When authorities discovered the remains of four prostitutes covered in burlap sacks on an isolated stretch of Long Island, little did they know that they'd stumbled across one of the most baffling crimes in recent memory. Inside the hunt for the Long Island Serial Killer.
It was 5 a.m. on May 1, 2010, and Gus Coletti was up shaving when he heard a woman’s voice at the front door of his tidy two-story home in Oak Beach, New York. Less than 40 miles from New York City, Oak Beach is a sleepy gated community of 72 homes, isolated at the far eastern end of Ocean Parkway on Long Island’s South Shore. There was seldom any trouble in the area, and certainly not at this hour, so it was a surprise when 75-year-old Coletti opened the door to find Shannan Gilbert. Petite in stature, with streaked blonde hair, wide, wild eyes, and wearing a tank top, jeans, and a leather jacket, the 23-year-old was obviously disoriented and desperate for some kind of sanctuary. “She seemed like she was drugged out,” Coletti tells Maxim. “She could hardly stand.”
It was clear to Coletti that this situation was better suited for the authorities, so after letting Shannan inside, he called 911 and gave the police directions to his house. As it happened, Shannan had already called 911 earlier that morning, staying on the phone for 23 minutes, insisting that someone was trying to kill her. She didn’t say who.
“The police are on their way,” Coletti assured her. “They’re going to help you.” To Coletti’s surprise, Shannan immediately broke for the door and slipped into the early morning gloom. Standing on his deck, Coletti watched Shannan frantically dart up the street, then return and duck under the boat sitting outside his home. As he surveyed the strange scene, Coletti noticed a black SUV lurching slowly down the road, intermittently flashing its lights, stopping and starting again. He took the plate number and went down to address the driver, an Asian man in his 40s.
“I’m looking for a young lady,” said the driver. “We were having a party and she got up and left, so I’m trying to bring her back.”
“You’re not going anywhere, pal,” said Coletti. “I’ve already called the police, and they’re on their way here.”
“You really shouldn’t have called the police,” the driver answered. “She’s going to be in big trouble.
Despite his age, the 6'1" Coletti still cuts an imposing figure: gruff, plainspoken, and not easily intimidated. “So will you if you don’t stay right here,” he replied. Just then Shannan bolted out from under the boat and ran toward the water. The SUV took off after her. And that was the last time anyone saw Shannan Gilbert alive.
Serial-killer stories are always at once disturbing and compelling, kicking up media firestorms and conspiracy theories alike. But even given all that, the case of Shannan Gilbert stands out as one of the strangest. It would be four months before the police returned to Oak Beach to question Coletti about Shannan’s disappearance, and 19 months before her remains were ultimately found. In the interim, authorities discovered the remains of 10 other bodies all along the same desolate stretch of Long Island coastline.
The first major discovery took place on December 11, 2010. It was a cold, windy day, and Officer John Mallia was out on a training exercise with his cadaver dog, Blue, searching for Shannan in a strip of brush just off Ocean Parkway at Gilgo Beach, six miles west of Oak Beach. Both beaches are located on a string of barrier islands, separating the mass of Long Island from the Atlantic Ocean. To the north, across South Oyster Bay, are the “Lawn Guyland” suburbs of Massapequa and Amityville. Farther east are the Waspy enclaves of the Hamptons. But the stretch along Ocean Parkway is mostly state park: poison-ivy-choked scrub brush, marshland, and beaches, with the occasional cluster of homes hugging the shoreline. During the winter it’s practically deserted.
Around 3 p.m. Blue caught a scent and led Mallia through the dense thicket to a spot 30 feet from the road. There was what Mallia described as “some burlap and most of the skeleton.” Returning to the area two days later, Mallia and Blue found three more sets of remains, all of them 30 feet from the road, 500 feet apart, and draped in burlap. The following day Suffolk County police commissioner Richard Dormer made an announcement: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that four bodies ended up in this area,” he said. “We could have a serial killer.”
According to Vernon Geberth, the retired commander of the Bronx Homicide Task Force, who has investigated numerous serial killers, the clustering of victims was strange. “Most serial killers do not do that—they spread the remains around,” he says. “This guy felt so secure at this location, he decided to make it his burial ground.”
The New York region has had its share of serial killers over the years, from Vincent “the Brooklyn Strangler” Johnson to David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz to Long Island’s Joel Rifkin, whose reign of terror resulted in the deaths of at least nine women in the ’90s. So it’s little surprise that Dormer’s announcement sparked an intense wave of media attention. And when the identities of the victims were revealed six weeks later, concern reached a pitch. There was Melissa Barthelemy, a 24-year-old from Buffalo who was last seen leaving her Bronx apartment on July 12, 2009; Maureen Brainard-Barnes, a 25-year-old mother of two from Connecticut who was last seen near Times Square in New York City on July 9, 2007; Megan Waterman, 22, from Maine, last seen leaving a Holiday Inn Express in Hauppauge, Long Island, on June 6, 2010; and Amber Costello, a 27-year-old last seen leaving her home in North Babylon, Long Island on September 2, 2010.
All four were in their 20s, petite, and—most significantly—worked as escorts who advertised on Craigslist. Most perplexing to police, though, was that Shannan Gilbert’s were not among the remains they found, despite the fact that she disappeared less than three miles away and almost exactly fit the profile of the other victims.
Growing up an hour and a half north of New York City, Shannan Gilbert was a girl with issues—she bounced around from foster home to foster home and was diagnosed as bipolar—but she seemed to have settled into normalcy by high school, where she excelled, graduating a year early at age 16. The oldest of Mari Gilbert’s four daughters, Shannan was bubbly, moody, creative, and striking, with strong features. Her sister Sherre, 24, remembers her being obsessed with singing, cooking, and writing poetry. After high school Shannan worked various jobs—at a hotel, a senior center, an Applebee’s—always with the dream of making it as a singer. But by 2007 she was living with a boyfriend in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey; she had gone off her meds, was dabbling with drugs, and had drifted into escorting.
“I didn’t know about the escorting,” says Sherre. “She kept it a secret in the beginning. And once I did find out, I didn’t know how to talk to her about it. I guess she knew the risks, but none of us thought that anything was going to happen to her.”
On the night of April 30, 2010, Shannan called her mother and said she’d be heading home the next day for Mari’s birthday. “Be safe,” texted Mari. “I always am,” answered Shannan. Then, shortly before midnight, she received a response to her Craigslist ad. The appointment was out on Long Island, which was farther than Shannan liked to work—most dates kept her close to the city—but the money was too good to refuse, so she and her driver, Michael Pak, headed out. The drive was uneventful, but Pak later remarked how dark, isolated, and creepy the area was. Around 2 a.m. they arrived at the gate of the Oak Island Beach Association, where the client, Joseph Brewer, was waiting. An out-of-work financial adviser, the 46-year-old Brewer had recently separated from his wife. Neighbors described him as slightly suspicious, skirting association rules. But he’d never caused any real trouble.
What happened next is unclear. According to Pak—who was waiting outside in the SUV—Brewer came out shortly before 5 a.m. seeking help. Inside Pak found Shannan cowering behind a couch, screaming that “they” were trying to kill her. She seemed disoriented, but when Shannan refused Pak’s entreaties to leave with him, the driver returned to the SUV to wait it out.
Within minutes Shannan burst through the door, past Pak and the SUV, and headed straight for the lights of Gus Coletti’s house five doors down.
As Coletti recalls, the police arrived later that morning for a cursory checkup, but it was months before they took up the search in earnest. “It wasn’t until the middle of August that a detective from missing persons knocked on my door and said, ‘We’re looking for Shannan Gilbert, and we would like to know from you what she was wearing,’ ” says Coletti. “So I told them all I knew, and then I asked, ‘Why four months later?’ ”
This is a question that has hung over the entire case. The police were out at Oak Beach about an hour after Shannan’s disappearance, and Gilbert’s family filed a missing-persons report two days later. The Gilberts even went down to Oak Beach to pass out flyers and talk to neighbors, but it seemed that the authorities were dragging their feet.
“I felt like, in the beginning, the police turned a blind eye,” says Shannan’s sister Sherre. “When a girl calls 911 asking for help, when she sounds disoriented, like she’s on drugs, and you can hear two guys in the background telling her to relax…you should be able to tell she needs help. It just doesn’t seem like it was taken seriously, because 19 months later she’s still out there.”
It’s not just Shannan’s family that feels as if the authorities treated their daughter like a second-class citizen. It took more than a year, for instance, for Melissa Barthelemy’s family to get her name on the missing-persons list. The fact of the matter is, for law enforcement, the disappearance of an escort isn’t going to sound alarm bells—which makes sex workers ideal targets. Going back to Jack the Ripper and beyond, predators have long preyed upon prostitutes. As Gary Ridgway, the “Green River Killer,” who confessed to killing 71 women, told a Seattle courtroom in 2003, “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” And as Vernon Geberth notes, “If Shannan had been the wife of one of these characters with multimillion-dollar homes out there, I bet there would have been a different response.”
By the winter of 2011, the police had ID’d the remains of the four victims found on Gilgo Beach, and they knew they had a serial killer on their hands, but there was still no sign of Shannan Gilbert. In the days immediately following her disappearance, authorities questioned both Michael Pak and Joseph Brewer, searching the latter’s home and seizing his car. Brewer told police he didn’t sleep with Shannan; he’d only been looking for company. In any event, the police quickly ruled out both as suspects.
And so the search along Ocean Parkway continued, and what the police found grew more disturbing by the day. Between March and April 2011, investigators discovered the remains of six more victims, going back to the mid-’90s, all of them with some connection to the sex trade. Given the density of the vegetation along Ocean Parkway and how long it had taken to find these victims, there was no telling how many more bodies were waiting to be found. As Geberth says, “The only thing that’s going to stop a serial killer is death or incarceration.” Moreover, it came to light that, following the disappearance of Melissa Barthelemy in 2009, her younger sister Amanda received a series of phone calls from the alleged killer. The caller described what he’d done to Melissa and threatened Amanda. Police traced the calls to midtown Manhattan, which has the highest density of cell phones in the world. It was a dead end.
Unsurprisingly, the media was quick to draw parallels to Joel Rifkin, the horticulturalist who lived at home with his parents and had terrorized Long Island 20 years earlier. Like Rifkin, this killer seemed to be from the area and to exclusively target prostitutes, and—given the presence of the burlap sacks—it appeared likely that he worked as a gardener or landscaper, or perhaps a clam digger, who’d walk the beaches filling his burlap sack with clams.
Geberth, who has closely followed the case, thinks the killer is likely local but notes that he probably isn’t some Buffalo Bill–type loony. “These people—though they have a legitimate diagnosis, which would be psychopathic sexual sadism—aren’t crazy,” he says. “Psychopaths know exactly what they’re doing. They just don’t give a shit.”
Profilers, both armchair and expert, had a field day trying to paint a portrait of the killer. The shared location of the remains indicates that he’s both brazen and meticulous. His knowledge of the region suggests a local, but the phone calls to Melissa Barthelemy’s sister were traced to Manhattan. His ability to secure the victims’ trust indicates that he’s charming, but the very nature of the crimes is a clear sign of acute sadism. The burlap bags point to a landscaper or clam digger, but the killer’s skill in avoiding detection and capture has led some to speculate that he’s a member of law enforcement.
For observers, what remained most perplexing was that the police ultimately ruled out Shannan Gilbert as a victim of the serial killer. Commissioner Dormer maintained that Shannan’s death was an accident. According to his theory, she ran off into the brush at Oak Beach, got tangled up, and drowned in the marshy water.
Geberth finds that theory ludicrous. “You can’t separate the victims, because they all fit the same profile: They’re all Craigslist girls, they all went to meet somebody out on Long Island, and they didn’t come back. How are you trying to separate these?” he asks. “And to suggest that Shannan died accidentally? Give me a break!”
To Shannan’s family, the authorities’ take is equally unconvincing. “My theory is that she ran into Dr. Hackett, and he did something,” says Sherre. Dr. Peter Hackett, who denies any wrongdoing in connection with Shannan’s disappearance, is one of the more mysterious figures in the whole affair. The former head of Suffolk County’s emergency medical services, Hackett is a neighbor of Joseph Brewer’s in Oak Beach. Mari Gilbert claims she received a call soon after Shannan’s disappearance from a man identifying himself as Dr. Hackett, who claimed to run a rehabilitation facility out of his home. According to Mari, the man on the phone said that Shannan stayed the night and was picked up by a driver the following morning. Dr. Hackett ultimately admitted to calling Shannan’s family but denies ever having said he met her or rendered her medical care. Sherre remains suspicious.
“Who’s to say somebody didn’t drug her, and she was so messed up that she thought she was in danger,” speculates Sherre. “And then she runs into this sick guy, Dr. Hackett, who prescribes pills. She knocks on his door, and he says, ‘Oh, I’ll give you something.’ And she accidentally overdoses, and then he dumps her body. You just don’t know.” Still, after being interviewed several times by police, Hackett was ruled out as a suspect.
“The whole case is off the wall,” says Geberth. “You’ve got the driver, you’ve got Brewer, you’ve got Hackett. They’re all fucking goofy as far as I’m concerned, but someone’s not talking the way they need to.”
“I don’t understand how they can be walking around as if nothing happened,” Gus Coletti says of Pak and Brewer. “It makes no sense.” It’s December 13, 2011, and Coletti is standing outside the entrance to the Oak Island Beach Association. Because this is the first anniversary of the initial discoveries at Gilgo Beach, the families of the victims have gathered here on a brisk, crystal-clear winter’s day to hold a vigil. Coletti believes the killer is local, “not necessarily someone from out here on Oak Beach, but nearby.”
The vigil had been planned for some time, but recent developments in the case have turned the parking lot into a media maelstrom. There are seven news trucks and countless camera crews crowding around the victims’ families, hoping for a sound bite. The police had recently ramped up the search for Shannan Gilbert’s remains, perhaps egged on by recent attention brought on by an A&E documentary and the one-year anniversary of the gruesome discoveries. The unseasonably warm December, and the sparse winter foliage, had also made searching the dense undergrowth less difficult.
Less than a week earlier, on December 7, searchers found a number of items belonging to Shannan, including shoes, jeans, a cell phone, a pocketbook, and ID. And just this morning Commissioner Dormer is set to announce a new break in the case: “We have located a set of skeletal remains we believe at this time to belong to Shannan Gilbert.”
Dressed in a long black leather jacket, her eyes bloodshot, Mari Gilbert seems both relieved and devastated. Until today there was a chance that her daughter was still alive. But she’s still not convinced Shannan’s death was an accident. “I want to meet him face-to-face one day,” she says of her daughter’s alleged killer, “and I just want to ask him, ‘Who hurt you? Who hurt you this badly that you have to hurt others?’ ”
“There’s no sense of closure,” says Sherre. “Maybe if my sister had died of cancer or we knew she was going to die, maybe then there would be closure. But when you don’t know where someone is for 19 months, and you don’t know if they were murdered or not, there’s no closure. This is not how it was supposed to happen. We were supposed to live our lives and grow old together.”
After 19 months and the largest homicide investigation in the history of Suffolk County, one mystery may have been solved, but as for the wider case, there’s been no closure there, either. “They’re going to find more bodies,” predicts Coletti, getting ready to head back home, “because the thing about serial killers is they don’t quit killing. And he’s still out there.”
Art Forger Mark Landis
Serial Killer Mementos
More True Crime