The Long Island serial killer (also referred to as LISK, the Gilgo Beach Killer or the Craigslist Ripper) is an unidentified suspected serial killer who is believed to have murdered 10 to 16 people over a period of nearly 20 years, mostly sex workers, and left their bodies in areas on the South Shore of Long Island, New York.
The victims were found along the Ocean Parkway, near the remote beach towns of Gilgo and Oak Beach in Suffolk County, and the area of Jones Beach State Park in Nassau County. The remains of four victims were found in December 2010, while six more sets of remains were found in March and April 2011. Police believe the latest sets of remains predate the four bodies found in December 2010.
On May 9, 2011, authorities surmised that two of the newest sets of remains might be the work of a second killer. On November 29, 2011, the police stated their belief that one person is responsible for all 10 deaths. They also had concluded that the case of Shannan Gilbert, an escort who disappeared before the first set of bodies were found, was not related. "It is clear that the area in and around Gilgo Beach has been used to discard human remains for some period of time," said Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota.
In May 2010 Suffolk County Police were searching for Shannan Gilbert, a 24-year-old woman from New Jersey, who was working as an escort and was reported missing on May 1 of that year. She was last seen in the Oak Beach area after she ran from a client's house, where her driver, Michael Pak was waiting outside.
In December 2010, a police officer and his dog, on a routine training exercise, discovered the first body: "the skeletal remains of a woman in a nearly disintegrated burlap sack." This discovery led to a search, and three more bodies were found two days later in the same area, on the north side of the Ocean Parkway. Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said, "Four bodies found in the same location pretty much speaks for itself. It's more than a coincidence. We could have a serial killer."
A few months later, in late March and early April 2011, four more bodies were discovered in another area off the parkway, near Oak Beach and Gilgo Beach. Suffolk Police expanded the search area up to the Nassau County border, looking for more victims. On April 6, Detective Lt. Kevin Smith of the Nassau County Police Department said that his office will "further explore and investigate any criminal activity which may be in close proximity to the recently discovered human remains found in Suffolk." Smith also said that Nassau County Police would be coordinating with Suffolk County and New York State Police on the investigation.
Five days later, the search for more bodies began in Nassau County. An additional set of partial human remains was found, as well as a separate skull, bringing the potential total number of victims found since December to ten. On April 22, two human teeth were found about a foot from the skull. On June 16, 2011, Suffolk County police raised the reward from $5,000 to $25,000 (the largest offered in the county's history) for information leading to an arrest in the Long Island murders.
On September 20, police released composite sketches of two of the unidentified victims whose remains were found in March and April (an Asian male and Jane Doe No. 6), as well as photos of jewelry found on the remains of a female toddler and her mother, found on April 4 and 11, respectively. The toddler's mother was reported as one of the sets of remains found in Nassau County on April 11. Also on September 20, police revealed that the second set of remains found in Nassau County on April 11 matched two legs found in 1996 in a garbage bag that had washed up on Fire Island. As of September 22, 2011, the police had received over 1,200 tips via text, email and phone since the beginning of the investigation.
On November 29, 2011 police announced that they believed one person is responsible for all 10 murders, and that the person is almost certainly from Long Island. The single killer theory was related to common characteristics among the condition and forensic evidence related to the bodies.
On December 13, 2011, police announced that the remains of Shannan Gilbert were found in a marsh about half a mile from where she had disappeared. A week earlier, they had found some of her clothes and belongings in the same vicinity. Police believe that Gilbert accidentally drowned after stumbling into the marsh. Her mother disagrees. Gilbert was last seen banging on a resident's door and screaming for help before running off into the night. Gilbert made a 9-1-1 call that night, saying she feared for her life.
On December 10, 2015, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini announced that the FBI had officially joined the investigation. The day before, former Police Commissioner James Burke, who resigned in October, had been indicted for alleged police brutality and other issues. He was said to have blocked FBI involvement in the LISK cases for years. A spokesperson for the FBI confirmed their official involvement. The FBI had previously assisted in the search for victims, but was never officially part of the investigation.
On September 12, 2017, Suffolk County prosecutor Robert Biancavilla, from the county DA's office, announced that John Bittrolff, a carpenter from Manorville, Long Island, who was convicted in May 2017 and sentenced in September in the homicides of two sex workers in 1993 and 1994, was a suspect in at least one of the LISK murders. Bittrolff had been linked to the 1990s murders by DNA. The police made no comment, as the LISK homicide investigation is active. In June 2019, a proposal was made to use genetic genealogy to identify the unidentified victims and possibly the killer.
On January 16, 2020, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart released images of a belt found at the crime scene with the letters "HM" or "WH" (depending on which way the belt was looked at) embossed in the black leather. The belt was found during the initial investigation near Ocean Parkway in Gilgo Beach. Police believe the belt was handled by the perpetrator and did not belong to any of the victims. The police revealed few details regarding this piece of evidence, and would not comment on exactly where the belt was found. It was also announced that new scientific evidence was being used in the investigation, and that they had launched gilgonews.com - a website enabling the police to share news and receive tips regarding the investigation.
In May 2020, the identity of Jane Doe No. 6 had been confirmed but her name was not released to the public. On May 28, 2020, she was identified as Valerie Mack, who also went by the name of Melissa Taylor.
Identity of the killer
The media has speculated about a profile of the killer, referred to by police as "Joe C" (unknown subject). According to the New York Times, it is most likely a white male in his mid-20s to mid-40s who is very familiar with the South Shore of Long Island and has access to burlap sacks, which he uses to hold the bodies for disposal. He may have a detailed knowledge of law enforcement techniques, and perhaps ties to law enforcement, which have thus far helped him avoid detection.
Newsday reporters speculated that serial killer Joel Rifkin, a former resident on LI, may have been responsible for some of the older remains found in March and April 2011. Four of the victims' complete bodies were never found. In an April 2011 prison interview with Newsday, Rifkin denied having anything to do with recently discovered remains.
Suspects and persons of interest
On December 15, 2016, the attorney for Gilbert's family said that an escort who had conducted business with former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke claimed he was connected to the Long Island murders. In November 2016, Burke had been sentenced to 46 months in federal prison, along with three years of supervised release, for beating a man who stole a duffel bag filled with sex toys and pornography from his vehicle. Burke had pleaded guilty in February 2016 to charges of a civil rights violation and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Gilbert's attorney said in December that one escort claimed that she wanted to have "rough sex" with Burke during an Oak Beach party. The escort identified herself as "Laenne". She specifically stated that at the first party she attended in April 2011 in Oak Beach she saw Burke drag an Asian looking woman by the hair to the ground. She stated that the woman did, however, think that this was playful rather than violent. Laenne said that when she saw him for the second time, she decided to hook up with him, as she was told that he was a high ranking official and that was intriguing to her. She described that he violently yanked her head during oral sex to the point where she started tearing up. Burke was unable to reach orgasm and proceeded to throw 300-400 US Dollars at her afterward. This was in August 2011. At this time she was not a professional sex worker and she states that this was the first time she was paid for sex. Burke was reported to have blocked an FBI probe of the LISK case during his time as police chief.
On September 12, 2017, Suffolk County prosecutor Robert Biancavilla said that John Bittrolff, a Suffolk county resident convicted of murdering two sex workers and suspected in the murder of a third, was a suspect in at least one of the LISK murders. Biancavilla stated that Bittrolff was likely responsible for the deaths of other women, and that there were similarities between the Gilgo Beach crime scenes and Bittrolff's known murders, for which he was convicted in May 2017 and sentenced in September.
Bittrolff was arrested in 2014, linked by DNA found on two sex worker homicide victims, Rita Tangredi and Colleen McNamee, whose bodies were found in 1993 and 1994, respectively. (The match had been made through DNA submitted by his brother, who was convicted in 2013 in an unrelated case.) Bittrolff was convicted in May 2017 of these murders, and in September sentenced to consecutive terms of 25 years for each murder. The Suffolk County police did not comment on the prosecutor's statement, due to the active homicide investigation of the LISK murders. Bittrolff's attorney rejected the prosecutor's assertion.
A married carpenter, Bittrolff had lived in Manorville, three miles from where the torsos of LISK victims Jessica Taylor and "Jane Doe No. 6" were recovered (see victims in section below). Biancavilla said that Bittrolff was a hunter who was said to enjoy the killing of animals.
The grown daughter of Rita Tangredi, one of Bittrolff's known victims, was reported to be "best friends" with Melissa Barthelemy, one of the Gilgo Beach victims. Barthelemy's mother said that her daughter Melissa "had a lot of calls to Manorville from her phone" before her death.
Joseph Brewer, an Oak Beach resident, was one of the last people known to have seen Shannan Gilbert alive. He hired her as an escort from Craigslist on the night of her disappearance. Brewer said that shortly after Gilbert arrived at his residence, she began acting erratically and fled into the night. Gilbert was reportedly seen running through Oak Beach, pounding on the doors of homes in Brewer's neighborhood. Around this time, Gilbert called 9-1-1, saying that "they were trying to kill her". However, police did not find any evidence of wrongdoing, and Brewer was quickly cleared as a suspect.
Dr. Peter Hackett
Two days after Gilbert's disappearance, Dr. Peter Hackett, an Oak Beach resident and neighbor of Brewer, called the woman's mother, Mari Gilbert. She later recounted that he said he was taking care of Gilbert, and that he "ran a home for wayward girls." Three days later, he called the mother again, denying that he had any contact with her daughter, and that he had called Mari Gilbert. Investigators later confirmed through phone records that Hackett called Mari twice following the disappearance. The marshy area where Gilbert's remains were found was also noted as near Hackett's backyard. Gilbert's family filed a wrongful death suit against Hackett in November 2012, claiming that he took Gilbert into his home that morning and administered drugs to her, facilitating her death. Later police revealed that Hackett had a history of inserting himself into, or exaggerating his role in, certain major events. Police also noted that Hackett's wife and two children were home on the night of Gilbert's disappearance. Police later ruled out Hackett as a suspect in the deaths of Gilbert and the LISK victims.
Two days after Shannan Gilbert's remains were found, James Bissett took his own life while in his car at Mattituck park. He ran a nursery which was the main supplier of burlap in the region.
Bodies discovered in December 2010
Of the ten bodies or sets of remains found since late 2010, the four discovered in December 2010 have been identified as missing sex workers who all advertised their services on Craigslist. Each had been strangled and her body wrapped in a burlap sack before being dumped along Gilgo Beach. All are believed to have been killed elsewhere.
- Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, of Norwich, Connecticut, was an escort who advertised her services online. Maureen, who was four feet eleven inches tall and one hundred five pounds, was last seen on July 9, 2007, saying that she planned "to spend the day in New York City." She was never seen again. Maureen, a struggling mother, worked as a paid escort via Craigslist to pay the mortgage on her house. She had been out of the sex industry for seven months, but she returned to the work in order to pay her bills after receiving an eviction notice. Her body was found in December 2010. Shortly after her disappearance, a friend of Maureen's, Sara Karnes, received a call from a man on an unfamiliar number. The man claimed that he had just seen Maureen and that she was alive and staying at a “whorehouse in Queens”. He refused to identify himself and could not tell Karnes the location of the house. He told Karnes he would call back and give her the address, but he never called again. Karnes said that the man had no discernible New York or Boston accent.
- Melissa Barthélemy, 24, of Erie County, New York, went missing on July 10, 2009. She had been living in the Bronx and working as an escort through Craigslist. On the night she went missing, she met with a client, deposited $900 in her bank account, and attempted to call an old boyfriend, but did not get through. Beginning one week later, and lasting for five weeks, her teenage sister, Amanda, received a series of "vulgar, mocking and insulting" calls from a man, who may have been the killer using Melissa's cell phone. The caller asked if Amanda "was a whore like her sister." The calls became increasingly disturbing, and eventually culminated in the caller telling Amanda that Melissa was dead, and that he was going to "watch her rot." Police traced some of the calls to Madison Square Garden, midtown Manhattan, and Massapequa, but were unable to determine who was making the calls. Melissa's mother noted that there were "a lot of calls to Manorville" from Melissa's phone around the time of her disappearance. In September 2017, John Bittrolff, a carpenter from that town convicted of two other murders, was named as a suspect in the LISK cases.
- Megan Waterman, 22, of South Portland, Maine, went missing on June 6, 2010, after placing advertisements on Craigslist as an escort. The day before, she had told her 20-year-old boyfriend that she was going out and would call him later. At the time of her disappearance, she was staying at a motel in Hauppauge, New York, 15 miles northeast of Gilgo Beach. Her body was recovered in December 2010.
- Amber Lynn Costello, 27, of North Babylon, New York, a town ten miles north of Gilgo Beach, was a sex worker and heroin user who went missing on September 2, 2010. That night she reportedly went to meet a stranger who had called her several times and offered $1,500 for her services.
Remains discovered in March and April 2011
The four sets of remains discovered on March 29 and April 4 were all within two miles and to the east of those found in December. They included two women, a man, and a toddler. A skull and a partial set of remains were found on April 11 after the search expanded into Nassau County. They were found about one mile apart, approximately five miles west of those found in December.
- Jessica Taylor, 20, most recently of Manhattan, went missing in July 2003. On July 26, 2003, her naked and dismembered torso, missing its head and hands, was discovered 45 miles east of Gilgo Beach in Manorville, New York; these remains were identified by DNA analysis later that year. Taylor's torso was found atop a pile of scrap wood at the end of a paved access road off of Halsey Manor Road, just north of where it crosses the Long Island Expressway. Plastic sheeting was found underneath the torso, and a tattoo on her body had been mutilated with a sharp instrument. On May 9, 2011, it was reported that the remains of a skull, a pair of hands, and a forearm found on March 29 at Gilgo were matched to Taylor. She had worked in Washington, D.C., and Manhattan as a sex worker.
- Valerie Mack, 24, most recently of Philadelphia, was previously dubbed "Jane Doe No. 6". A human head, right foot, and hands, found on April 4, 2011, were determined to have belonged to an unidentified victim. The rest of her body was found on November 19, 2000, in the same part of Manorville where most of Jessica Taylor's remains were later discovered. The victim's torso was found wrapped in garbage bags and dumped in the woods near the intersection of Halsey Manor Rd and Mill Rd, adjacent to a set of power lines and a nearby power line access road. Her right foot had been cut off high above the ankle, possibly to conceal an identifying mark or tattoo. The dismembered remains of Jessica Taylor and "Jane Doe No. 6" were both disposed of in a similar manner and in the same town, suggesting a link. In September 2011, police released a composite sketch of "Jane Doe No. 6", saying she was about 5' 2" and was between 18 and 35-years old. On May 22, 2020, Suffolk County Police announced that they had positively identified the remains and would be releasing their identity shortly. On May 28, 2020 it was announced that the remains had been identified as Mack, who had last been seen by family in Spring or Summer of 2000 in the area of Port Republic, New Jersey. Mack had also gone by the name Melissa Taylor, and had worked as an escort in Philadelphia.
- "John Doe": Also discovered on April 4, 2011 at Gilgo Beach, very close to where the first four were discovered in December 2010, was the body of what appeared to be a young Asian male who died from blunt-force trauma. In September 2011, police released a composite sketch of the victim. They stated that he had likely been working as a sex worker and was wearing women's clothing at the time of his death. He was between 17 and 23 years of age, 5' 6" in height, and missing four teeth; he had been dead for between 5 and 10 years. He is believed to have lived as a woman, perhaps being killed when the killer found out he wasn't female. He had some kind of musculoskeletal disorder which would have affected his gait.
- "Baby Doe": The third body found on April 4, 2011, about 250 feet away from the partial remains of "Jane Doe No. 6," was that of a female toddler between 16 and 24 months of age; it was a skeleton. The body was wrapped in a blanket and showed no visible signs of trauma. DNA tests determined that the child's mother was "Jane Doe No. 3", whose body was found 10 miles east, near Jones Beach State Park. The toddler was reported to be a person of color and was wearing gold earrings and a gold necklace.
- "Peaches/Jane Doe No. 3": On June 28, 1997, the dismembered torso of an unidentified young African-American female was found at Hempstead Lake State Park, in the town of Lakeview, New York. The torso was found in a green plastic Rubbermaid container, which was dumped next to a road along the west side of the lake. Investigators reported that the victim had a tattoo of a heart-shaped peach with a bite out of it and two drips falling from its core on her left breast. On April 11, 2011, police in Nassau County discovered dismembered skeletal human remains inside a plastic bag near Jones Beach State Park, nicknamed "Jane Doe No. 3". DNA analysis identified this victim as the mother of "Baby Doe." She was found wearing gold jewelry similar to that of "Baby Doe." In December 2016, Peaches and Jane Doe No. 3 were positively identified as being the same person.
- "Jane Doe No. 7/Fire Island Jane Doe": Also on April 11, 2011, at nearby Tobay Beach, a separate human skull and several teeth were recovered. These remains were linked by DNA testing to a set of severed legs found in a garbage bag on Fire Island on April 20, 1996. The victim had a surgical scar on her left leg.
In May 2020, authorities investigating the long-running mystery of skeletal remains strewn along a suburban New York beach highway said they identified the remains of one of the women using DNA technology
Other possible victims
These additional cases have not been officially linked to the other 10 bodies, but are being reviewed by police:
- 19-year-old Tina Foglia was last seen in the early morning hours of February 1, 1982 at a rock music venue in West Islip. She was a known hitchhiker. Her dismembered body was discovered by Department of Transportation workers on February 3 along the shoulder of the Southern State Parkway. Her remains were placed in three separate plastic garbage bags, and were found a few miles north of the Robert Moses Causeway, which leads to Gilgo Beach and Oak Beach. A diamond ring that Foglia was known to wear was missing, and the DNA of an unknown male was found on the garbage bags. Police have not ruled out the possibility that Tina Foglia was an early victim of the Long Island Serial Killer.
- On March 3, 2007, a suitcase containing the dismembered torso of an unidentified Hispanic or light-skinned African-American female washed up on a beach at Harbor Island Park, in the town of Mamaroneck. The victim had a tattoo of two cherries on her left breast, which was similar in appearance to the tattoo found on Peaches. The former was determined to have been stabbed to death. Never identified, the victim is referred to as "Cherries" by investigators. One of her dismembered legs washed up at Cold Spring Harbor on March 21, 2007, and her other leg washed up at Oyster Bay in the village of Cove Neck the following day. "Cherries" was dismembered in a fashion similar to three other victims: Jessica Taylor, Valerie Mack, and "Peaches" meaning she may be linked to the other official victims.
- On May 17, 2011, the New York Post reported that Long Island police were revisiting other similar unsolved murders of sex workers. Named in the article was Tanya Rush, 39, a mother of three from Brooklyn whose dismembered body was found in a small suitcase in June 2008 on the shoulder of the Southern State Parkway in Bellmore, New York.
- Shannan Maria Gilbert (October 24, 1986 – May 1, 2010) was an escort who may have been a victim of the Long Island serial killer. She left for a client's residence in Oak Beach after midnight on May 1, 2010. At 4:51 in the morning, 911 dispatchers received a panicked phone call from Gilbert who can be heard saying that there was someone "after her" and that "they" were trying to kill her. She was last seen a short time later banging on the front door of a nearby Oak Beach residence and screaming for help before running off into the night. After nineteen months of searching, police found Gilbert's remains in a marsh, half a mile from where she was last seen. In May 2012, the Suffolk County medical examiners ruled that Gilbert accidentally drowned after entering the marsh. They believe that she was in a drug induced panic, and have concluded that hers was "death by misadventure" or "inconclusive." Her family believes she was murdered. On November 15, 2012 a lawsuit was filed by her mother, Mari Gilbert, against the Suffolk County Police Department in the hopes of getting more answers about what happened to her daughter the night she went missing. Due to the controversy about Gilbert's death, in September 2014, famed forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden agreed to conduct an independent autopsy of Gilbert's remains in hopes of determining a clear cause of death. Upon examination of Gilbert's remains, Baden found damage to her hyoid bone, suggesting that strangulation may have occurred. Baden also noted that her body was found face-up, which is not common for drowning victims. Despite this, her death is still officially listed by police as an accident. On July 23, 2016, Mari Gilbert was murdered in her home in Ellenville, New York. Later that day, her younger daughter, Sarra Elizabeth Gilbert, was arrested and charged with the stabbing death of her mother. On May 6th, 2020, the New York State Supreme Court ordered Suffolk County Police to release Gilbert's 911 call recording, denying their request to withhold it after more than 10 years. The tapes were released to Gilbert's estate attorney, John Ray a short time later. Under the court order, Ray is barred from discussing the specifics of the call. However, he did comment that the nature of the calls contradict what Suffolk Police Det. Vincent Stephan had described in earlier reports about the calls from that morning. Specifically, Gilbert's tone had been described by Det. Stephan as calm, and indicated no desperation. After reviewing the tapes, Ray claims that this is not true.
- On January 23, 2013, a woman walking her dog found human remains intentionally buried in a small piece of brush in a sandy area along the shore at the end of Sheep Lane in Lattingtown, near Oyster Bay. The remains are believed to be of a woman between the ages of 20 and 30, possibly Asian. She was wearing a 22-karat gold pig pendant, which may be a reference in some Asian cultures to "The Year of the Pig." This leads some to believe she died at the age of 29. There was trauma caused to her bones; investigators believe she was buried before Hurricane Sandy in late 2012. Her case may be connected to the other 10 bodies found 32 miles away in and around Gilgo Beach.
- On March 16, 2013, a 31-year-old woman, later identified as Natasha Jugo, was last seen leaving her home near Alley Pond Park, Queens. Her car was found along Ocean Parkway and some of her clothes and belongings were found in the sand near Gilgo Beach the following day. Jugo was described as 5-feet, 7-inches tall, 120 pounds with brown eyes and blonde hair. She was last seen wearing a black robe, pink pajamas, gray hooded sweatshirt, black coat, and black boots. Police are unsure whether the case is connected to the LISK victims. Jugo's family said that she had "a history of problems in which she thought people were following her." On June 24, 2013, Jugo's body was washed up on Gilgo Beach.
In popular culture
Numerous films, television programs, and podcasts have covered the case, e.g.:
- 48 Hours: "Long Island Serial Killer" (1-hr documentary airdate 12 July 2011)
- The Long Island Serial Killer (2013), also known as The Gilgo Beach Murders, an independent feature directed by Joseph DiPietro
- People Magazine Investigates (2016): "The Long Island Serial Killer: The Lost Girls", Season 1 Episodes 1 & 2
- The Killing Season (U.S. TV series): "The Most Dangerous Game" (airdate November 12, 2016), Season 1, episode 2
- Crime Junkie, episode 21: "SERIAL KILLER: L.I.S.K" [Released: April 16, 2018]
- Lost Girls, Netflix (2020)
- 60 Minutes Australia: "Who is the Long Island serial killer?"
- Ossuary Podcast, Season 1: "Ossuary Investigates the Long Island Serial Killer"