Last December, Melissa Cann’s heart dropped when she saw a TV news report that the bodies of four unidentified women in their 20s were discovered in the thick undergrowth along a secluded beach on Long Island, just an hour away from the frenzy of New York City. The bodies, which were found within 500 feet of each other, were all in various states of decomposition and stripped of their jewelry, identification, purses, and clothing. It appeared that they had been killed elsewhere, robbing detectives of valuable clues.
At the time, police suspected that one of the possible victims, Megan Waterman, had disappeared after advertising for clients on Craigslist. Waterman was last seen with her boyfriend at a hotel in Hauppauge, New York. It didn't take long for detectives to decide they were looking at the grisly work of a serial killer.
Cann’s sister, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, had gone missing from her Manhattan hotel room nearly three years earlier, in July 2007. Police had subsequently linked her phone activity to a cell phone tower on Long Island. In 2008, police helicopters and cadaver dogs had scoured the same marshy, desolate area, but found no signs of Brainard-Barnes, a sweet-faced brunette with a passion for poetry.
The day after the serial killer story hit the news, Cann received a phone call from her mother. Her mom told her that the police had called her: The New York City detective handling Maureen's missing-persons case was forwarding her file to the Suffolk County Police Department, the lead police agency in charge of the serial killer investigation.
“I was dying inside,” Cann, a 26-year-old mother of four, told The Daily Beast. “It was the most horrible month. Not knowing. It was like a Band-Aid over a wound that had to be ripped off.”
“I will always be in contact with these families. I look at them as if they are my family. We are connected now and forever."
Cann believed that her sister’s case was most likely linked to the other women, and she decided to reach out. Could their families provide her with some clues to her own sister’s disappearance? She went on Facebook and tracked down Megan Waterman's family. Her message to them was simple and sensitive, from one victim's kin to another.
“I know how this may feel because I too have someone close to me missing,” she wrote. “My sister, her name is Maureen Brainard-Barnes and she has been missing for 3 1/2 years.”
She didn't know it at the time, but that Facebook message would be the first correspondence of dozens that would eventually bring together a group of grieving women and men who had apparently lost a loved one to the killer. “I think of [Melissa] as my sister and my best friend now,” said Waterman’s mother, Lorraine Ela. “We are all in the same situation and the other families need all the support they can also get.”
When all the bodies had been identified in January—a month later—Cann and Ela began contacting the families of those women, too. A series of improbable friendships, born of violent tragedy, began to take root.
“We are always going to be bonded by this,” said Cann. “I know it's a bad situation, but we will always have this bond. We are there for each other. I knew they would be the only ones who would understand what I am going through. We became each other’s support system.”
The residents of the Oak and Gilgo Beach communities live on a quiet stretch of land. A narrow parkway cuts through the beach here, with only sand dunes and brush on each side. Every five miles or so, the bungalows and beach houses of a gated community rise from behind those dunes, but mostly there is emptiness—no restaurants, no street life. The silence and desolation once seemed like tranquility, but have now been replaced by an air of eerie suspense ever since the bodies began showing up—eight women, now confirmed.
“Every time you look at the dunes, you wonder how many bodies are out there,” said Thomas Moehringer, who lives in a more populated town nearby but races cars in the parking lot at Gilgo Beach. “You look at everybody, even the county workers and you think, is it him?"
Moehringer said he won’t let his daughter walk on the beach by herself anymore, something she used to do all the time. “It was a place that was so tranquil and peaceful and they’ve changed it,” said his daughter, Kristin Moehringer, 25.
The bodies and subsequent months-long investigation have inspired a sort of gallows humor amongst the locals. “We live in a crime scene, what are we gonna do?” asked Gustav Coletti, 75.
Coletti’s house was the one that sparked the search that led to the grim discoveries. “I was in there shaving in the bathroom at 5 in the morning. She was banging on the door: ‘Help me! Help me!’"
He came out of the bathroom, his two parrots, Chico and Zero, squawking loudly. A young woman later identified as missing person Shannan Gilbert came inside. “She just stood there and I dialed 911,” Coletti said. Then she ran away and fell halfway down the stairs. She went to a neighbor’s and banged on the door as well. That neighbor didn’t open the door, so she hid under Coletti’s boat.
Coletti stepped outside and said he saw a car driving slowly down the street. “I came down and looked at him and said, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ He said we were at a party at the [john’s] house and a girl got upset.’”
Glbert, who it turned out had—like Waterman and the other victims—advertised for clients on Craigslist, then ran out from under the boat, Coletti went after her, and that was the last time she was seen. Later, Jersey City Police issued a missing person poster and described Gilbert as suffering from a bipolar disorder and being a user of cocaine and prescription drugs.
In December, they declared that the john was not a suspect. Gilbert, whose disappearence sparked the search that led to the first set set of remains, is still listed as missing.
But the subtle signs that a serial killer was on the loose surfaced on July 9, 2007, when Cann’s sister, a former blackjack dealer in Connecticut and divorced mother of two, vanished without a trace. Cann’s brother and husband went to New York searching for clues. No one recognized Maureen Brainard-Barnes.
In late 2007, Cann persuaded the Manhattan Missing Person’s Unit to take over her sister’s case. They tracked Maureen's last cell phone signal to Long Island. “She had never been to Long Island,” said Cann. “The cops kept asking me if Maureen ever went to Long Island. I spoke to my sister’s roommate who worked with her and she said she never went to Long Island… I know that my life will never be the same after this.”
Meanwhile, 24-year-old Melissa Barthelemy, who dreamed of becoming a cosmetologist, was last seen on July 10, 2009, sitting on a curb outside the Bronx basement apartment she shared with her five cats. She moved to New York in 2007 and told her family she was stripping at a club. They had no idea that she was advertising on Craigslist.
Eight days after Melissa's disappearance, her sister, Amanda, began to receive calls, about one each week. The caller ID indicated the call came from Melissa's cellphone. The man wanted to know if the person on the line was Melissa’s little sister. “The whole year I continued to pay for the phone bill,” Melissa's mother, Lynn, told The Daily Beast. “It was only turned on when the guy would turn it on, when he made the phone calls. He would only keep it on for three minutes.”
The police traced the calls to cellular towers in Times Square and Madison Square Garden, but got nowhere. Lynn said they received five more calls, the last one on August 26, 2009. “The last call, he said he killed her," and he hung up.
Then, on June 5, 2010, Megan Waterman, who had a young daughter, vanished without a trace from the hotel room she was sharing with her boyfriend in Hauppauge, on Long Island. Waterman, a native of Portland, Maine, advertised on Craigslist under the name Lexi. Lorraine Ela, Megan’s mother, said her daughter had logged onto Craigslist at 12:05 a.m. on the night she went missing, and that video cameras showed her leaving the hotel at 1:30 a.m. She never returned.
Ela said that when the maids went to clean the room the following morning they discovered the clothes of both her daughter and her boyfriend, Akeem.
The last girl to disappear was Amber Lynn Costello, a North Carolina native who was living in her apartment in North Babylon when she went missing on Sept. 2, 2010. After the news broke about the four women, Cann went on her Facebook quest.
After finding Lorraine Ela, she then found Shannan Gilbert’s sister, who replied in January. “She just simply wrote, ‘Are you Maureen's sister?'” Cann said. “I wrote back, ‘Yes I am Maureen’s sister,’ and we became friends.”
Tracking down the other families proved to be more difficult, but Cann eventually found them in late February and early March. "I found the girls' obituaries," she said. "I did not want to find them that way. But I knew I needed to find them and reach out to them.”
“I told Melissa that we are the girls' voices, and if it isn’t for us they won’t find out who did this to them,” said Ela. "If we don’t keep these girls' names out there and push and push to find out who did this they will never find out and they will keep these four girls' cases on the back burner. That is the reason why I haven’t stopped. I have seen so many cases where cops are gung ho at the beginning and they eventually back off and I don’t want that for my daughter and these other women.”
They talk regularly on the phone, text-message daily, and send messages via Facebook. In June, the families of the four victims including Gilbert’s sister will meet for the first time for a candlelight vigil at the spot near Gilgo Beach where their loved ones’ bodies were discovered.
“I am not going to be at ease with myself until I go where Megan was found to say my goodbyes there,” said Ela.
“We want to bring beauty back to where that was,” said Cann. “I will always be in contact with these families, no matter what. I look at them as if they are my family. We are connected now and forever."
Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.
Roja Heydarpour is an editor at The Daily Beast. She has reported for the The New York Times and The Times-Tribune.