Chilling true story of Lost Girls and the unidentified Long Island serial killer

On 1 May 2010, 24-year-old escort Shannan Gilbert was running for her life in the Oak Beach area of Long Island.

In a 22-minute 911 call made after she left her last client, Shannan reportedly told the operator "they’re trying to kill me". Nearby residents recalled her pounding on doors and shouting for help.

She was never seen alive again.

Netflix’s new film Lost Girls is based on a disturbing story set on New York’s Long Island.

Amy Ryan plays Mari Gilbert, a mother who pushes police to find her missing daughter Shannan.

In the process law enforcement find a series of bodies that turn out to belong to young female sex workers whose murders have never been solved.

How police discovered the bodies

Shannan Gilbert went missing in the early hours of May 1 2010.

Five months later, in December of that year, a Suffolk County police officer and his dog made the first of a series of gruesome discoveries.

They found “the skeletal remains of a woman in a nearly disintegrated burlap sack” along the Ocean Parkway road near the town of Oak Beach, which sparked a wider police search. A few days later three more bodies were found in the same area.

"Four bodies found in the same location pretty much speaks for itself,” said Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer at the time. “It's more than a coincidence. We could have a serial killer."

Those suspicions were strengthened between late March and early April 2011 when four more bodies were found further along Ocean Parkway.

A set of partial human remains and separate skull were also uncovered in neighbouring Nassau County while two human teeth were discovered near the location of the skull on April 22 2011.

None of the bodies found belonged to Shannan Gilbert.

Who were the victims?

The search for Shannan Gilbert had inadvertently turned up a number of bodies and human remains belonging to a total of 10 people.

The remains of the four bodies discovered in December 2010 all belonged to women.

All four were identified as prostitutes who had advertised on Craigslist leading police to believe a serial killer was behind their deaths. Each victim had been strangled.

Maureen Brainard-Barnes: Maureen, from Norwich in Connecticut, was last seen on July 9 2007 when she left for New York.

Melissa Barthélemy: The 24-year-old from Erie County, New York, went missing on July 10 2009.

Megan Waterman: Megan was 22 when she vanished on June 6 2010. The mother of a young girl, Megan told her 20-year-old boyfriend the previous day that she was going out and would call him later.

Amber Lynn Costello: Amber was 27 and from North Babylon, New York when she disappeared on September 2 2010, a week before her 28th birthday. That night she reportedly went to meet a stranger who agreed to pay her $1,500 for her services and called several times.

Of the remains found in the March and April of 2011 only one was formally identified.

Jessica Taylor: 20 years old and most recently from Manhattan, Jessica was last seen in July 2003. On July 26 that year her body – missing its head and hands – was found in Gilgo Beach in Manorville, New York. On May 9 2011 the remains of a skull, hands and a forearm found in March 2011 belonged to Jessica, who had worked in Washington DC and Manhattan as a prostitute.

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The remaining five victims – all found in March and April 2011 – have never been identified, however the police have released descriptions and given them temporary names.

‘Jane Doe No. 6’: The sixth victim was said to be about 5 ft 2 in tall and aged between 18 and 35. Her head, right foot and hands were found in April 2011, 11 years after her torso was found. Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said: “Based on what we know of some of the other victims, we consider that this woman may have been working as a prostitute in New York City at that time.”

‘John Doe’: Police believe he was an Asian man aged between 17 and 23 years old and was the only male victim found. Officials said he showed signs of blunt-force trauma and is believed to have been killed between 2001 and 2006. His body was found with two missing incisor teeth and two missing molars and wearing women’s clothing.

‘Peaches/Jane Doe No. 3’: Her partial remains were matched to a torso found in June 1997.

‘Baby Doe’: The remains of a baby girl between 16 and 32 months old were identified to be the daughter of ‘Peaches/Jane Doe No. 3’. Both were wearing similar jewellery; the baby with hoop earrings and a rope necklace and her mother with a bracelet with X and O charms and another with stones made to look like diamonds.

‘Jane Doe No. 7/Fire Island Jane Doe’: A skull and two teeth found on April 11 2011 were matched to two legs found in a plastic bag in 1996 on neighbouring Fire Island.

Who is the Long Island serial killer?

Nobody has ever been identified as the Long Island serial killer.

Profiles have suggested it’s most likely a white male between his mid-20s and mid-40s who has access to hessian burlap sacks used for disposing bodies – and familiar with Long Island’s South Shore. It’s also proposed that their ability to avoid detection is due to their knowledge of law enforcement techniques.

After the remains of older victims were found in 2011 there were claims that convicted serial killer Joel Rifkin could have been responsible. Rifkin is currently serving a 203-year sentence for murdering nine women between 1989 and 1993. He had denied having anything to do with them.

After the remains of all 10 people had been found, Lawrence Kobilinsky of John Jay College of Criminal Justice said: "I think this is an area that the killer feels very safe in and there's no reason to believe that it's not the same killer.

“There are some subtle differences. The first four were covered in burlap, the last four were not, but that doesn't mean they're different people.”

What happened to Shannan Gilbert?

Shannan Gilbert’s body was eventually discovered on December 13 2011 less than a mile from where was last seen, in a marsh not far from Oak Beach.

Police announced that they believed her death was down to accidental drowning and the official cause listed as “undetermined”. However, an autopsy proved inconclusive and a second independent autopsy found she received injuries “consistent with homicidal strangulation”.

“There is no evidence whatsoever that Shannan Gilbert died a natural death,” said family attorney John Ray in 2016.

Police ruled out the client Shannan saw on the night she went missing – May 1 2010 – as a suspect.

Mari Gilbert

Shannan’s mother Mari never stopped fighting for justice, challenging Suffolk County Police’s findings that Shannan died of accidental drowning and that her death was not connected to the other remains found on Long Island.

In July 2016 Mari Gilbert was stabbed to death in Ellenville, New York by one of her surviving daughters, Sarra. She was stabbed more than 200 times.

Sarra was arrested and charged with second-degree murder and fourth-degree possession of a weapon.

Family attorney John Ray said Sarra Gilbert was schizophrenic, telling People: “Sarra was hospitalised several times. Over the past couple of days she began to hear voices. She called her mother and said come over. … And she stabbed her to death.”

Months before Mari's death, Sarra was arrested for drowning a puppy in front of her eight-year-old son and threatening to kill him too.

Sarra pleaded not guilty to Mari's murder by reason of insanity – her attorney arguing that Shannan's death affected her mental state.

However, a jury convicted her of second-degree murder in 2017. She will serve at least 25 years in jail.

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