a set of badly decomposed remains on Dec. 11, 2010. Two days later, the remains of three more women were discovered, wrapped in burlap sacks, all near one another in the thick vegetation north of Ocean Parkway.
Long Island had a serial killer — or multiple serial killers — in its midst, investigators quickly concluded. As the search progressed through the winter, police found a total of 10 victims in a 3 1/2 mile radius, but not the woman they were looking for.
Investigators didn't know it then, but the findings would open up a chapter in what has become the region’s biggest unsolved mystery: What happened to those 10 people found on Long Island?
We do believe that somebody out there knows something … it may seem small to you, but it may be very significant to us. And it may be a piece that we're missing from a larger puzzle.Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart
"There is a story out there, we just have to put it together," said Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, whose department has been part of the hunt for the answer.
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart — who is now overseeing the investigation, which before her tenure had been hobbled by decisions to exclude the FBI from involvement and infighting between law enforcement agencies — said recently the key to solving the long-dormant case could hang on DNA evidence and possibly a witness' memory.
"We do believe that somebody out there knows something," said Hart, who urged members of the public to offer whatever information they may have on the case. "My message is that it may seem small to you, but it may be very significant to us. And it may be a piece that we're missing from a larger puzzle."
Hart, the fourth Suffolk police commissioner to oversee the investigation since the case started and an FBI veteran, said: "I would encourage anybody that has any, you know, indication, some information or something that they think, you know, just kind of nagging at them, please come forward, we're here to accept that information. And we will, we will absolutely act."
Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini believes the case will be solved because he said there is lot of evidence and an enormous amount of resources focused on Gilgo.
"I'm hopeful that one day we can bring justice to the families," he said. "We won’t rest until it is solved."
Experts say new technology can help solve the case
Experts interviewed by Newsday agreed that the longer cases remain unsolved, the more difficult they are to solve. A suspect may be dead, in prison or have left the area. Witnesses also disappear or have foggy memories.
But advances in technology such as genetic genealogy, which identified Valerie Mack, previously known only as Jane Doe No. 6, as one of the Gilgo victims in May — one of two big revelations in the case this year — can breathe new life into a case, the experts said.
Gregg McCrary, a former FBI profiler who now runs his own consulting company, Behavioral Criminology of Virginia, said he believes based on what is publicly known about the Gilgo victims and the crime scenes that the killer or killers had to be someone who lived or worked on Long Island.
McCrary agreed with the theory that the killer was familiar and comfortable with the Gilgo Beach area as a dump site. "They have to dump a body — that is a very high-risk part of the crime," he said.
Bradley Garrett, a former FBI agent and behavioral analyst who worked a number of high-profile homicide cases over the years, also said he believed the killer chose Gilgo Beach because of familiarity with the terrain. Garrett said some investigators noted that the brush and weeds provided such good cover that a person could stand on Ocean Parkway and not know what was going on in the dunes.
"You’ve got to be somebody who lives in the area to know that place is available … somebody who visits that area," said Brent Turvey, of the private Forensic Criminology Institute in Alaska. "The person who dumps them there is familiar with the area, that is the first thing. The second thing is the people who dumped them there are in a hurry."
Some of the Gilgo victims’ remains were covered in burlap, and for Turvey that is an indication that the killer used the wrap to facilitate transportation of the remains from the place where the victims were killed to another location, away from a place close to the suspect’s normal environment.
"It is a common thing to put someone in a bag," said Turvey, an author of books on criminology and profiling. "You use what is around you. The first thing this tells me is they had access to burlap immediately in the environment."
Garrett, who works in Virginia as a consultant for law enforcement agencies, said that based on past experience and cases, serial killers tend to be male, between their 20s and 40s and even leading a normal life. The burlap found with some of the victims may be a clue to a job or hobby like gardening or landscaping, he said.
"They may be married, may have a girlfriend, may have job, they may even have kids," Garrett said. "Obviously they have a life that is so constructed they can go off and do this type of behavior."
Garrett said that sex workers, as many of the Gilgo victims have been, are targets of serial killers because their absence may not be noticed for long periods. An organized killer, leaving so many victims in one spot like Gilgo, has to be intelligent and disciplined to commit the crimes without leaving any clues, he said.
Sini, who in his previous post as police commissioner brought the FBI back into the investigation, said phone records could also be key to solving the case.
"There's been very little talk publicly about phone records, and I can tell you that my office is taking the lead on the analysis of the phone records," Sini said. "We're overlaying other pieces of evidence in this case with those phone records. We have a ton of dots in this case, a ton of different data points, a ton of different pieces of intelligence, a ton of records. There's a lot of evidence, right, we have to connect those dots."
Early problems with the investigation
Former Police Commissioner Richard Dormer, who led the investigation in its early days, floated his theory publicly: A single serial killer was responsible for all of the bodies. But then-Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota contradicted Dormer, who died last year, saying it was likely more than one killer.
Spota then did a sit-down interview with Newsday to say Dormer’s comments could hurt law enforcement’s efforts to secure a conviction in the case. "Surely the homicide detectives and the prosecutors are going to be challenged by any decent … defense attorney," he said in 2011. "That's why we try to keep these theories to ourselves."
Infighting continued under the administration of Suffolk Police Chief James Burke and Police Commissioner Edward Webber. Burke, under investigation by the FBI on suspicion he beat a handcuffed suspect in a police precinct and orchestrated a cover-up, iced out the FBI from Suffolk police investigations, including Gilgo.
Hart, who headed the Long Island office of the FBI before becoming police commissioner, conceded the help of federal law enforcement could have assisted county police.
Anniversaries create opportunities ... We are doing everything we can to solve these murders.Then-Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini, speaking to family members on Gilgo's fifth anniversary
"I will say that I think a more consistent involvement by the FBI in this case from the beginning would have been beneficial," said Hart, who enlisted the FBI to perform the genetic genealogy DNA analysis that resulted in the identification of Mack.
When Sini took over the police department in December 2015, after Burke was arrested on corruption charges, he reengaged the FBI in the Gilgo investigation.
Speaking to family members on Gilgo's fifth anniversary, Sini said: "Anniversaries create opportunities. We're here today because we think it's important to let the public know we are doing everything we can to solve these murders."
More recently, Sini recalled seeing evidence of how local law enforcement back then had thwarted federal help.
"I actually found a supplemental report that claimed the Suffolk County police detectives were intending to send evidence over to the FBI for analysis, and they were told not to by the district attorney," Sini said, referring to Spota.
Investigators released new information in the case earlier this year
In January, Hart held a news conference "to announce new information to aid in [the] Gilgo Beach investigation."
The small room was packed with dozens of journalists and police personnel in anticipation of the first public comments from the department on the case in several years.
She released an image of a black leather belt believed to have been handled by a potential suspect in the killings. The belt, which is embossed with the letters "WH" or "HM," was found about nine years ago at one of the crime scenes along the parkway, but she wouldn't specify which. Hart also announced the launch of a new website, gilgonews.com, to present information on the case and to get tips from the public.
So far, there have been no breakthroughs.
"They have basically been a restatement of tips we've gotten over the years, including from some of the same people. We haven't really gotten anything new," said Suffolk Police Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante.
There were some calls about the belt — an image of which investigators released earlier this year, hoping to rattle some memories. But the tipsters presented theories of who the belt might belong to based on names that may match what might be initials embossed on the belt.
"We have checked out those names," Gigante said. "And so we have developed some tips from that. But, you know, we at this point, we don't know if it's a manufacturer, if it's an individual prior owner."
So this past week, police upped the ante, releasing two more images of the belt.
The belt revelation gave victims' families hope.
Lorraine Ela, whose daughter Megan Waterman of Maine went missing and later was found along with other remains, questioned why the police waited nine years to release the information and said she maintained a glimmer of optimism that investigators might one day crack the case.
"[The investigation] has gone on for so long," Ela said in January. "I hope they do [find the killer]. I hope they do soon."
Newsday tried to contact relatives of the victims for interviews recently but none responded.
The questions that haunt investigators 10 years later
Meanwhile, the same questions investigators had 10 years ago continue to haunt them now: Is a single serial killer responsible? Or is there more than one killer with a penchant for sex workers? And how does Shannan Gilbert, 24, the sex worker whose disappearance in May of 2010 set off the search that culminated with the discovery of the bodies, come into play? Was her death, as a county medical examiner ruled, just a terrible accident that served as a catalyst to the investigation into what happened to all those undiscovered victims? Or was she, too, a victim of foul play?
It was on May 1, 2010, when Gilbert, from Jersey City, had made her way out to Long Island with her driver, Michael Pak, for a liaison that had been arranged through Craigslist with Oak Beach resident Joseph Brewer.
Gilbert ran from Brewer's home in the early morning hours that day, screaming that someone was trying to kill her, police have said. She called 911 and knocked on the doors of several other Oak Beach residents, before running off into the darkness.
Gilbert's mother, the late Mari Gilbert, publicly criticized what she said was a lack of a police search for her daughter. "We never felt like it was taken seriously."
The police eventually determined that the set of remains they found on Dec. 11, 2010, were not Shannan Gilbert. They belonged to a Bronx woman named Melissa Barthelemy, who went missing on July 12, 2009.
The NYPD had listed Barthelemy, 24, as an involuntary missing person after her every-other-day calls to her family abruptly ended, raising alarm bells. Soon after, her sister received a call from Barthelemy's cellphone. A man's voice called Barthelemy a "whore."
In a matter of days, police found three other victims.
Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, of Norwich, Conn., was last seen alive in Manhattan on July 9, 2007. Police believe the killer left her body in Gilgo Beach shortly after that.
Another victim and the only one of the four who lived on Long Island, Amber Lynn Costello, 27, was last seen alive Sept. 2, 2010, in North Babylon, where she lived shortly before her death. She was never reported missing. Megan Waterman, 22, of Scarborough, Maine, had disappeared on June 6, 2010, after traveling to Long Island to meet clients.
By March 2011, police had expanded the search area into Nassau County and ultimately found another six victims. Some of the partial remains matched body parts found dating back to the 1990s and early 2000s.
Suffolk police found more remains at Jones Beach on April 11, 2011, identified initially by investigators only as Jane Doe No. 3. Those were later linked by investigators to the remains of a child, Baby Doe, a girl between the ages of 1 and 4 years old whose remains were found near Cedar Beach on April 4, 2011, near that of a man dressed in women’s clothing.
A hiker had discovered Jane Doe No. 3’s torso in 1997 at Hempstead Lake State Park in Rockville Centre. It was stuffed into a large, black garbage bag that had been placed in a plastic container and dumped in the woods, police have said. The woman, who police referred to as "Peaches" because of a tattoo of the fruit she had on her chest, is the mother of the child, according to investigators.
Nassau Det. Lt. Stephen Fitzpatrick said in a recent interview that there is some consensus now that the woman doesn't fit the pattern of the Gilgo killer.
Asked if a connection has been affirmatively ruled out, Fitzpatrick said:
"That is not to say somewhere in the future, some piece of evidence might reveal itself to us that we might have to say it was," he said of a potential connections. "So it is never totally excluded, but right now we feel no."
Police find Shannan Gilbert's body but more questions emerge
Eventually, police found Shannan Gilbert's body more than a year after she was last seen, on Dec. 13, 2011, in a marshy area of Oak Beach.
The Suffolk medical examiner ruled her death "undetermined," and police surmised she had either drowned or succumbed to the elements after running from Brewer's home, perhaps in a drug-induced state. But the results of an autopsy performed by former New York City Medical Examiner Michael Baden, at the request of Gilbert's family, suggested she may have been strangled.
While police officials in the past have ruled out Gilbert as having any connection to the other victims, Hart said she's keeping an open mind.
"Shannan Gilbert, however, and as I said, in January, there are many characteristics that set her apart from the pattern of the Gilgo serial killer," Hart said. "There's a number of items that make it very much different enough for that pattern. So I want to be clear on that. We are certainly open to the idea that Shannan's homicide is undetermined."
John Ray, the Miller Place attorney the Gilbert family hired, said: "I think Shannan was murdered. It's overwhelming that she was murdered. It is one of the risks of being a sex worker. You're taking that risk. She took it. It didn't work out."
In 2013, most of the wrongful death lawsuit Ray filed against Dr. C. Peter Hackett, an Oak Beach resident and the last person to have seen Gilbert alive, was dismissed. Ray had claimed Hackett’s house was a home for wayward girls and he took her in, improperly gave her narcotic drugs to calm her, then let her leave in a helpless state. Hackett’s attorney denied those claims.
"My client has vigorously, persistently and consistently denied having anything to do with this poor girl's death," Hackett’s attorney James O'Rourke of Hauppauge said then. "He never saw her. He never met her. He never treated her … This tragedy has nothing to do with Dr. Hackett."
While the judge dismissed the wrongful death counts, he allowed other claims to continue, and Ray was back in court last month arguing for the public release of the 911 calls.
A judge rejected Ray’s arguments for public release, siding with police who have said the recordings are part of an active investigation.
Mari Gilbert is dead now, fatally stabbed in July 2016 by another of her daughters, Sarra Elizabeth Gilbert, who was convicted of second-degree murder in the killing and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
At a news conference in 2015 marking the fifth anniversary of the case, Mari Gilbert said she was initially angry at the police for not finding her daughter. But as time went on, she said she felt Shannan's disappearance helped bring closure to other families.
"I believe that Shannan had a destiny and God used her as a vessel to sacrifice her life so that others can be found," Gilbert said.
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