Most of Maureen’s friends and family knew what she was doing in New York. “We all had a kind of idea about it, but we didn’t want to actually think of it,” says her sister, Melissa Cann. “No one could keep Maureen from doing something she wanted to do.” While in New York, Maureen would call friends on her cell phone, sometimes just to chat, other times asking them to refresh her Craigslist ad so it would be at the top of the page again. A friend says much of what she made would go to pot and cocaine.
The weekend she disappeared, Maureen had taken the train into the city with friends, but she left them once she got to Manhattan. Cann says her sister usually worked from a hotel room and never saw johns at their places. Maureen was adamant about working only in Manhattan and never said anything to Cann about working in Long Island. At one point that weekend, Maureen called a friend from the Port Authority and said she’d been robbed of all the money she’d earned. She needed a ride home, but the friend couldn’t come get her. After that call, no one heard from Maureen again. For three years, the NYPD had reported no trace of her—except, in 2008, for one cell-phone-signal ping off a Long Island tower, just a few miles from Gilgo Beach. “Someone was trying to access Maureen’s cell-phone voice-mail,” Cann says. When she saw the news about Gilgo Beach, Cann knew Maureen had to be one of the bodies.
Cann was the first to reach out to another family on Facebook, and since February she’s been orchestrating contact with at least a half-dozen relatives of the five victims. I visited her near her home in Groton in April. Fair and winsome with jet-black hair, she talks in a fragile voice about the children Maureen left behind—the 11-year-old girl by one father whom Cann sees on weekends and the 5-year-old boy by another who now lives with his father.
Cann says the police have failed to take her sister’s case seriously, beginning with the first officer she spoke to. “Soon as I told him what she was doing up in Manhattan, it was like he didn’t care.” She speaks of the fruitless trips her husband and brother took to New York to try to find Maureen themselves, the two and a half years it took even to get Maureen’s name onto the national registry of missing persons. She tells me she got her sister’s e-mails, texts, and phone records herself, trying to retrace Maureen’s steps. “I’ve been driving myself crazy for four years trying to figure out what happened to my sister,” she says. “I drove myself to the point where I didn’t want to get up in the morning to brush my teeth. I didn’t want to go to sleep. I just wanted to figure out where my sister was. I got fired from my job. I was like, I can find another job, but I can’t find another sister. Going on with my life felt guilty.”
When I ask Cann about Maureen’s life as an escort, she says her sister was desperate. “I found out after she was missing that she had eviction court the next day. It was her last resort.” Cann knows people judge her sister. “I don’t like how they’re talking about her,” she says. But to Cann, it doesn’t matter what Maureen did. “She was still a mother. She still meant the world to her daughter, and me. She was in her mid-twenties. Who’s to say that she was going to be doing this her whole life?” When she looks back on what she could have done to change Maureen’s mind, she says, “We got into arguments about things that I thought that she was doing, but I always gave in and dropped the subject. I didn’t want to push her away.”
Melissa Barthelemy disappeared two years after Maureen Brainard-Barnes, on July 12, 2009, on her way to a Craigslist appointment. She grew up in Buffalo, lived for a time with her father in Texas, then came back to Buffalo to finish high school. Melissa got a license in cosmetology, worked for a time at a Supercuts, and moved to the Bronx in 2007. “She wanted to make money for a salon of her own,” says her mother, Lynn. “And originally when she moved to New York, she was working in a salon. We think the salon was a cover for her pimp here.”
Melissa told her mother she was just dancing at a club. That was enough to worry Lynn. “I used to tell her, ‘You know, I’m not around the corner. It would take me eight hours to get to you,’” Lynn says. The last time Melissa came home to visit, Lynn says, “she was kind of down, and we almost had her convinced to stay. She was depressed because money was tight. We even told her, ‘We’ve got a job all set up for you.’” But Melissa went back to New York. She was stubborn, Lynn says. “She didn’t take crap from anybody.” Now Lynn wonders if she should have tried harder to persuade Melissa to move back home.