“They’re trying to kill me!” screamed the 24-year-old female escort in a frantic 911 call that lasted over 20 minutes before it abruptly cut off.
It was May 2010, and Shannan Gilbert had promised to buy her mother Mari a birthday present with the money she would make from having sex with a lonely middle-aged man named Joseph Gilbert way out in the tiny Long Island town of Oak Beach. Shannan found her clients through Craigslist back before the site banned its escorts section. Her mother said that for a birthday present, she’d prefer if Shannan would just hang around and provide her with some company. If Shannan had honored her mother’s wishes, she might still be alive today.
Instead, Shannan arranged for her driver, a man named Michael Pak, to motor her all the way out to the morbidly desolate marshlands of Long Island’s South Shore, which even though they were located a mere 30 miles or so from Manhattan seemed another world entirely.
According to Joseph Brewer, Shannan—who suffered from bipolar disorder and reportedly had not been taking her medication—began acting erratically the moment she arrived at his house. Unable to calm her down, he contacted Michael Pak, who was parked outside waiting, and asked for his help in getting her out of the house.
When Shannan called 911, two men’s voices could be heard in the background, presumably those of Brewer and Pak. And she specified that more than one person was trying to kill her—they were trying to kill her.
She fled from Brewer’s house and began banging on neighbors’ doors, still talking to 911 while screaming that “they” were trying to kill her. Two other neighbors also called 911, alarmed by Shannan’s behavior.
By the time police arrived, Shannan had disappeared. She was never seen alive again.
In the first odd twist of a case with enough twists and turns to give you whiplash, police interviewed Brewer and Pak and quickly cleared them of any suspicion.
In December of that year, a police detective found a disintegrating female corpse buried in the sand along the South Shore…but it wasn’t Shannan. Two days later, police found three other bodies in the same area, all of them within 500 feet of one another. All four of the bodies were female, and all of them were Craigslist escorts. But again, none of them were Shannan.
Only months later, in late March and early April 2011, police found six additional cadavers along Long Island’s South Shore. Four of them were female sex workers, one was a MTF trans sex worker, and one was a toddler that DNA evidence linked to one of the female sex workers.
Was Shannan Gilbert A Victim Of The Long Island Serial Killer? Was She Even A Murder Victim At All?
Police realized that they had a serial killer on their hands.
Even stranger, when they finally found Shannan’s body in December 2011, they quickly ruled that she hadn’t been murdered and shouldn’t be considered one of the victims of the murderer that the press were now calling the Long Island Serial Killer, the Craigslist Killer, and the Gilgo Ripper—after Gilgo Beach, where many of the carcasses were unearthed.
Stranger than all that was the fact that Shannan was found in a marsh with her face up, which is not typical of drowning victims. She was also found with her underwear pulled down near her ankles. An autopsy ordered by her family determined damage to her hyoid bone, which is typical of strangulation victims. And her belongings were found scattered around her, which suggests that someone had carried her corpse and dropped it into the water, accidentally dropping items along the way.
And it beggars belief to think that after 23 minutes of screaming to anyone who’d listen that they were trying to kill her, she coincidentally happened to wander into marshlands, pull her underwear down, and strangle herself to death while also managing to land face-up.
It gets even stranger.
According to Shannan’s mother Mari Gilbert, she received a call from Dr. Peter Hackett two days after Shannan disappeared. She says he informed her that he ran a home for wayward girls and had taken personal care of Shannan in the days before she vanished. Three days after that, Hackett called back to claim that he’d never had any contact with Shannan. Bizarrely, Mari says he also denied calling her three days prior. When someone later asked Hackett whether he’d ever called Shannan’s mother, he denied it—even though phone records proved he was lying. One of the calls had come from New Jersey, even though he denied being in Jersey that week. When a reporter later contacted Hackett outside a courthouse and asked him about “the other girls,” Hackett either had a heart attack on camera or faked having a heart attack.
Oh—and Hackett’s property led directly to the marsh where Shannan’s body was found 19 months after she disappeared. But the police interviewed Hackett and dismissed him as a weirdo who unnecessarily injects himself into controversial situations.
The Other 10 Bodies
One reason police say they don’t believe Shannan was a victim of the Long Island Serial Killer is that her body was found exposed, while all the others were buried in the sand, which on these remote stretches of highway are deeply packed with briars and brambles and weeds and creepy-crawly ticks. It was originally said that at least two of the bodies were found buried in burlap sacks.
But nine of these ten bodies were, like Shannan, Craigslist escorts who’d agreed to meet men in remote villages on the farthest reaches of Long Island. And, as in Shannan’s case, at least two of the escorts’ relatives received odd phone calls shortly after they disappeared.
1. Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25
went missing: 7/9/2007
Just under five feet tall and barely 100 pounds, this single mother was trying to keep from being evicted by having sex in exchange for money paid by men she’d met on Craigslist. She told friend she had planned “to spend the day in New York City” but was never heard from again. After she disappeared, her friend Sarah received a call from a male stranger telling her that Maureen was staying at a “whorehouse in Queens.” When pressed for further details, he provided none. He said he would call back but never called again.
2. Melissa Barthélemy, 24
went missing: 7/10/2009
An escort who lived in the Bronx, Melissa met with a client and deposited $900 in the bank the night she disappeared. She tried to call an ex-boyfriend but couldn’t get him on the line. Then, a week later and continuing for the next five weeks, her teenage sister Amanda was bombarded with calls from a man with a “calm and bland” voice asking if she “was a whore like her sister.” On the final call, he asked, “Do you think you’ll ever speak to her again?” and answered before she could reply: He said he killed Melissa after having sex with her.
3. Megan Waterman, 22
went missing: 6/6/2010
She was last seen leaving a Holiday Inn room she was sharing with an ex-boyfriend in Hauppauge, NY en route to meeting a client she’d met via Craigslist. Her body was one of the first four that would be found in Gilgo Beach—15 miles from Hauppauge—later that December.
4. Amber Lynn Costello, 27
went missing: 9/2/2010
A heroin addict who lived ten miles north of Gilgo Beach, Costello disappeared the same night she received calls from a stranger who had offered her $1,500 for sex. Her sister—also a Craigslist escort—said she intended to keep using Craiglist in an attempt to find Amber’s sister, which sounds risky at best and insane at worst.
5. Jessica Taylor, 24
went missing: July 2003
Within weeks of her 2003 disappearance, Costello’s partial remains—her nude, mutilated torso minus her head and hands—were found in Manorville, NY, a full 45 miles from Gilgo Beach. Nearly eight years later, her skull, hands, and a forearm were found on Gilgo Beach near the nine other cadavers.
6. “Jane Doe #6”
Most of this unidentified victim’s body had been found in November, 2000 in the woods of Manorville, NY where most of Jessica Taylor’s body had been found. The rest was discovered on the South Shore beaches during the murder investigations of 2011. Officials say she was probably a sex worker and was almost definitely killed by whoever had killed Jessica Taylor.
7. “John Doe”
This was the body of an unidentified Asian male who identified as a woman and was likely working as a prostitute. He had been wearing women’s clothing at the time of his death. When his body was found in 2011 on Gilgo Beach, it was estimated that he’d been dead for between five and ten years.
8. “Peaches/Jane Doe No. 3”
In June 1997, a dismembered torso of a young African-American woman was found in a Rubbermaid container at Hempstead Lake State. Because the victim had a tattoo of a heart-shaped peach on her left breast, investigators referred to her as “Peaches.” In April 2011, additional remains that matched with Peaches’ DNA were found in a plastic bag near Jones Beach State Park.
9. “Baby Doe”
On April 4, 2011, a mere 250 feet from the partial remains of “Jane Doe No. 6,” investigators found the corpse of a female toddler they determined to have been between 16 and 24 months old. DNA tests determined that Peaches/Jane Doe No. 3 had been her mother.
10. “Jane Doe No. 7/Fire Island Jane Doe”
On April 20, 1996, a pair of severed legs was found in a garbage bag on Fire Island. DNA tests matched them to a skull and teeth that were found at Tobay Beach in April, 2011. This is the oldest case linked to the Long Island Serial Killer, which suggests that his spree lasted at least 14 years—beginning in 1996 and ending the day after Shannan Gilbert called 911 and told them they were going to kill her.
You see, there were no further Long Island Serial Killings after the night Shannan Gilbert called 911 and then vanished.
Still No Arrests Nearly 25 Years After The First Murder
Long Island police have been criticized for failing to solve their most ghastly murder case in history a full quarter-century after it began.
Many say that the Long Island Serial Killer’s methods suggest he was either a policeman or familiar with law-enforcement methods. He purposely buried Peaches and her daughter in separate counties, possibly aware that the counties would be flustered by having to conduct separate investigations. He was well aware of Long Island’s terrain and that if he wanted to dump off some dead bodies, he couldn’t have picked a more obscure place than the thick marshlands along Ocean Highway. He also interacted with the escorts on “burner” phones, which can’t be traced. Some detectives speculated off the record that the killer might be a cop.
James Burke became Suffolk County Police Chief shortly after the killings became national news. Mysteriously, he prevented the FBI from aiding in their investigation. It turns out that in his teens, Burke had evaded incarceration by informing on his friends regarding a bullying murder where Burke was present but did not intervene. Others came forward alleging that while Police Chief, Burke was part of a secretive group of high-ranking Long Island socialites who routinely held sex-and-drug parties with paid escorts. A convicted sex worker and drug dealer named Lowrita Rickenbacker came forward and claimed that Burke had paid her for “rough sex” with him at a party in Oak Beach—the tiny village where Shannan Gilbert made her 911 call on that fatal night.
In 2015, Burke was arrested and imprisoned for beating a robbery suspect who’d stolen a duffel bag from Burke’s car containing sex toys, cigars, and hardcore porn. He was also convicted of interfering with a police investigation into the matter.
Hardcore sex parties, a tendency toward violence, and a conviction for interfering with an investigation. Hmm…
But Burke has yet to be charged with any crimes regarding the Long Island Serial Killer, although since his imprisonment, the FBI has finally entered the investigation and is aiding local authorities.
Another prime suspect is John Bittrolff of Manorville, NY—where remains of two Long Island Serial Killer victims were dumped. In 2014, Bittrolff was arrested and convicted of the murders of two prostitutes in 1993 and 1994. Long Island Serial Killer victim Melissa Barthelemy’s mother said that her daughter’s phone had revealed “a lot of calls to Manorville” around the time of her death.
So many plausible suspects, but still no arrests. Until there’s a breakthrough, this may be the most baffling unsolved murder mystery in American history.