Life has a peculiar way of impacting people in unforeseen circumstances. Sometimes, blessings can occur in unexpected ways that transcend the course of one’s life. Other times, tragedies happen in ways that can go unexplained and the turmoil can seemingly never overturn into a positive. In this case, the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert was the catalyst that featured both of these scenarios; a yin and yang event that has left many people affected in different forms. This is the story.
Shannan Gilbert was born on Friday, October 24, 1986, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her family lived in New Jersey, where Shannan grew up with her mother, Mari Gilbert and her siblings, Sarra Elizabeth Gilbert, Sherre Gilbert, and Steve Smith. Her intelligence was exceptional and she graduated high school at sixteen-years-old. Afterward, she was taking online college courses at Phoenix University and held several jobs ranging from being a hostess at Applebee’s, a hotel receptionist, and cooking for the elderly in a senior center. Her goal was to save money to relocate to New York to pursue her ambitions of being an actress, singer, and writer. The jobs she undertook wasn’t enough to fund her transition and she decided to temporarily turn her attention to online escorting via Craigslist.
The profession was going as well as expected until Saturday, May 1, 2010, when 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert was accompanied by her escort driver, Michael Pak, to meet up with Joseph Brewer — a new client living in a gated community in Oak Beach, Long Island. They arrived at his residence at approximately 2:00 a.m. Three hours later everything turned into a hectic frenzy that remains unclear to this very day, but the events changed Long Island forever.
Shortly before 5:00 a.m. Shannan called 911. She was repeatedly telling the dispatcher, “They are trying to kill me!” as she fled from Brewer’s home and sprinted toward the closest neighbor, Gustav Coletti. He was in the process of shaving when he was startled by erratic screaming and knocking on his front door. As he frantically went to open the door, Shannan darted inside with utter terror brimming from her face. Out of concern for her wellbeing, Gustav said he was going to notify the police. Those words caused more distraught which prompted her to run away from his home.
Gustav watched her flee and subsequently noticed a black SUV driving slowly down the road. He proceeded to confront the driver, who was Shannan’s escort driver, Michael Pak. He asked what his intentions were and Pak responded, “I’m looking for Shannan.” Gustav — who was oblivious to her occupation — told Pak that he called the police, causing him to drive away from the residential community.
In the midst of the exchange between Gustav and Michael, Shannan had run to the home of Barbara Brennan and hellaciously pounded on the front door for assistance. Fearing for her own safety, Brennan refused to acknowledge the knocking and called her next-door door neighbor, Tom Canning, to alert him to the situation. He quickly looked went outside to check on the commotion, but Shannan had already fled across the street to the home of Dr. Peter Hackett. From this point onward, Shannan was never seen alive again.
Two days after Shannan’s disappearance, her mother Mari Gilbert received an unexpected telephone call from Dr. Peter Hackett. He asked if Shannan was safe and feeling better but Mari hadn’t any knowledge that anything was amiss. She went on to ask how he acquired her phone number and he mentioned that it was policy to have a patient’s contact information. Perplexed by the response, Mari asked why he was distributing medicine in the first place. As the conversation continued, he allegedly stated he ran a halfway-home for women in dire need and explained the events that transpired–providing medication for Shannan to help calm her nerves (the type of medicine is unclear but it’s presumed to be a benzodiazepine).
With Mari and the rest of Shannan’s family learning of her distress and unaware of her whereabouts, they filed a missing person’s report. Mari relayed the information she received from Hackett’s phone call to the investigators and once media coverage began swarming in, Dr. Peter Hackett was bombarded by several reports about the conversation with Mari. He proceeded to deny all allegations of a phone call ever happening on live television. Shortly thereafter, phone records were obtained and released publically, proving Hackett’s deception. He went on to recant his prior statements but remained adamant about never mentioning anything relating to halfway-homes or treating Shannan Gilbert with an unknown substance drug(s).
A massive search for Shannan went underway but the pursuit was fruitless. Seven months later in December 2010, a police officer conducting a routine training exercise with his cadaver dog stumbled upon the skeletal remains of a woman wrapped in a burlap sack. Two days later, three more bodies in burlap sacks were unearthed in the proximity, none of whom were Shannan. They were all online escorts and determined to be murdered by strangulation.
Megan Waterman was the first woman to be properly identified by name. She was a 22-year-old mother from South Portland, Maine. She had been staying in a hotel in Hauppauge, New York when she disappeared on June 6, 2010, after leaving behind her phone and wallet to meet an unknown client that accepted her escorting ad on Craigslist.
Maureen Brainard-Barnes was a 25-year-old single mother from Norwich, Connecticut. She was visiting New York when she disappeared in July 2007.
Amber Lynn Costello was 27-years-old living in North Babylon, New York. She vanished under mysterious circumstances on September 2, 2010, after meeting an unknown client who called and emailed her numerous times offering upwards of $1,500.00 for her company.
Melissa Barthelemy was 24-years-old from Erie County, New York. She disappeared on July 12, 2009, and when her family reported her missing the local authorities refused to initiate a search until several days later when Melissa’s younger sister, Amanda, began receiving nearly a dozen phone calls from Melissa’s cell-phone.
The caller was not Melissa, unfortunately. Instead, it was an unidentified male who taunted and harassed Amanda by saying crude things. In one exchange, the caller professed, “Do you know what your sister is? She’s a whore. I killed her. I know where you live and I can kill you too.”
Throughout the handful of phone calls made to Amanda, the police attempted to triangulate the caller’s location. They managed to pin him to Times Square in Manhattan but the populated area made it impossible to adequately locate the origin.
According to law officials, the subject is a Caucasian male between 20-40 years old. His demeanor is calm, and his manner of speech is elegant. He also seemed to be acute on police tactics — keeping his phone calls under three minutes. This had the police theorizing he could be an active or retired member of law enforcement. Other officials speculated these type of behaviors aren’t unique and could be gleaned from watching television shows such as CSI or NCIS.
Thereafter, the unidentified male never made any subsequent communications with Amanda. However, the police managed to obtain call records that indicated Melissa was in contact with somebody residing in Manorville, New York, but this lead wasn’t considered entirely beneficial at the time.
Richard Dormer — the former police commissioner at Suffolk County — told ABC News that he believes a serial killer is behind the killings due to the location of the bodies and their cause of death. The news made headlines and sent the media and local residents into hysteria.
The search for Shannan Gilbert continued but the task proved difficult because of the harsh, winter weather. The police orchestrated another search for Shannan the following year in March and April that extended to Nassau County. To their horror, six more sets of remains were discovered.
Unlike the first four victims found the previous year, the remains of these victims were partial, indicating dismemberment. Shockingly, one particular set of remains unearthed was linked to a pair of severed legs wrapped in plastic that washed up on the shore of Fire Island in 1996 — a case that baffled original detectives ever since the discovery was made.
Interestingly, one victim was an Asian male that was wearing women’s clothing. Law enforcement searched their database for missing Asian males from Long Island but none were a definitive match. They hypothesized that he was also a sex-worker and could have been mistaken for a woman.
Another set of partial remains uncovered a captivating tale. The body parts were confirmed via DNA to belong to 20-year-old Jessica Taylor, who was last seen in Manhattan near the Port Authority Bus Terminal in July 2003. Three weeks after she disappeared, a woman walking her dog came across a woman’s torso with a tattoo mutilated from the hip, and a pair of legs. Missing from the crime scene were a skull, arms, and hands — of which were found amidst the multitude of other victims.
Approximately 200 yards away from the partial remains of Jessica Taylor was a female child between 18-24 months old wrapped in a blanket. A name was unable to be provided to the authorities so they referred to her as Baby Doe. She was later linked to being the daughter of an unidentified woman dubbed “Peaches” because of a tattoo found on a torso that was located in 1997 at Hempstead Lake State Park.
Two equally horrifying theories arose from these uncoverings; either two killers were disposing of their victims coincidentally in the same proximity or a lone serial killer was responsible and has been active for at least twenty years.
In the span of six months, ten bodies had been located, none of which belonged to Shannan Gilbert — the missing 24-year-old who unintentionally brought forth the chilling discovery. In December 2011, the skeletal remains of Shannan were finally located, less than a half mile away from Dr. Peter Hackett’s backyard — the last place she was reported to be seen.
After a positive identification was confirmed, the Suffolk County Medical Examiner spent four days performing an autopsy. In the meantime, Richard Dormer preemptively announced Shannan’s death was accidental — drowning in the dense marsh she was found in — even though the results weren’t confirmed. What is known is that Shannan suffered from Bipolar disorder and was off her medication at the time of her disappearance. Nevertheless, the premature answer given by Dormer angered surviving family members, and soon after an official ruling on her death was determined to be inconclusive.
The Gilbert family wholeheartedly believed Shannan was met with foul play and hired an attorney, John Ray, who proceeded to employ an independent coroner to get a second opinion on Shannan’s death. The autopsy indicated Shannan could have met with foul play because of the larynx of her hyoid bone being detached; meaning she could have potentially been strangled, yet a definitive conclusion couldn’t be determined.
Due to inconsistent reports and the oddities surrounding Dr. Peter Hackett’s behavior and false statements, Mari Gilbert forthrightly accused Hackett being responsible for her death and alleged murder. In 2012, Mari and Ray filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hackett, but he wasn’t charged with any wrongdoings. Soon after, he relocated with his family to Florida and is not considered a suspect.
Three years later in 2015 — with a lack of headway in the Long Island Serial Killer case — an escort going by the name of “Leanne,” came forward alongside the Gilbert family’s attorney and told the media a fascinating story.
According to Leanne, she had an unsavory encounter with James Burke — the Chief of Police in Suffolk County’s Police Department — at a house party in Oak Beach one year after Shannan disappeared. During the party, Burke partook in cocaine and alcohol that was freely passed around. He made numerous attempts to seduce her, but after all of her declines, she became very aggressive. He reportedly choked her and forced her to provide oral pleasure, all the while proclaiming she was a “No good whore.” She would go on to attest that more law enforcement members were present and some were actually clientele.
Leanne’s testimony came after the events that unfolded in November 2015, when Burke resigned from the position of Suffolk County’s Police Chief after being served a 46-month federal prison sentence for severely beating Christopher Loeb because he stole a duffel bag full of sex toys and pornography from his SUV. Afterward, he coerced other law enforcement members in his jurisdiction and neighboring counties to cover up his indecencies; a series of misdoings that occurred in a three-year time span.
Additionally, Burke refused the FBI’s assistance when they were brought in to take over the Long Island Serial Killer case. The motive behind his intentions are unknown, but the sheer fact of this decision led many people to presume he had a possible tie-in personally in the serial killing(s) and wanted the evidence to remain buried. Others speculated he wasn’t involved at all and wanted to cover his involvement in solicitation and drugs.
In a macabre turn of events that nobody could have predicted, Shannan’s mother was savagely murdered by her youngest daughter, Sarra, in July 2016, who suffers from schizophrenia. She had stabbed Mari over two-hundred times and used a fire extinguisher to bludgeon her. On August 4, 2017, Sarra was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison.
Throughout all of these tragic tangents involved in some form or another in the Long Island Serial Killer case, a suspect named John Bittrolff emerged from all of the rubble.
Bittrolff was making a living as a carpenter and was an avid hunter living in Manorville, New York. In 1993 and 1994, he murdered two women and is suspected of more. His first victim was Rita Tangredi, a sex worker who was found strangled and bludgeoned to death on November 2, 1993, in Suffolk County. Eighteen days later on November 20, 1993, the body of Sandra Costilla was discovered in North Sea, New York, of whom lived a high-risk lifestyle similar to Rita. Two months later on January 30, 1994, Colleen McNamee, another sex worker, was unearthed in Shirley, New York, and disposed of in the same manner as the previous two women.
The medical examiners were able to obtain male DNA and semen samples but the evidence didn’t point to any one person. It wasn’t until 2013 when Bittrolff’s brother, Timothy, was sent to prison for criminal contempt. As a result, his DNA was taken and placed into CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). His DNA shockingly came back as a partial match from one of the murders twenty-years prior and ultimately led back to John, who was subsequently charged in July 2014 for the murder of Rita Tangredi and Colleen McNamee.
Throughout the examination into Bittrolff, investigators were considering him to be a prime suspect in the Gilgo Beach murders — particularly the first four victims who were found strangled and discarded in burlap sacks. It was learned that Rita Tangredi’s daughter was best friends with Melissa Barthelemy — one of the sex workers who was murdered and had call records from an unknown source in Manorville, New York. Likewise, the torso of Jessica Taylor found in 2003 was approximately three miles away from his residence.
As of right now, the inspection is still ongoing, but John Bitrolff was convicted of the second-degree murders of Rita Tangredi and Colleen McNamee by a Suffolk County Jury on July 5, 2017, and on September 12, 2017, he was sentenced to 50-years to life in prison at the age of fifty-one-years old.
It remains to be seen if Bitrolff is the Long Island Serial Killer. The investigation is still culminating all of the evidence. As for Shannan Gilbert, she has never been conclusively tied to being a victim of the notorious serial killer, and the Gilbert family attorney, John Ray, is still striving for answers.
On March 6, 2018, Sanford Berland — a Long Island judge — ordered Suffolk County to release the full 23-minute phone call Shannan placed to 911 shortly before vanishing to Ray. They have until March 19, 2018, to produce the recorded phone call and transcript, where it will be reviewed by the judge, where he will ultimately rule whether or not it should be made available.
Shannan Gilbert’s unsolved case is a fascinating one. It paints a portrait of misconception. It’s important to remember that Shannan, along with her mother, Mari, and the rest of the victims, is human. They are more than escorts. Their lives had value, and they had dreams of wanting to become more. Yet if it wasn’t for Shannan’s tragic disappearance, perhaps none of the victims would have been found and more would pile on. Shannan put into motion a tale of horror and corruptness, but also a story of a caterpillar that’s in its growing stages and ready to become beautiful; a butterfly who flaps its wings and creates justice in a case that was buried in the dust without anyone’s knowledge.