Police believe they have found the skeletal remains of 23-year-old Craigslist escort Shannan Gilbert this morning after a weeklong search. The body was discovered in a swampy marshland near the gated community of Oak Beach in Long Island where Gilbert disappeared on May 1, 2010.
"We believe at this time that they belong to the missing Shannan Gilbert," Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said. The New York medical examiner has not yet confirmed the remains, which were found at 9:14 a.m., belong to Gilbert, nor has the cause of death been established.
During a morning press conference, Dormer said he believed that Gilbert most likely fell into a drainage ditch and drowned. Dormer said that Gilbert was in a hysterical state of mind on the night she vanished 19 months ago. However, Gilbert’s mother has long believed that her daughter was a victim of foul play.
A pocketbook with identification, as well as jeans, shoes, lip gloss, and a cell phone believed to belong to Gilbert were found last week. The remains were found approximately a quarter of a mile from her purse and other belongings.
“If it is her it solidifies the theory that she was trying to make it to the parkway and we are not changing the theory that she drowned,” said Dormer. Police speculate she traveled almost one mile through bramble before she died. Detectives and city workers found the remains while they were aboard an amphibious vehicle with pontoons.
Police, who spent 70 hours searching for Gilbert, are not saying if they found a metal plate with the remains. Gilbert has a metal plate in her jaw after being beaten up by a former boyfriend.
The police announcement came on 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.
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.
Thus began a sensational run of tabloid news, fueling speculation that the police had been caught off guard by what might be a dumping ground for a still-active serial killer.
The case has drawn national and international attention, was the subject of an A&E television special, spawned a website and a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the elusive serial killer. A book is in the works by a New York writer, and a local photographer is working on a documentary.
The investigation has drawn criticism from some victims’ family members who have accused the cops of incompetence, inaction, and failure to keep them updated on the progress of the case. Because of this, some of the victim’s families began working with a team of private investigators, chasing down clues with local good Samaritans and holding vigils.
Plenty of theories have abounded. Some have speculated that the killer is a seasonal worker, drifter, or fisherman from Freeport, one of the closest towns to the beaches and known as the fisherman’s capital of New York, or the Captree boat basin where the commercial fisherman dock, located about two miles from Oak Beach. Others believe the killer is a cop after a New York newspaper reported that detectives were investigating two New York City Police Department detectives, one of whom was forced out of his job in the 1990s after he was discovered hiring prostitutes on the job. Others suspect the killer lives in one of the nearby beach communities.
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.
The police have identified only five of the 10 victims. The victims are 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. Also identified was 20-year-old prostitute Jessica Taylor. Her skull, forearms, and hands were found along Ocean Parkway in April but her torso was discovered in a wooded area in Manorville, N.Y., about 40 miles away, in 2003.
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.
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.”
Family members of the victims are planning a candlelight vigil tonight to mark the first anniversary of the discovery of the remains.