Shannan Gilbert's mom was the first to trumpet a truth: "She has done a great thing," Mari Gilbert said of a daughter last seen darting, scared, toward the underbrush of a sturdy Long Island dune.
"She has helped other families find their babies," she said last week.
Mari Gilbert holds tight to any mother's hope of seeing a missing daughter again, yearning to gaze into the soft, wide eyes of her baby grown to young womanhood, hooped earrings and all.
Gilbert, 24, who worked as a prostitute and advertised on Craigslist and other websites, was last seen begging at a stranger's door for protection from an unseen danger in Oak Beach.
By the time a Suffolk police officer arrived, just before dawn May 1, 2010, she had vanished into thick underbrush. Since then, Suffolk police have spent days, stretched over a brutal winter and into a new spring, scouring miles of beach, searching for Gilbert.
As of Monday, Gilbert, who lived in Jersey City, remained lost. But the quest to find one lost child has, thus far, led to the gruesome discovery of eight. Police would not describe the conditions of three newly discovered sets of human remains. Still, it is chilling to consider that someone -- if a theory of a single serial killer holds up -- would take a life.
Then another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another.
The first four victims, police said, were wrapped into burlap cocoons and tossed under twisting thickets. Officials have yet to say how the other four were found.
Because of Shannan Gilbert, and the work of police, four of eight victims now have names: Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, of Norwich, Conn.; Melissa Barthelemy, 24, of the Bronx; Megan Waterman, 22, of Scarborough, Maine, and a local woman, Amber Lynn Costello, 27, of North Babylon.
Because of Shannan Gilbert, authorities now know that there is a suspected serial killer who worked months -- years? -- transforming a stretch of noble dunes into a human dumping ground.
Sarra Gilbert, 22, of upstate Ellenville, does not share her mother's hope that her older sister is alive. She said Shannan has been missing too long for that.
In a telephone interview with a Newsday reporter Monday, she faulted police for not searching more aggressively earlier. "If they had done a thorough search, maybe Megan may not have gone missing and maybe the girl from North Babylon may not have gone missing," she said.
Megan Waterman disappeared in June; Amber Lynn Costello in September -- months after Shannan was last seen in Oak Beach. Monday, police officials said they had talked to Shannan Gilbert's family. And that they have enough forensic evidence to make relatively quick work of determining whether one of the three newly discovered remains is hers.
Results can't come quickly enough for her family. "I don't want my sister's body to sit somewhere in the grass; we want her to be buried in the family plot, somewhere peaceful," said Sarra Gilbert. "She deserves that." As does every victim pulled from the sand and the brush during the search for one mother's child.