On May 1, 2010, at 4: 51am – 911 operators received a distressed phone call from 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert, an escort from Jersey City, New Jersey who was visiting a john in the remote, upscale Long Island gated community of Oak Beach.
‘They’re trying to kill me,’ she screamed amidst panic, confusion and voices in the background trying to calm her down. Emergency dispatchers struggled to determine Shannan’s exact location over the 23-minute-long phone call that suddenly cut out.
Shannan took off running down the road, shrieking for help. Two different neighbors called in to report a civil disturbance but operators had not yet drawn a connection to Shannan’s panicked 911 phone call. By the time police arrived on the scene at 6: 10am, Shannan Gilbert had vanished into the night and was never seen again.
It was her disappearance that would inevitably crack open a much larger, serial murder mystery. One that, ten years later, still has more questions than answers; with as many as 16 victims, no arrests, no suspects and no persons of interest, the Long Island Serial Killer is still at large to this very day.
Lost Girls, directed by Liz Garbus, is a new Netflix feature adapted from Robert Kolker’s 2013 investigative book with the same title. The film focuses on Shannan’s mother, Mari Gilbert as a tireless champion for her missing daughter against resistance from the Suffolk County Police Department who was all too ready to dismiss cases involving sex workers.
Tragically, four years after Shannan’s remains were finally uncovered in 2012 – Mari Gilbert was brutally murdered by her other daughter, Sarra Gilbert during a psychotic breakdown. She was stabbed 227 times, nearly decapitated and beat with a fire extinguisher before having it sprayed into her mouth in an attempt to drown her.
Lost Girls is a movie about a mother’s journey to find justice for her daughter while fighting against systematic victim-blaming of the women who were killed while working as escorts. ‘As far as the authorities are concerned, their profession still seals their fate,’ wrote Kolker in New York Magazine.
Life as a struggling single mother to four daughters in small-town New York was not easy for Mari Gilbert. Shannan, Sherre, Sarra and Stevie had difficult childhoods, marred by poverty and sexual abuse.
The eldest daughter, Shannan Gilbert was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at a young age and Mari was forced to place her in foster care. While Shannan was away, the two middle sisters, Sherre and Sarra were molested by Mari Gilbert’s boyfriend.
Shannan Gilbert was intelligent, she graduated high-school early and by the age of 16, she was working various jobs trying to make ends meet before she began escorting to pay for online college classes. She moved to Jersey City, New Jersey where she was close to her clientele that was mostly based in Manhattan.
In the early hours of May 1, 2010 – Shannan headed out to Long Island for an escort call to Joseph Brewer’s house in the sleepy seaside community of Oak Beach and was never seen alive again.
Much of what transpired that night still remains a perplexing mystery, but the most thorough account of what happened that evening came from Shannan’s driver, Michael Pak who also doubled as her security.
Shortly after 2am, Shannan arrived at the two-story wood-frame house owned by Joseph Brewer, a 46-year-old unemployed financial adviser that was going through a divorce. As per the usual protocol, Pak would wait outside in the SUV while Shannan conducted her business inside.
Not long after entering the house, Shannan left with Brewer for a quick errand before returning back 15-minutes later; it’s assumed that they went to buy drugs, but that was never confirmed.
‘Shannan liked to party—mostly pot, coke, and prescription drugs,’ explained Kolker. ‘But if she managed to make it through the night without burning through too much of what she earned, she could get home after five calls with $600 or more in her pocket.’
Michael Pak passed time by playing poker on his phone for two and a half hours when suddenly Brewer banged on his car window asking for his help. He told Pak that Shannan was ‘freaking out’ inside the house and that he wanted her to leave but she refused. Inside, Pak found Shannan cowering behind a couch, clutching onto her phone in a frenzied panic, telling 911 dispatchers: ‘They’re trying to kill me!’
She kept 911 operators on the phone for 23 minutes but they were unable to locate her whereabouts and like almost everything else in Shannan’s case, whomever ‘they’ are remains an enigma.
The 911 tape has never been publicly released but according to former Suffolk County Chief of Detectives, Dominick Varrone – Shannan sounded, ‘not very coherent, not very rational.’ He told 48 Hours in 2013: ‘It almost seems like she’s in some type of psychotic state or in some type of drug-induced stupor.’
Whatever terrified Shannan in that house remains one of her case’s most enduring conundrums. Joseph Brewer insisted that a sexual encounter never occurred nor did he pay Shannan for her time. He later told The Star Ledger that he questioned if Shannan was a man after she ‘asked him an odd question about transvestites’ and that she began acting erratically when he asked her to leave.
‘He got this girl probably so blown out of her mind, because that’s how they are. They’ve got the drugs and they’ve got the money, and you’re there for the hour,’ explained Kimberly Overstreet whose sister, Amber Lynn Costello was also murdered by the Long Island Serial Killer. Overstreet, an escort herself, introduced her younger sister to the sex trade. ‘Then, for whatever reason, he did something to spook this girl.’
Shannan refused to leave and Pak eventually got frustrated and went back outside to wait in the car; he figured that she might have been suffering a bad reaction to drugs but that she would eventually come down.
A few minutes later, Shannan fled the house and took off running down the road screaming for help. She banged on the front door of 75-year-old neighbor, Gustav Coletti who immediately phoned the police at 5: 22am. Later he gave conflicting accounts as to whether he made Shannan wait at the front door, or allowed her into his home.
Shannan took off again upon learning that Coletti called the police and ran out to the middle of the road. But when she saw Pak’s SUV creeping down the street, she turned back around and hid under a boat parked in Coletti’s driveway.
As Pak slowly drove passed, he asked Coletti if he had seen Shannan but before he could answer, Shannan bolted out from behind the boat and disappeared even deeper into the neighborhood. Neither Gus, nor Pak could catch up to her.
Pak later told police that he spent an hour driving around the small gated community searching for Shannan before he gave up and headed back to the city.
Barbara Brennan, another Oak Beach resident, reported a frantic woman ringing her doorbell but by the time authorities finally arrived at 6: 10am – Shannan Gilbert had completely vanished, leaving behind a single set of footprints in the sand of Gilgo Beach as her only trace. (Though accounts of the footprints vary).
Two days later, Mari Gilbert didn’t even know her daughter was missing yet when she received a phone call from a man who identified himself as Dr. Peter Hackett. He explained that he ran a ‘home for wayward girls’ and wanted to see if Shannan made it home safely. He also explained that he administered her a drug to help calm her down the night she went missing.
At first Mari Gilbert didn’t think much about the call, but began to worry when she couldn’t get a hold of her daughter. Shannan was officially reported as missing on May, 3 2010.
Hackett was Barbara Brennen’s next door neighbor. He had a reputation as a serial exaggerator who often made up stories in his personal and professional life as a way to insert himself into the conversation.
The retired surgeon first denied calling Mari Gilbert on May 3, but phone records determined that he did in fact call her twice. Even more suspect is that cell-phone towers show that he made the phone calls in New Jersey near Shannan’s home. Police eventually decided that this was just a mere coincidence and cleared him of suspicion though how he got Mari Gilbert’s number is an unanswered question that still looms large in the investigation.
Michael Pak and Joseph Brewer were polygraphed and also cleared in the investigation. The case went cold for seven months when a cadaver dog uncovered human remains just 50 feet off the road in the thick and thorny bramble on Gilgo Beach. They identified the victims as, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, and Amber Lynn Costello.
All four women shared a startlingly similar profile to Shannan’s: they were petite in stature, (only one stood taller than five feet). They were all escorts in their 20s who advertised for $200-an-hour on Craigslist. Each of them were discovered wrapped in burlap all within 500 feet apart from each other. Six more sets of human remains were uncovered in March and April 2011 – some have still yet to be identified.
On December 13, 2011, Suffolk County Police announced that the remains of Shannan Gilbert were found in a marsh about half a mile from where she was last seen. The medical examiner ruled her death inconclusive.
Mari Gilbert refused to accept the police’s theory that Shannan had accidentally drowned after stumbling into a pool of brackish water. It doesn’t explain why her belongings and clothing were scattered throughout the vicinity nearby.
An independent autopsy paid for by Mari Gilbert revealed signs consistent with strangulation and concluded that there was no evidence of drugs or drowning that lead to the death of her daughter.
Mari Gilbert never stopped advocating for Shannan even at the time of her brutal death in 2016 at the hands of her other daughter, Sarra Gilbert. Of Mari’s four children, Sarra was always considered the reliable one. According to Robert Kolker, author of Lost Girls, ‘She was the rock, the unfussy one, the child who parented the other children when Mari wasn’t around.’
In addition to her sister’s murder, Sarra suffered through various traumas throughout her life. She was sexually abused as a child by Mari’s boyfriend. She had an abortion at the age of 14 and dropped out of school when she was 16 to move in with her 22-year-old drug dealing boyfriend named Manny.
The two had a son in 2009 which tested the already fraught relationship and Sarra ended up in a shelter for victims of domestic violence on more than one occasion.
Several months after the independent examination of Shannan’s remains, Sarra had her first intense mental breakdown. She became delusional and believed that her family was possessed by demons. ‘She told people she was a god, and her job was to defeat all evil gods, and that quite often the evil gods took the form of her sisters and mother,’ wrote Kolker in New York Magazine.
In 2014, Sarra was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and spent much of that year in and out of mental institutions. She refused to take her anti-psychotic medication and her illness was often exacerbated by drug use.
In February 2016, Mari was given custody of Sarra’s son after she drowned the family dog in a bathtub because she believed that it was possessed by the devil. Without her son, Sarra stopped receiving government checks that helped pay her bills and she resented her mother even more.
She was hospitalized in July for overdosing on ecstasy or LSD. ‘Once awake, Sarra was so delirious and combative that the staff induced a coma to prevent her from harming herself,’ explained Kolker. By the time she was released from the hospital, she had missed her monthly dose of medicine and ‘there was nothing to keep her now from becoming actively psychotic.’
On the morning of July 23, 2016 , Sarra texted her sister and mother to tell them that she was hearing voices. It was later that day, when Mari stopped by Sarra’s apartment to check on her, that she unleashed a frenzied attack on her mother – stabbing her 227 times.
Sarra Gilbert’s lawyer tried desperately to mount an insanity plea in her trial; explaining that she was delusional and had no concept of right and wrong. He begged the jury to see that she was ‘a true psychotic,’ that was let down by the mental-health system. The jury did not agree and found Sarra Gilbert guilty of premeditated matricide and sentenced her to 25 years in federal prison.
The Long Island Serial Killer has become one of the most confounding mysteries in contemporary America. The case remains open and unsolved, but Shannan’s memory lives on ‘as a symbol of a system that lets down those who are vulnerable,’ writers Kolker. ‘For that, there are many people to thank, but chief among them is Mari Gilbert.’