The case of the Long Island Serial Killer(s) (you’ll soon see why the singular or plural is ambiguous) is one that has disturbed me ever since I first heard of it. It’s a case I didn’t plan to write about, since it’s pretty complex and somewhat more well-known than what I normally gravitate towards for this blog, but I feel compelled for a few reasons. First, the victims are mainly sex workers, and, going along with my overarching theme of giving attention to victims who are traditionally ignored when they go missing, sex workers are victims who often don’t get attention because of moral judgments on their profession and because they sometimes live more transient lifestyles and, thus, they can be off the grid for a while before people notice they are missing. Secondly, the fact that some of the victims to this day are unidentified bothers me, and I’d love to see those victims get their names back. Third, the controversy of whether LISK is one killer or more than one killer is very interesting. And finally, the fact that LISK seems to have just stopped (at least in Long Island) is, I think, a telling clue, as serial killers don’t usually stop for no reason. Has LISK been made to stop by outside forces, like being in jail for other charges or having passed away? Or has LISK simply moved and is continuing his crimes in another location, preying on other victims who are going unnoticed by society?
*Note: the majority of my information on this case comes from the AMAZING true crime book Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker. If you are interesting in learning more about this case, or if you just want to read an extremely interesting and well-written crime book that truly gives life to the victims, I cannot recommend Lost Girls enough.
The Disappearance of Shannan Gilbert
In May of 2010, Shannan Gilbert, 24, an escort who listed her services on Craigslist, disappeared after taking a call from Oak Beach. Her driver, Michael Pak, brought her to the home of Joseph Brewer. After some time spent in the house, Joseph Brewer emerged, asking Michael Pak for assistance with Shannan. Shannan was hiding behind Brewer’s home, on the phone with 911, yelling that “they’re trying to kill me.” She wouldn’t let Pak touch or help her. She ended up fleeing the scene on foot, being sighted by at least one neighbor before disappearing into the night. She was reported missing the next day, but it took an entire month to connect her disappearance to her 23-minute long 911 call, as she told the dispatcher that she was on Jones Beach, rather than Oak Beach. Various search efforts were undertaken to find Shannan, but the marshy and overgrown terrain of Oak Beach made search efforts difficult.
The Burlap Victims/Gilgo Beach Four
In December of 2010, a police officer decided to use Shannan’s disappearance as a training exercise for his search dog, and took the dog on a walk through the marshy areas of Oak Beach and also nearby Gilgo Beach. The officer and the dog stumbled upon skeletal remains wrapped in burlap. Assuming he had located Shannan Gilbert, the officer called for backup, and soon after three other sets of remains wrapped in burlap were located. They were all determined to be the remains of four young escorts who, like Shannan, offered their services via Craigslist, but none of whom were Shannan Gilbert. The cause of death for all four victims was strangulation. The first victim identified, Megan Waterman, 22, had disappeared on June 6, 2010. Amber Lynn Costello, 27, went missing on September 2, 2010, after telling friends that she was taking an escort job for which the client was offering her $1,500 for one night.
The disappearances of the remaining two of the “Gilgo Beach Four” both involved strange phone calls following their disappearances. Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, was last seen on July 9, 2007. Shortly after her disappearance, an unidentified man contacted a friend of Maureen’s, telling the friend that Maureen was fine and working at “a whorehouse in Queens.” The most disturbing phone calls came to the sister of Melissa Barthelemy, 24, who disappeared on July 10, 2009. About a week after she went missing, Melissa’s teenage sister Amanda began getting phone calls from Melissa’s cell phone. The caller was a male who would say vulgar, and taunting things, like “Are you a whore like your sister?” The calls never lasted more than a minute and a half, so many were hard to trace, but a couple were able to be traced to the Madison Square Garden area. In the very last phone call Amanda received from Melissa’s phone, the called said that he had killed Melissa and was “watching her body rot.” This call was traced to the Gilgo Beach area, so it most likely was the killer in the location that Melissa’s body was found.
The Dismembered Victims
Between March and April of 2011, six more sets of remains were found in the stretch of land consisting of Jones, Gilgo, and Oak Beaches, bringing the grand total up to ten. This prompted Long Island officials to announce that they believed they were dealing with a serial killer. Most of these more recently found victims are still unidentified:
- Jessica Taylor, age 20: Jessica also worked as an escort and disappeared from Manhattan in July of 2003. Her dismembered torso, missing it’s head and arms, were discovered weeks after her disappearance in Manorville, NY, about 45 miles away from Gilgo Beach. Her skull, hands, and a forearm were found on Gilgo Beach in 2010.
- Peaches/Jane Doe No. 3: The dismembered skeletal remains of Jane Doe No. 3 were found in a plastic bag on Jones Beach in 2011. In 2016, these remains were linked by DNA to be from the same person as a torso found in Lakeview, NY in 1997. The young African-American woman in Lakeview had been dubbed “Peaches” because she had a tattoo of a peach on her left breast.
- Baby Doe: In one anomaly, the skeletal remains of a toddler between the ages of 16-24 months were found in April of 2011. She was wearing similar gold jewelry to that found with the remains of “Peaches”/Jane Doe No. 3 and DNA later confirmed that “Peaches”/Jane Doe No. 3 and Baby Doe were mother and daughter. The remains of the mother and child were placed on opposite sides of the Suffolk/Nassau County Line, probably to keep law enforcement from making the connection between the two.
- Jane Doe No. 6: A human head, right foot, and hands, were determined to have belonged to another unidentified victim. DNA connected these remains as belonging to the same person as a torso in Manorville, found in 2000 near to where Jessica Taylor’s remains were found in 2003. The rest of her body was found on November 19, 2000, in the same part of Manorville where most of Jessica Taylor’s remains were later discovered in 2003.
- Jane Doe No. 7/Fire Island Jane Doe: A skull and several teeth of an unidentified victim near Jones Beach were connected by DNA to a pair of severed legs that had been found in a garbage bag on Fire Island in 1996.
- John Doe: In another anomaly, the remains of an Asian male who died from blunt-force trauma were discovered among the dismembered victims. He was found wearing women’s clothing, and police theorized that he was a sex worker who possibly posed as female and that he was killed after his biological sex was discovered.
A map of the area in which the remains of LISK’s victims were found.
A composite sketch of the unidentified Asian male found on Gilgo Beach.
Shannan Gilbert’s Remains Found
If I haven’t already lost you on this massive list of victims, you might be thinking, “Wait- what about Shannan Gilbert?” In December of 2011, a full year after the discovery of the Gilgo Beach Four, Shannan’s pocketbook, shoes, and jeans were found in a marshy area only about a half of a mile away from where she was last seen. A few days later, her intact remains were found facedown in the marsh.
Whether Shannan Gilbert was a victim of LISK is highly contested. The Suffolk County medical examiner listed her cause of death as undetermined, but the ME and other officials believe it to have been accidental, theorizing that Shannan had gotten lost in the marsh and drowned the night she disappeared, citing as mitigating factors her bipolar disorder and the fact that she was off the medication she used to control the disorder when she went missing. Others, including Shannan’s family, believe foul play was involved, noting her removed jeans, possible damage to her hyoid bone (which could indicate strangulation), and the difficulty one would have running into the thick, overgrown marsh to get to the location of her body. Robert Kolker, author of Lost Girls, does not think that Shannan was a victim of LISK, but acknowledges that her disappearance and the fact that it led to the discovery of so many murder victims is one of the biggest ever coincidences in true crimes. I fall somewhere in the middle- I’m not sure that Shannan was necessarily the victim of LISK, but I do think it possible that she may have been a victim of foul play (more on that later).
One Killer Or Two?
While Long Island officials are on the record as believing that all ten of victims listed above are the victim of one single killer, many people, myself include, see two killers are being more likely. The MOs and signatures of the killer of the Gilgo Beach Four versus the killer of the dismembered victims are completely different, in my opinion. The Gilgo Beach Four were all strangled, all lined up about the same distance apart, and all wrapped in burlap. It’s a very different person who would kill in that manner than a person would be who dismembers and scatters remains. The Gilgo Beach Four were spread out in a neat row, while various body parts of the dismembered victims were place in multiple locations miles and counties apart. So I personally think there are two LISKs out there. Those who favor the one-killer theory say that there is no way two killers would find the same dumping ground by chance. I’m not sure I agree with that statement. If two killers are familiar with an area, and both know of a remote and marshy location that would be easy to hide a body in, I could see more than one killer coming up with the same idea. Additionally, perhaps the killer of the dismembered victims decided to intentionally move body parts to that location after hearing about the Gilgo Beach Four, maybe to frame the other killer for the crimes, or maybe because he was jealous and wanted attention for his handiwork, too.
There aren’t any great suspects in the case of LISK. The police have a general profile of a male aged 25-45, who has knowledge of the Long Island area and possibly ties to law enforcement. I personally don’t think the last part of that profile is necessarily true. The idea that LISK is connected to law enforcement himself is due to him knowing to end phone calls after a minute and a half or less to avoid the calls being traced. But let’s get real: it’s 2019, true crime TV and podcasts are more popular than ever, and anyone who has seen a few episodes of Law and Order knows that ending a phone call early will make it difficult to trace. So we’re down to a generic male between 25-45 with knowledge of Long Island; that covers a lot of people.
Some people who have been looked at are:
- James Burke: James Burke is a former Suffolk County Police Chief who was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison, along with three years of supervised release, for beating a man who stole a duffel bag filled with sex toys and pornography from his vehicle. The Gilbert family claims to have been in contact with an escort who had “rough sex” with Burke on Oak Beach and Burke is rumored to have tried to block an FBI probe into the LISK case.
- John Bittrolff: Bittrolff was convicted in May 2017 of the murders of two sex workers, Rita Tangredi, who was killed in 1993, and Colleen McNamee, who was murder in 1994. Bittrolff was linked by DNA to the two murders and was sentenced to two 25 year terms, to be served consecutively. Rumor has it that the Suffolk County police consider Bittrolff a solid suspect based on his other crimes and based on the face that he had lived in Manorville, three miles from where the torsos of LISK victims Jessica Taylor and Jane Doe No. 6 were found.
- Dr. Peter Hackett: Dr. Hackett is a neighbor of Joseph Brewer. The morning after Shannan went missing, Dr. Hackett called Shannan’s mother Mari Gilbert, telling her not to worry about Shannan because Dr. Hackett ran a home for wayward girls and Shannan was in his care. Mind you, this was before Shannan was reported missing or Mari even knew she was missing. Dr. Hackett denied to police ever making this phone call, even though phone records later proved that he did, in fact, call Mari the morning after Shannan disappeared. The unexplained phone call does connect to LISK having called the family and friends of two of the Gilgo Beach Four. Moreover, when Shannan’s body was discovered, police brought Mari to overlook the site where Shannan had been found. Where did they bring her to show her this clear view of the site of the remains? Dr. Hackett’s back deck. Police have said that he is not a suspect or person of interest, but I think his strange phone call alone shows that he knows something about Shannan, if no one else. That being said, if Dr. Hackett, is LISK, I think Shannan has to be considered a LISK victim, but it could be that Hackett has something to do with Shannan’s death and none of the others.
Where is LISK now?
There have been other victims that have been considered as possible LISK victims but have not been conclusively linked to the official ten. Even the latest of these unofficial victims, however, was killed in 2013. So where is LISK now? There have been connections made between LISK and to other serial killings of sex workers in the US. If you’re interested in this, I highly recommend the A&E series The Killing Season, which features two episodes specifically about LISK and then six others about various other serial murders of sex workers in the US. While it’s interesting to theorize that one person is responsible for so many killings of sex workers, the truth is probably a bit more grim: sex workers are among the types of victims who are often unreported as missing or whose disappearances law enforcement or even victims’ families don’t always take seriously. Their profession also makes them harder to track because they usually purposely avoid police detection because they don’t want to be arrested for sex work, which is illegal in the vast majority of the country. Thus, it’s unsurprising that a serial killer looking to stay under the radar would target victims who are also under the radar. It’s almost impossible to know whether LISK is dead, in jail, or has simply moved his hunting ground elsewhere.
Sources Used in this Blog Post:
The Killing Season. Jigsaw Productions, 2016.
Killoran, Ellen. “Why Hasn’t the Long Island Serial Killer Case Been Solved?” Rolling Stone, 15 Dec. 2016, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/why-hasnt-the-long-island-serial-killer-case-been-solved-119604/
Kolker, Robert. Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery. HarperCollins, 2013.
Pelisek, Christine. “Long Island Serial Killer: How Close Are Police to Catching the Suspect — or Suspects?” People Magazine, 7 Nov. 2016, https://people.com/crime/long-island-serial-killer-update-police-fbi-investigation/
“The Long Island Serial Killer.” Thinking Sideways Podcast, 29 Sept. 2016, http://www.thinkingsidewayspodcast.com/the-long-island-serial-killer/