The case started with a search for a single missing woman. But when it uncovered a grisly scene of women’s corpses—buried close together on a Long Island beach—police quickly realized they were likely dealing with a serial killer.
When 24-year-old sex worker Shannan Gilbert disappeared on May 1, 2010 after visiting a client in the gated Long Island community of Oak Beach, police had reason to suspect foul play. The night of her disappearance, Ms. Gilbert had called 911, telling the operator, “They are trying to kill me.” She’d knocked at house doors, panic-struck and pleading for help.
While the Suffolk County Police Department knew their missing-person search might end tragically, they were unprepared for what they found: four bodies, spread over a quarter of a mile near Ocean Parkway and Gilgo Beach on Jones Beach Island. The women—Amber Lynn Costello, Melissa Barthelemy, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Megan Waterman—had been buried in the sand and brush in burlap sacks. Like Gilbert, all the women were prostitutes in their 20s who had solicited clientele via the adult classified section of Craigslist.
Shannan Gilbert remained at large for another year, before her remains were discovered in December 2011. In the years that followed, more women’s remains would be discovered in the pine barrens on the eastern half of the island.
[Watch The Killing Season, a docuseries about the Long Island Serial Killer, on A&E Crime Central.]
Several of the women had been missing for a long time—Brainard-Barnes had disappeared more than three years earlier, in 2007. According to Robert Kolker, an investigative journalist and author who wrote Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery about the killings, the police—both in Suffolk County and elsewhere—would have shown these missing-persons cases greater urgency and respect had the women worked in a different profession.
“If any of these young women had been a college student or the daughter of a judge or the daughter of a doctor, they’d be all over cable news,” Kolker tells A&E Real Crime. “The connections between their disappearances would’ve been made more quickly, before their remains were found. And the police would’ve had a jump on the killer.”
Nearly a decade since the initial four bodies were discovered, other remains have been found, with 10 victims or more now likely tied to a single perpetrator.
No arrests have been made.
How the Courts Have Handled the Long Island Serial Killer
In January 2019, Suffolk County Police Department refused a judge’s orders to release the tape of Shannan Gilbert’s 911 call to her family, telling journalists that doing so would jeopardize an ongoing investigation into the killer’s identity. But that explanation is inconsistent with other statements the police have made, says John Ray, an attorney representing the Gilbert estate.
Ray notes that the Suffolk County Police Department had claimed in the past that Gilbert had died of natural causes, and that her death was unconnected to the murders of the other women found on the beach.
“It’s a dramatic inconsistency,” Ray tells A&E Real Crime. If police think Gilbert wasn’t murdered, he says, then the tapes aren’t valuable evidence. If police want to acknowledge that Gilbert was murdered, they should do so.
An independent autopsy conducted at the behest of Gilbert’s family found evidence that Gilbert had died by homicidal strangulation.
“They’ve failed her miserably,” Ray says of the Suffolk County Police Department. As for why the police department would refuse to release the tapes, he adds, “The only reasonable speculation that could even exist under the sun is either that there’s something on the tape that’s significant which they don’t want us to know…or they don’t have the tapes [or]…they erased them. Or they’re just pigheaded, and they’re full of pride, and they don’t want to give in to us.”
[Update: On November 19, 2020, a Suffolk County judge denied the public release of Gilbert’s 911 calls after Ray argued for permission to share the recordings publicly.]
In a written statement for A&E Real Crime, the Suffolk County Police Department said as of July 19, 2019, this article’s original publication date, “The department is not facilitating interviews on this investigation at this time.”
Who are the Suspects in the Long Island Serial Killer Case?
While no one has been tried for the Long Island Serial Killer murders, some believe the perpetrator is already behind bars. That’s because John Bittrolff, a Long Island resident, was convicted in 2017 in the early 1990s beating deaths of two prostitutes, Rita Tangredi and Colleen McNamee. After he was sentenced to consecutive 25 years-to-life sentences, Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Robert Biancavilla suggested that Bittrolff may also be responsible for the Long Island Serial Killer murders.
Kolker thinks that theory might have legs.
“This is a guy who was living out near the [Long Island Central] Pine Barrens,” Kolker explains.
Prior to the Bittrolff speculation, Joel Rifkin—a Long Island-based serial killer already behind bars—had opined in Newsday that the Long Island Serial Killer would be a local resident who worked as a day laborer, in a job where burlap was commonplace.
Psychotherapist and forensic profiler John Kelly says that whoever the killer is, he has a strongly sadistic side, inflamed—at least in part—by the feeling that he’s being disobeyed. Kelly notes that some of the victims brought their cell phones to their appointments with the killer—something the perpetrator explicitly instructed them not to do. The killer, in turn, used those phones to call victims’ family members and taunt them over the deaths.
“They went against his wishes, and he used their own cell phones to torture their family members after he killed them,” Kelly says.
Those cell phone calls, investigators have noted, were short and frequently made from crowded areas in New York City, stymieing efforts to track the killer—leading to speculation that the Long Island Serial Killer might even be associated with the police.