How a string of murders became one of America's most infamous crimes, fueling wild conspiracy theories and rumors along the way.
Something in Joseph Brewer's house made Shannan Gilbert think she was going to die. Maybe it was the fleeting image of some horrific thing she was not used to seeing in the home of a john, though for a 24-year-old sex worker who apparently turned tricks in the darkest corners of the New York metropolitan area, it stretches the imagination to guess what such a thing could even be. Maybe it was a violent suggestion whispered in her ear. Or maybe someone in Brewer's house told Gilbert a story about a hired escort who steps out into the night on Long Island and is never seen alive again.
For the growing number of us who have come to obsess over it, and the community of online sleuths devoted to solving it, the mystery surrounding the perpetrator known only as the Long Island Serial Killer is closer in atmosphere to the chthonic landscape of David Lynch's Lost Highway than a conventional whodunit. It's a tale replete with rumors of orgies, torture, and sadistic, sex-addicted cops. Gilbert's abrupt disappearance from the private coastal community of Oak Beach, New York, on the night of May 1, 2010, released a black cloud of murder and conspiracy that seems to still hover over the sleepy suburb; when her skeletonized remains were eventually found, some 19 months later, in a pool of brackish water, it seemed to confirm what by then was obvious to anyone paying attention: Something was wrong on Long Island.
The search for Gilbert led to the mass discovery of bodies just off Gilgo Beach, an undeveloped coastal park in Suffolk County, New York, and evolved into an investigation that has now lasted over half a decade, uncovering the corpses of eight young women. It has also produced the body of a trans woman found with teeth missing from her skull, a female toddler wearing hoop earrings, and unconfirmed suspicions about as many as seven other female victims who have never been verified by police as being part of the same killer's spree. All of the adult victims who have been identified were sex workers. The majority of the remains were found on Ocean Parkway, a dim and desolate stretch of road that runs from the far edges of Jones Beach and into maritime oblivion. Two torsos were found 40 miles away in Manorville, tossed into the woods like unwanted hunks of meat.
The Long Island Serial Killer emerged as early as 1996, although no one knew it then. Richard Dormer, the former Suffolk County police commissioner, says a couple found two severed female legs wrapped in plastic that year while taking a stroll through Davis Park, a beach spot on Fire Island. When the bodies were discovered in the bramble along Ocean Parkway in 2010, a cop involved in the 1996 investigation called police to recommend running a DNA test, which matched the legs to a victim of the Long Island Serial Killer.
The most recent possible victim was a 31-year-old woman of Yugoslavian origin named Natasha Jugo with a history of paranoia. In 2013, Jugo drove her Toyota Prius some 40 minutes from Queens out to Ocean Parkway at four in the morning for unknown reasons, and, much like Shannan Gilbert, disappeared into nothing, leaving her wallet and clothing behind. That June, three months after she vanished, a group of beachgoers spotted Jugo's body floating motionless in the sea.
In December, local tabloids announced that the FBI had rejoined the search for the Long Island Serial Killer. Days later, an anonymous source alleged in the press that tarnished former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke made deliberate efforts to block the FBI from participating in the investigation, fueling longstanding rumors of a police cover-up. Meanwhile, Burke was indicted by the feds on December 9 for violating the civil rights of a man accused of stealing his property and conspiring to obstruct a federal investigation into the incident. Should the FBI succeed in nabbing the Long Island Serial Killer—or as some theorists would have it, killers—it will tie together the threads of what has arguably become the most confounding murder mystery in contemporary America.
No one would have ever known about the Long Island Serial Killer if not for Shannan Gilbert, who ran through a gated community in Oak Beach that May morning not far from the unseen resting places of various other sets of female remains.
She called 9-1-1 and told the operator, "They are trying to kill me." A record of her phone call exists, but Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota's office has chosen not to release it to the public. Spota's office declined to comment to VICE, instead deferring questions about the investigation to the police. Those who have listened to the tape diverge when describing Gilbert's tone. Detective Vincent Stephan of the Suffolk County Police Department penned an op-ed to Newsday in an effort to blunt criticism by Gilbert's family, claiming that her voice was calm. Dormer, however, told VICE that Gilbert was "in distress" on the tape when he heard it and "scared out of her mind."
The "they" in Gilbert's call, like almost everything else about her death, remains an enigma. No one knows who she believed was trying to kill her, and a fair share of people doubt that anyone ever was. Michael Pak, Gilbert's driver, had brought her to the private seaside community of 72 houses under the auspices of entertaining just one man: Joseph Brewer. Brewer's life in Oak Beach, by the accounts of those who knew him, was that of an idle middle-aged bachelor with an appetite for paid sex. No one publicly considered him to be dangerous. He summoned Pak at around 5 AM to escort Gilbert back to Jersey City, where she lived, but for some still-mysterious reason Gilbert called the police and fled, ringing doorbells in the creeping dawn, begging someone—anyone—for help.
("I put my faith in the police," Brewer said over the phone when asked about Gilbert for this story, before hanging up. According to Dormer, the former police commissioner, suspicions about Brewer were dismissed early on in the investigation.)
Dormer summarizes the morning Gilbert disappeared this way: After she ran from Brewer's house, she rang the doorbell of an elderly man named Gus Coletti, now deceased, who also called the police. Pak circled his black Ford Explorer toward her, and when he did, Gilbert scrambled in the direction of candle-shaped electric lights positioned along a windowsill. Those lights, according to neighbors, were part of a nearly decade-old vigil held by a woman named Barbara Brennan, a widow who lost her husband during the September 11 terrorist attacks. Brennan didn't answer Shannan's knocking, and instead made two phone calls: one to police at 5:22 AM, and another to a neighbor she trusted, Tom Canning.
Canning, a tall, retired landscaper with a veiny, rubicund complexion and a shock of white hair, claims to have arrived at Brennan's house with his dog, a Weimaraner.
"There was nobody there for me to rescue," Canning recalls, staring down at the deck of his home in Oak Beach before letting his eyes drift out to direction of the Atlantic Ocean's soft rocking tide. "I wish I had the chance to help her."
Canning points away from the water and to the left of his house where a thick carpet of reeds as tall as an adult man stretch out into the horizon.
"She ran into the marsh," he says, referring to the place where Gilbert's body was found.
Other accounts diverge from Canning's. His then-20-year-old son Justin told the New York Post in 2010: "We saw her footprints in the sand. She was in a panic. We thought she was on drugs."
The elder Canning denies ever having seen footprints in the sand. His son Justin declined an invitation to be interviewed for this story.
Joe Scalise is a septuagenarian state park employee with eyes that match the blue of the ocean surrounding Oak Beach, where he and his family have lived for over four decades. He recalls an interaction he had in Canning's driveway shortly after Hurricane Sandy, close to a year after police finally found the body of Gilbert. The alleged encounter surrounded another Oak Beach resident named Peter Hackett, a former surgeon for the Suffolk County Police Department and a friend of Canning's.
"Canning told me after Sandy that Dr. Hackett sedated Shannan Gilbert," Scalise says. But Canning denies that Hackett had any contact with Shannan Gilbert after she rang Brennan's doorbell. "He's crazy," Canning says of Scalise.
Regardless of who's telling the truth, Hackett is an important name in this saga. Among a circle of online conspiracy buffs, he is a bigger and more divisive celebrity than Donald Trump: Depending on whom you ask, Hackett is either a sick, deranged killer, or a Girardian scapegoat, a socially awkward man with a prosthetic limb and propensity for self-exaggeration that made him the easiest possible answer to a community's fears.
It took months for the police to connect Gilbert's emergency call to reports of a panic-stricken woman knocking on doors in Oak Beach. The reason for this delay relates to a procedural failure: When the 9-1-1 operator asked Gilbert where she was, the answer she gave, according to Dormer, was something to the effect of "around Jones Beach." Jones Beach, a popular weekend destination for New Yorkers who most likely know little else about Long Island not gleaned from gossip columns about the Hamptons and the songbook of Billy Joel, was the most frequently mentioned destination Gilbert would have seen on road signs as Pak's SUV approached Brewer's home. It's also a state park, which meant that her call that morning was transferred to state, rather than local, authorities.
To Gilbert, Ocean Parkway must have looked like a stark and forbidding horizon of blackness, moonlight, and waves. When she died, it's fair to assume that she had no tangible idea where she was.
According to Shannan Gilbert's mother, Hackett called her two days after her daughter's disappearance and uttered seven words:
I run a home for wayward girls.
Hackett denied ever calling Gilbert's mother until phone records determined that he did in fact call her—twice. Hackett sent two letters to 48 Hours Mystery, a documentary program on CBS that covered the Long Island Serial Killer saga back in 2011, acknowledging that he made the calls but denying that he ever met Shannan, took her in, or administered drugs to her.
The Gilbert family doesn't agree with his side of the story, to put it mildly.
"Dr. Hackett told Mari Gilbert that he ran a home for wayward girls, and that Shannan was in his care," says John Ray, an attorney for the Gilbert family. "Why would anyone do something like that?"
The Gilbert family filed a wrongful death suit against Hackett in November 2012, claiming that he took Shannan into his home that morning and administered drugs to her, facilitating her death. Ray, an affable man with a tight, gray ponytail, tells his version of the complex story of the Long Island Serial Killer with the command of a great conductor tackling Mahler. He slows down to build tension, allowing room for the listener's curiosity to trickle through the many obscure coincidences along the way.
"I have a tremendous respect for homicide detectives," he insists from his warm, book-lined office in Port Jefferson. "But after putting over 750 hours of work into this case, I can see that the police have been deliberate in covering it up."
Ray has deposed most of the key players in the Shannan Gilbert story, including Hackett and his family. He claims that many things that should have been standard protocol in a homicide investigation went undone, and that "many things that shouldn't have been done were." Hackett's home, boat, and car, Ray says, were incompletely searched, and police have never volunteered whether or not the soil underneath the spot where Gilbert's body was found ever got tested for particles of flesh (to determine whether or not she had decomposed there, or was dumped ). The Suffolk County Police Department, when reached for comment, would not confirm or deny any of Ray's allegations.
Michael Baden, an independent medical investigator retained by Ray on behalf of the Gilbert family, told me Gilbert's hyoid bone, a small, curved part of the throat, was found deformed. He claims that could have been caused by strangulation, but without access to Gilbert's soft tissue, which according to Baden's findings was boiled away soon after the initial autopsy, he was unable to make a definitive determination of her cause of death. While frustrating, Baden notes that the boiling away of soft tissue post-autopsy is a fairly commonplace identifying procedure, and—though he feels it was unnecessary here—not indicative of an effort to obscure evidence on the part of authorities.
But Baden suspects that Gilbert was murdered for additional reasons beyond the deformity of her hyoid bone. He says Gilbert's body was found belly-up, unusual for a drowning victim, and that her belongings were strewn around her, suggesting her corpse was carried to the spot where it was found.
Ray highlights that Hackett's phone call to Mari Gilbert matches a known tendency of the Long Island Serial Killer to taunt the family members of his victims. Amanda Barthelemy, the younger sister of Melissa Barthelemy—who disappeared in 2009 and was discovered during the search for Gilbert as a skeleton wrapped in burlap along the bramble of Ocean Parkway in December 2010—was tormented by the killer in a series of violent and sexually explicit phone calls made from locations in and around Midtown Manhattan. Ray also notes that the second call, made by Hackett five days after Gilbert's initial disappearance, bounced off of a cell tower in New Jersey, a place Ray says Hackett denied traveling to that week.
When deposed, Hackett allegedly volunteered that he owned a DEA license marked with an X, a designation that would have enabled him to prescribe certain opiates. Hackett also allegedly admitted to Ray that he regularly consumed a cocktail of self-prescribed opiates and other drugs. Stories of opiate addiction are common in Oak Beach, and Scalise and his family claim that Hackett was using his access to a prescription pad to subsist as a quasi–drug dealer after allegedly being fired by the county.
Still, despite Ray's massive file of interviews, and the litany of amateur sleuths convinced of his guilt, questions remain about Hackett's involvement: If police did make an effort to cover-up the identity of the Long Island Serial Killer, as many believe, why would they protect such a man? Hackett certainly wouldn't have been saved from arrest by the authorities: According to Ray, he said under oath that he was fired by Suffolk County for misusing a work cell phone and claiming to be at work when he wasn't actually there. After the tragedy of Flight 800, when a plane burst into a fireball, scattering the remains of 230 passengers across Suffolk County in 1996, Hackett embarrassed the department by embellishing his role in the investigation to local papers. He was, to quote one officer of the Suffolk County Police Department who prefers to remain anonymous, "a squirrel"—a man who would be easy enough to arrest without causing embarrassment.
Finally, Hackett's wife, son, and daughter were living at his house in Oak Beach at the time of Gilbert's disappearance, and would likely have to somehow be complicit in his supposedly murderous double life. That would present a tortuous front for a family to maintain for so many years.
Hackett's public persona has evolved over the five-plus years since Gilbert first vanished from Oak Beach. 48 Hours Mystery spoke to Hackett outside of his home, where he denied remembering the phone call to Gilbert's mother. Journalist Robert Kolker, whose 2013 book Lost Girls centers on the often sad circumstances through which the victims of the Long Island Serial Killer fell into a life of sex work, was invited into Hackett's Oak Beach home in December of 2011, several months after the interview with 48 Hours, and the doctor denied his involvement in Gilbert's disappearance at length.
But somewhere along the way, Hackett stopped talking. Crime Watch Daily, a syndicated investigative newsmagazine series, followed Hackett to his car in December after he completed one of Ray's depositions: In the clip, Hackett appears to fake a heart attack after being asked whether or not he was responsible for the deaths of the women found on Ocean Parkway. Shortly after clutching his chest and falling to the ground, the doctor hops into his car, closes the door, and makes the sign of the cross in the falling dusk.
Hackett, like others touched by Gilbert's disappearance that night, including Barbara Brennan and Joseph Brewer, moved away from Oak Beach, perhaps in an effort to put distance between his name and a story that never seems to fade away. I reached out to his lawyer, but the calls weren't returned. Hackett supposedly lives in Fort Myers, Florida, now, and a trip to a different Long Island address in a town called Point Lookout, belonging to Hackett's wife Barbara, turned up a younger woman at the door last month. When asked if either Peter Hackett or his wife could be reached for comment on this story, the woman glared sharply.
"They don't want to talk to you," she said, and slammed the door.
Richard Dormer just wants to clarify one important detail.
"The FBI came back," he says, nodding his pale forehead over a cardboard cup of black coffee. "They aren't coming for the first time—they came back."
There is an old-fashioned charm to the former Suffolk County police commissioner, spiced by his Irish accent, a remnant from when he immigrated to America back in 1958. Dormer maintains the same theories he held about the investigation that he did at the time he led it: Gilbert got high, freaked out, ran into the marsh, and drowned. The bodies that have been found through the years were the work of one killer. The fact that Gilbert was a sex worker, and died next to the burial ground of so many others like her, is simply a coincidence.
"She was a skeleton," Dormer claims of the toxicology report he says found no traces of drugs in Gilbert's system. "There was nothing much there to test."
The former cop is cagey about the way his successor handled the case, but is determined to reassure me—and the public—that he did everything he could to solve it.
"I'm not going to talk about Burke," Dormer says. "But I do have serious concerns that this investigation suddenly went dormant."
Former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke, who rose through the ranks around the same time Hackett was a fixture there, is running low on defenders. His trial is set to begin this March for an incident in which he allegedly burst into an interrogation room and beat a suspect raw for stealing a duffel bag from his car. Inside the duffel bag, the thief claimed to find a stash of sex toys, cigars, and hardcore porn. Burke allegedly threatened the thief by saying that he would give him a hot shot, a slang term for murdering a man by injecting him with a fatal dose of tainted heroin. Burke also once carried on an ongoing romantic relationship with a convicted sex worker and drug dealer by the name of Lowrita Rickenbacker who committed her offenses in the precinct where he was a supervisor.
Burke's violent backstory fuels concerns that he deliberately slowed down the investigation of the Long Island Serial Killer after taking it over from Dormer. The man entered law enforcement as a witness in one of the most infamous murder cases in Long Island history: the John Pius trial of 1979. During the proceedings, a 14-year-old Burke testified against his own friends, who had sadistically bullied and murdered a 13-year-old boy by stuffing rocks down his throat. Many observers have questioned the degree to which the younger Burke might have been complicit in the horrific crime, given that he failed to intervene when it was happening. The young prosecutor who handled the Pius case was Spota, who now serves as Suffolk County district attorney and facilitated Burke's emergence as the most powerful cop in the county. Local papers describe Spota's relationship to Burke as a nurturing one, the prosecutor helping him become chief in 2012.
(The FBI declined to comment as to whether an investigation into Burke's abuses of authority was in any way connected to the investigation of the Long Island Serial Killer. Spota's office declined to comment on the district attorney's relationship to Burke. Burke, speaking through his attorney, Joseph Conway, declined to comment on the Long Island Serial Killer investigation or the charges he is facing.)
Timothy Sini, the recently appointed commissioner of the Suffolk County Police Department, now heads up the investigation of the Long Island Serial Killer. He's the third person to assume authority over the probe since the bodies were discovered in 2010. In a phone interview, he told me that, in addition to the feds, two homicide detectives are working full time on the case, and as many as a dozen other detectives are also in the loop.
"Any shortcomings of this investigation from the past will be looked into going forward," Sini said, in reference to Burke. "I'm not going to sugarcoat this situation."
He expressed optimism that the case was still solvable.
"We still get tips every day," he said. "Unfortunately, most of them seem to involve women who suspect their husband to be the killer."
Sini's final words about women suspecting their husbands might be an oblique reference to a woman in her 40s who told me about an 80-page report she says she provided to the FBI, implicating her husband in a grand conspiracy of serial murder that also allegedly implicated James Burke. She claims to have tied them together through a website called Utopia Guide, where men rate and discuss sex workers together at length. The woman believes the men threw sex parties together under the name Carney Construction Crew, and that some of the women who were hired were later disposed of in the bramble along Ocean Parkway. This unsubstantiated theory speaks to the wormhole of ideas bandied about every day both online and in local bars throughout Long Island.
There are those who believe that a prominent Suffolk County businessman, who may have committed suicide on the anniversary of the bodies being found, did the deeds. There are others who insist the murders to be the work of a satanic cult, or of a man who made snuff films. There are those who talk about Eyes Wide Shut-style sex parties on big, expensive boats, where influential men in Suffolk politics had an incentive to cover-up their dalliances. Some connect the bodies on Ocean Parkway to the unsolved murder of four women in Atlantic City in 2006. There is the unverifiable rumor of an African-American sex worker who allegedly escaped from Oak Beach in the dead of night sometime before 2010, and ran semi-naked along the parkway, screaming, "They're trying to kill me" in the same manner that Shannan Gilbert did on the morning she vanished.
All of it is frightening, but none of it points to anything definitive, or clear.
Eventually, it all comes back to the start: Shannan Gilbert picked up the phone to call 9-1-1 from Joe Brewer's house in Oak Beach, Long Island. For reasons that no one can seem to explain, she knew that she was about to die.
Michael Edison Hayden grew up on Long Island. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Foreign Policy, the Los Angeles Times, and National Geographic, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter.