The Dumping Ground
On December 5, 2011, personal possessions of Shannan Gilbert, a young woman missing since April 2010, were located in thick undergrowth of a swampy area on the shore in Long Island, NY. Suffolk County Police announced they had recovered a purse containing Shannan’s identification, a cell phone, a pair of shoes and clothing believed to have belonged to the missing woman. The discovery of personal belongings prompted intensive searches of the area that included investigators with machetes, dive teams, canine searches, a bulldozer, an amphibious vehicle, even ground penetrating photography equipment provided by the FBI assisting Suffolk County Police was used to search for and eventually retrieve Shannan’s remains.
After Shannan’s disappearance in 2010, authorities began search efforts in the area she vanished but made the grisly discovery of decomposed and dismembered remains of ten bodies dumped along the isolated beach parkway leading to Jone’s Beach. The discoveries created media frenzy and world-wide news reported authorities believed a single serial killer had been using the area for nearly twenty years to discard remains of prostitutes. Additional news reports cite possibly up to three killers may be responsible for the murders, though one would have to conclude coincidence that as many as three killers would use the same dumping ground.
Eight women, the remains of a young Asian man wearing women’s clothing and a female toddler were all found hidden in the deep thicket and bramble alongside the road. Only half of the victims have so far been identified. With the exception of the toddler, believed to be related to one of the female victims, all are believed to have been prostitutes.
On December 13, 2011, with an official positive identification still pending from the medical examiner’s office, Suffolk County Police Commissioner, Richard Dormer, held a press conference. Dormer announced to reporters remains had been located and believed to be that of Shannan Gilbert and went on to explain if the remains were that of Shannan, the probable cause of death was accidental. Dormer stated the location where the remains were located were indicative that Shannan had attempted to make her way through the wetlands and surmised she had been trying to get to the causeway where she would have seen lights in the early morning hours but the rough terrain would have made it impossible for her. Dormer then offered condolences to Shannan’s family.
Despite Dormer’s hurried public announcement, Mari Gilbert, Shannan’s mother, maintained she would hold out hope until an official announcement was received from the medical examiner confirming the identity of the remains. On December 17, four tortuous days later, confirmation was received the skeletal remains were those of her daughter.
Based upon Dormer’s comments during the press conference, it is speculated Shannan may have fallen and drowned. Shannan’s mother also confirmed Shannan did not know how to swim. Currently, the official determination of cause of death is still pending. Due to advanced decomposition, experts agree the exact cause of death may be impossible to determine.
Though Shannan was confirmed to have been involved in prostitution and her remains found just east of the other bodies, police continue to offer conjecture Shannon’s death is unrelated to the other homicides. Shannan’s family, other victim’s family members that were recovered and identified and even residents in the area where the bodies were located are not so sure the crimes are unrelated and questioning why authorities would so quickly dismiss a connection between the multiple homicides.
The Night of Shannan’s Disappearance – Mystery Remains
The night Shannan vanished, witnesses said they saw her running from a home in Oak Beach. It has been confirmed in April 2010, 47-year-old Joseph Brewer responded to an ad Shannan had placed on Craig’s List, a social networking site commonly used by prostitutes to solicit clients.
Brewer claims a sexual encounter did not occur. He told the New Jersey Star-Ledger that Shannan began asking him odd questions about transvestites, leading him to believe she was a man and claims he asked her to leave when she began acting erratically.
Michael Pak was Shannan’s driver that night and affirmed he drove her to Brewer’s residence at approximately 2a.m. and waited until 5 a.m. until he received her call. Upon receiving the call, Pak claims he went to Brewer’s apartment to get Shannan and witnessed Brewer attempting to grab her from behind but she escaped his grip and began cowering behind a couch inside the residence.
According to Robin Sax, an attorney hired by the Gilbert family, Shannon made a panicked call to 911 that lasted 23 minutes. “She told 911 she was in fear and they were going to get her, they were going to kill her.” Sax adds, “They is the big question. Who are they?”
According to both Brewer and Pak, Shannan was acting irrational and paranoid and ran out of Brewer’s residence to a neighbor’s home down the street. Gustav Coletti, a retired insurance fraud investigator, told the Star Ledger he heard banging at his door. When he answered and asked Shannan what was wrong she just responded, “Help me, help me, help me.” When Coletti informed Shannan he called police and they were on their way, she then bolted out of his home.
Pak claims he searched the neighborhood but never found Shannan. Coletti recalled seeing a man driving a black SUV stopping and going as if he were searching for something. Coletti’s statements to police indicate he spotted Shannan hiding under a boat in his yard suddenly running away with the man in the SUV following behind her. She then seems to have vanished into thin air.
Despite her trail going cold the evening of her disappearance, questions regarding who Shannan was fleeing from only deepens the mystery. Was she the one who almost ‘got away’ only to fall victim to the terrain and tragically drown?
Just Another Prostitute
Nearly one year later, news stories describe how the search for one missing New Jersey prostitute resulted in the discovery of ten bodies and providing some families with answers to what happened to their missing loved ones. The stories also brought attention to the high-risk lifestyle that accompanies those working in the sex trade industry and highlighted the dangers of advertising on sites like Craig’s List where there is little oversight to help ensure the safety of the site’s users. However, the news reports appeared to sidestep what the families of those branded as prostitutes went through during the years prior to discovery of the bodies.
24-year-old, Melissa Barthelemy vanished July 12, 2009. Melissa had made a move on her own from Buffalo to New York City after graduating from beauty school. Her family believed she was doing well working as a hairdresser but following her disappearance, shocked to find out she had been working as an online escort.
Approximately a week after Melissa’s disappearance, Amanda, Melissa’s 15-year-old sister received a call from Melissa’s cell phone. Relieved and excited, expecting to hear her sister’s voice, Amanda found herself speaking to a man who authorities believe was Melissa’s killer. During the call, the man said sexually explicit things to the child and began describing horrific things he was going to do to her. It wasn’t until the third phone call police finally requested a tap on the phone. On August 26, 2009 the male caller made his last call to Amanda and reportedly admitted to killing Melissa. He also warned Amanda he knew where she lived and would come and kill her too.
The common complaint made by several of the families of the Long Island victims was the lack of response they received from authorities when reporting their loved one missing. Lynn Barthelemy, Melissa’s mother, attempted to make a missing person report for three days without success. Finally, family attorney, Steven Cohen contacted NYPD in an attempt to make a report and said he was told, “She’s a hooker. She’s a prostitute. She was – she’s an escort and we are not assigning a detective to this.”
A family left feeling alone in the limbo of ambiguity. Though reports were eventually taken, the Long Island victims would never be mentioned in news headlines that captivated the country like the disappearances of Natalie Holloway, Laci Peterson or Chandra Levy. Shannan and Melissa didn’t fit the typical ‘Damsel in Distress’ case of a young missing woman commonly seen in the news headlines. The families of the Long Island victims quickly became aware empathy for missing prostitutes is minimal. In fact, it wasn’t until news of the horrific discoveries of body after body and the suspicion a serial killer was on the loose that the two words ‘Missing Prostitutes’ finally were printed on the same the front page of newspapers.
Not Just Prostitutes
The ‘hooker headlines’ finally spurred national attention but surely broke the hearts of the families of the victims who were missing a daughter, sister, mother, father, granddaughter, son, brother, aunt or uncle. It appeared the Long Island victims lives were now defined by words that lessened their value as humans who already suffered an undeserved fate dumped in an isolated personal graveyard of a human predator.
Stereotypes are used far too often and can’t begin to appropriately define the value of a human life. In fact, by using stereotypes it can reduce the compassion felt for the victims and even hinder efforts to recruit the support necessary to effectively search for the missing person.
Labeling victims is dehumanizing and can create a lack of public empathy for the victims, media and even within the investigating law enforcement agencies. Diminishing a victim’s importance in society can even hamper efforts to educate the public which is key to ultimately saving others from becoming victims.
During my nearly twenty years serving as founder and former CEO of the National Center for Missing Adults, I learned to be an effective advocate we must speak out for those who are unable to speak for themselves. Early on in my career, two young women who were best friends vanished and later found murdered, one body placed on top of the other discarded in a remote desert location. While working closely with a Glendale Police Sergeant shortly after their disappearance, I urged the Sergeant to meet with the families at a restaurant rather than the precinct. He reluctantly agreed to accompany me. The families shared stories and the devastation they were experiencing could not be ignored.
Upon the Sergeant’s retirement he informed me that one experience had changed the way he handled all missing person cases. From that day forward he said he no longer permitted his investigators to refer to any missing person as a case and required them to always refer to a missing person by their name. He thanked me but I thank every victim’s family I’ve ever been honored to serve for showing me that maintaining strength and courage is possible while enduring the unimaginable and that tragedy does not discriminate . . . it can happen to anyone.
Reducing the dehumanization can start by simply acknowledging every victim has a family who loves them regardless of where they come from or the choices they may have made. Most importantly remember the victims – for every one has a name and all grew up with dreams.
Author – Kym L. Pasqualini
Founder, National Center for Missing Adults
& Social Network Advocate
Missing Persons Advocacy Network
Phone: 800-889-3463 (FIND)