OAK BEACH, N.Y. – It's the largest murder investigation ever on New York's Long Island — 10 people slain and strewn along a remote beach highway over 15 years, possibly all victims of the same serial killer. But it's not the first time the New York suburbs have been in the national spotlight for its homicides.
Back in 1974, Ronald DeFeo killed his parents and four siblings in the "Amityville Horror" murders. Colin Ferguson opened fire on a commuter train in 1993, killing six and wounding 19. And this year on Father's Day, four people were executed in a pharmacy robbery in Medford.
Then there are serial killers Joel Rifkin and Robert Schulman. Most of their victims were prostitutes; 17 for Rifkin and five for Schulman, back in the 1990s.
The so-called Gilgo Beach murder mystery, however, is something altogether different.
"The biggest investigation I've ever been involved in," Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer told The Associated Press. "It's garnered the most publicity of any case that I've handled over more than 30 years in the police business."
A website is dedicated to tracking "the Long Island serial killer," a two-hour documentary aired this month on A&E and the deaths have been covered on CBS' "48 Hours." Dormer has even received media attention for his role in the case in his native Ireland.
And it all happened nearly by accident.
On Dec. 11, 2010, a Suffolk police officer and his cadaver dog were in the dunes about 15 miles east of Jones Beach. They were looking for 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert, a missing Jersey City, N.J., prostitute who vanished seven months earlier after meeting a client for sex in Oak Beach, about three miles away.
They happened upon the remains of a woman. That discovery prompted a wider investigation. Two days later, three more sets of remains were found near the first. But none were Gilbert.
Police expanded their search more than 15 miles along the highway, bringing in more K-9 units and putting officers on horseback. Fire departments stretched aerial ladders over a thicket of underbrush and pine trees infested with poison ivy so officers could search from overhead. State police sent officers to assist and Suffolk police academy recruits were called in.
The FBI supplied aerial surveillance photos of the region and other technical assistance.
By April, the search had yielded the remains of 10 victims. Police believe nine were linked to the sex trade. The first four found were strangled elsewhere and dumped, Dormer said; he would not confirm reports they were wrapped in burlap.
In March, the head, hands and forearm of a woman who worked as a prostitute in Washington and New York City were found. The rest of her dismembered body had been located in 2003 in Manorville, about 45 miles to the east. She was identified as 20-year-old Jessica Taylor.
Like Taylor, the first four victims were all in their 20s. They were last seen leaving to meet clients for sex. They were: Melissa Barthelemy, 24, a Buffalo native who lived in the Bronx; Megan Waterman, 22, of Scarborough, Maine, last seen leaving a Long Island hotel; Amber Lynn Costello, 27, originally of Wilmington, N.C., but recently living in North Babylon, N.Y; and Maureen Brainerd-Barnes, 28, of Norwich, Conn. Five other victims have yet to be identified.
Then there is the mother and child.
Police say their remains were found seven miles apart along the parkway. Police released photos of matching jewelry each were wearing, but their IDs remain a mystery.
It is not unheard of for a woman to bring along a child for an online sex encounter, Dormer said.
Another unidentified victim was a man dressed in women's clothing.
The whereabouts of Gilbert, the woman who sparked the investigation, remained a mystery, until a few days ago.
She was last seen running hysterically from a client's home in Oak Beach, a gated community along Ocean Parkway several miles from where the other victims were found. This week, police found her personal effects in marshland near Oak Beach. They continue to look for her remains.
Dormer said officers suspect she drowned in the marshland, and her death is not believed to be connected to the serial killer case. Still, Dormer said, "if it wasn't for Shannan Gilbert's disappearance, we may never have found the remains of the other victims."
Authorities initially suspected that because of the number of victims, the fact that some were dismembered and some not, and the nearly 15 years between the first and last killings, that multiple culprits must be responsible.
But Dormer said authorities now believe one person killed them all. He argued it is not unusual for serial killers to evolve and adjust their methods. He conceded, however, that others disagree, including some in his own department.
But among those who agree is Louis B. Schlesinger, a professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an expert on serial killers.
"The likelihood that more than one person is a serial sexual murderer on Long Island is close to zero," he said. "This is not like in the movies. This type of different methods of operations occurs quite frequently."
Schlesinger explained why victims of one killer — serial killers are nearly always men — could be left in different conditions. "It could be as simple as he realized it was too much of a hassle," Schlesinger said. "The women killed years ago were dismembered, the recent women were not. He might have figured it was too much trouble."
He also explained the passage of time between killings.
"They guys have a compulsion to kill, but they also can control it," he said. Or "maybe he was in prison for a time."
No suspects have been identified despite a $25,000 reward and more than 1,200 tips, but a man believed to be the killer has made contact with one family.
In the days after Melissa Barthelemy was reported missing in 2009, someone used her cell phone to call her teenage sister in Buffalo at least a half-dozen times. The caller eventually admitted to the girl he was the killer.
New York City police tracked the call to midtown Manhattan and searched near Pennsylvania Station and the Port Authority bus terminal, but the signal went dead. Cellphone records showed a call from Massapequa, on Long Island. Police canvassed the area, asking around at local hotels, but turned up nothing, the official said. There have been no calls in several years.
Melissa Cann of New London, Conn., wants people to remember the victims as more than anonymous prostitutes. Her sister, Maureen Brainerd-Barnes, was found along Ocean Parkway last December. She said her sister was trying to get out of the escort business but had received an eviction notice when she went to meet what turned out to be her last client.
"Everyone knows that these women went down a wrong path in life," Cann said. "But they were still normal human beings with families that loved them."
Cann has formed a bond with the mothers and other relatives of the other women, speaking almost daily and sharing thoughts via Facebook. Several of them are planning a vigil at Oak Beach on Tuesday.
"She was always there for me with emotional support, so I am going to be there and fight for her and for justice for the rest of my life," Cann said of her sister.
But, she added, "It's not all about Maureen. There's a killer out there. He didn't just destroy the lives of 10 people. He destroyed the lives of 10 families."
Many on Long Island have treated the events of the past year with mostly a shrug. Hundreds of thousands trekked to state and town beaches last summer, setting up umbrellas and frolicking in the surf where murder victims had been strewn nearby.
"I feel awful for the victims, of course," said Diane Gentile a legal secretary from Westbury. "But I'm not really worried about a serial killer. There's a better chance of getting killed on a Long Island Rail Road train or walking into a pharmacy. I'm more worried about someone trying to break into my house."