There are 23 miles and five parkways between the door of the Holiday Inn Express in Hauppauge—the door Megan Waterman walked through for the last time before she disappeared from the view of surveillance cameras on June 6, 2010—to the orange arrows spray painted on Ocean Parkway where her body was found on a snowy, windy December evening, when the pitch black and silence of the beach was broken by flashing police lights and the rattling motors of spotlight generators and a portable crime lab.
Waterman would have turned 23 on January 18, the same day Suffolk County police confirmed she was one of the four dead prostitutes found unburied among the brush of Gilgo Beach. Waterman’s body remained here, just yards away from passing cars, for seven months. Another woman was here more than three years. Another was never officially reported missing at all.
“Normally, if it’s a prostitute or some girl that’s not family-oriented or doesn’t come home on a regular basis, nobody’s going to report her missing,” Detective Lt. William Brosnan of the Nassau County Homicide Squad told the Press in July. Brosnan is the lead detective on another murder case involving a woman some believe to be a prostitute, a woman known only as Peaches—because of a peach tattoo she had on her left breast—or by the medical examiner’s office as U-037859772. Her handless, headless, legless torso was found wrapped in a garbage bag and stuffed in a Rubbermaid container in Hempstead Lake State Park during the summer of 1997. She has yet to be identified. It’s been 13 years and no one has come forward.
Jessica Taylor, 20, a prostitute originally from upstate New York, was found nude, headless and handless on a deserted access road in the Manorville area of the Pine Barrens in 2003. Her murder remains unsolved. It’s been eight years and no one has come forward.
The murder of Gail Belfield, 30, a prostitute from Wyandanch found in 1995 naked from the waist up with a bullet to her head, also remains unsolved. It’s been 16 years and no one has come forward.
“[Prostitutes are] easy victims,” says Tokyo Vice author Jake Adelstein, a journalist who has extensively covered human trafficking, and the public relations director for the Washington, D.C.-based Polaris Project Japan, which combats the exploitation of women and children in the sex trade. “They will follow strangers to isolated places. People do not quickly report them missing. Cops disdain them.”
Most recently, Jennifer Papain, a North Patchogue prostitute who advertised on Craigslist, was murdered in March 2010. But few people know Papain’s name, and just months ago, before four bodies were found at Gilgo Beach and the possibility of a serial killer having murdered these women spread like wildfire, few knew the name of Megan Waterman.
Chad Johnson, 22, the man who hired Papain through Craigslist for a sex act before allegedly strangling her to death in his car when she wouldn’t refund his $80, goes on trial next week, but not many people know about that, either.
And suddenly four missing women who were virtually unknown on Long Island only a few weeks ago have become trending topics on Google now that they are dead, their bodies found on our beaches. Their names have gone national. Their lives have become relevant, at least in the eyes of the media. What has changed?
Police say this is the work of a serial killer, and based on the convoluted route it takes to get from the Holiday Inn Express where Waterman was last seen alive to the desolate area where her body and those of three other women were found, the killer knows our area well. He may be a commuter who takes the Ocean Parkway shortcut from Suffolk to Nassau County Monday through Friday. He could be a neighbor.
“We believe each of the four victims met their prearranged client or clients shortly before their deaths,” said Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota. “And their deaths are a direct result of their business as prostitutes.”
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer revealed the three additional victims by name, pointing to their faces, made public for the first time on Monday:
Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, of Norwich, Conn., last seen on July 9, 2007 in Manhattan.
Melissa Barthelemy, 24, last seen on July 12, 2009 in her hometown, the Bronx.
Amber Lynn Costello, 27, last seen on Sept. 2, 2010 in her hometown, North Babylon. She was never reported missing.
Their names were released less than a week after police had confirmed one of the bodies was identified as 22-year-old Waterman of Scarborough, Maine.
“I am sure,” said Spota, “and it may take days, and it may take months and it may take years—but eventually we’re going to find this person.”
Police won’t say much else beyond that, but it isn’t because they don’t have the information. In fact officials say they have many leads. They just can’t tell the public what exactly those leads are because releasing specific details of the crimes could compromise the investigation and keep a predator on the loose. Even still, a few alleged details have already been leaked by some news outlets.
What we do know for sure is all four women were killed in the same way, and most likely, by the same person.
“I believe [the homicides] fit into the known definition of what a serial killer would be,” Spota said. “They were all murdered…The actual cause of their deaths appear to be substantially similar but we’re not going to go into any further aspect of that at this time.”
Spota said all four victims were killed elsewhere and dumped at the beach. They were all prostitutes who advertised on Craigslist or other Internet sites.
Earlier reports claimed the bodies were wrapped in burlap, but officials would not confirm that detail. Even the specific locations where Brainard-Barnes, Barthelemy and Costello were last seen is being kept mum by authorities.
“What activities these victims may have been engaged in prior to their murders does not matter,” said Dormer. “They were young women whose lives were cut tragically short.”
Police were looking for another missing Craigslist escort, 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert of Jersey City, N.J., when they found the bodies. She had disappeared May 1, 2010 from Oak Beach, a secluded seaside community three miles down the road.
“We did an extensive search from Oak Beach all the way into Nassau County,” said Dormer. “We want to go back there, because we are still missing Shannan Gilbert. We haven’t given up on that case.”
Dormer says detectives will return to the beach as soon as the weather subsides. For now, officials say a task force comprised of detectives is working the case around the clock, urging anyone to come forward with information.
“People who are engaged in a similar business should be on very, very high alert and the very same people should be telling us, giving us information,” Spota told reporters. “I find it very hard to believe that a person who is engaging in the same business as them doesn’t know something.”
Waterman’s family is going ahead with a birthday fundraiser at a Maine roller skating rink on Saturday, planned to raise additional reward funds in hopes someone would come forward with information on the young mother, before her remains were identified. On Sunday the family, including Waterman’s 4-year-old daughter, Liliana, will hold a funeral for her cremated remains.
“I can cry now Lil is finally sleeping in what appears to be peace,” Waterman’s aunt Elizabeth Meserve wrote on a webpage once dedicated to finding Megan. “My heart is crushed knowing she will not see her mommy again and all the questions we don’t have answers too. Just like we didn’t stop looking for Meggie we cannot stop seeking justice.”
And that justice comes not only in finding a killer, but in making sure these women are relevant when they are lost, not only when they are found dead.
Any information on these crimes can be left anonymously at 1-800-220-TIPS, WWW.TIPSUBMIT.COM or by texting SCPD with your message to CRIMES.