written by C.W.S.
There is still much debate surrounding what happened to Shannan Gilbert, a woman who went missing in May of 2010 and whose body was discovered a year and a half later in a Long Island marsh a half-mile from where she was last seen. The search for Shannan would initially uncover ten other bodies in the same area, before her body was found on December 13, 2011. Throughout the investigation, police have made claims that the bodies are the work of a single serial killer, or multiple, but no suspect has been charged. They have also claimed that Shannan was not a victim of a murder at all—but that she drowned in the swamp after accidentally falling in. Her family doesn’t think so.
Shannan Gilbert’s Disappearance
It’s difficult to talk about the Long Islander Serial Killer, also known as the Craiglist Killer or the Gilgo Beach Killer, without talking about Shannan Gilbert. Though there is considerable doubt that she was in fact a victim of the killer or killers, or that she was murdered at all, it is true that without her disappearance and the subsequent search the ten bodies may still remain undiscovered. An aspiring singer and actress, Shannan grew up in a series of foster homes after her mother, Mari Gilbert, left her father and moved the family to upstate Ellenville. For a brief period following the move, her mother lost custody of her four daughters, of which Shannan was the oldest. Two of the children would be returned to her care and two would not: Shannan and her sister Sarra.
Though her adolescence lacked stability, Shannan was able to finish high school early at age 16, fitting two years of classes into one. She also enjoyed drama and acted in school plays. One of her foster parents, Jennifer Pottinger, who had known her since she was in high school, said of Shannan, "She was a smart girl, and she was wonderful.” Jennifer remained in touch with Shannan until her disappearance. Shannan had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and had stopped taking her medication sometime during high school, citing the negative side effects.
After graduating Shannan took a series of different jobs, working as a hotel receptionist, an Applebee's hostess, and a snack-prepper at a senior center.
During the time of her disappearance, Shannan was 23-years-old and working as an escort. She had been doing sex work since around 2007, while she tried to make a career for herself as a singer and took online classes with Phoenix University. Michael Pak, an escort driver, met Shannan in 2009 and was the last person to see her on the night of her disappearance. Pak claimed that Shannan posted an ad on Craigslist that night, and he drove her to the Oak Beach, where she met Joseph Brewer, a man who had responded to her post. What happened next is unclear—Brewer, who claimed to have no sexual contact with Shannan, said he refused to pay her and she began acting erratically, eventually calling the police and stating, “They are trying to kill me.” She then fled from the residence. Both Brewer and Pak were cleared as suspects.
Shannan then ran to a nearby house and pounded on the door. It was around 5 am, and her screams and pounding startled the resident of the home, Gustav Coletti, who was shaving in the bathroom. When he opened the door Shannan pushed into the house, and Coletti told her he was going to call the police. She fled again, falling down the steps, and running out into the neighborhood. From that point, accounts vary. Shannan apparently knocked on the home of Barbara Brennan, who did not answer the door but called both the police and her neighbor, Tom Canning. He arrived after Shannan had left but would allegedly tell a neighbor a year after Shannan’s body was found that she had contact with another man, Dr. Peter Hackett, the morning before her death. She would not be seen again.
Police Investigation and the discovery of the bodies
The subsequent investigation into her disappearance led to an officer uncovering the first body near Gilgo Beach in December 2010. The skeletal remains were of a woman wrapped in a tattered burlap sack and were found along the westbound shoulder of Ocean Parkway. Three more bodies were found two days later in the same area. Richard Dormer, Suffolk County Police Commissioner stated at the time of the findings, "Four bodies found in the same location pretty much speaks for itself. It's more than a coincidence. We could have a serial killer."
In the following months, four more bodies were discovered. The search was extended into Nassau County, where in early April, a human skull and a partial set of remains were found, the death toll reaching ten. Police soon revealed that the partial set of human remains had been matched to a set of legs found in a garbage bag washed up on Fire Island in 1996. Shannan’s body was found five months later in the same area.
The first body found was identified as a missing 24-year-old woman named Melissa Barthelemy of Erie County, New York, who was working as an escort through Craigslist and was with a client the night of her disappearance. Police initially declined to search for Melissa until a few days later when her 16-year-old sister began receiving taunting phone calls from Melissa’s cellphone. The caller was a man who asked if she knew that her sister was “a whore.” He would call six more times, while police attempted to trace where the call was coming from. Unfortunately, the male caller, who police believe may be either a retired or active duty police officer, seemed to be well-versed in police tactics, and would call from very crowded Manhattan areas so as not to be identified by surveillance cameras. He also kept the calls under three minutes, making it difficult for police to trace his locations.
The three other bodies found in December 2010 were also later identified. Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, was a single mother from Norwich, Connecticut who also worked as an online escort, posting through Craigslist. She disappeared on July 9, 2007, while visiting New York City. Megan Waterman, 22, of South Portland, Maine, was staying in a motel in Hauppauge, New York, only 15 miles from Gilgo Beach. She went missing on June 6, 2010 after posting as an escort on Craigslist. Amber Lynn Costello, 27, lived just ten miles north of Gilgo Beach in North Babylon, New York. She also posted on Craigslist as an escort the night of her disappearance, meeting a stranger who offered her $1,500 after calling her several times on September 2, 2010.
Only one of the four bodies found in March and April of 2011 has been identified: Jessica Taylor, 20, went missing in July 2003. The partial remains found on March 29, 2011 were later connected to other body parts found in July of 2003, 45 miles east of Gilgo Beach in Manorville, New York. Jessica was also a sex worker who was known to have clients in Manhattan.
Five other victims have yet to be identified. Partial remains of one of the female victims, known as Jane Doe No. 6, were also found in Manorville and connected to remains found in Gilgo Beach. A young Asian person, likely a trans woman, was found killed from blunt-force trauma. Analysis pointed to the likelihood that the victim had been dead for five to ten years. The bodies of a mother, identified as Jane Doe No. 3, and her toddler were found ten miles apart, and the toddler was found merely 250 feet from Jane Doe No. 6. The partial remains of Jane Doe No. 7 were found and linked to other remains found on Fire Island in 1996. Seven more deaths are being considered as possibly connected to the bodies found near Gilgo Beach.
There are currently no suspects in the deaths of the 10-17 people possibly connected to the case. Police have suggested that the killer responsible for some or all of these deaths is likely a white man in his mid-20s to mid-40s. As stated, police believe that the man responsible may have connections to law enforcement due to his apparent knowledge of tactics that have helped him escape detection. They also assert that he may work a job in which burlap bags are accessible, such as gardening, and that he may live on Long Island or be familiar with the area. On December 10, 2015, the fifth anniversary of the discovery of the first body, the FBI officially joined the investigation.
What Happened to Shannan?
Dissatisfied with police claims that Shannan drowned in a marsh while trying to get to Ocean Parkway, the family and their attorney had independent medical examiner Michael Baden perform an autopsy of his own. He found that a bone in Shannan’s neck was missing, a sign consistent with homicide by strangulation, and that she was found belly-up, an unlikely position for someone who had drowned. He was unable to say definitively that she was murdered, as the soft tissue of the body was no longer present.
A neighbor named Joe Scalise came forward claiming that Joe Canning had told him that his friend Dr. Peter Hackett, a former surgeon for the Suffolk County Police Department, drugged Shannan the night of her disappearance in order to calm her down. Joe Canning later stated that the claim was untrue. However, Shannan’s mother received a phone call from the Hackett residence two days after her daughter disappeared. A man stated that he ran a home for wayward girls and that Shannan was in his care. When interview by police, he denied these claims, but phone records show that he made two calls to the Gilbert household, one that day, and one three days later. Though he admitted to the phone calls, Peter Hackett denied ever coming into contact with Shannan. Shannan’s family would hire attorney John Ray and file a wrongful death lawsuit against Peter Hackett, claiming the administration of drugs led to Shannan’s death.
Peter Hackett has become a polarizing figure, and many people interested in the case believe in a police cover-up. Others claim that he was already seen as an embarrassment to the department because of his termination some years before, and so a cover-up would not serve in the department’s interest. In their investigation, police were unable to find any evidence linking him with Shannan’s disappearance, though their attorney claims the searches were incomplete, and that the phone call was consistent with the killer’s tendency to contact victims’ families after their deaths.
Whether or not Shannan’s death is linked to the other bodies found near Gilgo Beach, the fact remains that a killer, or killers, have not yet been identified and neither have the remains of five of the bodies found near Gilgo Beach. Next month marks the sixth anniversary of the discovery of the first bodies. New leads seem to be almost nonexistent, and the families of those killed are still hoping for answers.
Suffolk County Crime Stoppers is offering a cash reward of up to $25,000 for information leading to an arrest in the Long Island serial killer case: 1-800-220-TIPS (8477) or tipsubmit.com