In December 2010, a K-9 handler and police dog moved through scrubland on the edge of a barrier island between Long Island and Fire Island. They were searching for signs of Shannan Gilbert, a 23-year-old aspiring actress and escort who’d last been seen on May 1, in the nearby Gilgo Beach community. The canine instead came upon the remains Melissa Barthelemy, 24 and also working as an escort. Barthelemy’s would be the first of what would become as many as 18 bodies found in the area. The killings remained a cold case until last Friday, when Rex Heuermann, 59, was arrested and charged with the first degree murders of Barthelemy, Megan Waterman and Amber Costello. Pending evidence, Heuermann will also be charged with the murder of Maureen Brainard-Barnes. The bodies of the women, known collectively as the Gilgo Four, were found within 500 feet of one another. While Heuermann has not yet been charged with killing Gilbert, whose body was found about nine miles away in December 2011, her killing fits the pattern and the investigation is ongoing.
So many victims found in the same vicinity terrified residents along Long Island’s South Shore, and it didn’t. In 2011, the chief of detectives in charge of the investigation claimed the killer did not pose a threat to the community because the victims had been sex workers.
“I don’t like how they’re talking about her,” said Melissa Cann, younger sister of Brainard-Barnes. “I understand they only know what she was down there doing, and that’s what they look at her as. But it doesn’t matter what she did. She was still a mother. She still meant the world to her daughter, she meant the world to me.”
“I think they look at them like they’re throwaway,” Shannan Gilbert’s mother said. “They don’t care.”
I took the above quotes from “The Gilgo Beach Victims Were Always More Than Escorts,” by Robert Kolker, who always cared. He is the author of Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, which I reviewed in 2013, writing in part:
In "Lost Girls" Kolker takes the girls out of the sole category of "murder victim" and shows us their intricacies, their humor, their hopes, the children they left behind, including a 5-year old girl who writes to the police officer who long tried to help her mother: "Nana says you are real nice and you knew my mommy, she was nice too."
Yes, she was. And now we know.
Getting to know the victims of a violent public crime involves talking with people who are afraid, anguished, angry. They’ve often had to deal with media that camp on their lawn, shove microphones in their faces, get the hot take and then split. I was going to write that this sort of journalism disgusts me but mostly it just makes me sad. You need to approach people in despair very slowly, which Kolker did. He spent years getting to know the women’s stories, their dreams, their families. That there was no denouement when he published Lost Girls did not matter. He was not here to solve the crimes, he was here to introduce us to these young women, to act as their emissary, a counterpoint to the TV crew member who, after Black Hawk helicopters were dispatched to search for a body, was overhead to say, "I can't believe they're doing all this for a whore."