In 2010, Long Island’s law enforcement made a grisly discovery. They found four bodies in garbage bags on Gilgo beach. At first, they denied any link between the findings, although there was a clear connection. The bodies in the bags were young girls who worked as escorts, and they were wrapped in precisely the same manner, left to rot on the beach at about 500 meters distance from one another.
When the public found out, they didn’t need to hear the words “serial killer” from the police to know the truth. Clearly, there was a suspect on the loose, using the beach as their own personal graveyard. Tragically, this human predator is still on the loose and is dubbed “The Long Island Serial Killer.”
This eerie case all began with a woman named Shannan Gilbert…
She Will Never Forget the Day…
Sherre Gilbert will never forget the day she received the devastating call, seven months after her older sister Shannan went missing. Investigators claimed they had found Shannan wrapped in burlap on a secluded stretch of beach in Long Island.
“We found a body yesterday and we believe it’s your sister,” the police told Sherre. Her heart dropped. She simply couldn’t believe it. As she waited for the positive identification of her sister, things got even worse. Three additional bodies were found on the same beach.
On the Shores of Gilgo Beach
A total of four bodies were found, wrapped in burlap, about 500 meters apart. The news set Sherre and her family − her mom Mari and her two sisters, Sarra and Stevie Gilbert − on an emotional rollercoaster.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” one of the officers said at the time, “It looks like someone was strangling girls in the area and then dumping their bodies just feet from the road.” In a matter of a few days, newspapers published articles about the incident, dubbing the person in suspect – the Long Island Serial Killer.
Straight Out of a Horror Movie
“The Long Island Serial Killer… that name makes it feel like you’re in a movie,” Sherre Gilbert noted. She couldn’t believe the surreal reality her family was now a part of. Then, as if things couldn’t get any worse, the Gilbert family plotline took another bizarre twist.
As it turns out, none of the four bodies on the shore was Shannan. Sherre’s reaction was mixed. She didn’t know whether to be happy or sad. Because if that wasn’t Shannan… then where was she? And who were the four victims?
The Mystery of Shannan’s Disappearance
The Gilbert family mystery began on May 3rd, 2010. Sherre got a phone call from Shannan’s boyfriend saying that she hadn’t come home in two days. She could hear the fear in his voice and immediately decided to take action.
They had reason to worry, as Shannan was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and she often struggled with depression and severe, uncontrollable mood swings. Unable to hold a steady job, she sold her services online as an escort.
They Tried to Piece Together a Timeline
The Gilberts immediately filed a missing person’s report. However, with no news or help from the police, they decided to take matters into their own hands and drove 140 miles from their home in New York City to Oak Beach, Long Island.
By then, she had been missing for eight days. Shannan’s family and friends knocked on doors and handed out flyers to people on the street, in a desperate attempt to piece together a timeline. They learned a few creepy details about her final moments…
She Was Last Seen…
Shannan was last seen on May 1st. Apparently, she and her driver had left New York shortly after midnight and headed to a gated community in Oak Beach to meet a client she met on craigslist. Her driver dropped her off and said he would be back in a few hours.
It’s unclear exactly what happened in the house, but, apparently, the client told her to leave after a short while. Then, she panicked. Hysterical and incoherent, the phone record shows that Shannon made a panicked call to 911.
Something Awful Happened in the House
Shannan’s sister, Sherre, believes something bad happened in the client’s house. As it turns out, Shannan called the police and told them that she was afraid that they were going to get her and kill her. But…who were “they”? That was (and still is) the big question.
Shannan was undoubtedly in fear for her life and safety. She ran out of the client’s house, down the road, to a dark, desolate area, until she came across a house with the lights on. The home belonged to Gus Coletti, a retired investigator and a resident of Oak Beach for over 30 years.
She Screamed and Banged on the Door
It was five o’clock in the morning, and Gus was still waking up. Suddenly, he heard frantic screams and loud banging on the door. “Help me! Help me!” Shannan cried. Gus opened the door to find her standing there in tears.
She barged in the door and froze. Gus asked what the matter was, but Shannan didn’t respond. Instead, she stared into midair. Gus told her to calm down. He told her to sit in the chair and wait while he called 911. But Shannan didn’t listen.
She Ran Out the Door
Shannan didn’t listen to Gus. In fact, staying put in his house freaked her out even more. She got up and dashed out the front door. Gus ran after her but lost sight of her fairly quickly. Then, he saw an Asian man in his 30s driving a black SUV. The man looked like he was looking for someone.
Gus walked outside and found Shannan hiding under the boat in his yard. She ran off again, and this time, the car chased her. At around 6 a.m., the police finally arrived. It took nearly an hour for them to come, and even then, Gus said, they didn’t seem concerned.
“Shannan the Prostitute”
Gus Coletti greeted the officer who picked up his call, but he was upset to see that the cop wasn’t concerned about the incident. Shannan’s sister, Sarra, said she believes that the police weren’t concerned for her sister because of her profession.
“[To the police], she wasn’t Shannan the person, the aunt, the sister. She was Shannan the prostitute.” But Shannan was a lot more than her work as an escort. She had dreams of becoming a singer and an actress. She had also recently enrolled in a writing course at school.
The Police Tried to Downplay It
Fast forward seven months, and police were still downplaying the situation. Even though they found four bodies on the shores of Gilgo beach, they told the public they had nothing to worry about, that the bodies weren’t necessarily connected to the same killer.
“I don’t want anybody thinking there’s a Jack the Ripper running around here with a knife,” one officer confidently stated. However, the public knew that some sh*t had hit the fan, so to speak. All four girls found were young escorts, wrapped in a similar manner. They had all advertised on craigslist.
Long Island’s Biggest Homicide Investigation
What began as a missing person’s case, turned into a complicated homicide investigation, probably the biggest one Long Island has ever had. Worried parents were freaking out about their children’s security, especially their girls.
Because they were dealing with escorts, police sort of… brushed it off, saying that those girls were putting themselves in a risky situation from the get-go and that nobody should be that surprised by the hideous outcome.
Victim A – Melissa Barthelemy
The first body found belonged to Melissa Barthelemy, who disappeared on July 12, 2009. The 24-year-old had been missing for a year and a half before her mother, Lin, got the devastating call that her daughter’s body had been found.
Melissa’s story is a sad one. She graduated from beauty school, with the hopes of making it big in the industry. She moved from her small hometown of Buffalo to the big lights of New York City, where she told her mom she was working as a hairdresser.
She Lied to Her Mom
But what Lin Barthelemy didn’t know was that her daughter was actually working as an escort. In July 2009, after a week or so with no word from Melissa, Lin panicked. “Did she get hurt?” the mother wondered.
Lin started calling hospitals, as well as the NYPD to file a missing person’s report. But their response was no less than atrocious. Apparently, they were “busy with other things,” and didn’t want to hear any of it. To them, Melissa was a healthy young woman, with no crime or medical reports, so there was no reason to panic. “She’s where she wants to be,” they told Lin.
“She’s a Hooker!”
For three days, Lin Barthelemy tried getting them to help. Even her attorney couldn’t get the police to take notice. When he spoke to one of the officers, the response he received was beyond ridiculous; it was degrading.
“She’s a hooker! We’re not going to assign a detective to this,” the cop told him. About a week after she went missing, Melissa’s younger sister, Amanda, got a call from Melissa’s phone. 15-year-old Amanda was eager to pick up, but the voice she heard on the other line carried ominous news…
It Was a ’an’s Voice
The voice on the other line belonged to a man. With a slight tease in his voice, he told Amanda,”Oh…this isn’t Melissa.” He spoke in a cold and comfortable manner, which made his horrifying message all the more devastating. It was as if he was toying with her.
The killer said some pretty horrible things to Amanda – sexually explicit things, with details about what he had done to Melissa. And then, sexually explicit things about what he was going to do her (Amanda) as well.
They Tried to Track His Phone
Law enforcement was able to track the killer’s phone and find a few locations – the Empire State Building and Times Square, among other places. However, the sneaky murderer always hung up before he could be identified.
Still, the police learned a lot about him based on his voice. They assumed he was somewhere in his late 20s or early 30s, and likely white. The killer was familiar was their investigative techniques and knew exactly which locations would be difficult to trace and precisely how long he could be on the phone.
“Do You Know What I Did to Your Sister?”
The killer reached out to Amanda one last time on August 26, 2009, with a chilling message, “Do you know what I did to your sister?” he asked. “I killed her.” Everyone in the area believes he will kill again. “He’s on a mission…he’s very calculated,” one officer noted.
With each body found on Gilgo beach, the investigators learned more about the serial killer and his uncanny ability to avoid detection. Moreover, they knew that he was likely thriving from all the social attention he was receiving.
Victim B – Amber Costello
The second body on the shore belonged to Amber Costello, who disappeared on September 2nd, 2010. Amber was a troubled young soul who struggled with life and often told her roommate, Dave Shalour, that she was “better off dead.”
Dave reported that in the winter of 2010, a detective showed up at his front door. Dave knew that they had found her body. By then, Amber was missing from their home on Long Island for three whole months.
She Went to Meet a Client
Her roommate Dave said that the last time he saw her was right before she set off to meet a client. “Be safe,” Dave told her. And then she left. But when she didn’t come back, he knew something was wrong. He reached out to her family, but tragically, not even her family members cared.
It’s unbelievably sad, to imagine living 27 years, yet no one in your life bothers to report you missing. Dave noted that she lived her life as if she didn’t even care about herself. She hated the person she had become – a drug addict. She felt that her job as an escort was degrading.
Predators Prey on the Weak
Amber’s client promised her 1,500 dollars if she would stay the night with him, and according to Dave, she hesitated at first. However, the client was persistent. She was on the phone with him constantly, and he was so persuasive that she eventually agreed to it.
Incredibly, she felt so confident that nothing bad was about to happen that she left their house without her purse or cellphone. Somehow, it seems, the client got into her head. Somehow, he convinced her to meet him alone at his place, whereas she usually invited clients to her home.
Victim C – Megan Waterman
The third body found on the shore belonged to Megan Waterman, who disappeared on June 6th, 2010. She was last seen leaving the Holiday Inn Express in June of 2010. The youngest of the four victims, Megan was also the least experienced.
Interestingly, the hotel she went to is the same Holiday Inn Express that a client invited Amber to a few weeks before her death. At the time, Amber refused. But Megan, who usually had somebody accompany her on calls, went out alone. She was just 22 at the time of her murder. She left behind a four-year-old daughter.
Victim D – Maureen Brainard Barnes
The fourth victim found on the shore belonged to Maureen Brainard Barnes, who disappeared on July 9th, 2007. Maureen’s little sister, Melissa, told reporters that she believes her sister “needs a voice. She needs her pride back.”
She wants people to know that while her sister may have worked as an escort, she was so much more than that. She was a human, a mother, a loving sister, and a caring daughter. She was everything to the family. She was the glue that stuck them together.
She Had No Other Choice
In July of 2007, Maureen left her home in Connecticut and boarded a train to New York City to set up appointments with men on craigslist. Sadly, she was getting evicted from her home, so she had no choice but to find money in sketchy places.
“She didn’t turn to craigslist because she wanted to. She turned because she had no other choice,” her sister Melissa argued. Upon arriving in New York City, Maureen checked into a hotel, and like the other woman, she vanished in the night.
No One Took Their Fear Seriously
Maureen’s family quickly went to the police. But the officers responded with remarks like, “Maybe she ran away,” or “Maybe she doesn’t care about her kids.” In other words, no one in law enforcement took their fears seriously.
With no other choice, Maureen’s family embarked on their own search. They walked around Manhattan, asking if anyone saw her. Yet no one had. On December 13, 2010, her body was found on the shores of Gilgo beach.
They Failed Her
Maureen’s sister, Melissa, complained about the police’s treatment of the case. She wishes they would have tried harder to find her sister. The system failed her sister. In March of 2011, three months after finding the bodies of Melissa, Amber, Megan and Maureen, investigators found more bodies and more body parts.
Along this stretch of sand, six new sets of human remains were discovered. “The area has been used to discard human remains,” newspapers wrote on their front pages. So far, the police couldn’t connect the latest remains to the four women who had been found.
Only One Has Been Identified
Only one has been identified thus far. She’s victim number five – Jessica Taylor, an escort missing since 2003. She was found dismembered. The police then dubbed victim number six Jane Doe. All they found were remains, but they couldn’t connect them to a certain identity.
More remains were found, of a baby girl wrapped in a blanket. And victim number eight is said to be an Asian man in his 20s. The body remains number nine and ten are a skull and human bones. They, too, have never been connected to anyone specifically.
So, Who Killed Shannan Gilbert?
Back to Shannan’s eerie murder mystery. The police began looking at three potential suspects – the man who hired Shannan’s services, the man who drove her there, and a doctor who put himself in the middle of the investigation.
The stories of these three men are bizarre and confusing. Let’s begin with Joseph Brewers, the man who hired her. When the bodies were found, the police barged into his life and searched his car and house. He admitted hiring Shannan online, but he claimed it wasn’t sex he was after.
He Was Just Looking for a Friend
Joseph Brewers made the ridiculous claim that he didn’t hire Shannan for sex. He just “wanted a friend” to spend the night with. He booked her for two hours, but she ended up staying for another hour. At the end of the night, he refused to pay what she demanded.
Shortly after, she made the frantic 911 call. She probably felt threatened, as she yelled that “they” were going to kill her. But Joseph said he didn’t want to harm her. In fact, he said he brought her driver in to get her out of there, but she ran out of his house and over to his neighbor, Gus.
Was She Running From Her Driver?
Joseph claimed that he noticed the black SUV following her. She seemed to be running from the man who was supposed to be protecting her – her driver, Michael Pak. At one point, Michael told Gus Coletti he was looking for Shannan, and Coletti responded that he had called the police.
Pak said, “You shouldn’t have done that.” The driver told reporters that he drove around for about an hour looking for Shannan but eventually left the area. Michael is another truly odd character in this eerie story.
A Convicted Felon
Michael Pak is a dog owner, obsessed with his pet chihuahua. He dresses his dog up and posts videos of them on YouTube. Apart from that, though, he’s a convicted felon, who served time in federal prison for conspiracy to misuse a passport.
He was also arrested for bringing a Chinese woman to America. Pak argued that he had nothing to do with Shannan’s disappearance and claimed that he even passed a polygraph “with flying colors.”
The Third Man
The third suspect in Shannan’s case is a retired doctor named Peter Hackett. His involvement in the murder is bizarre. A few days after Shannan went missing, Sherre said the family got a call from a man they had never heard of – Dr. Hackett.
He said he had seen Shannan roaming around Oak Beach the night she vanished and brought her into his home. The following morning, Michael Pak, the driver, came to pick her up. That was it, he claimed. That’s all he knew.
Suddenly, He Denied Ever Seeing Her
When Shannan’s sisters made their trip to Oak Beach to find out more, Dr. Hackett denied he had ever met the missing girl. He denied making any calls to the family. Afterward, he took what he said back and admitted that he had indeed called Shannan’s mom.
He called her twice. And he said that while he had made those calls, they were done so long ago that he doesn’t recall exactly what he said. However, he knows for a fact that he never said he had met her. Hackett got the family’s phone number from Shannan’s friend and said he called to see if he could help in any way.
He Continues to Elude Authorities
The police ended up saying that Hackett and the other two men cooperated fully and that they weren’t actual suspects. As of today, the case is still wide open. There are many mysteries yet to be uncovered at Oak Beach.
The case of the Long Island Serial Killer is a difficult one. “It’s no CSI drama,” said one officer. They’re still desperately trying to catch the serial killer before he catches another victim and kills again. It’s a race against time.
Over the years, the Gilberts weathered another tragedy. In the summer of 2016, Shannan’s mother, Mari, was found dead. The killer? Her own daughter, Sarra Gilbert. Of the three daughters that remained, Sherre, Sarra, and Stevie, Sarra was the one who struggled the most with her mental health.
After her sister’s disappearance, she found herself going in and out of psychiatric facilities while her mother, Mari, took care of her little son Hayden. When she returned home from the hospital in 2016, Sarra had to fend for herself. She no longer received government assistance checks, and her life took a turn for the worse.
She Stopped Taking Her Medications
Sarra Gilbert became increasingly isolated and was no longer on her antipsychotic medication. Shortly before she killed her mom, in July 2016, Sarra called her sister Sherre and cried and complained that she was hearing voices.
Sherre told her mother, who immediately went over to Sarra’s home to comfort her. However, Mari’s arrival didn’t calm her; if anything, it made the hallucinations worse. Sarra stabbed her mom 227 times and hit her with a fire extinguisher.
She Was Found Guilty
Sarra Gilbert, who was 27 at the time of the murder, was found guilty of her mom’s killing in 2017, despite the fact that she was severely mentally unfit, and therefore not responsible for her deadly actions.
Sarra was sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison. However, many people don’t believe she should be held responsible. “Sarra is, from all the evidence, clearly not responsible for what she’s done,” Ray said. “She’s a schizophrenic, a serious one. It’s extremely tragic for her, as well as for her mom, as well as her family,” said her attorney, John Ray.
In 2020, a film centering around the case of Shannan Gilbert and the Long Island Serial Killer was released by Netflix. The movie told the heartbreaking story of Mari Gilbert as she tried to find answers about her lost daughter, Shannan.
The film is the feature debut for director Liz Garbus. Liz said it was important to shed light on the stories of the families of the murder victims. She wanted to stick to the facts and remain as loyal as possible to reality.
A Story About Believing Women
“It’s a story about believing women, about the power of community and family,” Garbus told TIME magazine. “And it’s a story about the value of human life and the judgments that our system puts into the lives.” Liz, a mother herself, said that she understood the struggles Mari faced in trying to provide her children with the right care.
Shannan was diagnosed as bipolar, so Mari’s struggles were tenfold. “To grapple with mental illness and not being able to get help for it, and then to have that child go missing and become a murder victim, the enormous guilt you feel,” Liz told TIME.
Where Does the Case Stand Now?
The movie Lost Girls doesn’t try to solve the unresolved mystery; it simply plays it out for the viewer. Despite the fact that it’s been nearly a decade since Shannan disappeared, law enforcement still hasn’t been able to find her body or catch the killer.
At the start of 2020, the police released a photo of a black belt that is believed to have been “handled by a suspect in the murders.” However, investigators didn’t really elaborate much on the possible connection.
Very Little Is Known About the Long Island Serial Killer
Not much is known about the suspect behind the killings in Long Island. Authorities are still debating whether the murders were done by the same person! The film Lost Girls also doesn’t tell us much about where the case stands; instead, examines how the systems intended to protect people, end up failing them.
Sadly, there is no tidy ending for this harrowing case. And Liz Garbus, director of the film, didn’t try to sugarcoat Lost Girls, saying that the movie was more about how a person can power through a devastating tragedy, as opposed to trying to solve the case.
In other words, the killer still runs loose.