Police have yet to unravel the 10-year mystery of who killed sex workers whose bodies were found near Gilgo Beach along the Ocean Parkway.
But experts say the victims' lives and deaths have already had an impact on Long Island, exposing sex trafficking in the region and helping transform the way police and prosecutors treat sex workers.
"It certainly changed the paradigm for us of how we view these women," said Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, whose department is heading the Gilgo Beach serial killer investigation. "They are victims. They are in our own backyards."
Keith Scott is the director of education at The Safe Center LI in Bethpage, which works with the Nassau County Human Traffic Intervention Court to provide counseling and other support services to survivors of sex trafficking.
"The sad reality is that those that are involved in prostitution are seen as a disposable population," he said. "Even certain headlines read, ‘Prostitute’s bones found on Long Island.’ What about a daughter’s bones? What about a woman’s bones? What about a student’s bones?"
Shannan Gilbert worked as an escort and had been at a client’s home in Oak Beach when she told a 911 operator in May 2010 that someone was trying to kill her, authorities have said. Suffolk police searching for clues to Gilbert’s whereabouts more than six months later found more remains, and formed a serial killer task force.
"Gilgo really highlighted the issue of sex trafficking on Long Island," Scott said. "It was not really talked about that many years ago, until the Gilgo case."
The findings at Gilgo Beach accelerated changes in how police, prosecutors and courts view sex workers, transforming them from petty criminals to victims who suffer from substance abuse and emotional trauma, victims of physical and sexual abuse who require support to break free from those who use addictive drugs, threats and violence to control and exploit them, experts said.
Gang members, drug dealers and other criminals who saw that internet prostitution was a high-profit, low-risk venture took control, aided by the opioid crisis that has claimed thousands of lives across Long Island. Women addicted to opioids and other highly addictive drugs, authorities said, are often forced or convinced to sell their bodies to pay back drug debts or to get access to drugs to prevent painful withdrawals.
"More times than not there is someone controlling them now, more than they did years ago," said Suffolk Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante. "They keep them high on opiates. It is more of a business for the people who are controlling them, which exponentially increases the victimization of the girls."
Some Gilgo relatives complained that police did not initially focus resources into the investigation because the first victims were sex workers.
But Det. Lt. Frank Messana, the commander of the Suffolk County Police Department’s Human Trafficking Investigations Unit, said police and other law-enforcement agencies were already changing how they viewed sex workers when the first Gilgo bodies were found. He pointed to lobbying by victim-advocate organizations and the 2000 passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which authorized the federal government to boost efforts to prosecute traffickers and aid victims.
Judges frustrated by seeing the same defendants charged repeatedly with prostitution also pushed for changes that led to the creation of human-trafficking courts in Nassau and Suffolk, which divert offenders to drug treatment, counseling, job training and other services.
"The judges realized something is wrong here," said Jennifer G. Hernandez, the co-founder and executive director of Empowerment Collaborative Long Island, which provides services to sex trafficking victims.
"If the human trafficking unit was in existence back then, we probably would have been able to identify the [Gilgo] killer."Suffolk Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante
More recently, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon created a Human Trafficking Investigation Unit to identify victims of trafficking in the jails he operates in Yaphank and Riverhead, and to provide them with support and services. Many of the women incarcerated in Suffolk’s jails, Toulon said, are victims of trafficking even if they were not initially arrested on prostitution charges.
"This is something that is more prevalent in Suffolk County than we want to acknowledge," Toulon said.
The new law-enforcement approach to sex workers has benefited police and prosecutors because victims have become important sources about sex traffickers, drug dealers, gang members and others involved in criminal activity, Hart and Gigante said.
"If the human trafficking unit was in existence back then, we probably would have been able to identify the [Gilgo] killer, because of the amount of information we obtain from these girls once we get their cooperation," Gigante said.