A pocketbook with identification, as well as jeans, shoes, and a cellphone believed to have belonged to missing Craigslist escort Shannan Gilbert, were found Wednesday after a two-day police search of marshland near the exclusive Oak Beach gated community in Long Island.
“We believe that Shannan Gilbert ran into that area the night she disappeared,” said Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer at a press conference. Gilbert, who was wearing dark jeans, black sandals, a blouse, and a brown leather jacket, was in a hysterical state of mind on the night she vanished 18 months ago, he said, and most likely drowned after she got stuck in the marshland.
The search for the 24-year-old Jersey City beauty over the last year has turned up the bodies of eight women, a toddler, and a cross dresser along a lonely, narrow stretch of Ocean Parkway in Long Island, about 45 miles from New York City. But Gilbert’s remains have never been found, and detectives have been investigating the possibility of a link between her May 1, 2010, disappearance and the serial murders.
“It is our belief her body or parts of her remains are in that area. Hopefully we will find her remains and will move the investigation closer to a conclusion,” Dormer said, adding that the search for her body will continue Thursday.
The police announcement came just days before the anniversary of the discovery of four bodies, all those of young online escorts who were strangled and buried shallowly in burlap sacks, 40 feet from the parkway in tall, thorny thickets. The first body was found Dec. 11, 2010; the other three on Dec. 13, 2010.
Gilbert went missing after visiting the Oak Beach home of Joseph Brewer, who police said answered her ad on Craigslist. Before she fled Brewer’s house, she called 911. Police said she appeared to be “disoriented and confused and not rational and paranoid.”
Gilbert was last seen at about 5 a.m. by Gus Coletti, who lives a few doors down from Brewer’s home, after she furiously knocked on his door asking for help. When he asked her what was wrong, “she just stood there,” he said. As he was dialing 911, she ran out of the house. Coletti said he saw a car driving slowly down the street and confronted the driver, Michael Pak, who was Gilbert’s chauffeur. “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.’”
Coletti said he last saw Gilbert running toward the ocean.
At the time, many people theorized that Pak and Brewer had something to do with her disappearance, but police quickly ruled them out as suspects.
Gilbert’s case remained dormant for six months, until Suffolk police officer John Mallia and his dog, Blue, found the remains of a body while doing a training exercise between Oak and Gilgo beaches. Two days later, three more bodies were found within 500 feet of each other. They were all in various states of decomposition and stripped of their jewelry, identification, purses, and clothing. It appeared they had been killed elsewhere, robbing detectives of valuable clues.
The bodies would later be identified as those of Melissa Barthelemy, 24; Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25; Megan Waterman, 22; and Amber Lynn Costello, 27, all of whom were working as online escorts when they went missing.
The discoveries triggered the first alarms that a serial killer was loose. In April, police launched an extensive search, deploying FBI planes with high-tech photography, horses, dogs, scuba divers, and fire-truck ladders to search the thick brush along the beaches. The search resulted in the gruesome discoveries of six more victims: four additional women, a toddler believed to be between 16 and 32 months old, and a male cross dresser.
Last week, Dormer told The Daily Beast that a single killer was responsible for the slayings. He added that police did not believe Gilbert was killed by the same person and indicated that she was probably dead.
On Monday, law-enforcement officers began searching for Gilbert anew and examined “90 points of interest” or anomalies discovered by the FBI after they snapped high-resolution photographs of the site. Police said they decided to focus on the marshy area near Oak Beach where Gilbert vanished because Tropical Storm Irene could have unearthed new evidence. At the time, local papers speculated that the police were searching the area because they had received a tip about the whereabouts of Gilbert’s body, but Dormer disputed that claim. “That is absolutely untrue,” he said.
“I don’t know where Shannan is,” said Gilbert’s sister Sherre. “There is still that bit of hope, but if Shannan is gone, I want her to be at peace and buried somewhere.”