Suffolk County Police divers prepare to search for human remains in the… (Don Emmert / AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Oak Beach, N.Y., and Washington — In the summertime, the beaches along Ocean Parkway on Long Island are an American photo album of family picnics, July Fourth fireworks and minivans wedged bumper to bumper. But in the winter, this idyllic place is a windswept wilderness laced with thickets of brush that, it seems, provide the perfect dumping ground for murder.
That's the macabre scene that has unfolded since a prostitute went missing a year ago and a search party began scouring this seashore getaway for some sign of her.
What turned up instead was a string of mostly skeletal remains suggesting the work of a serial killer, or maybe two. Police are eager to find Shannan Gilbert, 24, who they suspect is somewhere in the impenetrable terrain that keeps offering up mysteries they can't explain.
So far, this barrier island off Long Island's south shore, 40 miles from New York City, has yielded a terrible crop of death, including the bodies of four other women known to have worked as prostitutes, shrouded in burlap; a bag of arms and legs; a human skull; and the body of an unidentified woman lying near that of a child about 5 years old, wrapped in a blanket.
Authorities are stumped, and the hardy, eclectic, year-round dwellers here are shaken. Yet such grisly finds have taken on a sad familiarity; strings of prostitute killings, most unsolved, exist in almost every major city and many smaller places, experts say, and Long Island has not been immune. Joel Rifkin of East Meadow was convicted of killing nine women, mostly drug-addicted prostitutes, between 1989 and 1993 and is serving a 203-year prison sentence. Robert Shulman of Hicksville was convicted of five such killings in the 1990s; he was serving a life term in prison when he died in 2006.
Last week, law enforcement officers, from the FBI to the local park police, blanketed this island in helicopters and on horseback, and dived into the chilly waters of the Atlantic. Cadaver dogs and their handlers braved poison ivy and thorny knots. Police cadets in padded blue jumpsuits marched four-abreast through the maze. Homicide detectives with binoculars hovered above in cherry pickers attached to firetrucks.
Nassau County Police Det. Lt. Kevin Smith said there was still no prime suspect: "There's been a lot of speculation, but we still don't know what we're doing. The area has never been searched this extensively because criminal activity out here was never suspected before. But it's the kind of place where you never know what will happen."
It began May 1 when Gilbert, who worked as an escort, met a client here in a gated area of Oak Beach, a community of 72 homes along Ocean Parkway. Police said she was seen banging on doors and crying out, "They're trying to kill me." By the time help arrived, she had vanished.
Months passed with no clues. Then during a routine training exercise on the island, chosen for its proximity to where Gilbert had disappeared, a police cadaver dog named Blue sniffed out the first of four women's remains. They were identified as prostitutes in their 20s with ties to Long Island who had been missing between a few months and two years.
The women turned up in an overgrown tangle of scrub and sea grass a mile or so from where Gilbert was last seen. Their placement appeared to be no accident; each was 500 feet from the next, dumped there at different times, judging from their decomposition.
With the spring thaw, the search intensified along a 15-mile stretch. The remains of at least six more people were discovered deep in the dense thicket at scattered points along the parkway.
"If you and I walked 10 feet into it, we would be torn apart by it," Smith said. "This is not an area where you would walk a dog."
Theories abounded: Was this the same madman who recently killed four prostitutes in Atlantic City? (Police say no.)
Even Rifkin had a hunch: He told Newsday in a prison interview that it was probably a local whose line of work would allow him to go unnoticed if he carried burlap sacks, like a fisherman.
Investigators wondered whether the killer, who appeared to be versed in law enforcement techniques, could have been one of their own.
Jack Levin, co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University and an expert on serial and mass murder, dismissed that theory.
"I doubt this is a cop. More likely he's a police groupie or a cop wannabe. They live in uniforms, have shortwave radios in their cars; they watch 'Law and Order' or 'Criminal Minds' to pick up points; they may not be geniuses, but they know how to get away with it and they love the feeling of power," Levin said.