One of the biggest problem with searching for the Long Island Serial Killer is the fact that even the authorities (including the FBI) are unsure if they should be looking for a single killer or two killers working independently of each other and both just using the same dumping grounds for their victims.
To understand why there might only be one or might be two, requires some information about the victims, their deaths, where and when they were found, and a bit about the terrain of the area where they were found. And what kicked off the search for remains there anywhere.
The timeline for LISK (Long Island Serial Killer) jumps around a lot. I’m going to try to make it as understandable as possible, but it may not always be chronological, like you expect with a timeline. May 1, 2010, Shannan Gilbert, working as an escort, went to party with a john at Oak Beach. Near 5 am, Shannan freaks out. This may have been a reaction to drugs – the john admitted they’d done some cocaine, or she may have seen something in the john’s house that scared her. Shannan used a guy as a driver/protection for her calls and she advertised her services on Craigslist (for those that research crime – Craigslist is the ultimate spot for criminals).
Shannan places a 911 call at a little after 5 am. The call lasts nearly an hour. She hangs up, runs out of the john’s house, accuses her driver of conspiring to kill her and begins running through the community at Oak Beach. She knocks on the house of an older gentleman who calls 911 for her. She then takes off through the neighborhood again. Another neighbor would place another 911 call. It took police 45 minutes to respond, possibly because neither neighbor could tell the police what had freaked Shannan out and because Shannan gave the wrong location during her 911 call, the calls weren’t linked until much, much later. After the third 911 call, she is never seen alive again.
In December of 2010, a deputy working for the Suffolk County sheriff’s department was training a dog to find cadavers. The Oak Beach neighborhood where Shannan was last seen was close to three beaches: Gilgo Beach, Oak Beach, and Jones Beach. During Shannan’s 911 call, she identifies herself as being in a neighborhood near Jones Beach, not Oak Beach. As an FYI, these are not sandy beaches, where you might want to go swimming. They are grassy, marshy beaches with brackish groundwater (which makes them tend to smell really bad).
The deputy’s German Shepherd indicates that it’s found something and after looking, the deputy pulls a decaying burlap bag from the marsh which contains a full skeleton. The skeleton is not Shannan Gilbert. The skeleton belongs to a different escort that went missing in July 2009. Now, in the weeks after Melissa went missing, her younger sister Amanda, who was 15 years old at the time, received a series of phone calls from Melissa’s phone. The calls were from a man who would say vulgar things to her. The last call, he actually told Amanda he’d just killed Melissa. When the police managed to track the calls, the first was made from Times Square in NYC at 5:10 pm Eastern time. The second came from Madison Square Gardens are nearly the same time. The third, actually pinged back at Gilgo Beach, where Melissa’s body was found.
In the weeks after Melissa’s body was found, the police made a more thorough search of Gilgo Beach and discovered three more sets of remains, all in burlap sacks in the marsh. All of them would turn out to be young escorts like Shannan Gilbert. They were Amber Costello (missing since September 2010), Maureen Brainard-Barnes (missing since July 2007, and Megan Waterman (missing since June 2010). Searching the beaches would be delayed by the onset of winter in January 2011.
When the search resumed in March and April of 2011, the first body found was an Asian male, dressed in women’s clothing, who is still unidentified. Police theorize that he may have been a sex worker, like the first four young women and he may have been killed because the killer didn’t realize he was a man.
Then came two weird bodies and the start of our timeline confusion. The sixth body found is a baby wrapped in a blanket. The seventh is a the skull of a woman in a plastic bag. DNA confirmed the skull belonged to a torso that was found in Manorville in 2003. The eight is a set of remains were the hands, feet, and skull of another victim whose torso was found in a state park in 2000 – because the torso had a tattoo of a peach with a bite out of it, the torso was named Peaches Doe and remains unidentified. And that set of remains turned out to be biologically related to the baby that was found on the beach. The ninth set of remains, which was just a skull and some teeth, turned out to be linked (via DNA testing) to a pair of legs that had been found in a bag on Fire Island in 1996. (Victims 6 and 7 are a little confusing… I’ve found articles that say victim 6 was the mother of the unidentified baby and I’ve found articles saying Peaches Doe is the mother of the unidentified baby and while all 3 are technically unidentified Jane Doe #5, Peaches Doe, and Baby Doe, they are definitely not all related and I’m not sure whether it’s Jane Doe #5 that’s the mother or Peaches Doe that is the mother).
Eventually 10 bodies would be found in the search for Shannan Gilbert. None of them were Shannan Gilbert. Her remains would be found in December 2011. Gilbert’s skeletonized remains were found in a swamp a half a mile from where she was last seen. Her remains were found face up in six inches of water. Her death was officially listed as “accidental drowning”. She is not considered a victim of the Long Island Serial Killer, but her parents have been fighting the official cause of death and the fact that their daughter’s case has been closed since 2012.
Now, for the one killer versus two killers controversy. No cause of death could be found in most of the murders (skeletonized remains are notoriously bad at giving clues about how they died). This means they couldn’t be linked via cause of death like a lot of serial killer victims are. But the disposal methods of 4 of the victims is incredibly different than 4 of the others. And two of them actually don’t match either of the other two groups of four.
The One Killer Theory: The disposal method shows the progression of sophistication of the serial killer. He starts by dismembering his victims and spreading their body parts around to keep them from being identified and traced back to him. But as he gets more comfortable with his killings, he stops dismembering them and realizes that it’s been four years and no one has found his first victim from 1996 or identified her and there’s no reason to continue to dismember his victims and scatter their body parts. So, he stops doing that and just starts putting them in burlap sacks and hiding them in the Gilgo Beach area. (For those that don’t know much about burlap or skeletons, this is actually a pretty good disposal method. Burlap is very, very warm. It can be used to keep wet concrete warm in the winter, allowing concrete to be poured during the winter… the concrete will stay around 65 degrees even if it’s zero degrees out. A body wrapped in burlap decomposes faster than if it was exposed to the elements, because the burlap traps the heat generated by decomposition in the bag and it insulates against the cold, so it’s like putting a body in a sauna to decompose and it happens fast, which is why even the girl who went missing in September and was found just 3 months later had skeletonized).
The Two Killer Theory: Dismembering a body, is a completely different signature than putting a body in a burlap sack and tossing it in a marsh. Dismemberment is loud, messy, and time consuming. If the killer doesn’t have the desire to dismember his victims, he won’t. Also, the dismembered bodies were significantly older than the in tact skeletons. There was a six year gap between the last missing person that was dismembered and the first body found in a burlap sack (remember the last dismembered torso was found in 2003 and the earliest body in a burlap sack went missing in 2009). He didn’t just stop for six years.
I personally lean towards one killer, but not for entirely for the reasons listed in the most common argument for the single killer theory. Yes, it could show progression or he could have just gotten bored with that method. Also, we now have 3 serial killers in custody that prove, life events can make a serial killer stop, at least for a time. BTK (Dennis Rader), did stop killing to live his life. Also, the Golden State Killer (Joseph DeAngelo) had no rapes and no murders in the first year after his oldest (first) child was born. And Lonnie Franklin Jr. also stopped killing for a year or two after the birth of one of his children.
I think the change in disposal methods could be related to why he stopped for six years. Let’s say in 2002 or 2003, he met a girl, fell in love, and got married. For the first five or six years of his marriage, he stops killing, he’s on a new adventure. Maybe there’s a baby or two born. Then the luster of his new life wears off and he returns to killing escorts from Craigslist. Except now he has a wife and maybe a kid or two at his house. He can’t bring his dead prostitutes home to dismember them in the garage anymore. That would put a serious strain on most marriages. Since, he can no longer take the time to dismember his victims and spread their body parts around, he decides his Gilgo Beach area is still a good place to put the bodies and he can just put them in burlap bags to make them easier to transport to this area. So he does.