The horn blows. Then a puff of smoke. It’s 6 a.m. and already 84 degrees on Fordham Street. Officers, faceless silhouettes in the early morning sun, line the pier, a dead-end area off-limits to the public. They wait, pacing at the water’s edge. Then a rumble from behind. A white truck barrels through and slows down before one of the officers waves the driver through rusty gates. At the end of the pier the truck stops, now just a small white square seen in the rearview mirror of a parked car that isn’t supposed to be here…
I wrote that back in 2010 at the end of a residential side street in the Bronx and it was hot that day, brutally hot. I couldn’t turn the air conditioner on because I couldn’t turn my car on. I couldn’t turn my car on because, well, I wasn’t supposed to be there. Trying to blend in among parked cars, I sat low in my seat, grateful for the random breeze sliding through my barely opened windows, and waited. Like soldiers, men in red and white jump suits poured out of a bus with caged windows and marched over to the back of that white box truck. The rear door is rolled up. Inside are rows of stacked pine boxes.
This is where the Long Island Serial Killer case began for me.
Those boxes contained New York’s poor and unidentified dead, and every week, like clockwork, full trucks pull up to the port at the end of Fordham Street and Riker’s Island prisoners, anxious for a day in the sun, line up to escort these unnamed men and women, sometimes just pieces of them, by ferry to their final resting place—Hart Island, New York’s Potter’s Field, a century-old floating mass grave.
I don’t normally start my Fridays sweating it out, literally and figuratively, on New York City Department of Corrections’ private property, but I was working on a story about Long Island’s unidentified murder victims—men and women whose bodies had been found in suitcases, in plastic bags, cut in pieces and strewn about LI for years and, in some cases, decades. Many were prostitutes and likely never reported missing at all, like the woman Nassau detectives call “Peaches,” whose mutilated torso, with a peach tattoo on her left breast, was stuffed in a green Rubber Maid container found by a father and son hiking in Hempstead Lake State Park in the summer of 1997; or the women whose mutilated torsos were discovered in the Manorville Pine Barrens in 2000 and 2003, one of them with what once was an angel wing tattoo on her hip, now barely recognizable under dozens of jagged razor blade cuts left by her killer in a crude attempt to conceal her identity. These were all cold cases. Then Megan Waterman disappeared.
Before her initials were spray painted in hot pink on the side of Ocean Parkway, and before she made international headlines as the victim of a serial killer, Waterman was just another name on the local police blotter. On a Thursday night in October 2009, she was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer she arranged to meet through Craigslist at an Extended Stay America in Bethpage. She returned home to Maine shortly after, only to come back to Long Island eight months later, when she would solicit an unknown killer instead, who would become the focus of Suffolk County’s homicide squad for the next two years.
But Megan wasn’t a murder victim then. She was a missing person. She had fallen in with the wrong crowd, more specifically the wrong guy, who convinced her it would be a lot easier to support her 3-year-old daughter if she sold her body rather than work two jobs. At the time, a common theory was that Megan was a victim of sex trafficking, and that her pimp boyfriend was somehow involved. At least that was the best-case scenario.
The worst was that Megan was abducted while walking alone, possibly to pick up something at the gas station down the block from the Hauppauge Holiday Inn Express where she was staying in the early hours of June 6, 2010.
The area around the hotel, itself no stranger to illegal activity, is largely industrial or undeveloped land, a dumping ground for everything from chunks of broken concrete to filthy couch cushions. It was here, on surveillance video, Megan was last seen alive walking away from the hotel alone to meet the killer she had connected with on Craigslist, police later determined. Whatever happened after that was out of sight of parking lot cameras. Either Megan was alive or she had to be here, somewhere. At this point, the National Organization of Women and LostNMissing, Inc., a nonprofit organization offering support to the families of the missing, were the only ones besides her family who were making noise about Megan’s disappearance.
I saw the posters Megan’s family posted in the Shop Rite shopping center in Hauppauge, and every time I passed the hotel, which towers over the Long Island Expressway, I thought about Megan and the nearly non-existent media coverage of her disappearance—and the other nameless victims whose cases had since gone cold. After all, we are in the business of telling stories and, unlike missing mothers, teachers and honor roll students, whose cases tend to make not only local, but national headlines, these girls weren’t very sympathetic characters in the eyes of the general public. Lucky for me, I work for a media outlet that doesn’t really care about that. Megan was going to be our next cover story.
I went down to the parking lot of the former Oak Beach Inn on Ocean Parkway to start writing. It was September, technically the end of beach season, so I figured an empty parking lot overlooking the water was a great place to concentrate. I had no idea Megan was just down the road the whole time.
Or that the missing heads and limbs of three of the unidentified murder victims I had written about in my previous story were also there. So were the bodies of seven others. So was Shannan Gilbert, who had vanished one month before Megan. But at that time, I didn’t know about Shannan’s disappearance from the isolated gated community just beyond the parking lot.
Megan’s mom, Lorraine Ela, had just gotten some air time on HLN’s Jane Velez-Mitchell show to ask the public for information about her missing daughter. After the transcript was posted online, Lorraine said she didn’t exactly get the kind of response she thought she would. I asked her what she meant.
“Just comments that people make,” she told me. “Like if her mother and father were any type of parents they would have never let her get into this and she deserves what she gets…and stuff like that. I try not to pay attention to it because I’ve responded but you’re not going to change how people feel no matter how much you tell them.”
That became increasingly clear as time went on as I received a lot of negative comments myself for even writing about Megan’s case.
“Leah Herschel Walsh was murdered by her HUSBAND,” reads one response to an article in which I compared the media coverage surrounding the 2007 disappearance of Leah Walsh, a Bethpage teacher later found murdered by her husband, to Megan’s case. “She was a TEACHER and a positive benefit to society, taken down by the man who had promised to love her for his whole life. In sharp and stunning contrast, Megan Waterman was a PROSTITUTE and a CRIMINAL who knowingly associated with CRIMINAL STRANGERS.”
I have a folder full of these comments. Most of them are anonymous. Shockingly there have even been a few individual members of the media who have publicly criticized the Long Island Press for portraying the women found at the beach as anything more than “dead hookers.” They know who they are.
Three months later, it was my turn to work the Saturday shift when a media alert from the Suffolk County Police Department came through saying possible human remains had been found in the Gilgo Beach area. It was December 2010, just weeks before the holidays. Megan was still missing, but there not much to connect a woman last seen at a hotel 35 miles away to this South Shore highway, worlds away and full of wildlife, any of which could account for those “possible human remains.”
A few days later, stuck in rush-hour traffic on the Meadowbrook State Parkway, I heard a local traffic report warning drivers to avoid westbound Ocean Parkway—a popular detour for Manhattan commuters returning home to Suffolk County—due to police activity near Gilgo Beach, which usually means there’s been an accident. I headed there anyway, pulled over and turned my headlights off.
Through the brush that divides the east and westbound lanes of the parkway in that area, I could see bright lights and every variety of emergency vehicle, officers carrying long poles, police cars being driven off the road and straight into the brush, headlights being used as spotlights—they could only make it in a few feet—with brights turned on to light up the otherwise pitch black area. It was December so 6 p.m. looked like midnight and a windy combination of icy rain and snow had begun falling. Then my editor called. I told him I had a feeling those remains were human. He told me they were—and what I was watching just yards away was the recovery of three more bodies, one of them would be identified as Megan. Five minutes later there was a knock at my window. The police told me I had to leave. I only had my old Blackberry with me at the time. I have a few pictures of blurred lights taken through icy rain, full of the kind of orbs and squiggly lines that tend to make up bad cell-phone shots, but to me they are perfect snapshots of the mad chaos of those hours at the beach.
That night began a year of non-stop searches and media briefings, and for awhile it seemed like every time a press conference was called it was because there was another body—and none of them Shannan Gilbert.
Megan’s name was suddenly everywhere, and it made me angry. I was happy her case was finally getting the publicity, but it seemed like the media were collectively killing her off, prematurely declaring she was victim of a serial killer, simply because it would be a great plot addition to this real-life crime drama playing out in front of us. Megan’s story had suddenly become a best-seller.
Eventually Megan’s body was positively identified and I watched half-dressed reporters stumble out of their jeans and into dress pants in the Oak Beach parking lot at the first sight of a vehicle with out-of-state license plates, like those driven by the victim’s families.
Cameramen would then crouch and huddle at the feet of the families, sticking cameras in their faces, ready to catch the first tears that fell. They were just doing their jobs—my job—but it made me not want to be part of this industry anymore.
The parking lot where, just weeks before, I had gone for solitude, suddenly became a media camping ground. There were now 10 sets of remains, at least four victims of a serial killer, one missing woman and every news outlet from our local stations to Al Jazeera were there. It got to the point where I couldn’t even drive into the parking lot or walk down the Jones Beach boardwalk, without reporters, not knowing I was one of them, sticking microphones in my face asking how I felt about living so close to a serial killer.
Our office was flooded with calls from around the world from international news outlets looking to do interviews with local press regarding the “Long Island Serial Killer.” I made my television debut in Canada.
I started getting letters from most likely disgruntled neighbors pointing fingers and met drifters alongside Ocean Parkway asking me strange questions. All of these encounters were reported to police. But I met other people, too.
Janice Smolinski, whose son Billy has been missing since 2004, is lobbying to get the Help Find the Missing Act—or Billy’s Law—passed, legislation that would require the FBI to share information, excluding sensitive and confidential data, with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a public database of missing and unidentified people.
I met Tony Evelina, an area director of the Doe Network—a volunteer organization dedicated to finding the missing and identifying the unidentified—who spends his own time doing just that.
I went to New Jersey and stood on the marsh land where four other women working the streets of Atlantic City were found dead, a case with many parallels to the Gilgo case, but not believed to be related at this time. I went to the Blairstown cemetery 170 miles away where Princess Doe, thought to be from Long Island but working as a prostitute in New Jersey, was found beaten to death 30 years ago.
And then I met Maureen Sanchez, whose sister Judy O’Donnell disappeared 32 years ago. Judy had also worked as a prostitute when she went missing. Maureen explained how her sister went from being an A student to working the streets of New York City, and she said something simple enough that stuck with me through all of this: No one says, ‘I want to be a prostitute when I grow up.’ She shared with me a poem her sister had written in high school, and she told me about the trauma her sister went through during her teen years. I realized one of the saddest truths in all of this: that these women were victims long before they ever set foot on the streets.
Judy was not one of the women found at the beach, but while reporting on these other cases, I came across the sketch of an unidentified woman who fit Judy’s description.
In 2003, when construction workers were breaking up a block of concrete in the basement of an abandoned Hell’s Kitchen building, they hit a rolled-up red carpet with the skeleton of a young woman inside, her neck and limbs wrapped by an electrical cord. The 46th Street tenement was a known hangout for prostitutes in the early ’80s—and within blocks of Judy’s old stomping grounds. Today, it is still abandoned with cinder blocks and broken wood panels covering the windows—and bars over the ones leading to the basement.
Investigators said there are enough similarities in the two women’s dental records for a possible connection, but DNA had to be used to make a definitive match. It’s been more than a year and we’re still waiting for the results. DNA analysis is an already lengthy process, made longer by a current backlog in the New York City medical examiner’s office.
In December 2011, I was back in the Oak Beach parking lot, as the Gilgo victims’ families placed crosses, flowers and balloons at each of the sites along Ocean Parkway where their loved ones were found. The orange arrows and dots that previously marked the area had faded and police had gone back earlier that week to spray paint the initials of all the women on the roadway, so their families would know where to put the memorials. There had been another media alert sent out that morning. The police, who for days had been searching the marsh where Shannan was last seen—and who had already found Shannan’s pocketbook, jeans, shoes and lip gloss—were going to make another announcement in Oak Beach.
Megan’s mom Lorraine and Melissa Cann, the sister of Maureen Brainard-Barnes, were already there waiting. Gus Colletti, one of the last people to see Shannan alive was also there, being swarmed by the media. Shannan’s mom, Mari, was on her way. But the parade of black Suburbans was already making its way into the parking lot. Former Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer stepped out of one of them and walked over to the pool of mics.
Lorraine and Melissa held hands and closed their eyes. A sea of cameraman had formed at their feet, lenses pointing up, waiting for their reaction to whatever it was Dormer was about to say.
“After an exhaustive, methodical, massive search we have this day at approximately 9:14 a.m. located skeletal remains we believe at this time belong to missing Shannan Gilbert,” he told the crowd of reporters. Then came the final blow. “Her location is indicative of her trying to make it to the causeway.”
Investigators believed Shannan accidentally drowned running through the marsh, trying to reach the lights of the Robert Moses Causeway a mile away.
The families turned around, shocked.
“How did Shannan get in that brush with only a shirt and bra on?” said Ela. “Who took her pants off and left her in Oak Beach? She was murdered. She did not accidentally drown. Someone took her out of there and put her on the side of the road.”
Five months later, Shannan’s autopsy results came back inconclusive, neither proving she drowned nor that she was murdered. Now another beach season has rolled in and we continue to wait for answers. I still drive down Ocean Parkway at least once a week for no reason at all. Maybe because I know I’ll be back in that parking lot again for the next announcement, whenever that may be. Maybe it’s to keep things fresh in my mind because I know what happens when people forget.
The faces of Gilgo Beach that we’ve come to know so well represent a huge problem across the nation. There are other victims, maybe not of the “Long Island Serial Killer” but victims, many of whom were likely prostitutes, estranged from their families, victims who remain nameless and are waiting for justice. It’s easy or maybe simply human nature to attribute their fates to their line of work—a reassurance to ourselves that “this could never happen to me”—and move on.
But as long as we keep telling ourselves that, and as long as we keep away from that Bronx pier weekday mornings at 6 a.m. and don’t think about what’s inside of those pine boxes, there will always be girls disappearing—and somebody getting away with murder.
This story originally appeared in Milieu July 12, 2012.