A few months before Amber disappeared, Overstreet persuaded Amber to enter a detox program at Nassau University Medical Center, but while Overstreet was caring for their sick father back in Wilmington, she says, Amber relapsed. “Her daily routine was she would get up, she would take the train into the city, cop, come back, set up a couple calls,” she says. Overstreet was in North Carolina and unable to help Amber this time. When she went missing, “I thought, Well, she probably just met someone who is getting high with her. Those were my exact words.” She didn’t file a missing-person report. “I knew,” she says, “it wouldn’t be taken seriously.”
As they talk at the Tribeca hotel, the women take some comfort simply in being together. Cann is glad to be around people who understand her. “It’s amazing. I feel like I’ve known all these people my whole life,” she says. “It’s hard to talk to family,” Gilbert says. “It’s easier to talk to a stranger.” But before long, the conversation begins to bounce from one difficult subject to another. Cann is angry that people judge the victims because they were prostitutes. “I’ll always love my sister, and I’m proud of her no matter what anyone says,” she says. Gilbert is upset that people judge the victims’ families. “Some TV station said they were women whose families just didn’t keep in touch,” she says.
Cann has taken it upon herself to police anyone seeking to exploit the case. One target is Longislandserialkiller.com, a site that culls information about the case. “They were selling freaking T-shirts!” she says. She tells the others that she had the police shut down a rap video called “Ocean Parkway” that used photos of the dead girls without permission. (“The white girl had to get it because she could snitch on me/They killed you because you were a menace to society” went one lyric.) Barthelemy and Overstreet are reeling from multiple losses. “It’s tough enough to go through this,” Barthelemy says, “and a month later my mother dies and I’ve got to keep my whole family together.” “I lost my mom, and my dad is dying,” says Overstreet.
The women are too polite to zero in on Amanda right away, but it’s lost on none of them that Melissa’s little sister is the only person who may have spoken with the killer. “The media pounded the shit out of us to get the content of the calls,” Lynn says. “And we’re like, ‘We can’t let you know anything more than what’s already out there, because the only other person who knows what was said besides the police is the killer.’”
Still, the others can’t resist a question or two. “Can I just ask you,” says Overstreet, “did he sound husky, or brusky, or what?”
“No, he didn’t have an accent,” Amanda says. “He was white.”
“Did he sound like a New Yorker?” says Overstreet.
Amanda struggles to answer. “Not really. It was just kinda plain. You know, he was white, probably in his thirties, forties, maybe.”
“So he’s not from New York?” Cann asks.
Amanda shrugs. “Maybe,” she says. “He could have been.”
The questions come faster now: Was he angry, happy, nasty, mocking?
“He was calm, in control,” Amanda says. “He knew what he was doing.”
All five women are angry with the police. They don’t want to alienate them, but they can’t help but be upset by how slowly the case seems to be progressing. Gilbert lost her patience when the police asked her not to be interviewed on TV. “I said, ‘If you’re not going to do anything, I’m going to talk.’” Now, she says, the police don’t call her anymore.
To one degree or another, all of the women have taken on the role of amateur homicide investigator. “It’s like a little detective crew,” Overstreet says. They talk about how many cell phones the women used; how calls on prepaid disposable phones are harder to trace; whether salt from the ocean corrodes human flesh quickly or acts as a preservative. They compare notes: Did all the girls have the same driver? Did the police show every family a photo of a man with a lazy eye? Searching the web, Cann has lurked in the online bulletin board for the gated community where Shannan was last seen and discovered the message board where anonymous johns had been threatening to take revenge on Amber months before the press found it.
So little is known about the nights the other girls disappeared that the women tend to focus on the evening Shannan Gilbert went missing, replaying the details of what happened again and again, searching for clues to who the killer might be. No one engages in that exercise more than Mari Gilbert. Mari has signed on with a lawyer, former Los Angeles prosecutor and frequent Nancy Grace talking head Robin Sax, who has hired detectives to investigate the case independently; she has also paid for services to track down phone numbers and addresses of Oak Beach neighbors.