On Dec. 11, 2010, a Suffolk police officer and cadaver dog were conducting a routine exercise and searching for a missing person, Shannan Gilbert, when they found a woman’s body several feet north of Ocean Parkway in Gilgo Beach.
Two days later, police found another.
By April 2011, authorities had found a total of 10 sets of remains in the area.
Gilbert’s body was found in December 2011. Though her disappearance prompted the initial search, police said Gilbert’s cause of death was undetermined and not tied to the other bodies.
The discovery of the initial four Gilgo Beach bodies sparked a massive inter-agency search that spanned several miles. FBI profilers based out of the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the bureau’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in Quantico, Virginia assisted Suffolk police in coming up with a possible profile of the killer.
A law enforcement source who is familiar with the case but asked not to be identified said when Suffolk investigators met with them, the group theorized that the killer is perhaps a white male who has a family.
The investigation has endured as one of the most high-profile cases on Long Island and has been the subject of a novel, a true-crime thriller and a “48 Hours” investigation.
Still, it remains unsolved.
Authorities have released very few — if any — new details in the case in recent years, and the families of the women found there have grown frustrated with the lack of new information.
A day before the fifth anniversary of the discovery of the first body, police announced the FBI would take a more prominent role in the homicide investigation to take a “fresh look” at the case.
“Anniversaries create opportunities,” said then-Deputy Police Commissioner Timothy Sini. “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.”Complete coverage
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since the first body was found by Ocean Parkway at Gilgo Beach.
Rough terrain slows investigation
The weed- and garbage-choked terrain complicated police officers’ search for the victims.
Officers had to use ladder trucks to peer down over the area, dense with bramble and brush. With such limited visibility on foot, a searcher who was already having trouble finding a clear spot to place his boot would have to all but stumble on a body in order to discover it.
The area where the remains were found not only made it difficult for humans but frustrated the Suffolk Police Department’s cadaver dogs as well.
“They don’t like getting smacked in the face with the bramble,” then-Suffolk Chief of Detectives Dominick Varrone said in April 2011. “We learned from that that we can’t rely entirely on the dogs.”
Scattered remains found over time
Officers did not find all of the remains in one area. Police first discovered the remains of four women in December 2010.
Two victims’ torsos were found in Manorville in the early 2000s. Authorities later found one of the women’s head, hands and forearm and the other woman’s head, hands and right foot along Ocean Parkway in 2011.
A third woman’s legs were found on Fire Island in 1996 and her skull was located near Jones Beach on April 11, 2011.
DNA analysis was delayed at first as numerous tests were needed because the human remains were incomplete and potentially combined, Varrone said in May 2011.
And the longer the case goes unsolved, the harder it is for detectives to connect all the dots and find one, or more, killers.
“Time does complicate things,” Vernon Geberth, an expert homicide investigator retired from the NYPD, said in May 2011. “People’s memories fade, relationships fade and in this case you now have to get back to gals murdered… and find out who knew them and what other clues were there that might have been missed.”
Disagreement over the number of killers
Just before the late former Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer left office in December 2011, he and then-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota presented contradictory theories at a legislative session about the number of serial killers in the Gilgo case.
Dormer reiterated his theory about a single serial killer and Spota openly criticized him, standing by his theory that there were at least three killers.
Dormer left the hearing before Spota spoke, and would not comment afterwards.
But days later, Spota had a lot to say about Dormer:
“Surely the homicide detectives and the prosecutors are going to be challenged by any decent… defense attorney,” he said. “That’s why we try to keep these theories to ourselves.”
After the hearing, newly elected Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said he would move to quickly stabilize a police department that had become, “in some ways, dysfunctional.” He named Edward Webber, Suffolk police’s chief of support services, as interim police commissioner effective Jan. 1, 2012.
“If you have the most high-profile case the department has had to deal with in years, maybe ever, and the district attorney’s office and the police department are not effectively working together on that, what’s happening with all the other cases that don’t get any media attention, that are just below the surface, but affect real people?” Bellone said at the time.
At a December 2015 press conference, police would not address questions about serial killer theories.
Ten sets of remains were found at Gilgo Beach between December 2010 and April 2011, including eight women, one man and one toddler.
Police and family have said the five women who were identified had worked as prostitutes.
The other three women, the man and toddler were never identified.
Melissa Barthelemy, 24, worked as a hairdresser in Buffalo before moving to New York City in 2007, where she rented a basement apartment in the Bronx. She later advertised her services as an escort.
The western New York woman was last seen alive July 12, 2009, around the time her regular calls to family members abruptly ceased.
After her disappearance, an unidentified man police believe was involved in Barthelemy’s death, used her cell phone on six occasions to call her sister, a family friend told the media in 2011.
The suspect disparaged Melissa Barthelemy in those calls, at one point calling her “a whore,” a law enforcement source told Newsday.
Her body was the first found along Ocean Parkway on Dec. 11, 2010 during the search for Shannan Gilbert.
Melissa was wonderful, she was the light of my life. Barthelemy’s father, Mark Szpila
After dropping out of high school, Megan Waterman worked in delis and sandwich shops, her mother said. She met Akeem Cruz at a dance club in Portland, Maine, in the spring of 2009 and they dated.
A few months later, Megan began working as a prostitute, her mother said.
She was last seen leaving a Hauppauge hotel on June 6, 2010 after traveling to Long Island with boyfriend Cruz, who also acted as her pimp, police said.
Her body was among the three sets of remains found on Dec. 13, 2010.
Waterman, 22, of Scarborough, Maine, had a young daughter. Just days before her disappearance, Waterman said Cruz wanted her to stop working as a prostitute and the two would start a family, according to Waterman’s best friend.
Megan was a loving daughter… She would do anything. She’d give the last penny in her pocket to somebody if they wanted it. Lorraine Ela, Megan Waterman’s mother
Amber Lynn Costello
Amber Lynn Costello grew up quickly – marrying and divorcing twice by the time she was 27. She developed a drug habit early in life, according to her ex-husbands.
Costello grew up in North Carolina, in Rocky Point and Wilmington. She married her first husband Michael Wilhelm after they met at a local beach – a whirlwind romance, he said, that soured when he discovered her heroin addiction.
Sometime after she divorced her second husband, Don Costello, Amber Lynn Costello moved to Long Island. Her sister, Kimberly Overstreet, lived in Lindenhurst.
She was last seen alive on Sept. 2, 2010 in North Babylon, where she rented an apartment.
Her body was among those found on Dec. 13, 2010.
When her soul left this earth, mine shattered. I’m trying to pick up the pieces. Kimberly Overstreet, Costello’s older sister
Maureen Brainard-Barnes was named after her grandmother.
“She was very outgoing. She had so much energy,” said Sarah Marquis, a friend from Groton, Connecticut.
She grew up in Groton and attended Fitch High School.
Brainard-Barnes, 25, of Norwich, Connecticut, was last seen alive in Manhattan on July 9, 2007, police said. Her family suspected she was dead when she didn’t show up for her brother’s funeral, friend Sarah Marquis said.
Brainard-Barnes had a young son, Dylan, Marquis said. She also had a daughter, Nicolette. The children lived with their fathers.
She wasn’t found until Dec. 13, 2010 when police located her remains by Ocean Parkway.
Police believe the killer left her body in Gilgo Beach shortly after she disappeared.
Brainard-Barnes was trusting, ‘thinking she was kind of cool with everyone. That would be why… she could get hurt.’ friend Sarah Marquis
Jessica Taylor came from a small town in upstate New York and was estranged from her family. She had been arrested on prostitution charges in Washington, Atlantic City and New York City.
She was just 20 years old, had a tattoo on her back, wore hoop earrings and had moved on to Washington, D.C., after her release from a Rikers Island jail. But then she returned.
On July 26, 2003, days after she was seen working as a prostitute on the streets near the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, her nude torso was found in the woods in Manorville, near the Long Island Expressway.
A woman walking her dog came across Taylor’s butchered remains on a pile of branches.
Then on March 29, 2011, her head, hands and forearm were discovered in the brush along Ocean Parkway, about a mile east of where the original Gilgo bodies were found.
An unidentified Asian male, 17 to 23 years old and 5 feet, 6 inches tall, with close-cropped hair was found just east of the original bodies on April 4, 2011.
Police said the man was missing top and bottom molars and a front upper tooth. He was dressed in women’s clothing and was dead five to 10 years, police said.
After an unidentified white woman’s torso was found in the woods in Manorville in 2000, police discovered her head, hands and right foot on April 4, 2011 near Cedar Beach.
Police say the woman — 18 to 35 years old, 5 feet, 2 inches tall, with straight, shoulder-length hair, high cheekbones and a prominent jawline — may have worked as a prostitute in New York City in late summer or fall of 2000.
Authorities think her killing may be related to that of Jessica Taylor.
An unidentified woman’s remains turned up 15 years and more than 20 miles apart along Ocean Parkway.
Her legs were found on Fire Island in 1996 and her skull was located near Jones Beach on April 11, 2011.
Unidentified woman and toddler
A female, non-Caucasian toddler thought to be 16 to 32 months old, who was found April 4, 2011 is a relative of another woman. A bag of that woman’s remains was found 7 miles away on April 11, 2011, near Jones Beach.
Police have said it is likely they were mother and child.
“The very last thing I said to her was: ‘I love you. Be safe,’ ” Shannan Gilbert’s mother, the late Mari Gilbert, said. “And, she said, ‘I am always safe, Mommy.’ And that was the last time we talked.”
Shannan Gilbert, who worked as a prostitute, was summoned via a Craigslist ad to the Oak Beach home of Joseph Brewer where she made a frantic early-morning 911 call, police say.
She then pounded on the door of Dr. C. Peter Hackett, the last person known to have seen Gilbert, 24, alive before she apparently ran into the nearby marsh on May 1, 2010 and vanished.
Neither Hackett nor Brewer are suspects in the Gilbert case.
Under mounting pressure from Gilbert’s family, the Jersey City woman’s disappearance launched the search that uncovered 10 sets of human remains between December 2010 and April 2011.
“I believe that Shannan had a destiny and God used her as a vessel to sacrifice her life so that others can be found,” Mari Gilbert said.
It was announced on Dec. 13, 2011 — a year to the day after the discovery of three sets of remains at Gilgo Beach — that Shannan Gilbert’s body had been found.
While her cause of death was undetermined, authorities have theorized that she accidentally drowned in the marsh.
They say her case is not connected to the deaths of the 10 other victims.
Mari Gilbert contested those conclusions. She was highly critical of the Suffolk County Police Department and even filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hackett, which was later mostly dismissed.
She said she had continued looking for answers just like she was the day after her daughter went missing, and she had to balance that search with the rest of daily life, including her job and her other children.
“I feel like I’m frozen in time,” Mari Gilbert said. “I feel like I’m two different people.”
She said those two sides of her won’t be reconciled until there’s justice, and encouraged anyone with information about the case to come forward.
“If anyone knows anything, you just gotta tell somebody,” Mari Gilbert said. “You have to tell someone.”
While the future of the Gilgo Beach serial killings case is uncertain, the investigation has become the responsibility of a dramatically different Suffolk County Police Department.
James Burke resigned as Suffolk Chief of Department in October 2015, prior to being indicted in December 2015 on federal charges of assaulting a handcuffed suspect and then conspiring to cover up the incident. The department also lost its commissioner, chief of detectives and two criminal intelligence officers to retirements and resignations.
Timothy Sini, a former federal prosecutor who specialized in cold case murders, became the new Suffolk police Commissioner in February 2016. He later won election to fill Spota’s vacant district attorney seat, following the latter’s resignation following indictment on obstruction and conspiracy charges.
At a December 2015 press conference the day before the fifth anniversary of the discovery of the first body, Sini said the police department requested federal investigators “take a more active and prominent role.”
He had declined to comment at the time on specific details of the case or disclose any recent developments, but he said that the investigation into the murders remained active.
“As we approach the anniversary, on behalf of the Suffolk Police Department, I want to convey to loved ones and the families of the victims that we are dedicated to do whatever we can to solve this case,” Sini said. “Rest assured, this case remains active.”
But new information has been too slow to come for some of the family members of the Gilgo Beach victims.
Lorraine Ela, mother of Megan Waterman, says the police have not been responsive to her requests for updates on her daughter’s case in recent years.
“The answer is always, ‘Can’t tell you nothing. Can’t tell you nothing,’” she said. “We don’t want to hear ‘We can’t tell you nothing,’ anymore.”
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