Serial killer investigation moving to Nassau County

April 7, 2011 5:55:31 PM PDT
Authorities looking for victims of a possible serial killer have ended an intensive search of a eight-mile stretch along a remote highway, at least for now.

Search teams in Suffolk County searched areas for a fourth day on Thursday that produced eight bodies at Gilgo Beach and Oak Beach.

Suffolk County police Commissioner Richard Dormer said although investigators failed to turn up any signs of Shannan Gilbert, a Jersey City, N.J., prostitute missing since last May, they intended to follow any leads that develop in her case. It was Gilbert's missing persons case that led investigators to search the area and the subsequent discoveries of the eight bodies.

"Our search for her, as well as the investigation into her disappearance, will continue as a very active, ongoing investigation," Dormer said.

The search for additional bodies will resume next week in neighboring Nassau County. A spokesman said county officers would be assisted by a contingent from the state police. The search was stretching west to Nassau out of an abundance of caution, police said.

The family members of one of the victims are planning a candlelight vigil on the beach on June 11.

Amid the search teams and reporters, the sister of Amber Lynn Costello snuck through police lines to see the scene for herself. Costello's remains were among the first found at Gilgo Beach in December.

"It's sad," Kimberly Overstreet said. "I just wanted to get a chance to see where my sister was."

Police commanders say they've scoured three-quarters of the search zone, which makes up more than seven miles of dunes along Ocean Parkway.

All eight bodies have been found north of the parkway so far, and conditions for finding more victims are improving.

The heavy brush hasn't filled in with spring growth yet, but the ground is loosening, which is an advantage for the cadaver dogs.

So far, close to two dozen members of the search teams have suffered tick bites or encountered poison ivy. They are literally cracking their way through the tangle of branches and thorns.

"It's very tough terrain," Suffolk County inspector Stuart Cameron said. "There's a lot of sticker bushes in there. There's a lot of thorns. There's ticks. There's poison ivy."

The search for Shannan Gilbert began last December, and led to the discovery of the first four sets of remains. The search resumed last week, when a fifth body was found. Then, on Monday, investigators found the remains of three other victims.

The first four victims, all prostitutes, advertised their services on the online bulletin board Craigslist, which assigns unique email addresses to each posting.

Experts say that when a person respond to an ad, he or she leaves an electronic footprint behind. And as officers have scouring the brush, John Jay College crime scene analysis expert Dr. Larry Kobilinsky says it's likely they've been minding Craiglist's weblogs and email records as well.

"The police have some hard evidence to find the killer, provided they can identify the computer, its location and develop some linkage to the suspect," he said.

Detectives believe the crimes happened in the middle of the night and that the killer chose the same, desolate location, pulling-onto the shoulder of the westbound lanes, dragging the body out of his vehicle and dumping it no more than 25 feet off the roadside.

Of the four victims identified so far, Maureen Brainard-Barnes was murdered first. She was last seen on July 9, 2007.

Melissa Barthelemy was next, having disappeared almost exactly two years later, in 2009.

Megan Waterman vanished on June 6 of last year, and Amber Lynn Costello disappeared in early September of 2010.

Weather conditions are considered favorable for Thursday. Residents of the area will have to show identification to get back to their homes. Ocean Parkway will remain closed.