IT was a discovery no amount of police training could ever prepare them for: a naked torso, caked in dirt, with its head and hands hacked clean off.
But then, as officers scratched through the shrubbery, they found another. And another. And another.
What began as a routine search for missing Shannan Gilbert had suddenly turned into a hunt for a possible serial killer terrorising a sleepy seaside strip of Long Island.
In total, nine bodies were dug out of the ground before the sex worker's remains were finally discovered dumped in a marsh in December 2011 – more than a year after she had disappeared at a client's house.
For Shannan's mother, Mari, it was a heartbreaking find in what had been a tireless campaign to keep her daughter's disappearance in the spotlight.
However, as retold in new Netflix true-crime drama Lost Girls, her hunt for answers didn't end there – and would ultimately end abruptly in a tragic, brutal twist.
Shannan vanished after being dropped off at a client’s house in Oak Beach, Long Island on May 1, 2010.
The house, nestled in a quiet, gated community, was silent until the early hours of the morning when a woman's screams echoed through the neighbourhood.
Police were immediately inundated with a series of panicked calls, with one 20 minute message even allegedly left by Shannan herself, screaming the words, "they are trying to kill me".
Another was said to be from Shannan's client Joseph Brewer, with two more from locals. None of the calls have been revealed to the public.
A neighbour reportedly later saw the 24-year-old wildly sprinting across marshes – but tragically, that was the last time she was seen alive.
In a later police interview Shannan's driver, Michael Pak, told cops that she was "hysterical" and was running around outside the area, banging on neighbours' doors.
He insisted that he tried to help her, pleaded for her to get in the car, but she was inconsolable and ran off into the night.
'They're trying to kill me'
After Shannan failed to return home, her mum Mari reported her missing – before chasing the police up 48 hours later, having not heard anything.
Believing her case wasn't being taken seriously, furious mum Mari turned up at Suffolk County Police station demanding answers.
It was then that she was played the blood-curdling screams from the recorded call that Shannan made to the police at 4.51am.
Mari heard police officers admit that they didn't arrive on the scene until 5.40am – leaving Shannan, who was bipolar, on her own, terrified, for nearly an hour.
First gruesome discovery
Days later, in a twist of fate, an officer had been passing Ocean Parkway when he let his dog jump out of the car to urinate.
But as soon as the door opened, the hound's nose was pressed to the floor and it began frantically sniffing the area.
Bounding through the shrubbery, the dog halted at a patch of land just seven miles from where Shannan was last seen.
As officers began to peel away the dirt, they were stunned by the gruesome sight they were met with.
One by one, the bones of four missing sex workers began to be pulled from the soil – spreading panic throughout the force.
Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, Amber Lynn Costello and Maureen Brainard-Barnes, who had been missing from as early as 2007, were all finally discovered after their brutal deaths.
It was then that cops knew they had a potential serial killer on their hands – and one with a particular interest in sex workers.
Just like Shannan, Melissa, Megan, Maureen and Amber Lynn all listed their services on Craigslist.
They were all in their 20s at the time of their tragic deaths and their remains had been dumped within a quarter mile radius, just 500 feet apart.
Each body was wrapped in hessian sacks and had been murdered by asphyxiation.
For Mari, the discovery of the women had taken the light away from Shannan's missing case, but determined to not be forgotten, she hatched a plan.
Marching up to the police station, armed with a stack of posters, she furiously stapled them to the walls.
However, despite the investigation continuing, as time went by leads dried up.
James Brewer, Shannan's final client, was cleared after taking a polygraph test.
Joe Scalise, a neighbour of Brewer, decided to shed some light on the case after seeing the mum-of-three’s tireless efforts to get to the truth.
Murmuring into the telephone, he shared his suspicions over Dr. Peter Hackett, a local, who lived beside acres of marshland.
Mari was already hot on Hackett's tail after she got a call from someone claiming to be a doctor on the night of Shannan’s disappearance. The doctor she spoke to said that they had seen Shannan frantically running around the gated community and had helped her.
The pair took a walk to Hackett’s cabin near his house, Mari was horrified when she peered through the dusty window to see hessian sacks stacked up in a corner.
She convinced Police Commissioner Richard Dormer to pay Hackett a visit, who told the officer he was in Florida when Shannan disappeared.
Mari had also requested footage of local CCTV from the community’s private surveillance office – run by Hackett’s wife – who said the tape was on a loop so had been erased.
Despite her push, her relentless efforts were wasted and Hackett was never seen as a suspect by the police.
Reign of terror comes to light
A year later, Mari's persistence hadn't faltered.
But just when cops thought the case couldn't get more complex, more bodies were excavated.
Jessica Taylor, another prostitute, was found by a traumatised dog walker in the same spot that the other victims were discovered.
Her torso had been dumped on top of a plastic sheet by a pile of scrap wood, with her head and hands removed.
Her tattoo of a red heart and an angel wing that was inked on her lower back had been mutilated with a blade.
She was also just 20 at the time and had been missing since July 2003.
BODIES FOUND ON GILGO BEACH
- Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, of Norwich, Connecticut. She was an escort who advertised through Craigslist and was last seen in 2007 after saying she had planned a day trip in New York City.
- Melissa Barthélemy, 24, of Erie County, New York, went missing on July 10, 2009. She had been living in the Bronx and working as a sex worker, also through Craigslist.
- Megan Waterman, 22, of South Portland, Maine, went missing on June 6, 2010, after placing advertisements on Craigslist as an escort.
- Amber Lynn Costello, 27, North Babylon, New York, a town ten miles north of Gilgo Beach was a sex worker and heroin addict who went missing in September 2010.
- Jessica Taylor, 20, from Manhattan, was found in 2011 after going missing in 2003. Her hands and head had been cut off – they were later found by police.
- Jane Doe, a head, right foot and hands were found in 2011 – she has still not been identified. Her body parts were found where most of Jessica's remains were dumped.
- John Doe was discovered in 2011 at the same time as Jane Doe on Gilgo Beach – very close to where the identified women were found. He was Asian and between 17 and 23 years of age. It is believed he was working as a prostitute at the time of his death as he was wearing women's clothes.
- Baby Doe was the third body found on the same day as Jane and John. She was believed to be between 16 and 24 months of age and was wrapped in a blanket. She showed no signs of trauma.
- Jane Doe II was also found nearby
A further four set of remains of an unidentified man, two unidentified women and tragically, a little girl around the age of two, were also unearthed.
Police said at the time that they believed one killer was behind the gruesome murders and that half the victims were escorts.
A mum's fight for justice
For Mari and her heartbroken family, the last shreds of hope that Shannan was still alive were destroyed in 2011 when police discovered Shannan's remains in a filthy swamp near Gilgo Beach, Long Island.
The sickening news was made even worse for broken Mari when police deemed her death to be caused by 'accidental drowning' – despite the other bodies' deaths all being homicide.Refusing to accept the police’s conclusion, Mari took matters into her own hands and hired Long Island attorney John Ray to begin her own investigation.
The mum-of-four, 52, organised an independent autopsy by renowned forensic pathologist Michael Baden who found Shannan's injuries were "consistent with homicidal strangulation" – but police were still adamant that her death was not linked to the others.
In the years that passed, she became an advocate for murder victims and fought for her daughter's case to be opened as a homicide investigation.
Tragically, a horrific twist of events meant she would never live to see her mission through.
Bludgeoned during fight of her life
In 2016, the mum-of-two was killed in a frenzied attack by her own daughter, Sarra Gilbert, who had schizophrenia.
Sarra, who is now 33, stabbed her 52-year-old mum over 200 times and then bludgeoned her in the head with a fire extinguisher.
She had been struggling with hallucinations and it was reported that the voices in her head told her to carry out the horrific crime.
Sarra was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life behind bars in 2017.
Still representing the family, John Ray said that Sarra killed her pet puppy a few months before Mari's horrific death and had even threatened her young son with a blade.
He said that Sarra had bought a knife and took the eight-year-old boy into the woods to "put him to death" but thankfully was stopped.
Hunt for serial killer continues
Nearly a decade later, in January this year, police shared what they describe as a “previously undisclosed piece of evidence”.
The evidence is a picture of a belt marked with the initials WH or HM, which cops believe was handled by the killer and didn’t belong to any of the victims.
They reportedly still maintain her death was not connected to the other deaths in the area, but changed her cause of death to 'inconclusive' rather than accidental.
In total, the Long Island Serial killer is attributed to the deaths of 10 to 16 people over a period of 20 years.
To this day, the hunt for justice for Shannan, Mari and the mystery murderer's countless victims goes on.
Lost Girls, which stars Amy Ryan as Mari, is available to stream on Netflix now.
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