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Sex Workers on Alert Amid Serial Killer Probe

This combination of photos provided by the Suffolk County Police Department shows, from left, Melissa Barthelemy, of New York's Erie County; Maureen Brainard-Barnes, of Norwich, Conn.; Megan Waterman, of Scarborough, Maine; and Amber Lynn Costello, of North Babylon, N.Y. Investigators believe that all four young women were slain by a serial killer. (AP Photo/SCPD)

After the number of human remains found along Ocean Parkway since December jumped from four to 10 earlier this month amid an investigation into a serial killer targeting prostitutes, police and advocates have sounded the alarm for sex workers to be high alert.

“We tell people that they should be careful with any contacts that they make with strangers,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer told reporters April 7, adding a “special warning to women involved in the escort business.”


Dormer had made that warning shortly after police had doubled the number of remains found on the Suffolk County half of Jones Beach Island from four to eight and just days before investigators found two more sets of partial skeletal remains on the Nassau County side.

The latest searches—including FBI aircraft equipped with high-tech imaging from above, dive teams and dozens of officers combing the ground with cadaver-sniffing dogs—came after police initially found the remains of four dead online escorts near Gilgo Beach five months ago.

Click here for prior coverage of the Long Island serial killer investigation

The six latest sets of remains have neither been identified nor linked to the first four, which were uncovered while officers were searching for 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert of New Jersey, a prostitute who was last seen in nearby Oak Beach. Police are still searching for her and have not named any suspects in her disappearance or the murders.

“People think they can do whatever they want to us and they won’t get caught,” Dylan Wolf, a member of Sex Workers Action New York (SWANK), said in a statement. “But like those murdered, we’re not disposable, bad people—we have lives that matter and people that love us.”

Maryse Mitchell-Brody, an organizer with the New York City-based Sex Workers Outreach Project, said in a joint statement with SWANK that if prostitution were decriminalized it would free sex workers from being forced underground where they’re prone to violence and afraid to ask police for help.

“We won’t end this violence by keeping the sex trade illegal,” she said. “Murders like these show that we must use new strategies to create safety and dignity that don’t reinforce stigma or discrimination.”

But prostitution laws have only gotten stricter in New York since two earlier serial killers—Joel Rifkin and Robert Shulman—murdered a combined total of more than 20 prostitutes during a sometimes overlapping period in the early ‘90s on Long Island.

In the meantime, without legislation and the killer still at large, both police and advocates urge sex workers to take every precaution possible. “Safe calls” are advised before and after meeting clients, as is avoiding violent “johns” and steering clear of those with bad vibes.

Police have scoffed at criticisms that they don’t take the disappearance of a sex worker seriously and urged those in the sex trade to come forward with any information that may help the investigation.

“What activities these victims may have been engaged in prior to their murders does not matter,” Dormer said in January. “They were young women whose lives were cut tragically short.”

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