Shannan Gilbert’s grave in Amityville cemetery lies eight miles from where she went missing in May 2011 after visiting a client at Oak Beach, a spit of sand dotted with holiday homes on New York’s Long Island, three miles short of Gilgo Beach, where her remains were found eight months later.
Gilbert’s final resting place, with a simple headstone at the back of the cemetery inscribed with her dates – 24 October 1986 – 13 December 2011 – speaks to an enduring mystery of how she, along with 10 or more other women, mostly sex workers who advertised on Craigslist, ended up dead along the same stretch of scrubby barrier marshes more than a decade ago.
13 December is not the date Gilbert went missing. A year and seven months earlier – 1 May 2010 – she’d made a frantic 22-minute call to 911 from the area and reportedly said: “They are trying to kill me.” She knocked on two neighbor’s doors, before disappearing back into the night. Three other 911 calls were made that night. One call was from Gilbert’s client Joseph Brewer and two were from the neighbors.
During the search for Gilbert, police found four more sets of remains later identified as Melissa Barthelemy, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Megan Waterman, and Amber Lynn Costello. The Gilgo Four, as they became known, had been discarded in a similar fashion, 500ft apart, each swathed or covered in burlap sack cloth.
Six more bodies were found in the same area at about the same time. Their dates of death, too, speak to the uncertainty that pervades the case of the Long Island serial killer. Police initially said they believed Gilbert drowned by accident, which few believed, and a medical examiner’s autopsy proved inconclusive.
In the 11 years since, Gilgo Beach has become synonymous with violent death and law enforcement failures rooted in incompetence or, worse, institutional disregard. But now, it seems, concrete steps are finally being taken to try to solve the mystery once more.
Last week Rodney Harrison, the new police commissioner of Suffolk county, inherited the case – which has become one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in the US. It goes back to 1996, when body parts of the earliest-known victims were found on the shores of Fire Island, a holiday destination.
It was Harrison who said he would release Gilbert’s 911 call “as long as it doesn’t impede the investigation”. Last week, Harrison went further, saying a ring of people could be possibly connected to the murders. “I’m feeling confident that we’re getting closer to making an arrest,” he told a local news outlet.
If that’s correct, it will have taken Harrison about two weeks to move a case forwards that hadn’t advanced much in 11 years. And that raises several questions, not least why would it require a police commissioner from New York City to get things going.
Among the theories that have circulated was that police did not call in the FBI because they had elements of their own to hide. But Harrison said that linking the Gilgo murder investigation to local police misconduct was a disservice to the investigation. “I can reassure everybody that there’s no coverup in this case,” he said.
According to the Suffolk district attorney, Ray Tierney, who worked with Harrison in Brooklyn, the case is now a firm priority. Tierney has called in FBI investigators as well as running a team of detectives of his own.
“I go into it with no expectations, but there is a voluminous amount of evidence that’s been collected. We’re going to review and go where it leads us,” Tierney told the Guardian. “It matters to the victims’ families and the people of Suffolk county. They want to see it solved.”
But Gilgo Beach residents last week professed a striking level of indifference. “Bad things happen all over, but some make the headlines. Other than gosh, who’d have thought that would happen here, all the talk seems to be coming from people who don’t come from here,” noted one man parked in a pick-up.
The sense that the case has gone cold, and of official indifference over the last 11 years, vexes John Ray, the Gilbert family’s lawyer. Ray has been a consistent advocate for the family’s efforts to find justice for Gilbert, along with the other women who were found along the coastline.
“Police incompetence, along with certain willful conduct by members of the police department, was a bad mix that destroyed the ability to solve this case,” Ray told the Guardian.
Ray has pursued, through civil litigation and by applying pressure to investigators, a local resident of Oak Beach whom he believes is a prime suspect in Gilbert’s murder and those of the other women found along the beach. The man, a former senior official in the local emergency medical services, made several calls to Gilbert’s mother in the days following Gilbert’s disappearance as well as calls to regional police, her boyfriend, her driver and the client “to learn what he could about Shannan”, Ray has alleged in a civil suit.
Police said initially said Gilbert had probably died accidentally in the marsh behind the man’s house, but that was before they had a body. Later they said she was calm on the 911 call. While Ray is bound by the court to not discuss what he heard on the call, he allows that what police reported “appears to be a deliberate misrepresentation of what happened”.
“It starts to give you pause about what the police’s view of all this was,” he added.
The man later denied his involvement in Gilbert’s disappearance and denied he’d made the calls. “So he did all of these things to try to get serious information. He had no reason to do that if he wasn’t involved,” Ray said.
But other suspects are also in the frame, according to Ray. In essence, murder on this scale takes place in a context of local corruption, Ray said, and that context is what police have been unwilling or unable to expose.
“All of that adds to the problem of defining the circle of guilt. The corruption involved sex and drugs, and these people are involved in either or both of those behaviors. That’s what unites them, but it’s also what makes it so difficult to pin the culprit down because there are so many people with different liabilities.”
Phil Boyle, state senator for Long Island’s fourth district, has asked the New York state attorney general, Letitia James, for an outside investigation of the investigation, believing that figures in the local police force hampered the inquiry and prevented investigators, including the FBI, from looking at cellphone records. “Nobody in their right mind would remove the FBI from a serial killer investigation.”
Where this may lead it is too soon to know.
Melissa Cann, sister of Maureen Brainard-Barnes, told the New York Post on Monday she felt hopeful. Lorraine Ela, mother of Megan Waterman, said she had been “kind of skeptical” prior to Harrison’s press conference, but that she now felt the police chief would “work this case with dignity”.
“I am tired of hearing the same crap come out of everyone’s mouth,” she told the outlet via email. “[But] I was very pleased with the words from Mr Harrison. He seems to care for the victims.”
Many people involved, on a deep personal level or on a professional level that has become deeply personal, anticipate that a new police chief and district attorney from outside the region, together with FBI, can bring some hope for a resolution to a series of profoundly bleak crimes.
John Ray believes that ultimately the police will identity a suspect and bring charges. But, he cautions, regardless of a conviction, “nobody will believe they are the only killer. The police bungled this case so badly and for so many years, we’ve got a Jack the Ripper situation. It will never be solved even if it is.”