Shannan Gilbert was bright and ambitious — independent and willful enough to refuse, as a teenager, to take medication she’d been prescribed for bipolar disorder, yet smart and driven enough to finish high school a year early. She worked at a hotel, an Applebee’s, and a senior center before moving to New Jersey from upstate New York. She wanted to be a singer, and when the auditions didn’t lead to anything, she signed on with an escort agency. By 2010, she was close to completing a series of online college classes that might help her stop escorting one day, and she’d found her first apartment of her own in Jersey City. Her family worried, but Shannan wouldn’t talk with her mother about how she earned the money, except to reassure her that she always did what she could to be safe.
Just before sunrise on May 1, 2010, Gilbert disappeared in the gated community of Oak Beach, Long Island, where she was making a late-night visit to an escort client she met through Craigslist. A year and a half later, the disappearance that spawned the Long Island serial-killer case may finally be close to a breakthrough.
This week, the Suffolk County police went searching for Shannan Gilbert in a marsh near where the 24-year-old was last seen — a spot where a lot of people clued in to the case have been wanting them to search. Sure enough, they found something: a pocketbook with her identification, a pair of jeans, shoes, and a cell phone they think is hers. “She's in there someplace,” Commissioner Richard Dormer announced at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon. They’ll keep looking, he says, "into the foreseeable future …. Hopefully, we will find the remains."
Last December, a cop and cadaver dog turned up four bodies along Ocean Parkway at Gilgo Beach, an unsettled, overgrown seven-mile stretch of shoreline on the string of barrier islands along South Oyster Bay. Police acknowledged they all fit the same profile as Shannan — all women in their twenties, all but one under five feet tall, and all women who advertised on Craigslist. Last spring, police found six more sets of remains, bringing the count to ten victims, not counting Shannan. The Suffolk police found itself in the middle of the most notorious serial-killer case in New York since Joel Rifkin.
The latest theory from Dormer, who retires at the end of the month, is that all but Shannan are victims of the same murderer. Her case, it seems, stands alone. But it remains forever linked to the others. Last night, Mari Gilbert told reporters to keep their eye on their case, and she has said repeatedly that Shannan has served a purpose in uncovering others whose cases need solving. “My case linked them all together,” she told me last spring. “Without Shannan, there’d never be a case.” Before Shannan disappeared, it seemed enough for some people to write off Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Amber Lynn-Costello, and Megan Waterman as lost souls who were gone, in a fashion, long before they actually disappeared. Whatever the police find in the marsh at Oak Beach, Shannan Gilbert has proved them all wrong.
Related: A Serial Killer in Common