Sunday, December 11, 2011

Gilgo, 1 year later: Pain Remains for victims' kin


  Lynn Barthelemy looks at a photograph of her daughter, Melissa, whose body was found at Gilgo Beach a year ago. (Dec. 9, 2011)  Photo credit: T. J. Sloan Studios

Lynn Barthelemy keeps a photograph of her daughter Melissa, one of the Gilgo Beach serial murder victims, above her bed. It's the last thing she sees when she goes to sleep at night, and the first thing she sees when she wakes up.

The stunning discovery of Melissa's remains in the underbrush along Ocean Parkway on Dec. 11, 2010, is "still just like yesterday," said Barthelemy, of Akron, N.Y. "I haven't slept through the night since" Melissa, 24, went missing in June 2009. "Everybody has just lost so much because of this evil person."

A couple of days after Melissa was found, the remains of three more young women who worked as prostitutes turned up. As winter gave way to spring, more searches led to more remains until there were 10 homicide victims in all. Five are still unidentified.

Today, as relatives of the known victims mark the one-year anniversary of the first grisly find, they are filled with pain over their loss and frustration that the killings remain unsolved despite Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer's assurance his investigators "will do everything they can to bring this killer to justice."

"I think the case has gone cold," said Lorraine Waterman, whose daughter Megan, 22, of Scarborough, Maine, was one of the four victims found last December.

Investigation draws criticism

After months with little word from investigators, Dormer told Newsday on Nov. 29 that police had revised their theory of the case and believe there is a single killer.

Then, last week, police reopened the search for Shannan Gilbert, a 24-year-old sex worker whose disappearance in May 2010 sparked the hunt that led to the discovery of remains at Gilgo Beach. They located her pocketbook and ID, along with jeans, a cellphone, ballet-style shoes and lip gloss believed to be hers.

With that search scheduled to resume Monday, police also stood by their theory that Gilbert's case has no connection to the Gilgo murder victims other than the coincidence of location, and that her death probably was accidental. If so, the Gilbert discoveries brought them no closer to solving the killings.

"I feel frustrated all the time . . . This person needs to get caught. He needs to get off the street before he does it to somebody else," said Lorraine Waterman.

Melissa Cann, sister of victim Maureen Brainard-Barnes, questioned why Gilbert's belongings weren't found sooner. "It makes you wonder -- if that was the last place she was seen, don't you think you would search that area?"

Suffolk police said they did conduct searches of the area starting right after Gilbert disappeared.

Serial killings can often take a long time to solve, some experts said.

Louis Schlesinger, a professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said a similar serial murder case in Daytona Beach, Fla., has been going on for 10 years, while the "Green River Killer" case of Gary Ridgway in Washington state took 32 years to solve.

But other veteran investigators contend Suffolk police committed missteps during the investigation.

"I'm amazed at what I am watching," said Vernon Geberth, a former NYPD Bronx homicide commander. "It's quite apparent to me that the people with homicide expertise and backgrounds are not calling the shots on this case. These decisions are coming from the command, and that's usually disastrous in a major investigation."

Although the searchers have included specialists from the Suffolk and Nassau departments and state police, police cadets also have been used.

Dormer vigorously defended his department's work on the murders, describing the case as extremely complex and needing time to solve.

"The investigation was handled in a very professional, outstanding manner and it's continued to be handled that way," Dormer said in an interview. "We have Monday morning quarterbacks all over that like to put their two cents in without knowing all the facts. We know all the facts. We know all the information," he said.

Dormer has said all the victims probably were connected to the sex-for-pay trade. Several solicited clients on Craigslist.

"This investigation is not an episode of 'CSI' or 'Criminal Minds,' " he added. "This is not something that is going to be solved in a one-hour time period . . . We are very mindful of how difficult this investigation is. These are stranger-to-stranger contacts."

Jay Salpeter, a former NYPD homicide detective and now a private investigator based in Great Neck, said it was a mistake to consider Gilbert's case as distinct from the serial killings. She was a sex worker and was near Gilgo Beach when she vanished, he said. "I think they [the police] are totally lost, and I'm not blaming them. It's a very, very difficult case," Salpeter said.

But Louis Schlesinger, professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said the investigation was making progress. Suffolk police have consulted with the FBI's behavioral analysis unit, which specializes in serial killer cases, he said.

"I have total confidence that they're in good hands," he said. "They have the background and knowledge that nobody else in the country has."

Victims' kin still await answers

For relatives of the victims, answers can't come soon enough. Waterman said her life is a constant agony, and that once or twice a month she falls into a depression where she doesn't talk to anyone for two or three days.

"I wish they'd find this person so my daughter can finally rest in peace and the rest of the girls," she said. "Until he is caught and justice is served, they're not going to rest."

Barthelemy said she copes by seeking out the support of family and friends. On April 14, Melissa's birthday, she gathered with friends in the backroom of a local bar and had a party for her daughter as they traded stories about Melissa growing up.

"Eventually we're going to get this guy," she said. "This guy had to make a mistake somewhere." Marie Ducharme, the mother of victim Maureen Brainard-Barnes, a 25-year-old from Connecticut, said, "My daughter is dead. She will never come back to life. I want them to find the killer because I want him in jail for life." Family friend Sarah Marquis, 37, though, is doubtful that will happen. "I feel like they're never going to catch whoever did it, if it's taken this long," she said.

Dormer said he understood the families' anguish. "I know it's frustrating for the families and for people out there that pay attention to this. But that's part of science -- science takes time," he said.

"I would say to your readers, Have patience, know that the police department is actively investigating all the leads that we have," he said. "I have all the confidence in the world that the detectives and the homicide investigators will continue to do everything they can to bring this killer to justice."

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