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A Serial Killer in Common

Maureen Brainard-Barnes (left)
Age: 25
From: Norwich, Connecticut.
Last seen: July 9, 2007, in Manhattan.

Melissa Barthelemy (right)
Age: 24
From: the Bronx (originally Buffalo).
Last seen: leaving her apartment on July 12, 2009.  

Coletti says Shannan ran out of his house and out of sight. By the time Pak pulled up, Shannan was gone. Pak says he spent close to an hour driving around Oak Beach searching for Shannan before giving up and heading back to the city. As the sun rose and the police finally arrived, 45 minutes after Coletti had called them, the only trace of Shannan Gilbert was a set of footprints in the sand, heading in the general direction of an empty, overlooked stretch of shore called Gilgo Beach.

The Suffolk County police searched ­Joseph Brewer’s house, seized his car, questioned him and Pak, and concluded that neither was a suspect. (Brewer and Pak say they’ve been polygraphed; the police won’t comment. Brewer would later insist to reporters that he didn’t even sleep with Shannan and that he just wanted company. He said he saw no drugs.) Police searched the area and found nothing. Coletti was cleared as well. By fall, it appeared all leads had dried up.

Then, on December 11, just before the first snow of the season, a Suffolk County detective with a cadaver dog was on a training exercise on the side of the road in Gilgo Beach, three miles from Brewer’s house, when the dog turned up a set of bones. The remains were not Shannan’s—there was no titanium in the jaw. But when the police searched again two days later, they found three more sets of bones. The four bodies—just skeletons with no clothing or jewelry, all of them wrapped in burlap—had been left roughly 500 feet apart from one another. They also were all deposited at exactly the same distance, 50 feet, from the edge of Ocean Parkway. Investigators suspected the victims had been strangled. On December 14, the Suffolk County police announced they were looking for a serial killer.

Shannan Gilbert still hasn’t been found, but her profile matches almost exactly that of the four women whose remains have been positively identified. Shannan, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, and Amber Lynn Costello were all $200-an-hour escorts in their twenties, all but one of them five feet tall or shorter, who advertised online on Craigslist or similar websites. “My case linked them all together,” Mari tells me. “Without Shannan, there’d never be a case.” And while it seems clear that Shannan is a victim of the same killer, some small part of Mari would like to think her daughter is still alive.

On Monday, May 2, a year and a day after Shannan disappeared, Mari Gilbert and four other women came together in Manhattan to meet, at my invitation. Until that day, the five women had been in touch only through Facebook or by phone; just two of the five had seen one another in person. In addition to Mari, there was Megan Waterman’s mother, Lorraine Ela; Amber Costello’s sister, Kimberly Overstreet; Melissa Barthelemy’s mother, Lynn; and Maureen Brainard-Barnes’s sister, Melissa Cann. The group makes up a kind of grim sorority: They are the sisters and mothers of those who appear to have been the victims of the most skillful and accomplished serial killer in New York since Joel Rifkin or David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam.”

We met at a Tribeca hotel for breakfast. Ela had flown in from her home in Maine, carrying a laptop filled with pictures of her daughter. Overstreet left her father’s hospital bed in North Carolina to make the trip. Barthelemy shut down the diner she runs in Buffalo; she also brought along her longtime fiancé, Jeff Marina, and her teenage daughter, Amanda. Cann, who was tense about traveling alone to the city from which her sister disappeared, coaxed her husband, Chris, into driving her and three of her children in from northern Connecticut after he’d worked the night shift at his job on a military base.

Mari Gilbert has the same eyes and smile as Shannan, only with long, straight blonde hair and a raspy, lived-in voice. At first, Mari felt somewhat ill at ease. “I’m different, in a way,” she said. “Shannan is still missing. She’s not a body.” But the ­others welcomed her. They are bonded by grief, confusion, guilt, and anger. Could they have done more to help the women stay out of trouble? Would the police have caught the killer by now if the girls weren’t prostitutes? Who were their sisters and daughters, really?

Maureen Brainard-Barnes was the first of the girls to disappear; she went missing on July 9, 2007, three years before Shannan Gilbert. Maureen grew up in Groton, Connecticut, a blue-collar town where the biggest employers are now the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos. Maureen filled composition books with poetry and song lyrics. She wasn’t interested in material things and didn’t wear makeup. In high school, she’d been a straight-A student, but she dropped out at 17 when she got pregnant. She married, got her GED, then divorced, sharing custody of her daughter, who is now 11. Maureen worked as a blackjack dealer at Foxwoods, at a ShopRite, and at a gas station. Sometime in 2006, she saw a you-can-be-a-model offer on the web and sent in pictures of herself; a friend she made in the process introduced her to escorting on Craigslist. Maureen started taking weekend trips into Manhattan, telling anyone who asked that she was going on modeling gigs. Early on, she became pregnant again with a boyfriend and briefly gave up escorting. But once the second baby arrived, she started again.