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Armchair Genealogy

By Melinda Cohenour

DNA Helps Solve Another Series of Murders

It was 2010 and I had just heard that a young woman was reported missing after contacting 911 with a frantic plea for help. She, reportedly, had said, "They are trying to kill me."

For days I watched as the news indicated she had not been found. Searchers failed to turn up any sign of her or her belongings as they canvassed the marshy area bordering the exclusive gated community of Oak Beach where she was last seen.

Her name was Shannan Gilbert, a pretty young woman who aspired to become an actress, but supporting herself as a call girl plying her trade on Craig's List. She had contacted her driver/security partner to deliver her to her client's home on May 1, 2010.

Shannan's 911 call was placed at 5:41 a.m. on May 2, 2010. That call would trigger a search that extended for months. After being pushed by Shannan's mother, Mari Gilbert, the search efforts were refocused to an area outside the exclusive community where she had last been seen.

In June of 2010 after Shannan Gilbert went missing, the Suffolk County Police Department missing persons bureau asked Officer John Mallia to search the Oak Beach area using his trained cadaver dog Blue. Over the remaining summer months, Mallia and Blue searched unsuccessfully for Gilbert or her belongings through the marshy tracts of Oak Beach.

Officer Mallia began to research FBI materials related to body disposals and determined the brushy area outside but proximate to Oak Beach might be worthy of investigation.

On December 11 of that year, Officer Mallia and K9 Blue began their search along the Gilgo Beach parkway. In spite of the cold and a sprinkling of snow, K9 Blue picked up on the scent of decomposition. Soon after, K9 Blue found a set of human remains later determined to belong not to Shannan Gilbert but to Melissa Barthelemy. Her skeletal remains had been bound in a burlap material secured around her head, chest, and legs. Melissa had gone missing July 10, 2009.

Two days later, December 13, three more sets of human remains were found, all secured within burlap material and bound similarly to those of Melissa Barthelemy. Examination of these sets of remains would ultimately identify the unfortunate young women as Maureen Brainard-Barnes, missing since July 9, 2007; Megan Waterman, missing since June 6, 2010; and Amber Costello, missing since September 2, 2010.

Police continued to search along the Gilgo Beach marsh area, all the way back toward Oak Beach. During that search six more sets of human remains were discovered. Most were petite young female sex workers, but also located were an African American female toddler about 16 to 24 months of age, and an Asian American male of slight build dressed in feminine clothing whose cause of death was determined to have been blunt force trauma.

Inexplicably, some of the victims recovered were partial sets of skeletal remains that would later be connected to dismembered bodies whose torsos had been found years before.

On March 29, 2011 the partial remains of a victim later identified as Jessica Taylor were discovered. Her torso had previously been found in Manorville in 2003. Her head, hands and a forearm had been placed in a plastic bag discovered on Gilgo Beach.

On April 4, 2011, four more sets of remains were located that included the toddler whose body had been wrapped in a blanket, no visible damage to the skeleton, and pieces of gold jewelry still contained in the blanket. Nearby were partial remains of a victim whose torso had been found June 28, 1997, at Hampstead Lake State Park in the town of Lakeview, New York. Above the left breast was a distinctive tattoo of a peach with a bite taken from it. Her torso had been found soon enough after death to permit a clear photo of the tattoo above her breast. She was called "Peaches". DNA testing later showed Peaches to be the toddler's mother. Attempts to put a name to Peaches and locate any living relatives have so far been frustrating.

Also found were the partial remains of a victim later identified through genetic DNA investigation to be Valerie Mack. Her DNA matched to a maternal aunt, sibling to six sisters one of whom had been Valerie's mother. Valerie had been adopted, had an infant son when she went missing and had a history of drug use and a record of convictions for prostitution. Her torso, less head, hands and a foot removed high above the ankle were found in Manorville on November 19, 2000, but not identified until 2020. (Photos of this young woman tugged at my heartstrings as they reveal, first, a vibrant and beautiful young teen and then her descent into heavy addiction and a lack of care for her appearance.)

The similarities in the murder and disposal of their dismembered body parts in the cases of Jessica Taylor and Valerie Mack require consideration of a shared killer. Whether that killer is responsible for all the victims must be determined.

The fourth set of remains discovered on this date was the Asian male dressed in woman's clothing.

One week later, on April 11, 2011, the remains of Jane Doe 7 were discovered. Her remains consisted of a skull and several teeth recovered from Tobay Beach. DNA testing revealed a match to severed legs found April 20, 1996 on Fire Island. The left leg bore a surgical scar. Jane Doe 7 has not yet been identified.

The investigation into the murder victims whose remains have been disposed of on the stretch of land lying off Long Island continues. Your author continues to follow developments and will compile an update in our September issue.

Fascinating what one can explore from the comfort of their Armchair ... Genealogy and mysteries... Oh, yes.

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