Since 2010, Long Island, New York has been plagued with a mystery. The bodies of various women, one man and a toddler have been discovered amongst the harsh terrain of Gilgo Beach, suggesting that the area may be the dumping ground of a serial killer.
The mystery stretches back much further than 2010 too, with beliefs that the perpetrator may have been operating for almost twenty years. The person responsible, now dubbed the Long Island Serial Killer, the Gilgo Beach Killer and Craiglist Ripper, is still a mystery to authorities.
Here’s everything we know about the Long Island serial killer and the Gilgo Beach murders so far.
It all started with Shannan Gilbert
In May 2010, 24-year-old sex worker Shannan Gilbert went to the house of a man she met on Craigslist. In the early hours of the morning, she was seen running from the man’s apartment in Oak Beach, screaming. After that, she was never seen alive again.
A search of the local area ensued, but Shannan wasn’t found. However, in December 2010, a police officer discovered the decomposed remains of a woman in a burlap sack, located along the stretch of highway beside Gilgo Beach, Long Island – not far away from where Shannan was last seen alive.
Eerily, the body turned out to belong to a different woman. It wasn’t Shannan at all.
This discovery led to more bodies
A more extensive search of the area followed, and police discovered three more bodies along the same stretch of highway – all women, all of whom had been discarded in burlap sacks and left fully clothed missing only their shoes.
Very soon, authorities were able to put names to the victims:
Megan Waterman, 22, missing since June, 2010.
Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, missing since July, 2007.
Melissa Barthelemy, 24, missing since July, 2009.
Amber Lynn Costello, 27, missing since September, 2010.
All the victims had a connection
Not only were all the bodies discovered in the Gilgo Beach murders made up of women in their twenties, but police soon made two more connections. The first was that all the women had acted as prostitutes, much like Shannan Gilbert (however, Shannan’s body still hadn’t been discovered).
Above: A photo of the exit near where the first body was found.
The second and perhaps the more important discovery was that all of the victims had advertised their services via Craigslist. Again, as Shannan had.
Additionally, autopsies on the women revealed that they’d all died of strangulation. More than a simple coincidence, this prompted the belief that Long Island may have a serial killer in its midst.
More victims were uncovered – but with a difference
With the revelation that a serial killer might have been responsible for these four deaths (and possibly Shannan’s too), police widened their search of the area.
In March and April 2011, another gruesome discovery was made around two miles from the first batch of bodies, located near the border of Nassau County. Both areas were officially marked as crime scenes.
Four torsos and two sets of partial remains (including a human skull), but this time, there was an anomaly. Although there were two similarly-aged women amongst the pile as the previous four bodies, one of the findings was of a female toddler, which was later confirmed to be the daughter of one of the victims.
More bizarrely, though, was the body of an Asian male dressed in women’s clothing, most likely also a sex worker. This bought the total number of victims up to ten.
In addition to strangulation, several of the victims had been dismembered and mutilated.
Eerily, the remains of the decapitated victim dubbed “Jane Doe 3” had already been found in Hempstead Lake Park in 1997. Similarly, the severed legs of the “Jane Doe 7” had already been found on Fire Island in 1996.
Shannon Gilbert was finally found - but she’s not connected
In December 2011, authorities revealed that they’d found the remains of the missing woman who prompted the original search.
Shannan's body was discovered in the marshland near Oak Beach, New York around a mile from where she was last seen alive. There has been much speculation about Shannan’s relation to the other victims, however, the official story is that Shannan got lost on the way home from her client’s house and drowned.
However, this story is contradicted by several events. Before disappearing, Shannan was allegedly seen knocking on doors in the area and screaming for help. She also made a 911 call the same night, but the recording or transcript of the call has never been released to the public. Most damningly of all, however, is that an autopsy showed that Shannan’s cause of death was most likely strangulation.
The killer made contact with the victims’ families
Melissa Barthelemy, one of the original four victims found, first disappeared in July 2009. Initially, Melissa’s mother told investigators that Melissa wasn’t missing and that she’d simply moved on with her life.
Above: Melissa Barthelemy
However, after she disappeared, Melissa’s younger sister Amanda received a series of strange calls from Melissa’s phone. There was a man on the other end who continually asked Amanda if she “was a whore like her sister.”
At the time, Melissa’s family were unaware that Melissa was dead. However, the caller eventually told Amanda that he’d killed Melissa and was going to “watch her rot.”
Police traced the calls to a busy area of Times Square, New York but were unable to confirm exactly who was making the calls. It later became clear that the person who called Amanda was likely the Craigslist Long Island killer.
His calls suddenly stopped
After five weeks of harassing Amanda Barthelemy, the disturbing calls stopped and never resumed. It is theorized that the person behind the calls was aware that his calls were being monitored, and so took extra caution as not give away too much information.
Another belief is that the killer is aware of law enforcement techniques, and may himself be a police officer. For example, he knew exactly how long he could stay connected on the call to avoid giving away his exact location. Additionally, once the police were closer to tracking his exact whereabouts, the calls stopped, and Melissa’s phone was likely destroyed.
He may have killed in other states
The fact that dismembered parts of certain victims have been scattered across various parts of New York suggests that the LISK killer knows exactly what he’s doing. Given the levels of organization that he’s shown, it’s possible that the bodies found along Gilgo Beach are not his first foray into murder.
Over in New Jersey, police had discovered another batch of corpses that bore eerie similarities to the Gilgo Beach victims. Four bodies, all women between the ages of 20-42, all of whom worked as prostitutes. Each woman had been found in a similar state of decomposition to the Gilgo Beach victims, and all were abandoned on a roadside not far from a body of water. The victims who were able to be autopsied (due to levels of decomposition) also showed signs of strangulation.
As an interesting addition, Shannan Gilbert had originally moved to Oak Beach, Long Island area from New Jersey.
There are a number of suspects
There have been four people officially investigated by police suspected of being the Long Island Serial Killer, however, two have since been ruled out.
These suspects were:
Dr. Peter Hackett, suspected of abducting, drugging and killing Shannan Gilbert. The location where Shannan was found backed onto Hackett’s back garden, however, he was cleared of any involvement when police ruled Shannan’s death as an accident.
Joseph Brewer, the man who enlisted Shannan's escort services the night she died. However, as with Peter Hackett, Brewer was soon cleared.
James Burke, the Chief of Police for Suffolk County. Burke was a known escort user who was found guilty of gross bodily harm after attacking a man who stole sex toys from Burke’s car. Interestingly, Burke was also discovered trying to block an FBI probe relating to the Long Island Serial Killer case.
John Bittrolff, arrested in 2014 for the murder of two prostitutes which he killed in 1993 and 1994. Bittrolff lived in an area called Manorville, three miles from the area where three of the Gilgo Beach torsos were found. Perhaps the most damning piece of information regarding Bittrolff is that one of his victims was allegedly best friends with Melissa Barthelemy. Before she died, Melissa’s mother claimed that her daughter often made calls to a mysterious person in Manorville.
There may be multiple murderers
While the four bodies discovered at the first crime scene were wrapped in burlap sacks, fully clothed and showed no signs of mutilation, the second batch was a different story. The remaining torsos had been dismembered, decapitated and dumped without being placed in burlap sacks (although the toddler had been wrapped in a sheet).
This distinct difference in modus operandi suggests one of three things. Either the killer’s desires evolved over time, these mutilated victims were an exercise in experimentation, or that they’re the work of separate people.
He’s still out there
Unlike Jack the Ripper or even the Zodiac, these murders only occurred around twenty years ago the earliest. Therefore, it’s highly likely that the person responsible for these grizzly findings is still alive.
Additionally, there has been a backlash against Suffolk County police for the way they handled the investigation in the early stages. It is believed that police didn’t provide the necessary resources for a thorough investigation due to the backgrounds and lifestyles of the victims. And as the case increased in magnitude, the police found themselves unable to keep up with the demands of the investigation. This could be one of the reasons why, despite ten bodies and a handful of suspects, no official connections have been made.
There’s new evidence
In January 2020, a new piece of evidence in the Long Island Serial Killer case was made public.
A black leather belt baring the initials WH or HM, believed to have belonged to the killer. The belt was actually found nine years ago during the initial discovery of the bodies, but was kept under wraps until now. Police have revealed the finding in the hopes that someone out there may recognize who it belongs to due to its distinctive markings.
Above: Initials on belt via Suffolk County Police AP
Given the fact that police are asking for the help of the public, it seems that they may have exhausted all their current leads. It seems that the identity of the Long Island Serial Killer will remain unknown for the foreseeable future.
Have any info on the case or theories about the murders? Let us know below in the comments!